There is a lesson to be learned from the story of Cain and Abel that may have been missed by casual reading. In this edition, we should like to delve into the Hebrew words a little, and extract some important information.
The Hebrew Interlinear Bible is useful on all such occasions. The following translation is taken from there, with a few additional notes as we proceed.
Genesis 4:3-7. “And it was in the end of days that Cain brought from the fruit of the ground an offering to Jehovah, and Abel, he brought also, from the firstlings of his flocks, even from their fat. And Jehovah looked (i.e.had respect to) to Abel and his offering, and to Cain and his offering He did not look (i.e. did not have respect.) And Cain glowed greatly, and his face fell. (the “glowing” expresses the force of the Hebrew word, which is used of the heat of anger.) And Jehovah said to Cain, “Why have you become so angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, is there not acceptance? But if you do not well, Sin is crouching at the door, and his desire is towards you, but you must master him.””
An evangelical misunderstanding is frequently found in print, to the effect that Cain’s offering was rejected because it was not an animal sacrifice. But this was not so. See Deut.26:2 “You shall take of the first of all the fruit of the earth, . . . and shall put it in a basket, and go to the place the Lord your God shall choose to cause His name to dwell there.” Cain failed in this respect, by collecting a selection of fruit, but not the best, not the firstfruits. Abel brought from the firstlings of his flock. The word first is the important word in this context, and shows that man should always bring the first and the best as an offering to the Lord, otherwise it is insulting.
Why did Cain get so angry? Why was he so downcast and dejected? It was also the Lord’s question, but it was not answered. But in 1 John 3:12 we read that, “Cain slew his brother, and why did he kill him? Because his own works were evil and his brother’s righteous.” Cain’s anger was directed towards the Lord for not accepting him. But the anger was made worse by the fact that his brother’s offering was accepted. Hence there was an element of jealousy, or perhaps injustice, present as well.
John, in the passage quoted above, said that “Cain was of the wicked one.” This has given rise to the careless exposition that Cain was in some way a product of the Devil, and couldn’t help himself by acting as he did. But this conclusion cannot be sustained. What happened after the non-acceptance of his offering? The Lord pleaded with him, saying “If you do well (that is, following the pattern of your brother) you will be accepted as well.” Such words vindicate Cain’s normal humanity as well as manifesting the Lord’s care for him, and how He longed to see both men rejoicing in Him.
But the Lord also had a word of warning for Cain. “If you do not well, Sin is crouching at the door.” This is the earliest mention of Satan under the title ‘Sin’. Before we realised this, we found back in 1968 that the Lord was addressing us prophetically, using Sin as a name for the Adversary. How often the enemy crouches at the door of our hearts, and always with the same aim in view. “His desire is towards you,” the Lord said. “But you must master him.”
It may be helpful to realise that these self-same words were used of Adam and Eve back in 3:16. “Your desire shall be towards your husband, and he shall master you.” In other words, Sin had already crouched at their door, and they had been “mastered.” But in future, Adam would have to master any future incursion into their lives. To help them, the Lord placed Eve under Adam’s headship protection, and her desire had always to be towards him, not to Sin. If Eve as much as turned her head towards Sin again, Adam would have to master it, and help her back into a position of safety and rectitude.
Going back to Cain, we find the Lord using the symbol of an animal crouching at the door. The Hebrew word RAVATZ used here properly signifies “lying down”, and is frequently used of just that. But the context here suggests a readiness to spring and devour, therefore it is acceptable to translate it “crouching”, in the manner found in Ezek.29:3,“Pharaoh, the great dragon that lies (i.e. lies in wait for its prey) in the midst of the rivers.”
The Lord was encouraging Cain to stop being angry, downcast, and dejected; to realise that he could quite easily rectify what was wrong, by going back to his husbandry and selecting the choicest fruits, and bringing them to the Lord. That was a simple solution, and the Lord hoped that he would accept the advice.
But Cain had a further problem that wasn’t connected with this solution. As John pointed out, there was a deep-seated problem with his brother. What was it? It must be remembered that his parents had raised him to believe he was the Coming Seed, the one who would “bruise the serpent’s head.” That was their understanding, and Eve said,“I have begotten a man, the Lord.” Hence, CAIN, “the acquired one.” In her eyes he was someone special. But when Abel was born, she called him by a name that meant something like “ephemeral, passing, impermanent.” The effect of this had rubbed off on Cain, who inwardly considered his brother of lesser importance than himself. Whether it developed into something even more obnoxious we cannot say, but the attitude was definitely present. When the Lord had respect to Abel’s offering, Cain found it offensive. In his mind he was thinking, “How can God have respect to anything he does? I am the one who is to be the great conqueror, the one who will put right what Mum and Dad did. Isn’t that what I’ve been taught through all my growing years?” And so he took offence at the Lord for respecting his brother, and it bothered him repeatedly. He gave no further thought to the advice the Lord gave him concerning abetter selection of fruit, and concentrated his attention on the assumed injustice. The result was fatal. He had to eliminate his brother, because he was an offence to him.
This is why John said that “Cain was of the wicked one.” He was not that initially, but when he killed his brother he had become that. This brings us to the important lesson that the Lord taught His disciples. It is found in Matthew 18:15-17. “If your brother trespass against you, go and tell him his fault between the two of you alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. If he refuses to hear you, take with you one or two others, so that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. If he neglect to hear them, tell it to the assembly. But if he neglect to hear the assembly, let him be to you as a heathen man and a tax gatherer.”
This practical advice is very important in the Christian life. It centres on problems that arise, as always they will, between brothers in an assembly. Something happens to cause you offence, and the natural human response is to grumble about it, feel hurt, and perhaps go and share your hurt with someone else who will commiserate with you. It doesn’t sort anything out, but simply compounds the wrong. We have to learn to behave spiritually, rather than humanly. First of all a one-to-one confrontation, saying, “Brother, you have offended me, but I don’t want this to develop. Can we sort it out?” An obdurate brother will be unwilling to do so, and then the further directions have to come into play. Only in the last resort, when the man becomes like Cain, and is ready to be totally hostile, should we part company and leave the outcome in the hands of the Lord.
The principle enunciated here shows that God never condemns us for making mistakes, but pleads with us to rectify the wrong, and be restored. On the other hand, we are more prone to cast people off without a proper consultation or hearing, and it is to our shame, because if the shoe is on the other foot, we desperately want people to understand us, rather than cast us off with a wave of the hand.
The whole teaching of John’s first letter is based on this. When he spoke about loving our brothers, he was thinking about this process. If we fail to do it, then he calls it hatred, and that is a strong word. But hating our brother must be understood in this context. The man who shrugs his shoulders and walks away from his brother without striving for reconciliation is in effect hating him, because he is not affording him the opportunity to put right that which he has done wrong, and therefore he fails to apply the Lord’s example when speaking to Cain, or the example He gave His disciples.