The “Fall” Outside the Garden: the Tragedy of Cain and Abel
The record of life outside the Garden begins with a birth-notice of Adam and Eve’s firstborn son, Cain, and Eve’s maternal response (4:1). The birth of a second son, Abel, is also recorded but without any accompanying maternal response (4:2a). The asymmetry may suggest that the firstborn child occupied Eve’s special attention. More likely, though, it is the narrator (Moses) who is especially interested in Cain, evidenced by the fact that he refers to Abel not as Eve’s “son” but as Cain’s “brother.” The following verses confirm that Cain is the main actor in the plot.
A Tale of Two Brothers
From the brothers’ births, Moses quickly moves forward in time to their adulthood, noting Abel’s vocation as a “keeper of sheep” and Cain’s as a “worker of the ground” (4:2b). At an appointed time, the brothers appear before Yahweh to engage in an act of worship1 with an offering corresponding to their respective vocations (4:3–4a). Cain brought Yahweh “of the fruit of the ground,” which corresponds to his vocation as a farmer. Abel, on the other hand, brought Yahweh “of the firstborn of his flock,” which matches his profession as a sheepherder. However, “Yahweh looked with approval toward Abel and his offering, but toward Cain and his offering he looked with disapproval” (4:4b-5a; author’s translation). The chiastic structure underscores the stark contrast in the way Yahweh views the respective worshipers and their gifts.
Getting to the “Heart” of Worship
Some commentators have attempted to ground God’s rejection of Cain’s offering or acceptance of Abel’s offering either in the nature of their vocations or their sacrifices (i.e., a grain offering vs. an animal offering). Herman Gunkel, for example, draws the conclusion, “The narrative maintains that Yahweh loves the shepherd and animal sacrifice, but wants nothing to do with the farmer and fruit offerings.”2 Others have supposed that the basis for God’s rejection of Cain’s offering lies in the fact that it was bloodless in contrast with Abel’s. Robert Candlish asserts, “To appear before God with whatever gifts, without atoning blood, as Cain did—was infidelity.”3
But these interpretations are tenuous. Both the items Cain and Abel bring to Yahweh are designated a מנחה (minkhah), that is, an offering, gift, or tribute. In the Pentateuch, מנחה designates Jacob’s “gift” or “tribute” given to Esau, which consisted of livestock (Gen 32:13ff.) and Jacob’s “gift” of agricultural products to the vizier of Egypt (Gen 43:10, 11, 15, 25, 26). The term is also used for an acceptable “grain offering” (Exod 29:41; Lev 2:1ff.; 5:13; 6:7, 8, 13). Outside the Pentateuch, מנחה is used for a gift or tribute that usually corresponded in nature and value to one’s social standing (Judg 3:15–18; 2 Sam 8:2, 6; 1 Kgs 4:21 [Heb. 5:1]; 10:25). These facts should suffice to demonstrate that Yahweh’s displeasure with Cain’s act of worship resided neither in his vocation nor in the type of gift he brought.
Moreover, careful reading of the text indicates that Abel’s devotion to the Lord was authentic and heartfelt; Cain’s was not. The use of the personal pronoun הוא suggests that Abel took personal interest in this offering: “he himself, or he, on his part, brought the offering.” Moreover, Abel is said to have brought “the firstborn” from among his flock; whereas, it is not said that Cain brought of the “first-fruits” (see Lev 2:14; 23:17, 20). Moses also draws attention to the fact that Abel’s offering included the “fat-portions” of the firstborn. This may be a hendiadys and could be translated as “the fattest of the firstborn.” So Abel brought the Lord his very best, and he did so with personal interest.4 Cain’s lack of devotion to Yahweh is the first indication that sin has spread from the primordial parents to their offspring.
Pride Goes Before a Fall
More troubling, however, is Cain’s response to Yahweh’s disapproval and admonition. Like his parents, Cain fails to render to Yahweh supreme love and loyalty. But whereas Adam and Eve’s response was primarily one of guilt and fear (3:7–10), Cain responds in anger and self-pity (4:5b). There appears to be an intensification of evil in Cain’s heart that was not present in his parents’ hearts. Yahweh initially responds to Cain by encouraging repentance (4:6–7a).5 Moreover, he warns Cain against succumbing to sin’s enslavement: “if you do not do well (i.e., repent), sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (4:7b). This may be an allusion to the Serpent poised to strike and poison Cain, as he poisoned Cain’s parents (Gen 3:1, 4–5).6 Whatever the precise imagery, Cain must master sin, or sin will master him.7
Instead of publicly acknowledging his wrong to Yahweh and dealing with his sinful anger,8 Cain speaks to Abel privately (4:8a),9 probably suggesting to his brother that he had something he wanted to communicate to him outside, away from Yahweh’s presence. Hence, Cain’s deed is premeditated. And when the two brothers pass through “the door” of the sanctuary,10 Cain conveys to Yahweh and all present that he will not humble himself and acknowledge his sin. Instead, he chooses to align himself with the Serpent and give vent to his enmity against “the woman’s seed” (Gen 3:15) by murdering his brother Abel (4:8b). From Adam and Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit sin accelerates to violent fratricide—within one generation!
God’s Kindness Toward the Impenitent
Next follows the divine inquest. Yahweh confronts Cain and demands, “Where is Abel your brother?” (4:9a).11 But Cain, unlike his parents, who at least acknowledged their sin (3:12, 13), insolently lies and disclaims responsibility for his brother (4:9b).12 Therefore, Yahweh issues a charge of wrongdoing,13 which is followed by a divine curse,14 paralleling his earlier curse on the Serpent and signaling an extension of the previous curse on the ground (3:17–19; 4:11–12).
Instead of asking for pardon, Cain seeks protection from the consequences of his sin and registers a judicial appeal. Anticipating the potential ramifications of God’s curse sanction, namely, the loss of God’s protection against an avenger of Abel’s death (4:14)15 Cain complains, “My punishment is greater than I can bear” (4:13). As in the case of Adam and Eve, Yahweh manifests a gracious forbearance and mitigates the punishment. He places Cain under a protective edict by appointing for Cain’s advantage an oath-sign (אות)16 that threatens divinely authorized vengeance on anyone who would take Cain’s life (4:13–14).
Saving Grace vs. Common Grace
Both the similarity and also the disparity between God’s dealings with Adam and his dealings with Cain are significant. In God’s primeval curse on the Serpent and on humanity’s earthly life and vocation (3:14–19), Adam apparently detects a note of grace that engenders a response of faith despite the reality of the curse (3:20). Following Adam’s positive response, God mitigates his curse by providing Adam and Eve with clothing to serve as a covering, indicating a divinely initiated expiation of their guilt (3:21). Unlike his father, Cain senses no mercy in Yahweh’s curse and responds with an impenitent grievance (4:13–14). Nevertheless, Yahweh once again mitigates his curse by providing Cain with an oath-bound promise to protect him from the full extent of the punishment he deserves (4:15).17 In both cases, God shows grace. But Adam’s and Cain’s responses differ, as does the nature of divine grace extended to each. Adam’s response is positive; Cain’s is negative. Correspondingly, God’s sign to Adam and Eve signifies a grace that operates on a different level than the grace he extends to Cain.18 The former highlights reconciliation. The latter is intended (1) to leave the door open to reconciliation (Rom 2:4),19 (2) to teach Adam’s posterity that the redemption of the righteous (Abel) and the punishment of the wicked (Cain) is not always meted out in this life, and (3) to serve as a foil against which all may clearly see not merely the continuation of human sin but rather the progressive degeneracy of Adam’s posterity. For as soon as God communicates his forbearance to Cain, the ungrateful wretch turns on his heel, departs “from the presence of Yahweh, and settle[s] in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (4:16). Hence, Yahweh’s goodness serves to highlight the gravity of human sin in its stark ingratitude and proud refusal to acknowledge God’s benevolent Lordship (see Rom 1:18–32).
Comparing the Two “Falls”
This analysis of Cain’s fall into sin highlights both its similarities and its disparities from the original Fall. The following table provides a more detailed comparison of these two accounts to help the reader conceptualize the downward trajectory of sin and its effects from Adam to Cain:20
As the table above demonstrates, human sin not only moves from the first generation of human beings to the second, but there is a marked increase in sin’s odious nature. What began as a seed planted within the hearts of the primordial man and woman has taken root in the second generation21 and grown into an ugly weed of human hubris that will rapidly spread throughout the earth, turning what God intended to be a paradisiacal Garden into a howling wasteland of evil and misery. So begins the spread of sin!
The entry above is excerpted and adapted from my recently published monograph Where Sin Abounds (a theological commentary on Genesis). Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. www.wipfandstock.com
- It is highly likely that the original Israelite reader would have viewed the acts of Cain and Abel as acts of worship. Outside the Garden there is still fellowship with God, but that fellowship is mediated through an altar and special offerings. [↩]
- Gunkel, who assigns the Cain and Abel story as well as the Genesis 2 narrative to J (Genesis, 43) seems to forget that it was Yahweh who planted a Garden and assigned Adam the task of working and keeping it (Gen 2:15). [↩]
- Studies in Genesis, 94. [↩]
- See Bruce Waltke, “Cain and His Offering,” 363–62. Such a conclusion is consonant with the NT writer’s assessment of Abel’s offering, namely, that it evidences genuine faith and devotion to God (Heb 11:4) in contrast to Cain’s, which manifests an absence of faith and devotion (1 John 3:12). [↩]
- The Lord confronts Cain with a series of rhetorical questions: “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?” Just as in God’s earlier judicial interrogation of Adam and Eve, these questions were designed not to solicit information but to elicit confession and repentance (see Gen 3:9, 11, 13). [↩]
- Noting the difference in gender agreement between the feminine noun חטאת and the masculine participle רבץ, Ephraim Speiser attempts to link the participle to the Akkadian word räbisum, meaning “demon.” In this case, God is warning Cain that sin is a “demon at the door,” Genesis, 33. One might follow this suggestion and view the “demon at the door” as a reference to Satan, a historical referent that became corrupted over time into a superstitious notion among pagan cultures of benevolent or malevolent “door demons.” The verb רבץ, however, is used elsewhere in Genesis to describe a crouching lion (49:9). And feminine abstract nouns may sometimes take masculine verbs (GKC § 122r; IBHS § 6.6b). Thus, the language appears metaphorical, portraying sin as an animal lying in wait to pounce upon its victim. [↩]
- The noun describing sin’s “desire” for Cain (i.e., תשוקה) may be used for an appropriate desire (Song 7:10 [Heb 11]). But with sin as the subject in Genesis 4:7, the connotation is negative: sin (personified) wants possession of Cain’s soul. For the lexical, syntactical, and semantic links between this verse and 3:14a, see Susan Foh, “What Is the Woman’s Desire,” 376–83. [↩]
- The Bible often warns against sinful anger (Prov 27:4; Eccl 7:9; Eph 4:26, 31) and portrays it as the seed that gives rise to murder (Matt 5:21–26; Jas 1:15). [↩]
- This would explain the seeming laconic reference, ויאמר קין אל הבל אחיו ויהי. Note that the MT does not provide the content of Cain’s message to Abel. The LXX supplies the words διελθωμεν εις το πεδιον (“let us pass through into the plain”), and a number of English translations follow suit (NIV, NET, NJB, NLT, CSB). It is possible that the LXX has preserved the original text. But the “omission” preserved in the MT may have been intentional and in turn may have prompted the conflation found in the LXX and other ancient texts (Samaritan Pentateuch, Vulgate, Syriac). [↩]
- Most interpreters overlook the reference to “the door” or take it figuratively and include it as part of the metaphor (i.e., “the door of Cain’s heart”). But the fact that Yahweh dialogues with Cain and that Cain later departs from Yahweh’s “presence” (4:16) seems to imply that God appeared to Cain and Abel in a theophany, as he did to Adam and Eve in the Garden (3:8–21). Moreover, the common phenomena of sanctuaries or temples throughout the ancient Near East that predate the Sinai instructions for a tent-sanctuary suggest some primeval prototype. If “the door” in Genesis 4:7 implies a literal sanctuary enclosure, then Cain’s departure through the door without acknowledging his guilt would have publicly signified his refusal to repent. [↩]
- As noted above, the divine interrogatives are intended to elicit repentance (Gen 3:9, 11, 13; 4:6–7a). “Where is Abel your brother?” carries the same intent. [↩]
- Gerhard von Rad perceives the defiant tone in Cain’s response when he writes, “Cain gets rid of this difficult question, which graciously offered him opportunity to confess his deed (Zi.), with an impertinent witticism: Shall I shepherd the shepherd? He lies impertinently directly to God’s face, [sic] is therefore much more hardened than were the first human pair.” Genesis, 106. [↩]
- “What have you done?” functions here and elsewhere in Genesis as a formal accusation of a crime committed (Gen 3:13; 12:18; 20:9; 26:10; 29:25; 31:26; 44:15). [↩]
- As Allen Ross observes, “The Lord’s speech moves instantly from accusation to judgment, as if the insolent answer that Cain had given indicated there would be no confession forthcoming,” Creation & Blessing, 160. [↩]
- Somehow Cain intuitively anticipates a talionic response (i.e., life for life) from one of his kinsmen. Buis is correct when he notes, “Not only Special Revelation but also the conscience of man is deeply imbued with the conviction that a man will be punished according to his deeds.” “Retribution,” ZPEB, 5:84. [↩]
- Most interpreters identify the אות as a physical mark that Yahweh places on Cain’s body in order to visibly identify him. This interpretation has led to speculation about the nature of “the mark.” According to a number of lexicographers and commentators, the אות on Cain was some form of bodily tattoo. See Stolz, “אות ´ôt sign,” TLOT, 1:68; Gunkel, Genesis, 46–47; Sarna, Genesis, 35; von Rad, Genesis,107; Waltke, Genesis, 99. However, the noun sign need not always refer to something visible. For example, Rahab requests an tAa from the Israelite spies (Josh 2:12). Her “give me a sure sign” parallels “please swear to me.” The spies respond to Rahab’s entreaty for an אות with an oath-bound promise to spare her and her family (Josh 2:14). See Keil and Delitzsch, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel,” 1:37. This less common meaning for אות would make better sense in Genesis 4:15b. See Kline, “The Oracular Origin of the State,” 138–39. [↩]
- Notes Kidner, “God’s concern for the innocent (10) is matched only by His care for the sinner. Even the querulous prayer of Cain had contained a germ of entreaty; God’s answering pledge, together with His mark or sign (the same word as in 9:13; 17:11)—not a stigma but a safe-conduct—is almost a covenant, making Him virtually Cain’s Gö´ël or protector; cf. 2 Samuel 14:14b, AV, RV. It is the utmost that mercy can do for the unrepentant,” 76. [↩]
- Theologians have traditionally distinguished these two species of grace as special grace and common grace. For a fuller development of these two facets of divine grace and their relationship to each other, see Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel. [↩]
- “Why does the Lord’s anger not burn against Cain? Undoubtedly it did. But though capital punishment was the way God directed Israel to respond to murder cases, it is not always the way God chooses (see, e.g., 2 Sam. 11–12). Already we see a God who holds justice in his right hand and mercy in his left.” Walton, Genesis, 271. [↩]
- The writer has adapted and expanded Fretheim’s helpful structural comparison of the narratives of Genesis 3:1–24 and Genesis 4:1–16 in Creation, Fall and Flood, 93–94. For a similar but simpler structural comparison, see Westermann, Genesis 1–11, 303, and Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 99. [↩]
- For a helpful assessment of the primeval narrative’s contribution to the doctrine of original or hereditary sin, see Gordan Wenham, “Original Sin in Genesis 1–11,” 309–28. [↩]