When Jesus and the New Testament writers wanted to illustrate a point or establish a truth, they would often turn to a story found within the pages of the Old Testament. Stories such as: the creation and fall of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:4-3:24), or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:22-19:29), or the Bronze Serpent (Numbers 21:4-9), or many more stories. It’s only natural that they should have referenced these stories. “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). However, more times than not, those using the stories of old made no comment on the details of the story that was being cited Rather, the speaker assumes that the listener has already mastered the details of the story, thus, making possible an immediate understanding of the application(s) being made.
That’s where this series of articles finds its place. My goal is to help you master the details of the Old Testament stories that are cited in the New Testament so that you can better understand the eternal truths that are drawn from them. In our last lesson, we considered the story of Noah and the Flood, now we will turn our attention to the story of Cain and Abel and seek to better grasp the truths Jesus, Peter, Jude and the Hebrew writer made from this wonder narrative.
The Old Testament story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16)
Cain and Abel Described (4:1-2):
Sometime following their exile from the garden (Genesis 3:22-24), “Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived and bore Cain” (v.1a). In her joy, Eve said, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord” (v. 1b). She acknowledged the activity of God in the gift of her son. Perhaps she looked upon Cain as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Genesis 3:15. If so she was destined for disappointment. Furthermore, the ESV footnotes that Cain sounds like the Hebrew for gotten. “And again, she bore his brother Abel” (v. 2a). Some think that since no time reference is mentioned between vv. 1, 2, then Cain and Abel were twins. This would simply be conjecture on anyone’s part. However, their birth order may play a subtle role in foretelling things to come, but more on that in a minute. As the two men grew up, Abel became “a keeper of sheep,” while Cain became “a worker of the ground” (v. 2b). This description of their contrasting occupations is not intended to elevate one over the other since both were respectable. In fact, most people in biblical times subsisted through a combination of the two. The contrasting of their occupations becomes the source of their two contrasting offerings.
Cain and Abel Bring Offerings to God (4:3-5)
“In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions” (vv. 3-4a). In the course of time God revealed His desire for worship and it was Cain who first brought an offering to the Lord, followed by Abel. Each brother brought an offering that reflected their different occupations. Cain brought some of his agricultural produce and Abel brought a firstborn, and presumable the best, from this flock. “The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (vv. 4b-5a). While we do not know what God revealed to these two brothers, we are assured that they knew how to worship Him; this will become abundantly clear in the Lord’s words to Cain in v. 6. We must be careful of reading too much into this account by elevating animal sacrifices over those from the fruit of the ground since both will be a part of the Levitical sacrificial system (cf. Leviticus 1:1-17; 2:1-11). However, God somehow showed His approval for Abel and his offering, while showing his disapproval for Cain and his sacrifice. In the style that will later be reminiscent of Esau and Jacob (cf. Genesis 25:19-28; Malachi 1:2-3), the younger brother is accepted over the older brother. God’s acceptance of Abel and his sacrifice, and His subsequent rejection of Cain and his sacrifice caused Cain to become “very angry and his face fell” (v. 5). This was not mild anger or depression. The Hebrew word describing Cain’s anger is very intense.
God Questioned Cain (4:6-7):
It is in Cain’s state of anger and dejection that God approaches him asking, “Why are you angry, and why has you face fallen?” (v. 6). God asked this question, not for information, but to help Cain understand his own actions, feelings, and motives (cf. Genesis 3:9, 11, 13). “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” (v. 7a). God’s question clearly implied that Cain’s anger was ill-founded. While we do not know the specifics of what “doing well” involved, Cain did. Therefore, Cain’s problem was not a lack of instruction, but of insurrection and rebellion against God. If Cain chose to ignore God’s gente prodding, then let him be warned, “If you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (v. 7b). God personified sin as a wild beast whose desire was to destroy Cain (cf. 1 Peter 5:8). It wanted to master him, but he must “rule over it.” Cain was faced with options and would be held accountable for his choice. The offspring of Adam and Eve are affected by their rebellion, but each descendant is responsible for his/her own choices. Cain needed not to succumb to sin because God always gives sufficient grace to resist temptation (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:13). God graciously sought out Cain and gently confronted him with his sinful anger. The Lord clearly articulated a message of restoration and the warning concerning the danger Cain faced. Nevertheless, in the end, God’s council was rejected.
Cain Murdered Abel (4:8):
Following Cain’s conversation with God, Cain “talked with Abel his brother” (KJV) as the two walked in a field together. Rather than being an honest heart-to-heart, Cain was setting a trap for Abel (cf. Deuteronomy 22:25-27). Once they were alone, “Cain rose up against” his unsuspecting “brother Abel and killed him.” The brevity of the account of Abel’s murder underscores the coldness of Cain’s action. Jealously, coupled with anger, drove him to slay his own brother without pity. Cain had allowed the crouching beast of sin to master him, thus turning him into a murder. There is no tempter here as in the case of his parents (cf. Genesis 3:1-8), only full-blossomed sin, conceived in the heart of Cain. The words of James highlight this tragic scene, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14-15).
God Questioned Cain Again and Cursed Him for His Sins (4:9-16):
For the second time in our story, God comes and questions Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” (v. 9a). Again, this is intended not to gain information, but to force Cain to face his actions and repent. Cain’s insolence is incredible. Not only does he lie in denying any knowledge of Abel’s whereabouts, “I do not know” but he sarcastically retorted, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (v. 9b). In essence Cain is saying, “I don’t know where he is! And am I the shepherd’s shepherd?” Cain’s blatant disregard for God’s inquiry shows the extent to which sin had mastered him. If Cain would not confess his sin, then God would reveal His knowledge of it. “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground” (v. 10). Abel’s blood cried out to God for justice (cf. Psalms 9:12; 72:14; 116:15; Revelation 6:9-11) and now God would dispense justice. “And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand” (v. 11). Cain’s punishment was linked to his crime and his means of livelihood. Because Abel’s blood cries out from the ground, Cain will no longer be able to productively cultivate the soil. Sin and the land’s fertility is always linked together in the Old Testament (cf. Genesis 3:17-19; Deuteronomy 28:4, 11-12, 16-18, 22-24). However, with Cain, only the ground he attempted to till would be cursed and not yield “its strength” (v. 12a). Therefore, he was forced to be “a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (v. 12b). Cain is immediately conscience of the severity of his punishment. “My punishment is greater than I can bear” (v. 13). He is not sorry for his sins, only remorseful for the severity of the punishment he is to receive. “Behold, You have driven me today away from the ground, and from Your face I shall be hidden I shall be a fugitive and a wander on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me” (v. 14). First, Cain relates the occupational result of his sin, separation from the ground. Second, he states the spiritual result of his sin, separation from God (cf. Genesis 3:22-24; 4:16). Finally, because he would be a “fugitive and wander,” Cain feared he would be easy prey for someone (a blood avenger perhaps) who would want to kill the killer. “Not so!” said the Lord (v. 15a). While human life meant little to Cain, God valued it highly. “If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” (v. 15b). Note, these words are not spoken to Cain (not “If anyone kills you”), but of Cain (“If anyone kills Cain”). This was a warning given to all of Earth’s inhabitants, however many there were. As a merciful means of divine protection, “the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him” (v. 15c). The mark that saved him also was the lifelong sign of his shame. The precious nature of this mark is unknown. It must have been something visible, but that is all that can be said. Like his parents before him, as a result of sin, “Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (v. 16). Cain’s physical act of moving “away from the presence of the Lord,” typified the spiritual consequence of his unrepentant sin. The ESV footnote reads that “Nod,” in the Hebrew, means “wandering.” Nevertheless, it was not long before the defiant Cain rebelled against God and built a city named Enoch, in honor of his first-born son (v. 17).
The New Testament Application:
Now that we have established the details of the story of Cain and Abel, let’s turn our attention to New Testament applications from this story:
God Will Avenge the Murder of His Prophets (Matthew 23:29-36[i])
In Matthew 23, we find our Lord in the Temple during the last week of His life. It is the day after He drives the money changers and merchants from the temple (21:12-17) and the chief priest and elders are challenging His authority (21:23-27). This confrontation leads to several more back and forth’s between our Lord and the Jewish leadership (21:28-22:46). The temple scene comes to a climax, Matthew 23, when Jesus pronounces seven woes on the scribes and Pharisees (#1 vv. 13-14, #2 v. 15, #3 vv. 16-22, #4 vv. 23-24, #5 vv. 25-26, #6 vv. 27-28 and #7 vv. 29-36). The story of Cain and Abel is connected to the seventh woe:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore, I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” (Matthew 23:29-36)
By scheming to have Jesus executed (cf. Matthew 12:14; 27:1; John 5:18; 11:47-53), the religious rulers showed that they were indeed following in the footsteps of their fathers, who had persecuted and murdered God’s prophets. Jesus, as God (note similarities with Luke 11:49), would send the Jews more prophets, wise men, and scribes and as they had always done they would persecute and kill these servants of God as well. Because of this, the generation with whom Jesus was speaking would bear the full wrath of God for the innocent blood of every Old Testament prophet, from Abel to Zechariah (from Genesis to 2 Chronicles, the last book of the Hebrew Bible). Our Lord described the wrath coming upon Jerusalem as a time of “great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved” (Matthew 24:22-23). And indeed it did when God’s wrath came in 70 A.D. when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed and hundreds of thousands Jews died. We can take comfort that our God is a God who sees the injustices committed against His people and we know He will avenge us (cf. Romans 12:19).
True Faith Demands Obedience (Hebrews 11:4):
In New Testament times, many Jewish believers, who, having stepped out of Judaism into Christianity, wanted to reverse course in order to escape persecution. Hebrews was written to exhort these believers to “hold fast” to their “confidence” (3:6, 14), “confession” (4:14; 10:23), and “hope” (6:18). As part of his appeal, the Hebrew writer presents a moving account of the faithful Old Testament saints in chapter 11 who attest to the value of living by faith. They provide a powerful testimony to the Hebrews that they should continue in the faith by doing those things God has called them to do, Abel is one of those examples:
“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.” (Hebrews 11:4)
The precious reason for the superiority of Abel’s sacrifice is not specifically revealed in Genesis, but here the Hebrew writer focuses on Abel’s faith that accompanied his offering. Both brothers knew what God required. Abel obeyed in faith and Cain disobeyed in unbelief. Therefore, Abel and his sacrifice were accepted and Cain and his offering were rejected. Abel typified the truths of Hebrews 11:2, 6, “For by [faith] the people of old received their commendation” and “Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him.” From the very outset of time, humanity was justified by faith. Because of his faith, evidenced by his obedience to God’s requirement(s) for sacrifices, Abel was commended as righteous. The story of Abel’s faith, as recorded in Genesis, still speaks to generation after generation. For one to be accepted by God, he must come by faith. Abel is a part of the “great cloud of witnesses” who call out to believers to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and… run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). Abel calls out to those who would go back into the world; heed God’s instructions, and serve Him by faith and if you do, you too will receive your commendation.
For an additional perspective on Hebrews 11 see: By Faith… You Can Receive Your Commendation.
Jesus’ Blood Speaks of Better Things than Abel’s blood (Hebrews 12:22-24)
For a second time the Hebrew used the story of Cain and Abel to establish an eternal truth, namely the new covenant of Christ is better than the old. As previously noted, In New Testament times, many Jewish believers, who, having stepped out of Judaism into Christianity, wanted to reverse course in order to escape persecution. As Hebrews unfolds, the writer persuades them to stay with Christ since His new covenant was superior to the old covenant given under Moses. Summarizing, the new covenant has: a better hope, testament, promise, sacrifice, substance, county and resurrection. All the truths the Hebrew writer so carefully presented in his epistle come to a great crescendo in Hebrews 12:22-29. In vv. 18-21, he reminds them of the fear and dread of approaching God under the old covenant. In vv. 22-24, he describes how this dread is replaced with hope and joy that comes through Christ. Therefore, in vv. 25-29 he calls for the Jewish believers “to not refuse Him” but draw near to God and worship Him through Christ. It is in the middle of this theological climax, the writer contrasted the blood of Jesus and the blood of Abel:
“But you have come to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:24)
There are two views on this passage. The first says, the “blood of Abel” references back to Genesis 4:10 and Abel’s blood crying out to God from the ground. If this is what is under consideration, then Abel’s blood cries out for justice, while Jesus’ blood, as mediator, cries out for the spiritual blessing of salvation through atonement, justification, sanctification, et al. The second view says, the “blood of Abel” references the blood sacrifice from “the first born of his flock” (Genesis 4:4; cf. Hebrews 11:4). If this is what is under consideration, then Jesus’ blood “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” since it was “impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). I lean toward the second understanding. However, whichever way you interpret this passage the point remains the same, through the blood of Jesus we have redemption of our sins. In the words of the old hymn, “There’s pow’r, pow’r, Wonder-working pow’r in the blood of the Lamb.” Have you accepted Jesus and his shed blood as the atonement for your sins?
Love Your Brother and Don’t Be Surprised That the World Hates You (1 John 3:11-15):
By the time John wrote his first epistle, many Christians had left the ranks of the saved and were following after false teachers, which John refers to as antichrist, and their damning doctrines (cf. 1 John 2:18-19). John’s approach to dealing with these false teachers and their doctrines is more subtle than say Paul is in Galatians or Colossians or Peter and Jude in their epistles. Rather, John repeatedly reminds his readers of “the message” that they had “heard from the beginning,” and he uses these to refute the teachings and actions of the false teachers. In one such instance, John uses the story of Cain as a teaching moment:
“For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 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. Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (1 John 3:11-15)
Since the beginning of the gospel age, love has been the central theme of Christianity. John emphasizes that his audience had heard this message from “the beginning.” This is the second of three treatments on the topic of loving one another in this epistle (2:9-11; 3:11-18; 4:19-5:4). Therefore, it is reasonable to assume the false teachers had perverted this most basic of Christian teaching. John then exhorts his readers to not be like Cain who was of the Devil, who hated his brother, and murdered him. Rhetorically John asked, “And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brothers righteous.” Therefore, those who seek to live righteous lives should not be surprised that the world (including the false teachers and their followers) hates them (cf. 2 Timothy 3:12). Just as Abel suffered because of his faith, all believers will suffer and be hated by the wicked people of this world. For John, the test of salvation is found in love for the brothers. Loving the brothers is a test to know if one is saved or not. If one hates the brothers, then they are a murder (cf. Matthew 5:21-22). They are like Cain and people like Cain cannot dwell in the presence of God (cf. Genesis 4:16). So then the question for you is, do you love the brothers? If so, then you have passed from death to life, you’re saved. But if not, then you are doomed like Cain, repent before it’s too late.
Woe to Those Who Walk in the Way of Cain (Jude 11):
The little epistle of Jude was written to warn against following those who have secretly gained entry into the church and are perverting the one true faith with false teaching. Jude calls for the church to aggressively defend the truth against this infiltration. Jude uses Old Testament examples to show the destruction that awaits these false teachers and anyone who follows their destructive heresies. To accomplish this, Jude references the Cain in v. 11:
“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 11)
To walk “in the way of Cain” is to follow in the footsteps of Cain, to act like him. Cain openly rebelled against God’s revealed will. Furthermore, he was full of hate and jealousy and refused to repent. Therefore, Cain was expelled from the presence of God and cursed for his sin. Jude is saying those who follow after this false teaching are like Cain; full of rebellion, hatred, and sin. Their way is cursed and they will be driven from God and His people. Cain’s life and punishment is a warning to hold to the “faith that was once delivered to the saints” (v. 1).
As you can see, the story of Cain and Abel was a valuable illustration of several different New Testament truths. It’s my prayer that you will heed the warnings. If I can help you in your spiritual journey, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] Also reference Luke 11:45-52. Here Jesus uses the story of Abel’s death to teach the same lesson as in Matthew 23:29-36, though in a different context.