The Early Chapters of Genesis: Chapter 4:4-8

Genesis 4:4‑8  •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 9
The Epistle to the Hebrews is not the only inspired comment on the primitive account of Cain and Abel. There the faith of Abel, who offered thereby a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, stands prominent; through which the former had witness borne to him that he was righteous, God bearing witness to his gifts. He approached God as in himself fallen and sinful, in the faith of Another, presenting the sacrifice of a slain victim. This was righteousness, and Abel is characterized accordingly. “And Jehovah had respect to Abel and to his offering; but to Cain and to his offering he had not respect: And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And Jehovah said to Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, will it not be lifted up (lit. is there not a lifting up)? and if thou doest not well, sin coucheth at the door; and to thee [shall be] his desire, and thou shalt rule over him (ver. 7).”
Cain had neither faith, nor righteousness, nor love; but he was not a hypocrite. He was not insincere. He then thought with himself that he ought to bring an offering to Jehovah; and what, he considered, could be more acceptable to Him, what more suitable to himself, than fruit of that ground on which he put forth his daily toil? Alas! it was the offering of that worst “folly,” which slights sin, forgets judgment, ignores grace, exalts man, and dishonors God. To have respect to such an offering and to such an offerer was morally impossible on God's part. It would have been indifference to evil. Jehovah appreciated. Abel and his offering. It was the divine testimony that Abel was righteous, not Cain. Men are proud Godward who bring nothing but sin and are wholly insensible to it. The believer owns his ruin by sin, but looks to a Savior from God, This faith Abel expressed in his sacrifice; and God, rejecting impenitent self-satisfied Cain, testified to Abel's gifts, as he accepted himself.
Nothing rankles more in a natural man than disrespect to his religion; and it assumes the most deadly character where God's disapproval is even insinuated. Yet what can be plainer or more certain than that a sinful man cannot be accepted of God in himself or in virtue of anything he can do? Sin is not canceled so, nor is God thus glorified. The believer judges self before God, not selfishness only but all that is in man as he is, of which nature is proud till God unveils all, too late for salvation; and this justly, for the evil of man, and the resource of divine grace, were before Cain no less than Abel. But Abel laid it to heart believingly, Cain did not and paid the penalty of woe, as all must who proceed in his way (Jude 1111Woe unto them! for they have gone in the way of Cain, and ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward, and perished in the gainsaying of Core. (Jude 11)): a danger specifically laid before men in the Christian profession. So speaks, expressly in view of “the last hour,” the apostle John in the First Epistle, (chap. 3:12), where Cain appears as of the evil one and slaying his brother; and this, because his works were evil and his brother's righteous. If sin begins toward God, it goes on toward man, even if that man were a brother with the loving claims of a relationship so near. Thus the irritation from a worship rejected of God broke out in hatred of the accepted man, and murder was the result then as ever since (Matt. 23:3535That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. (Matthew 23:35), Rev. 18:2424And in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth. (Revelation 18:24)), For scripture lifts the veil and proclaims the truth, whatever appearances or pretensions say; the Cain worshippers hate and, if they can, slay those like Abel because their own works are evil, those of the persecuted, righteous.
Here skepticism plies its destructive craft, and imputes a mythical character to the God-inspired history of Moses. To the believer what can be more touching than the intercourse of God, not merely with Adam unfallen, but as here with wicked Cain? How shallow to reason from later reserve, when the law kept man at a distance, or from the total change of the gospel when the intimacy of redemption became expressly one not of sight but of faith! Ought we not with adoration to admire His patience with His enemy, no less than His grace with the fallen if they might believe and be blessed? Unbelief gains nothing by its cavil but loss of God; and what a loss! How strengthening to the soul is the enjoyment of what is alike simple and profound, in His thus adapting Himself to the nursery days of mankind—the same true God Who went down infinitely lower for us in Christ and His cross. But the wise and prudent love not what our Lord Jesus delighted in, as in their measure do babes to Whom the Lord of heaven and earth revealed them.
Superstition no less surely loses the truth, though it wears a more reverent veil and in its odor of sanctity deceives itself more completely than can vain and empty skepticism. Yet is it only man's religion, and the world's worship, in direct rebellion against that worship of the Father in spirit and truth which our Lord announced for the true worshippers of the hour that now is. The total ruin of man is as unknown as the salvation of God in Christ. Grace in God toward the sinner by faith is hateful to both alike; and hence these two, adversaries as they are ordinarily one to another, may be found habitually to unite against His truth and His love. At the same time one thankfully owns that among the superstitious rather than the skeptical appear individuals who believe in the Savior, and are so far taught of God, in spite of their system which under its earth-born clouds, swamps and hides the Christ they love. If superstition is a corruption of what is good and admits of degrees, skepticism also may not be absolute, but is essentially antagonistic to divine revelation. In their common hatred of God's grace and their common confidence in man, both flow from the same unbelief of the flesh, which will not own and abhor its own enmity to God, and will not trust His love in a Crucified Savior and the free gift of eternal life to every believer. Religious or profane, unbelief resists God's sentence on man as lost, and misled by the devil, strives to improve the flesh and ameliorate the world: the denial of Christ and the gospel.
Cain, like every unbeliever, was insensible to the truth. He judged himself as he was capable of coming to God with gifts of the earth, which expressed neither sin nor death, neither judgment nor expiation. How could Jehovah have respect to him or his offering? Nor was this all. The acceptance of Abel provoked his proud spirit to fury and unrelenting hatred: Abel, his righteous and weak brother, was its object ostensibly; God's grace really and beyond all. Jehovah interposed with words of truth and grace, all in vain. “Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, will it not be lifted up? and if thou doest not well, sin (or, a sin-offering) coucheth at the door.”
It was Dr. John Lightfoot who first, as far as I am aware, suggested “sin offering” here rather than “sin,” as preferred in the ancient and most modern versions. Many since that great Hebraist, have followed in his wake, notably Abp. Magee in his well-known work on the Atonement, who argues from the admitted and peculiar form of the connected verb (couching) as strongly confirming an animal ready for offering, and not the sin calling for it, which he regards as, to say the least of it, “a bold image.” Then he summons to his aid the grammatical fact of the substantive, which is feminine, with a verb of the masculine, which he follows Parkhurst in thinking perfectly consistent with the supposition of a sin offering, the victim, and not the thing “sin.” This however is a slender proof, for in the passages cited the words stand as subject and predicate, and therefore do not require sameness of gender, as anyone can see by examination not only of Hebrew, but of Greek and Latin and perhaps almost all if not all languages. There is no doubt that, besides the primary sense of sin, the word admits of the secondary meanings of sin suffering (i.e., punishment) and sin offering; which latter the Septuagint; translators render by περὶ, (or ὑπὲρ) ἁμαρτίας, as we also find in Rom. 8:33For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: (Romans 8:3), Heb. 10:6, 86In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure. (Hebrews 10:6)
8Above when he said, Sacrifice and offering and burnt offerings and offering for sin thou wouldest not, neither hadst pleasure therein; which are offered by the law; (Hebrews 10:8)
. There is also in the Sept.,. text or various readings, simply ἁμαρτίας ἐστίν, as for example in Ex. 29:1414But the flesh of the bullock, and his skin, and his dung, shalt thou burn with fire without the camp: it is a sin offering. (Exodus 29:14), Lev. 4:21, 25, 29, 3321And he shall carry forth the bullock without the camp, and burn him as he burned the first bullock: it is a sin offering for the congregation. (Leviticus 4:21)
25And the priest shall take of the blood of the sin offering with his finger, and put it upon the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and shall pour out his blood at the bottom of the altar of burnt offering. (Leviticus 4:25)
29And he shall lay his hand upon the head of the sin offering, and slay the sin offering in the place of the burnt offering. (Leviticus 4:29)
33And he shall lay his hand upon the head of the sin offering, and slay it for a sin offering in the place where they kill the burnt offering. (Leviticus 4:33)
, and 34, (τοῦ τῆς ἁμ.), ver. 9. It is a question of context, as we may observe in ver. 13 of our chapter, where the Sept. gives αἰτία, a charge, fault, or crime; as the Auth. and Revelation Versions have “punishment” in the text, “iniquity” in the margin. It is therefore legitimate to conceive that a sin offering may be meant in ver. 7, especially as Jehovah uttered the words, though it was reserved to the law to define and demand them in due time, for by law is full knowledge or acknowledgment of sin. The Septuagintal rendering of the clause is far from happy. “Didst thou sin, if thou hast brought it rightly, but didst not rightly divide it? Be still: unto thee” &c. The Vulgate like the English is intelligible. The question is whether Jehovah simply charges home the conviction of sin on the wrong-doer, or intimates a sacrificial means of getting cleared, according to the proposed correction. In this case a burnt offering would not be in place, since it is generally expressive of man's actual state in approaching God, not a specific bearing away of positive and personal wrong-doing as is here implied. Even if certainly thus, what believer can doubt that the mind of Jehovah has in these words Christ and His cross before Him? What grace in bringing sin to the door!
There was no ground in any case for wrath or despair. God is the God of grace now, as by-and-by He will judge by the Man He has raised from the dead: the witness to the believer that he will not be judged, being already justified; to the unbeliever that he cannot escape judgment, having refused saving grace in Christ Who will judge him. Meanwhile the title of the firstborn remains intact for the unbeliever over the younger brother that believes; just as the man's over the woman. What a just God is ours even to an unjust Cain!
“And Cain said to Abel his brother...And it came to pass when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him” (ver. 8). The Samaritan, the Greek, the Syriac, the Latin, read “Let us go to the field.” But it is far more impressive to leave the words as they are in deference to the Hebrew, as striking almost in its silence as in what is said. What matters it to learn the terms by which Cain deceived his brother? How beautiful the comment on the dark deed in the Epistle to the Hebrews, “He being dead yet speaketh”! But it is through his offering, not his suffering, though this shall never be forgotten above or beneath.