Everyone is familiar with the story of Cain as the first murderer, the killer of his more righteous brother, Abel. But not as much attention is given to the fact that Cain thereby becomes the archetype of individual rebellion against God. Until this act, there had been only the general curse on the land resulting from Adam and Eve’s disobedience. Even though they had been evicted from Eden, God’s Presence was still with them. Cain’s rebellion causes him to go “away from the presence of the Lord” (Gen. 4:16). Consequently, the land is cursed anew for him, and the shed blood of his brother cries out against him from the ground where it was spilled. Cain’s rebellion marks him as the progenitor of all acts of corrupted will, symbolized by the murder of his brother.
Several references in the New Testament attest to this status given to Cain. The Apostle John sums it up in saying, “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous” (I John 3:12). And Jude classes Cain with those who “blaspheme all that they do not understand, [who are] destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively. Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam's error and perished in Korah's rebellion” (Jude 10-12). Finally, the writer of Hebrews, in the great chapter on faith, cites unrighteous Cain in contrast to righteous Abel: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Heb. 11:4).
Given these N.T. characterizations of Cain, we can see embedded in Gen. 4 the turning point that his act of murder represents in human history. The distinction God makes between Cain’s gift and Abel’s does not lie primarily in some inherent superiority of Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s. God’s preference for Abel’s offering lies rather in the attitude in which it was offered. In contrast to Abel’s gift (made “by faith,” Heb. 11:4 states), Cain’s seems to have been made with a prideful focus on himself and his own merit, rather than being sensitive to its being for the glory of God. The potential acceptability of Cain’s gift depends on his changing his attitude: “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (vv. 6-7). Cain’s unrighteousness is his rejection of God’s warning about his spiritual peril. He allows his anger to master him and to alienate him from God’s grace. Murdering his brother is a natural outworking of wrath against his brother and against God.
Out of Cain issued those who turned to endeavors designed toward self-promotion and violence, climaxing in the building of the tower of Babel, and eventually leading to God’s erasing humankind from the face of the earth. God used Noah and his family, who was of the line of Seth, third-born son to Adam and Eve, to re-populate the earth. It was in the days of Seth that people “began to call upon the name of the Lord.” Thus, the progeny of God’s plan of redemption clearly diverged from the progeny of human wrath and vengeance, whose only end is death. We are called upon to identify with one or the other of these branches: Will it be the self-will and rebellion of murderous Cain, or the humble submission to God’s will of Abel, Seth, and, ultimately, Christ Himself? The motivation of our gifts to God is the key to whether we are choosing death, or Life.
Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)