It didn’t take long after Adam and Eve’s sin for humanity to unravel. We really are a snowball kind of people. When it rains, it pours.
Genesis 3 ends with man and woman exiled from the Garden of Eden. Genesis 4 skips ahead a while– we don’t know how long– and tells us immediately that they’ve had a couple of kids.
At this point in the story, things are looking good. The first family is fulfilling their creation mandate from God to be fruitful and multiply, having dominion over the earth. There is hope that the redemption of man will be near. Remember what we learned last week, that there is a promised descendent of Eve who will be our serpent crusher. It’s not unreasonable to think that Eve had this promise in mind as she birthed Cain, especially since his name reflects her joy that she has “gotten a man with the help of the Lord” (v.1).
The story continues. Cain is a farmer; Abel is a shepherd. In the course of time, both brothers bring God offerings that are related to their line of work; Abel, animals from his flock, and Cain, fruit from his harvest. This is where things get messy. Instead of bestowing favor onto the firstborn, God chooses to exalt the younger brother, Abel.
Why? We don’t know exactly. Maybe it’s because Abel’s offering was a sacrifice of blood, following God’s design from when he clothed Adam and Eve in animal skins instead of fig leaves (3:21). Maybe it’s because Abel’s offering was the best of his flock, but Cain’s wasn’t the cream of the crop. Maybe it’s because Abel’s heart was right toward God, but Cain’s heart wasn’t in it, making his action a dead work. We don’t know for sure.
All we know with certainty is that God’s favor first goes out to Abel, as his sacrifice was “more acceptable” to God (Hebrews 11:4). In his sovereign choice, he chose to bestow favor on Abel. This doesn’t go over so well with Cain. For any of you older siblings, how hard is it to see your younger siblings get the honor you feel you deserve?
Despite a clear warning from God of the danger of sin, Cain yielded to its power and killed his brother (v.8). It’s tragic. God had enough blessing to go around (v.6-7), but Cain let his seething anger get the best of him. Then, in striking similarity to his parents’ experience in the Garden, he hides from God behind the flimsy shield of lies.
God’s punishment, again, is exile. As his parents were kicked out the Garden, and Adam was punished by the toil of work, so Cain would wander the earth and be unable to have dominion over it (v.12).
So where’s Jesus in all this? Everywhere. He’s plastered all over this story.
For us to see this, though, we’ve got to have an uncomfortable realization, so bear with me. You’re Cain. That’s you. Me, too. All of us. We’re Cain. We’re the jealous murderer. We’re the entitled brother. We’re the ones who have our sacrifices tainted by sin. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but that’s what the counsel of Scripture tells us.
This makes Jesus Abel. He is the one who was considered worthless (note that Abel’s name in Hebrew is the word translated as vanity, something worthless; cf. Isaiah 53:3). He is the innocent brother whom we killed. He is the one whose sacrifice to God was accepted.
I love what Hebrews teaches us about Jesus’ presence in this story: “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 12:22-24). What, you might ask, is the word spoken by the blood of Abel? It is a word of justice, crying out against Cain’s sin from the ground (Genesis 4:10). And yet, God chose to be merciful to Cain, sealing him with a mark of protection. In the words of one writer, “If God is willing to show Cain mercy when Abel’s blood cries out for revenge, how much more must he be willing to show us mercy when Jesus’s blood calls out for forgiveness?”1 Despite the grotesque nature of our sin– sin which separates us eternally from God– Jesus’ spilled blood becomes the megaphone through which he shouts out our forgiveness and redemption.
Cain’s sin exiled him further from the presence of God (v. 16). Christ, though the better Abel, took on the punishment of Cain for our sake, though. As one brother noted, “Jesus is the better Cain, banished from the Presence to be the Presence for the exiled.”2 Through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, we are welcomed back into the True Eden, the never-ending place of the presence of God, to resounding cheers.
- Cain, Abel, and the Danger of Misinterpreting God’s Word (thegospelcoalition.org).
- Taken from a document shared with me by a brother, credited to Dr. Chris Green.