My Brother's Keeper
We continue our journey through the book of Genesis with part two of our study of Genesis 4 and the story popularly known as the story of Cain and Abel.
On my last post we discussed how God Accepted Abel and his offering but rejected Cain and his offering. Looking closely at the evidence found in the biblical text we were reminded that God values what is happening in the heart of the worshiper. Worship is about celebrating what God has done and does for us, and not about us giving God something He needs.
“If I were hungry, I would not tell you;Psalm 50:12-13 (NKJV)
For the world is Mine, and all its fullness.
Will I eat the flesh of bulls,
Or drink the blood of goats?
God does not need our offerings and sacrifices, but rather they should be a natural outpouring of what is in our hearts, of our love and appreciation for God. Worship should be about our hearts. Not an effort to earn favor before God but rather as a response, a free and loving response to what God has done for us.
Today we will look at more evidence of what the heart of Cain must have been like and we will reflect on some practical applications for our lives today. In the process we will also see God's mercy and patience towards an unrepentant sinner.
Let’s pick up the story with Genesis 4:5
Here we have Cain being very angry and we have an odd expression that his countenance fell.
At this point, Cain has not done anything wrong, yet look at what happens on the next verse.
Why are you angry?
God asks Cain a question. Once again, God initiates the dialogue, not because God needs information, but because He wants Cain to realize where he is and what he is about to do. God reaches out to Cain when there is still time to turn things around. God asks Cain questions to help Cain reflect on his situation. God knows why Cain’s countenance has fallen, God knows why Cain is angry, but He wants Cain to stop and think about the reasons for his anger.
Not only that, on verse 7 God tells Cain what he can do to right the situation.
God pretty much says, “Instead of being angry, just do the right thing.” This is not the first nor the last time God pleads with people to do what is right.
“If you do well”
Imagine God talking to Cain and saying
Cain, if you do what you know you ought to do, you will be lifted, your countenance will be lifted up.
Genesis 4:7 is so challenging to translate that Jewish tradition has counted it as one of the indeterminate verses, and some modern commentators have given up on discovering its meaning. (Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 1-11:26. Nashville Ten.: Broadman & Holman, 1996. Print. p269)
Many versions will translate "lifted up" as "accepted." That is not wrong, its just that the word used litrally means "lifted up." It could mean "accepted," but we miss the clear relation to the previous two verses that describe Cain as angry and having a fallen countenance.
If Cain does well, it will reverse the fallen countenance problem. His countenance will be lifted up.
This can mean a number of things.
We have an idea of what it meant to be the firstborn from the blessing Ruben, the firstborn, receives from Jacob in Genesis 49:3. Based on this notion of the firstborn's dignity some say it is Cain's position as the eldest son, the inheritor, the firstborn that he loses when his face is downcast. Cain should be the head of the household after Adam dies. But when his countenance fell, he lost the ability to lead, to walk with his face held high. When the Bible says that God did not respect Cain and his offering and his countenance fell, it is understood he became unfit to lead the family.
How could Abel look up to Cain and follow him when God did not respect him?
Cain had lost his "firstborn’s dignity." It bothered Cain that God respected his younger brother, but not him.
That was the easier portion of the verse to translate.
The following portion of the text is quite challenging.
So the word used for "sin" in many translations could also mean “sin offering” (Young's Literal Translation) referring to the atoning sin offering, the sacrificial animal, which provides forgiveness and salvation. (Leviticus 7:37; Ezekiel 40:39 )
This translation is valid in light of the context of this passage, Cain and Abel have recently offered sacrifices to God and Cain’s did not include a sin offering.
God is talking with Cain in hopes that he will change his heart.
You could then argue, "Sure, this sounds fine, but there is no tabernacle not for a long time until the Exodus." But we have already seen language that refers to the sacrificial system when Abel’s sacrifice is described with, words like “the firstborn of his flock and of their fat.” (Genesis 4:4)
Some scholars believe there is enough evidence in the Bible to believe that during this time sacrifices were offered at the entrance to the Garden of Eden, this is where the presence of God was and the tree of life. This would be similar to the Most Holy place in the earthly tabernacle where the presence of God was. (Doukhan, Jacques. Genesis. Nampa, ID: Pacific Association, 2016. Print. p120; on this interpretation see also Joaquim Azevedo, "At the Door of Paradise: A Contextual Interpretation of Gen 4:7," BN 100 (1999): 49.)
It’s desire (NKJV) or his desire (KJV) are possible translations.
This word for desire is tricky, it is only used 3 times in the Bible. Genesis 3:16, Genesis 4:7 and Songs of Solomon 7:10. The word for desire is used with reference to a human in both Genesis 3:16 and Songs of Solomon 7:10, so it is not a stretch to understand it as referring to a human being here as well.
"This translation, with the understanding that Abel is being referred to, is supported by the Septuagint and several ancient Jewish commentators."
(Doukhan, Jacques. Genesis. Nampa, ID: Pacific Association, 2016. Print. p120 as well as Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, Bereishis, Vol. 1a (New York: Mesorah Publications, 2009), 146.)
So with these things in mind, here is a possible way of interpreting this text.
Cain, if you offer a burnt offering as well as a thank offering, will you not retain the firstborn’s dignity? But if you do not do well, a sin offering lies down at the door of the garden (place for sacrifices) for you to offer for your sin. As a result of you doing this Abel will respect you and follow you and you will lead him as the firstborn.
Now, I know some may want to accuse me of rough unnecessariness.
When this was explained to me in class (years ago) I mostly disregarded it and could not remember it until I began preparing this post. I know this seems way too complicated to be a valid interpretation. But consider the context. Worship and sacrifice and the condition of the heart of the worshiper.
The most difficult passage is now behind us. The remainder of the chapter is fairly straightforward.
When we interpret Genesis 4:7 to be about Abel’s desire for Cain and for Cain to rule over him as the firstborn it has direct implications to how we interpret Genesis 3:16.
Genesis 3:16 is about the wife having desire for her husband and for him to rule over her.
If God is indeed telling Cain how he once again lift his countenance and regain his dignity and ability to lead his younger brother, this then provides us with a insight regarding leadership in the home. This would mean that Cain has a responsibility towards his younger brother. To do well and to lead him. Ruling in this case is closely connected “to the ethical duty of confronting evil and self ruling.” (Doukhan p121)
This would mean that the husband’s rule over his wife is not to be interpreted in the context of abuse and subordination, but rather as a responsibility for the husband to self-rule as well as spiritual responsibilities and blessings that come with fulfilling God’s plans for that function.
Cain was to do what is right, and be the example. To humble himself and offer a sin sacrifice and regain his dignity.
Cain's Turn to Talk
God finishes talking to Cain and now we expect Cain to reply to God. We expect Cain to obey or at least attempt to communicate with God. To ask for clarification if needed.
The issue was not that Cain didn’t understand.
The problem was not that Cain was ignorant.
The problem was Cain’s heart.
Instead of turning to God to follow his will Cain turns to his brother.
Cain’s disinterest in obeying or communicating with God leads to the first religious crime.
I believe today the same thing still happens. The crimes of the zealous, are not committed because they are right. Religious intolerance and fanaticism originate in a failure to respond to God properly, they originate when people replace faith with human efforts to earn God’s pleasure. Cain killed his brother not because Abel had done something wrong, but because Cain was evil and refused to talk to God.
Where is Abel your brother?
God speaks to Cain again.
God’s question echoes the question He asked Adam back in Genesis 3:9. Except instead of “Where are you?” God asks “Where is Abel your brother?”
Once again, God knows, but He is giving Cain an opportunity to reflect, repent, and confess.
Instead Cain lies,
“I don’t know.”
How often do we play dumb with God?
How often do we behave as if we were unaware of the sins we committed?
How often God speaks to our hearts and we try and act like we don't know what He is talking about?
Am I my brother's keeper?
What do you think of this question?
Maybe Cain is blaming God, like Adam and Eve did. After all is God not the keeper of those who love Him?
Behold, He who keeps Israel
Shall neither slumber nor sleep.
Psalm 121:4 (NKJV)
But do we have any responsibility towards those around us?
Leviticus 19:9-18 New King James Version (NKJV)
‘When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God.
‘You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another. And you shall not swear by My name falsely, nor shall you profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.
‘You shall not cheat your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of him who is hired shall not remain with you all night until morning. You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
‘You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty. In righteousness you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people; nor shall you take a stand against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
We have certain responsibilities towards our brothers and sisters, towards those around us.
Jesus also had something to say about us being our brother or sister’s keeper.
Matthew 25:34-40 (NKJV)
Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
What have you done?
God asks Cain one more question (Genesis 4:10), this one is verbatim what God asked Eve in Genesis 3:13. Each time God asks Cain the same questions He asked Adam and Eve it connects Cain’s sin to the sin of his parents. He sinned because of their sin. They opened the door to all kinds of sins.
Cain’s anger revealed his true attitude. His sin is worse than his parent’s sin in a way, because he killed his own brother. We notice this when God judges Cain. Just like we saw in chapter 3 when God first asked questions than gave the sentence we have God asking Cain questions and now God proclaims the sentence.
God speaks to Cain the way He spoke to the serpent in Genesis 3:14. Cain is cursed like the serpent was cursed. You can see that the seed is not very different from the parent.
Much like God instructed Cain in what he should do, God also makes clear to us that we are free to choose to follow Him but there are consequences to rebelling against God.
The only one who can free us form the curse of the law is Jesus Christ, because He paid the ultimate penalty.
Cain was cursed from the earth. Where before he could work the ground and farm now he would have to be a wanderer. When Cain refused God he was doomed to wonder aimlessly, a vagabond in the world, away from God.
Cain never shows remorse, never asks for forgiveness. He does, however, complain that the punishment is too severe. (Genesis 4:13-14) His parents had been driven from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24), Cain had been driven from the ground. Cain would be hidden from the face of God, because of his iniquities.
Surprisingly, at least for me as a reader, God hears Cain! Even though Cain is an unrepentant sinner, God listens to him. God does not change the sentence, but God does place a mark on Cain in order to protect him. (Genesis 4:15)
God’s grace really is something that goes far beyond human comprehension.
So what do we take away from this story?
Whenever we read a story in the Bible we should ask ourselves three questions.
- What did we learn about God?
- what did we learn about humanity?
- How can I apply this to my life today?
- God wants to save sinners.
- God talks to Cain both before and after he sins.
- God asks questions and gives directions.
- God respects Cain’s freedom to choose his own path.
- God notices the death of those who love Him and judges the guilty.
- God judges Cain based on his actions.
- God is gracious and does not kill Cain nor allow anyone to kill him, but rather gives him an opportunity to live and maybe one day change.
- Good and innocent people may die at the hands of evil people.
- We have the freedom to choose our own path (we are allowed to be rebellious, but there are consequences)
- Our actions demonstrate the condition of our hearts.
- I must use my freedom wisely, following the path God has for me.
- God is willing to make His will known to me and will warn me before I sin.
- When I, sin I have the opportunity to turn to God and receive forgiveness.
- I am my brother’s keeper.
I cannot live my life selfishly.
Identifying the content of our hearts can be very tricky. Looking at this story, it seems to me that the clearest identifier of the state of Cain's heart was how he felt and acted towards his brother.
This study took me on an unexpected journey. I did not expect this post to be so long or to get so technical. I must admit I was amazed to notice how gracious God was with an unrepentant sinner like Cain. This gives me hope. God's grace truly is amazing and this is noticeable from the very beginning, not a later development as some Christians seems to believe.
Even though I had originally entitled this post "My Brother's Keeper" I now realize this story is more about God's desire to see a sinner repent and receive salvation than about how we treat each other. With that said however, how we treat our brother/sister is a clear indication of the condition of our heart. Our worship of God should encompass every aspect of our life and a big portion of that is how we treat those around us