What lessons can we learn from Cain’s grave sin?
Question: What prompted Cain to murder his brother Abel in Genesis 4?
Answer: Although Cain is known as the first murderer because he killed his brother Abel, his dispute was fundamentally with God.
The brothers’ parents, Adam and Eve—the first human beings—were evicted from the Garden of Eden after they ate fruit from the forbidden Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, disobeying God’s instruction. “Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’—therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken” (Genesis 3:22–23).
When God banished Cain’s parents from Eden, He pronounced a curse: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (vv. 17–19).
Unlike Adam and Eve, who before their sin had not needed to toil for their sustenance, Cain and Abel from the beginning had to work hard to be productive. Abel labored as a shepherd, while his older brother Cain practiced horticulture, tending crops from the ground (Genesis 4:2).
When God required a sacrifice, Abel brought “the firstborn of his flock and of their fat” (v. 4). By bringing the firstborn of his flock for sacrifice, Abel’s sacrifice prefigured Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for all humanity. Cain, by contrast, simply brought “an offering of the fruit of the ground” (v. 3).
How did God respond? “And the Lord respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell” (vv. 4–5). God did not accept Cain’s offering. However, God did not reject Cain himself; He told Cain that He would indeed accept a proper offering (v. 7).
God warned Cain to rule over his sinful impulses; yet he remained angry, and in his anger murdered his brother Abel, who had pleased God (v. 8).
What lessons should we draw from this? It was Cain’s attitude that made his offering unacceptable; his real problem was in his heart. God, detecting Cain’s rebellious and unrepentant attitude, rejected the offering. After all, God has said plainly, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13). Cain, with a murderous heart—angry that his righteous brother’s offering had been accepted—lacked both the mercy and the obedience God desired.
The Apostle John, warning us against Cain’s attitude, wrote that “this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, not as Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:11–12).
By contrast, Abel’s righteous deeds remain as a memorial even today: “By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4).
Christians are called to be obedient and righteous like Abel, not rebellious and angry like Cain. They are to love God and His ways, and willingly obey Him rather than resent living under His commands. Sadly, there is some of Cain’s attitude in every mind that is not yet perfectly surrendered to God—but, thankfully, God has offered His Son as a sacrifice for us. If we accept Christ’s sacrifice and repent of our sins, we can please God as Abel did, and with the help of His Holy Spirit we can live the righteous lives God desires of us.