Sunday, 30 June 2013

Cain and Abel (Genesis 4)

The story of Cain and Abel goes something like this: Adam and Eve have two children, Cain and Abel, who become a farmer of the land and a shepherd respectively. One day, Cain brought some of his harvest to God, and Abel took the firstborn of his flock as well as some of their fat. God was pleased with Abel, but showed no regard for Cain. He got angry and:
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 couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (vv. 6-7)

Cain goes out into the field with Abel and kills him. Then:
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (v. 9)

God gives Cain a curse for killing his brother which involves exile from the land where Abel was killed, hardship in labouring the land, and being a fugitive wandering the earth. Cain says the punishment is too great, that whoever sees him will kill him, and then God says that whoever kills Cain will suffer sevenfold, giving him a mark for such protection. Cain left then and settled in the land of Nod, where he had intercourse with his wife and conceived Enoch in whose name city was built. A string of generations later and Lamech comes along, this time with two gives, who each gave him children. Lamech says:

“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
    you wives of Lamech, hearken to what I say:
I have slain a man for wounding me,
    a young man for striking me. 
 If Cain is avenged sevenfold,    truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (vv. 23-24)

Finally, Adam and Eve have another child, Seth, and the chapter ends saying that around this time "people began to call upon the name of the LORD." (v. 26)


Narrative is interesting but difficult to exegete, and stories such as this one are clear examples of the difficulties encountered. Stories do not necessarily have a point to make with everything that happens, their teachings are not explicit and what exactly the major thesis of the story is can be difficult to determine. Allow me, then to comment on the portions I have quoted above in particular.

Cain did a grievous wrong to Abel, that much is clear. This story is not so much about condemning a particular sinful act so much as it is about illustrating the effects of the sinfulness of humankind. God asks Cain a very simple question - Cain is angry, and in the context of the offering given God asks "will you not be accepted if you do the right thing?" This is obviously a rhetorical question to make the point that God is pleased when people do the right thing. Quite simple really. Is that easy to do?

If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it. (v. 7)

Sin is always waiting to claim souls. It desires to claim the person, but we are called to master it. Who can truly master sin? Only Jesus, who on the cross conquered it. Yet regardless, Cain is told that he must master it. Is it possible to not sin? In each case one may avoid sin, yes, but I think that ultimately, if sin so crouches at one's door, it will finally get in, and it will finally conquer. It is absolutely crucial to recognize, however, that one struggles with sin on a case by case basis, and that sin is never truly inevitable. One may never complain "God, it was only possible that I sin!" because it is always possible not to sin.

Some mathematics might illustrate this point well: the probability of resisting some temptation is fairly good. How about two temptations? Still alright. But as the number of temptations faced add up, the probability of avoiding all sin becomes smaller and smaller, such that ultimately, it is practically impossible to never have sinned. That, at least, is the idea behind mastering sin. In practice, we are not even very good at resisting a single temptation, even though nonetheless it is strictly speaking possible. St Paul makes this point in the first letter to the Corinthians:

God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it." (1 Cor. 10:13b)

Therefore, no sin is inevitable.


He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (v. 9b)

I wish to make a comment on this, because Cain seems to think that the answer is no, hence the rhetorical question. In reality, the answer is yes, we are our brothers' keepers. We must therefore take due consideration to care for our brother - obviously not murder him - and look out for him. This is all very well and good, but how does this apply to us? Very simply - one must care for the sin of another. If one's brother indulges the flesh sinfully, why might ask, am I my brother's keeper? Well, yes. So the sin of another is one's own concern.

If Cain is avenged sevenfold,    truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold. (v. 24)

This is pride of a rather interesting sort. First, why is it pride? It is such because Lamech thinks of himself important enough to have eleven times as much "protective vengeance" than Cain, indeed, he boasts to his wives of his superior protection. Second, why is it interesting? The original protection was because Cain practically pleaded with God saying that he was not able to bear his punishment. Now Lamech is saying "if Cain got it, then I get it even more!" without pleading with God at all.

Lamech's logic seems to be that Cain killed his brother out of envy, but he killed out of self-defence (see v. 23). Therefore, he is more worthy of God's protection than Cain. Sadly, I think prides of this type are rampant and often subtle; "I deserve it" and "I'm not as bad as X" both come from this same root of pride. 


"At that time men began to call upon the name of the LORD." (v. 26)

Here is my closing remark: amidst the murder of Abel and the murders committed by Lamech, his pride as well as the wrongdoings that inevitably must have occurred, there is some hope from the line of Seth. He will be our focus when we see that his descendent, Noah, will find favour with God.


  1. Just wondering what you find difficult about exegeting narrative?

  2. Stories are much more complex than didactic material, because one has to keep the whole plot with all the details in mind at once. If you see how I commented on the sermon on the mount, it was simple just to cut it up into small bits, comment on those, then tie it all together.

    Plus, there is no "here is the meaning" with narrative - it is so much richer than that! Narrative is great, but I still find it harder to get all the meaning with its full nuance out of it.