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Home > Bible Studies > BibleJourney > Genesis > Issue 11

BibleJourney: Genesis

Issue 11

ISSN 1535-5187

The Killing Field:
Attitudes Make All the Difference—Genesis 4.1-16
by Winn Griffin, D.Min.


Observing the Stuff

The story of Genesis now turns form the Garden of Eden to the reality outside of Eden. We move to the first story of humankind outside the paradise that God had created for them. It is the story of the beginning and spread of society.

The storyteller informs the readers that Adam and Eve had two sons: Cain and Abel. Abel, we are told, was a herdsman while Cain grew fruit. In the course of time each of the sons brought a gift to God. There is no mention that God required this action as some have read into the text at this point.

The story verifies the freedom of humankind to make choices, the personal responsibility of the choices that are made, and the punishment for making wrong choices. In comparison, the preceding chapter shows man's offence directly against God. In this chapter, we are shown how man ultimately offends his brother, which is also an offence against God.

There are two likely reasons for the telling of this story. First, to demonstrate that attitude is important in the eyes of God. God accepted Abel's gift but rejected Cain's. The rejection was not, as often thought and taught, that God accepted Abel's gift because it was livestock fit for a blood sacrifice and Cain only brought produce. The story is about the attitude and the response of Cain in killing his brother and the judgment and mercy that accompanies the offence.

The story (Gen. 4.1-16) is set in the greater context of Genesis 4.1-6.8.

  • Cain and Abel (Gen. 4.1-7)
  • Killing Abel (Gen. 4.8-16)
  • Cain's family (Gen. 4.17-24)
  • Seth's family (Gen. 4.25-26)
    It may be pointed out that each section opens with a similar wording. Man (translated Adam/Cain/Adam) lay with his wife…. The wife of each conceived, gave birth, and named the child. The ten genealogies from
  • Adam to Noah (Gen. 5.1-32)
  • The transition story of the daughters of men that ends the genealogy section and begins the flood section (Gen. 6.1-8)

Time Travel: Background
Israel was given a sacrificial system at Mt. Sinai. They were to practice at Sinai and take the sacrificial system to the land God had promised their forefathers. This story of the first sacrifices brought to God is set against this background to help the children of Israel to understand that it is not the sacrifice, but the attitude in which the sacrifice is given that God is concerned about.

The sacrifice of the first two children of Adam and Eve did not address the need for atonement from sin. The word "gifts" used in the story is most closely associated with the grain offering of Leviticus 2 given at Mt. Sinai. These gifts from Cain and Abel were given to express gratitude to God for his abundant gifts to them.

Interpreting the Stuff

The Sin of Cain Genesis 4.1-16
The first eleven chapters of Genesis illustrate the increasing grasp of sin on humankind. Genesis 3 demonstrates how sin disrupted the relationship between Adam and Eve. Genesis 4 moves into family life and demonstrates how sin destroys the bonds of brothers. We see the progression of sin from eating a forbidden fruit in which only the participants suffered, to killing one's brother in which an innocent person also suffered.

Cain and Abel Genesis 4.1-7
This passage opens the genealogy of Adam through Cain. The genealogy continues in Genesis 4.17-26. We encounter the word yada for the first time in the story. It is translated various ways. The NIV reads, "Adam lay with his wife…." The older translations used the word know to translate yada. One should take note that this word describes marriage partners who are fully intimate with each other. It is a word that is built on deep relationship. In Scripture, expressing oneself sexually is not just a function of one's glands. Knowing a marriage partner biblically includes involvement, interaction, loyalty, and obligation. The intimate act of marriage between Adam and Eve produced Cain and Abel, who are contrasted throughout the chapter.

Genesis 4.2-5a
The storyteller reveals that Abel was a shepherd and Cain was a farmer. We may point out that Cain's farming was outside the garden where working with the soil was painful. The mentioning of shepherd suggests the idea of domesticated animals. Some other notable Old Testament people who followed in the steps of Abel were Jacob (Gen. 30.36), Joseph (Gen. 37.2), Moses (Ex. 3.1), and David (1 Sam. 16.11; 17.34). After a period of time each brought offerings to the Lord that was suitable to their vocations, which pictures the two brothers worshiping God. The text does not explain how they knew to bring offerings. Eden may have been off limits, but the rest of his creation was not. The text offers no indication that one offering was inferior to the other. We should be clear, the text does not preserve any record of God ever requesting such offerings at this point in the story. When the offerings are given, God made a choice. The text does not explain the reason for the choice that God made. The text is not trying to answer why God accepted the offering of Abel while rejecting the offering of Cain. It is true that commentators have not ceased to fill the silence in this passage of Scripture with interpretations that attempt to provide a rational defense for God's conduct. Most all of these interpretations try to demonstrate some inferior quality in the offering of Cain. A good rule of thumb when reading Scripture is that when the text is silent, it is a good idea to remain silent, also. The storyteller's concern was to help his readers understand how they are to respond when God says no!

The gifts that are brought to God by Cain and Abel were not addressing sin or seeking atonement. The text to this point does not tell us that Adam, Eve, or Cain ever asked for forgiveness for their sins. (You can take that statement to First Evangelical Bank and the deposit will not be welcomed.) The gifts that the brothers brought were intended to express gratitude to God for his bounty in their work.

Genesis 4.5b-7
There is some indication that Cain's response was one of depression rather than anger: Verse 7 is a crucial verse to understand. The sense of the text is that there is a dangerous, possible outcome that is inherent in his depressed mood. The underlying idea is that Cain had a freedom of choice by which he could overcome his depression by an act of his will, otherwise, the outcome would be that the depression would control him. Sin was crouching demon-like at his door. The picture is that of something lurking just outside the door, which is threatening. He is not to give into its lurking presence. It was Cain's responsibility to master sin. The sense of the term master can be read in one of three ways: as a promise (you shall master it); as a command (you must master it); or as an invitation (you may master it). In each case, Cain has a choice to make. Just because of the fall and his likelihood toward sin does not mean that sin is predetermined or inevitable. Cain is not a constituted sinner, but a person with a freedom of choice and capable of making the right choice. One might see the following comparison: Eve had to be talked into her sin but Cain could not be talked out of his sin.

Killing Abel Genesis 4.8-16
The scene now changes from the questioning and instruction by God, to Cain seeking out his brother and inviting him out into a field. In the garden man failed in his relationship with God. Now in a field man fails in his relation with his brother. There in isolation from his family, Cain kills his brother. The word translated killed (NIV) is the common word for murdering intentionally. There is a comparison between Adam and Eve's reaction to their sin and Cain's reaction to his. They resorted to making excuses without violence while Cain resorts to violence because of his resentment over God's choice. Rather than accept the decision of God, he rejected the person around whom God's decision rested. While he eliminated Abel, what was he to do with God who he must have viewed as his real enemy?

In the garden, man fell out of relationship with God. In the field, man fell out of relationship with his brother, a serpent in the garden and sin at the door. When faced off by God about his actions, Cain glibly replies, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

After the crime was committed, there is a divine investigation. When faced off by God about his actions, Cain glibly replied, "I don't know." His response was a lie. The second and more famous part, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Are we supposed to be our brother's keeper? The word keeper can mean one who sustains or preserves. God is Israel's keeper (Psalm 121.3-8). In this sense Cain as the older brother should have been working to sustain him because of his love, instead of seeking to kill because of his depression. The point of the text is not to teach us that we are our brother's keeper as we often hear, but to teach us that we are our brother's fan.

Now God shifts roles from questioner to accuser. The question of verse 10 is an accusation, not a question that seeks information. Abel's blood cried out from the ground and was heard by God. Crying is the usual word for the crying of the oppressed when afflicted, who are asking for justice. It should be noted that the letting of the blood of Abel destroyed all potential offspring who were doomed never to be born. An ancient saying among the Hebrews was "Whoever takes a single life destroys thereby an entire world." One of the results of sin is that an innocent party may suffer for the sins of others.

God did not kill Cain for killing Abel. Instead, Cain was prohibited from the production of the soil. Verse 12 explains how this ban works. Cain would not be able to plant and work the fields waiting for the time for the harvest. He is cursed to be a restless fugitive, a fate in some ways worse than death. He would lose all his sense of belonging and identification with the community (family). He would become detached having no roots. Once a farmer he would now be a vagabond. The ultimate penalty for a Hebrew is not death, but exile, a loss of his or her roots.

In the opinion of Cain, his judgment was too harsh (Gen. 4.13). He saw his judgment as having four consequences. First, he will not be about to work the soil. Second, he will not have fellowship with God. Third, he will be a restless wanderer. Finally, he would be a target to be killed himself. Such irony: he who killed, worries about being killed.

The statement by Cain suggests that there are others who inhabit the earth besides Adam, Eve, and Cain. This existence of others is also indicated by the mention of Cain's wife (Gen. 4.17). Who are these people and where did they come from? Scripture is silent! We may suggest that with the data present that Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, and Seth (to be mentioned later) are the only children specifically mentioned by the storyteller at this point. Others are mentioned at Genesis 5.4. Remember that all the stories are selected to tell what the storyteller wants to present. Other children of Adam and Eve are certainly a possibility. In this case Cain's wife would be his sister and the ones who might want to kill him would be other brothers. If that was the case, irony again raises its head. The one who turned on his own brother must watch out for other family members who might seek revenge.

With judgment comes grace (Gen. 4.15-16). Cain must pay the penalty for his own actions. God gave Cain a mark. We do not know what the mark was or where it was placed. While judged by God, he was also protected by God so that he would not become a victim of violence. Banned but blessed, punished but protected. The mark had a double function. It reminded Cain of his sin while at the same time reassuring him of God's protection from his enemies. Again one can see the mercy of God in judgment. While he must leave the presence of God, he does not leave the protection of God. That Cain left God's presence is a way of saying that Cain now entered his life of alienation from God. Condemned to a life of an outsider, the wanderer settles in the land of wandering.

Three comparisons between the accounts of chapter 3 and 4 are striking:

Adam and Eve



When Adam was questioned by God about his sin he Was ill-tempered but told the truth (Gen. 3.9-11)

When God questioned Cain about his sin, he lied (Gen. 4.9)


Adam accepted the judgment of God in silence

Cain protested strenuously


Adam and Eve were put out of Eden

Cain was dispatched further from Eden

What does this story teach about God?: An Overview

God is an abundant giving God
While we are not told what exactly Cain and Abel brought to God as sacrifice, the word chosen suggests that they were gifts given to God because of God's bounty to the two brothers. This may, in fact, be suggesting to the Hebrews at Sinai, that wherever they were headed that God would supply their needs and do so in a bountiful way. Even in the midst of sin and degradation, God was still supplying bountifully for his creation.

God is a speaking God
The communication of God to his creation is an ongoing theme of the Old and New Testament. He is always in conversation with his children. In this story the conversation is around the attitude of Cain. Confronted by God because of his response to God, God asked questions whose answers could have prevented Cain from this tragedy. God really wants to keep us from falling and some of his conversation with us will surely follow this pattern set with Cain. He wants us to understand what we are doing, while at the same time giving us the freedom to do whatever we choose, even if it is the wrong thing.

God is a judge
The storyteller lets us see God as judge. When transgression to his ways occurs, he judges. Remember, the Hebrews had just been given covenant that had a list of blessings and judgments that God would enact according to the circumstance of their life responses. The Hebrews would need to be taught that God is a God of his word to them.

God is a gracious God
In the case of Cain, God provided a moment of grace and mercy to him. When asked for a sign so that others would not do to him what he had done to his brother, God obliged. It is a truth of Scripture that the flip side of the coin of judgment is grace. God is truly a "both-and" God.

Looking Toward the New Testament (Some Beginning Thoughts)

  • John uses this story to encourage the church to love one another (1 John 3:12). We might note that John saw in the story that the actions of Cain were wrong, not the sacrifice.
  • The ultimate mercy of God for sin is demonstrated in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus (the Gospels).
  • At the end time, God will judge humankind. In this case his two-sided patience of judgment and mercy is not available. There will be a final judgment by God of humankind.
Doin' the Stuff!
  • How intimate are you to be with your spouse? What steps can you take to improve intimacy in your marriage?
  • How is depression today handled differently than how God handled it in the story of Cain and Abel?
  • How does the murder of Abel speak about abortion today? Or does it?
  • When judged by God what protection has he given you?

BibleHandbook: Resourse Stuff!

Read the following Dictionary Articles from Easton's Bible Dictionary, or the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Easton's is about a century old, therefore, some of the information is not current with newer Bible Dictionaries. ISBE is about seventy-five years old. You might read the articles off-line in a number of different Bible Dictionaries. If you do not own a Bible Dictionary, I would recommend New Bible Dictionary 3rd Edition. If you like lots of color pictures, try The Revell Bible Dictionary now out of print but still can be ordered from One of these should suit your personal needs.



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Copyright © 2003-2019, Winn Griffin. All rights reserved. BibleJourney: An Almost Weekly Bible Study is a service of SBL Ministries. Unless otherwise stated, scripture quotations are from the International Standard Version (ISV) of the Bible®. Copyright © 2001 by The ISV Foundation, 2200 N. Grand Ave., Santa Ana, CA 92705-7016. Used by permission of Davidson Press, Inc. All rights reserved internationally.

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