There’s a more going on in the story of Cain and Abel than meets the eye. On the surface, it’s the woefully sad story of one brother killing another. It’s a tragedy, but unfortunately it’s not something foreign or unfamiliar to us—the only thing unique is that this is the first occurrence of fratricide. That noted, we sigh and are ready to turn the page and move on. But just as Cain was faced with temptation, we face it here in wanting to dismiss this incident before it has been allowed to speak to us more fully.
This story follows the well-known account of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, the two of them being called to account by God, and the subsequent punishments and promises He imposes. Following this, the two of them are expelled from the garden and life becomes something much less than what it was. But it is still life and with the help of the Lord Cain is born (4:1). Sometime later, another son (Abel) comes along. From all appearances, Adam and Eve appear to making the best of their situation. They can’t change the past, but they can learn from it and move on.
Whatever else happens in this new existence we know with certainty only the following: the two brothers offer respective sacrifices to God from their occupations and Abel’s is accepted while Cain’s is rejected. We’re given no explanation in the text for why this happens because apparently it’s not of central importance. What is significant is that as Cain’s anger grows, God warns him of the destructiveness festering inside him and challenges him to take control. Cain doesn’t and Abel is murdered.
We’ve now moved in the narrative from Adam and Eve’s determination to act independently of God to one brother murdering another. The first is a sin that looks relatively inconsequential to many people (“a victimless crime”), while the second is something that everyone would acknowledge as evil. As much as many would like to disconnect the two, the account won’t allow it. More to the point, picking and choosing what we think is wrong on the basis of our limited understanding is exactly the kind of thing that got Adam and Eve in trouble. We’re much better off acknowledging the connection and accepting God’s warning that sin is a beast wanting and waiting to chew us up (v. 7).
There is power in this realization though, because armed with this attitude sin can be successfully resisted (v. 7). One of the lessons we should from Cain concerns his failure to accept God’s appraisal of the danger to himself and others that his anger posed. He made a mistake and his offering wasn’t accepted (Hebrews 11:4). How he mishandled his mistake and the anger that came from it is what the writer wants us to see. What ultimately marks Cain is not the fruit of his fields but the fruit of his anger. Eve gives birth to Cain, while the anger of Cain gives birth to murder.
We learn the monumental truth that sin toward another is sin toward God. We are to be keepers of both our anger and our brother. It is still not good for man to be alone and brotherhood is one of the solutions rather than one of the problems. John will tell us that “we know we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death” (I John 3:14). This no small thing for John, Genesis or God!