First Mennonite Church
February 16, 2014
Profile of an Unrepentant Heart: Cain
Text: Genesis 4:1-10
Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the LORD.” Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.
In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the LORD said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!
The complex stories we find in Genesis chapter 4 about human life outside the garden contain elements about human potential for the best and for the worst. In this story we find what in human experiences is the utmost cause of joy— the birth of children. Yet we also find the most disturbing of human actions—murder. In this story we find human awareness of the Divine and the innate desire to worship, but we also find deliberate attempts to lie to God. In this story we find the beauty of human intimacy but we also find the dark power of jealousy and resentment.
And going beyond our passage for this morning in chapter 4 we find the development of arts, culture, and urban life from which flow both alienation from God and desire to live before the presence of God.
None of these origins of human developments would have been narrated if there had not been a conflict regarding religious practices—the sacrifices offered to God by Abel and Cain. And that is ironic, yet history has proven that that was only the beginning of a long history of conflicts due to views and practices of religion.
This story, like so as many others in the book of Genesis, raises some difficult questions to modern readers. First and most obvious is why did God reject Cain’s sacrifice? This we will explore some more. Other questions are why was Cain also cast away to the east as were Adam and Eve when they disobeyed God? What kind of sign did God put on Cain, which upon seen by others would not kill him? Who were those others who would want to kill Cain if Cain’s family of origin is the only one so far living on face of the earth? Where did Cain get a wife?
And last but not least, according to Genesis 4: 17, why was it necessary for Cain to build a city? And was it possible for him to build it alone? It is likely that there are more questions that these few.
Most readers of this story cannot help but wonder why God did not accept Cain’s offering, while he did Abel’s. This puzzlement is especially highlighted because there is not a whole lot said about Cain or for that matter, about Abel either.
A common explanation for God’s rejection of Cain and his sacrifice has been that God always preferred animal sacrifice, which is what Abel made [or gave]. And although it is true that the Old Testament shows ample evidence of animal sacrifices, it is also true that along with blood offering, grain offering has also been part of worshipping God. Others have suggested along these lines that God preferred herdsmen over gardeners. But this idea goes against what God told Adam in Genesis 2:15: to till the land. Others believe that acceptance and rejection of these brothers’ sacrifices were due to the quality of their offering. And that can be seen in the text somewhat.
Still others have suggested that God’s acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice and rejection of Cain’s is intended to show the sovereignty of God.
A closer look into the text can reveal some evidences as to why God did not accept Cain’s sacrifice.
First, it is clear in the text that Cain knew right away that God was not pleased with him or with his offering. Cain got mad when he realized God had rejected him and his offering. Verse 5 tells us Cain’s spirit was depressed. Literally, the text says Cain was so angry and his face fell. Speaking of “long faces” goes way back to the early human beings!
But God did not abandon him. Just as God did when Adam and Eve disobeyed and He went to find them, this time God went to talk with Cain. God graciously approached Cain and asked him, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
It is true what Peter says in 2Peter 3:9 that the Lord…is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.
God patiently helped Cain understand the condition of his heart and the alternative to how he was feeling. God spells out for Cain that he is angry and that his inner state is revealed in his outer looks. God told Cain that sin is crouching like a lion at the door of his heart, ready to devour him. But God also told Cain that doing evil is not a must for him. He can overcome it by changing his ways.
Despite the fact that God took time to talk with Cain about his anger and the dangers of letting sin take over, Cain remained unchanged. He, in fact, chose to go even further into sin.
Rather than humbling himself before the Holy God, Cain burned in anger. Instead of seeking the grace of forgiveness, Cain turned to self-pity and a bad mood. Instead of looking honestly inside his heart he looked at his brother with murderous thoughts. And after killing his brother, instead of feeling remorse, Cain grows colder to the point of disowning his brother. Cain refused to repent even when God was calling him.
You might remember another man who also committed murder: David in 2Samuel chapter 11. King David fell in love with a married woman, Bathsheba. He committed adultery with her and in his haste to cover it up, David ordered that Bathsheba’s husband be positioned in the most dangerous spot in war. Uriah was killed. David thought his adultery was covered up. But God sent Nathan his prophet to tell David of his sin.
Listen to David’s cry:
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
Farther down David prays:
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
(You can read the rest in Psalm 51.) What a contrast between David and Cain regarding their call to repentance!
God said: If you do well, will you not be accepted? Cain had the option to live differently IF he had wanted, Cain could have been accepted had he chosen to do well. But he persisted in doing what was wrong. And that could be the reason why the writer takes time to tell us about how these two brothers prepared their offering.
In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions.
First we must admit there is no indication that God had given instruction regarding sacrifices at this point in time, but the two brothers wanted to acknowledge God somehow. So, in the course of time they brought sacrifices to God. The sacred writer hinted at Cain’s disregard for God and the quality of his offering to God by simply stating, “Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground”. This statement seems to indicate that Cain gave little if any thought to what he was to give God. Now regarding Abel’s sacrifice, the sacred writer states, “Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions”. He brought his best! He could not give less to God than the best of what he had. His heart’s gratitude was expressed by his careful action and by the quality of his offering. Abel chose carefully and gave the best.
In 2Samuel chapter 24, verses 18 ff. David wanted to offer a sacrifice to the Lord on behalf of the people. And when he went to a certain place where he should offer to God, David approached a citizen of the town. David wanted to buy materials for the altar, fire and an animal. The citizen said to David, take everything and anything you need and do what you need to do. But this is what David replied in verse 24: “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”
The story of Cain and his offering and the killing of his brother can teach us three major lessons.
First, God is not pleased with just anything or anyway we give our offering to Him. God is not necessarily pleased if we give a lot either. God is pleased with how our heart is when we give to him. God is please when we give out of cheerful hearts, as Paul says in Corinthians. God is pleased when we give out of love and gratitude, not out of duty or carelessly as Cain did. God is also pleased when we give with a clean heart, free from guilt. Jesus said:
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
This leads to the second lesson: repentance and reconciliation.
This story at the very beginning of the Bible is a powerful voice calling our attention to the ways we deal with our missteps and mistakes.
How do we react when we realize we have offended someone?
Do we try to justify our action? Do we try to blame our anger on somebody else, our spouse, our children, or the other church member?
Do we try to pretend as if nothing has happened? I pray we choose repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. In the passage of Matthew 5, Jesus compares anger towards our brothers and sisters equal to murder.
God said to Cain: If you do well, will you not be accepted? Did Cain have animosity towards his brother Abel? The Apostle John believes that was the case when he writes
For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. (1John3:11-12).
According to John, loving others is the antidote to being like Cain.
One last thought: in our own land and around the world the blood of many brothers and sisters is crying out to God for justice. Blood shed continues in the name of national security, ethnic cleansing, religious intolerance or simply because some want to hold onto power. For us here, most of the blood shed happens out our sight, but we as God’s people should be aware and concerned for what is going on around us and around the world.
This story of Cain and his brother Abel is more than simply the beginning of family rivalry, but an illustration of the ongoing human inclination towards our own ways despite the fact that God is calling everyone to come to him.
God’s warning to Cain is always true: “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” In the power of Christ the Lord we can master sin. He is Lord of all things! He is our victory and He is our strength. Amen.