Having been evicted from Eden, we pick up the story of Adam and Eve having two sons, and the story of those two men. Both worked, and both brought offerings before the Lord. The younger son, Cain, was a farmer, and he brought an offering of the fruit of the ground. The eldest son, Abel, was a shepherd, and he brought a firstborn lamb and offered the fat portions. We are told that the Lord accepted the offering of Abel but had no regard for Cain’s offering.
The obvious question to ask is why. Whilst this chapter does not give an explanation, the author of Hebrews discusses the story, and explains in Hebrews 11:4 that “By faith Abel offered a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain.” The difference in their offerings was the faith with which they were given. In offering his firstborn of the flock, Abel gave without knowing whether there would be any more lambs born for himself and so was giving in faith. Cain on the other hand gave a generic offering of his harvest, and gave what he could spare.
Cain’s response to how God received these offerings was resentment. He became angry, and he turned the anger upon his brother, murdering him in the field. It is important to see that the roots of this brotherly conflict were in Cain’s own disappointment in his circumstances and dysfunction in his relationship with God. Rather than deal with the issues going on and come to God in contrition he turned on Abel. This is often the way in human conflict. Unresolved personal challenges and issues in our relationship with God lead us to lash out at those around us.
The Lord confronts Cain about his actions, and like his parents he evades God’s question and claims not to know what has happened, but Abel’s blood has clearly testified against Cain from the ground. Cain is cursed and banished. He fears that he will be found and will be attacked. Even at this early stage in the story it is apparent that conflict results in more conflict and that a cycle has begun that will be difficult to break. In a sign of grace, God puts a mark on Cain preventing any others from finding and attacking him.
Some Key Points:
- The first relationship that went wrong in this story was Cain’s relationship with God.
- When our relationship with God is not as it should be, this can spill out into our relationships with others. Cain blamed and resented his brother, and this led him to murder.
- Conflict and hostility is a vicious cycle that only leads to more conflict and hostility. The only escape from this cycle is the gracious intervention of God.
Following the Threads:
- Later in the same chapter (verses 23 and 24) Lamech also commits murder, and he wants the revenge for harming him to be greater than it was for Cain. This illustrates the escalation of conflict as the story unfolds. Countless Old Testament stories show the conflict and violence of our world, so much so that judicial punishment had to be limited to ‘an eye for an eye’.
- Matthew 5:38-41 is part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus speaks against the idea of revenge when one is wronged, and instead calls upon his followers to ‘turn the other cheek’.
- Hebrews 12:24 makes a link between the blood of Abel and the blood of Jesus. Both were innocent men who were killed and their blood cries out – Abel’s blood crying for justice and Christ’s blood speaking a better word of grace.
- Ephesians 2:11-22 shows us that now in Christ, a dividing wall of conflict between peoples has been brought down and one new man is being made in him.
- A Call to Reconcile – Are members of the congregation currently in conflict with others? Matthew 5:23-24 shows us that getting reconciled without delay is of paramount importance.
- A Call to Be Peacemakers – Jesus said ‘blessed be the peacemakers’, and as believers who have been given peace with God, there is a call on us to bring peace and relational reconciliation into the homes, neighbourhoods and workplaces in which we spend our time.
- A Call to Worship – Jesus is the one who ultimately makes peace and break the cycle of conflict we have seen in this passage. Like all of the threads of Genesis 1-4, this theme leads us to him and to worship him for the incredible thing he has done for us.