Cain and Abel: what is the story really about?

Read Time:6 Minute

Like many ‘well-known stories’ in the Bible, the one about Cain and Abel is often understood superficially. Was Cain really that bad or can we actually learn something from him?

Two brothers – Cain and Abel. One is good and one is bad. God accepts one and not the other. We think God is mean and has favourites. We mourn Abel’s death as unnecessary and see Cain as pure evil. Throughout the rest of the Bible, and in popular culture, Cain is the symbol of murderer. The one who killed his brother.

But is the story of Cain and Abel really that simple? What if there’s a bit of Cain in everyone of us?

Into the unknown

We glance over the seemingly familiar stories in the Bible – the creation, Noah and the flood and many others. We have heard them in a Sunday School or in similar teaching. We have seen cartoons and movies about them, and through the centuries culture has shown different versions of them. We think we know them but we only know the story, not necessarily its meaning and deeper spiritual level.

The same goes for Cain and Abel. 

When you read this story following the chapters about creation and the fall, and you know that at that point God already had a rescue plan for the humanity ready, you look at it differently. Also, if you know God, you’ll know that He has no favourites, so you will know that there must be more to this story.

And there is.  

a woman and girl reading together
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How sincere was Cain?

The New Living Translation says: “When it was time for the harvest, Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the LordAbel also brought a gift—the best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock.”

So Abel brought the best and Cain brought some of his crops. It sounds to me like he didn’t particularly care about what He brought to God but He still wanted God to accept it in the same way that He accepted thoughtful offering of Abel. 

God loves us but He is God – perfect God. And He doesn’t like ‘some’ crops and the intentions behind them. It wasn’t about accepting Cain or not, it was about showing him that he can’t just pick anything for God and still get the praise. 

Chances are that if that was his offering, his character towards God was similar. He thought he could get away with ‘some’ time with God and giving ‘some’ life to God. But not all and not the best part of it.

Sounds familiar?

We often want the output without the input and, as we see on Cain’s example, human nature has not changed much over the ages.

The choice we’ve got

But God warns us of what might happen and gives us a choice. As he did with Cain. He was given an opportunity to choose – first, he chose his attitude towards God. Then he chose how to react to what looked like God’s rejection.

Unfortunately neither of times he chose well.

God gave us free will and we can choose whether to use it to glorify God or ourselves. Cain didn’t care much about God, it seems so he brought ‘some’ crops. He wanted God’s praise without giving God the respect He deserved.

So the second time he also made the wrong choice. He killed his brother.

When faced with someone’s actions or circumstances that we perceive as negative for ourselves, we have got a choice how we respond to them. It was right for God to refuse Cain’s sacrifice (note that it doesn’t mean God rejected Cain) but it wasn’t right for Cain to respond with anger that led to a murder. 

Our choices might not lead as far as murder but they might lead us to a different kind of sin. And that will always put a wall between us and God.

blue jeans
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God’s helping hand

God loved Cain the same as he did Abel but he saw flaws in his character (like not quite genuine motivations and bringing the offering just for the sake of the custom, not because he really cared about God). He wanted to help him learn how to do things better but Cain didn’t notice that. He was too busy being proud and angry.

Cain was angry when God didn’t accept his offering. He chose the wrong reaction and let the anger control him to the point of killing his brother. He could have chosen to ask God for help or explanation, knowing that He loved him. I’m sure God would come to him and lovingly explain how to do things better. Instead, Cain chose to follow his offended pride. Another thing that sounds familiar?

I can picture in my mind Cain red with anger and God calmly asking him: “Why are you so angry?” “Why do you look so dejected? 

God trying to bring peace and reconciliation. But the only think Cain could do was to respond in a gruff voice.  

“Don’t let the anger control you” says the New Testament but Cain did exactly that – rather than see God’s goodness in the situation and let God help him, he chose to follow his inner temptation.

Like many of us, he chose to do something that brought him temporary satisfaction but in long-term led to a huge loss.

The less known verse

In this story, God speaks directly to Cain with a warning that is as timely for us today as it was for Cain before he committed his crime.

God said to Cain: “You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.” (emphasis mine)

Genesis 4:7 NLT

It doesn’t mean you’ll be loved when you do what is right or that you have to bring perfect offering – it’s about pure heart set on the right things and doing things with the right motives. 

We know that thanks to Jesus we are accepted just as we are and that all our sins are forgiven. But that doesn’t mean we can think whatever we want about God and act from wrong motives. Sin is always crouching at the door and ready to control us.

Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it?

Romans 6:1-2 NLT

Cain’s parents have ‘just’ sinned and were banished from the Garden of Eden. God was trying to help Cain learn what they didn’t.

If we do not look deep enough, we see this story as one of brotherly rivalry. But it rather is a story of how God tries to help each of us make the right choices before it is too late, get close to Him and live the way he intended so we can avoid any sin that would separate us from Him.

Like for Cain, the choice is ours – will we listen or choose our own way?

We know how it ended for Cain.

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