LCN Article
The Way of Cain

July / August 2022

John Robinson

As I was growing up in God’s Church, the story of Cain and Abel was never of great interest to me. It’s a pretty straightforward, very short story about two quarreling brothers—or so many people think. Its climax starts almost immediately and ends just as quickly, and it’s easy to read right over it in less than 30 seconds.

But to do so would be a mistake. As you study the story of Cain and Abel in depth, you begin to realize that it isn’t a quarrel at all. Rather, it’s a powerful lesson told, perhaps surprisingly, through Cain, whose grave sin began deep within his heart.

If you dramatically simplified the first two lessons in the Bible, you could say that the story of Adam and Eve is about our relationship with God, while the story of Cain and Abel is about our relationship with our neighbor. One of the first things God does in His word is show us the consequences of breaking the two Great Commandments (Matthew 22:37–39), which summarize the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1–17). Let’s examine what happened between Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 and draw out a few lessons that might not be obvious.

The Source of Hatred

But before we begin to analyze the account in Genesis 4, we need to realize that Cain didn’t suddenly become murderously angry with Abel. Rather, he allowed the spirit of murder to fester within himself over time, and eventually acted on it. In Leviticus 19, God warns against allowing a resentful attitude to grow inside of us, saying, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (vv. 17–18).

Jesus Christ described this hatred in more detail as He gave the Sermon on the Mount. Explaining the Sixth Commandment, Christ said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:21–22).

With these words, Christ described the logical progression of an increasingly angry, resentful person. The Greek word translated “angry” in “whoever is angry with his brother without a cause” is orgizō, which interestingly refers to lingering anger, which could also be characterized as bitterness. Christ is here referring to harboring resentment toward someone who has done nothing sinful—someone who has simply annoyed us, like a child spilling a drink.

This leads to an attitude in which someone “says to his brother, ‘Raca!,’” another Greek word, which is tantamount to calling someone brainless, senseless, or accursed—in today’s vernacular, an idiot. By this point, anger has been nursed and is becoming strong indeed. The angry person is starting to lose objectivity and control.

In the final step toward the spirit of murder, “whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.” The Greek word translated “You fool!” is mōros, from which we get the English word moron. To cry mōros is to call someone morally reprehensible and totally worthless—essentially, it is to say that the person is a waste of God’s image. At this point, the angry person has fully embraced the spirit of murder.

The Wrong Kind of Offering

Though it may seem simple, there is profound meaning packed into the beginning of Cain’s story in Genesis 4:

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, and said, “I have acquired a man from the Lord.” Then she bore again, this time his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the Lord. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the Lord respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell (vv. 1–5).

We miss a crucial aspect of this story if we do not understand the importance of Abel’s righteousness. Hebrews 11:4 tells us, “By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks.” Since Abel is called “righteous,” we know that he obeyed God’s commands to the best of his ability, because “all Your commandments are righteousness” (Psalm 119:172).

What are the implications of this truth? Experience has taught me that there are many things that judge us, whether we realize it or not. For example, just a few years ago, I was diligent with my diet and made sure I was exercising, and as a result I was as slim as I had been in years. At the same time, it had also become necessary for me to restock some of my work clothes. In the process of finding new clothing for work, I saw a shirt that was very inexpensive for the quality of the garment. It was in my size, but it was an athletic, slim-fit style of shirt. I ordered it, and when it arrived, I tried it on with a little trepidation. Thankfully, the shirt fit, but it fit a little too well. I knew in an instant that while I could fit into the shirt right now, even a small gain in weight would change that.

The weeks went by and I became less disciplined about my diet and my exercise. I was pretty sure I’d gained a little weight, but how much? The day came when I was cycling through the shirts in my closet and, as it was nearing the time to do laundry, I was not finding a suitable shirt for work. But there it was, the shirt, hanging there, looking at me, mocking me. Why? Because either the shirt fit me or it didn’t! It was the same size it had been weeks earlier when I’d ordered it, and it had the same dimensions that I had personally specified. It wasn’t the shirt’s fault—it was the same judge now that it had been when I’d bought it. Months passed, and I didn’t even like going into my closet anymore—because of that shirt.

More time passed, and one day I decided that the best thing to do would be to remove the shirt from my presence—remove its smug, unchanging, same-as-they-ever-were shirt dimensions. With that shirt no longer in the closet, I would be free to enter it without the constant reminder of how I didn’t measure up anymore.

Similarly, Cain’s hatred for Abel was not motivated by any sinful attitude or action on Abel’s part—not like Esau’s hatred for Jacob, for example. Instead, Cain’s attitude was the most toxic kind; the primary thing that infuriated Cain was simply that Abel was righteous (1 John 3:12). That righteousness was, to put it in modern terms, really annoying to Cain, because it made him “look bad” and, by comparison, pointed out his guilt.

Abel brought what was essentially a sin offering, a firstling of the flock. He brought the best of his possessions, and his offering mirrored his attitude of reverence toward God. Cain, by contrast, appears to not have brought his best—and God takes offense at substandard offerings, as Malachi makes clear: “You offer defiled food on My altar, but say, ‘In what way have we defiled You?’ By saying, ‘The table of the Lord is contemptible.’… While this is being done by your hands, will He accept you favorably?” (Malachi 1:7, 9). God accepted Abel’s offering for the same reason He did not accept Cain’s, and that reason was attitude.

The words “accept you” in Malachi 1:9 are translated from an interesting Hebrew idiom that literally reads, “lift up your face.” This lends an interesting detail to the story of Cain, whose face—his “countenance”—fell when his offering was not accepted. A more literal translation than “Cain was very angry” would read “it was hot to Cain,” a Hebrew idiom revealing that Cain burned with anger, to the point that it affected his body language.

In response, God gave Cain sound advice:Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted [lifted up]? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it” (Genesis 4:6–7). The New English Translation comments that “sin is portrayed with animal imagery here as a beast crouching and ready to pounce.” This was not condemnation of Cain. Rather, it was meant as both a warning and an encouragement: God was telling Cain that he could still choose to change his heart, and that he needed to do so before the crouching beast of sin overcame him completely.

How should Cain have changed his heart? We find the answer in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus, who had been the God of the Old Testament, said that “if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23–24). Cain came to present an offering to God while harboring ill-will toward his brother. We cannot expect God to be pleased with our service to Him if we are bitter and resentful toward those made in His image.

The Result of Bitterness

Two things resulted from God not accepting Cain’s offering: Anger at God and anger at Abel. Again, we see that Cain had no rational reason to be angry with Abel—after all, Abel wasn’t the one who had rejected Cain’s offering. But Abel’s righteous example served as a judge to Cain, who became consumed with bitterness and decided to kill his brother—by extension, ending the ideal behavior that he exemplified. “Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him” (Genesis 4:8).

God, of course, already knew that Cain had murdered his brother, but because He wanted to see how Cain would respond, He gave him an opportunity to confess his sin:

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth.” And Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Surely You have driven me out this day from the face of the ground; I shall be hidden from Your face; I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth, and it will happen that anyone who finds me will kill me.” And the Lord said to him, “Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord set a mark on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him. Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden (Genesis 4:9–16).

As we see, Cain had now become filled with bitterness and resentment not only toward his brother, but toward God’s entire way of life. This type of attitude, when fully developed, characterizes a person who is driven by a murderous heart and is “of the wicked one” (1 John 3:12). Not only did Cain despise his righteous brother in his heart, not only did he embrace the spirit of murder and even act upon it, but, to make matters worse, he was unwilling to acknowledge any of his own guilt—in fact, his sinful mindset deluded him into thinking that God was being unfair and that he, Cain, was a victim, even while the blood of the real victim was still on the ground!

Thus, a bitter, angry, and sulking Cain left the presence of God to start his own civilization. How this civilization developed is recorded in the rest of Genesis 4. Eventually, the result was that “the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). We know that, ultimately, God had no choice but to destroy most of mankind in a great flood—such was the legacy of Cain.

As a murderer, Cain was worthy of death himself, so why didn’t God simply execute him? We might consider that, by allowing Cain to live, God has given us an illustration of the consequences of Cain’s way of life. Cain’s children went on to imitate his violence, because “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6). Righteousness takes effort, but sin spreads like a disease; in Cain’s line, God has left an example of the results of letting that disease spread. Adam and Eve had chosen a mix of good and evil, and Cain’s sin would have shown them—as it shows us—that when evil is allowed to exist, it isn’t long before it stamps out what is good. Sin cannot be tolerated.

But Cain’s sinful influence did not end with the Noachian Flood. Thousands of years later, the Apostle Jude wrote to remind the Church of examples and admonitions recorded in the Scriptures, referencing the rebellious angels, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, those who reject authority and are critical of leaders, and presumptuous people who have corrupted themselves with an errant way of life. Describing such practitioners of sin, Jude wrote that “they have gone in the way of Cain, have run greedily in the error of Balaam for profit, and perished in the rebellion of Korah” (Jude 11).

There is a reason God inspired the story of Cain to be the first one we read after the record of the creation and the sin of Adam and Eve. It is not the way of Abel, or even the way of Adam’s third son, Seth, that has characterized human civilization—it is, tragically, the way of Cain.

What About Us?

The Apostle John was inspired to write that “in this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother. For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, not as Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:10–12).

The way of Cain is to blame others for our problems, stubbornly refusing to accept that the common denominator in all those problems is us. When we see someone behaving more righteously than we are, do we resent them and feel judged? Or do we see ourselves honestly and appreciate the opportunity to change and grow?

Cain never stopped to consider that he was the problem—that the true source of his anger and bitterness was his own unrighteousness. When we obey God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves, praying for those who irritate us and doing good to those by whom we feel mistreated, it keeps us in a positive attitude and prevents us from going down the road to anger, hate, and bitterness. We can only change ourselves, and when we strive with God’s help to esteem others as better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3) and eliminate our own resentment, every relationship we have will reap the benefits.