The Sunday School story of Cain and Abel has historically been put to many uses. As children, some of us probably heard it presented as a moral tale to discourage us from fighting with our siblings. In the biblical counseling world, the falling of Cain’s countenance (Gen 4:5–7) is used as a proof that emotions and conditions within the inner man can affect the outer man. Cain’s declaration that his punishment is too much for him has been used to encourage people to be wise and endure the consequences of their sin. But these and similar usages of Genesis 4 miss the main point being presented in the chapter: that redemption cannot come from man. People are unable to save themselves from sin and the curse.
The support for this view begins in verse 1. The first thing we read of occurring after the removal of Adam and Eve from the garden is that Cain is born. The wording is difficult but pregnant with implications:
NIV: She said, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.”
ESV: saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.”
NASB: and she said, “I have gotten a manchild with the help of the LORD.”
CSB: She said, “I have had a male child with the LORD’s help.”
NET: Then she said, “I have created a man just as the LORD did!”
ISV: She said, “I have given birth to a male child—the LORD.”
All the standard translations capture the same idea: Eve got Cain with God’s help. The ISV translates the verse as saying that Eve thought Cain was God incarnate. However, this would be very unusual; the term for man/manchild/male child is not grammatically parallel to “the LORD.” The NET similarly captures an unusual interpretation: that Eve saw irony in Cain’s birth. As she had been brought forth from a man by God, so now she brought forth a man: Cain. But the traditional translation is probably best. Despite the fact that the expression is unusual, we can be fairly sure Eve sees that God has helped her have Cain, and as all three interpretations show, in Cain she puts her hope.
What was Eve’s hope for Cain? After their sin, God cursed first the serpent, saying,
And I will put enmity between you and the woman
And between your seed and her seed.
He will bruise you on the head,
But you will bruise him on the heel.
This first hope of the seed of the woman held forth to Eve the hope of a savior: one who would defeat the serpent, reverse the curse, and return humanity to dwelling with God in Paradise. Right after being removed from Eden, all Adam and Eve would really want is to be restored to their right relationship with God, to return to Eden. This then was Eve’s hope for Cain: that Cain would be a savior for humanity that returned humanity to the garden of Eden.
But the tale that Genesis 4 recounts shows all the ways Cain failed to be that savior. First, Cain failed to worship God rightly (Gen 4:3–5). As we know from Hebrews 11, Abel’s offering was given by faith, but Cain’s wasn’t. So Cain already has a breach in his relationship with God because of his lack of faith. He can’t worship God rightly, so he can’t be the savior for man. Then Cain makes things worse: he fails to recognize the temptation of sin, in particular, anger and jealousy (vv. 6–7). God identifies this for Cain, but he fails then to resist temptation: he kills his brother Abel (v. 8). Cain fell into sin. He failed to be a deliverer from sin.
Lest there remain any smidgen of hope that Cain would deliver humanity from the curse of sin, God confronts Cain, just as he confronted Adam in the previous chapter. And like Adam, Cain hides his sin. He fails to confess his sin (v. 9). But then God convicts him: he saw Cain murder Abel. He is thoroughly aware of Cain’s sin (v. 10). And so we come to Cain’s biggest failure as a potential savior in verse 11. Cain fails to reverse the curse. Indeed, he is cursed from the ground that he tilled. It’s worth comparing this curse to that given to Adam in Genesis 3, the one Cain was supposed to deliver humanity from.
In Genesis 3:17–19 we read the curse as follows:
And to Adam he said:
“Because you listened to the voice of your wife and ate from the tree
Which I commanded you saying, ‘you will not eat from it,’
Cursed is the ground on your account.
In pain you will eat of it all the days of your life,
but thorns and thistles it will sprout for you,
and you will eat of the greenery of the field.
By the sweat of your forehead you will eat bread.
Until your return to the ground
For from dust you were taken
For dust you are and unto dust you will return.
Note in particular the following elements:
- It is the ground that is cursed, not Adam. It is cursed on Adam’s account.
- Adam will eat from the ground, but he’ll have to work for it.
- Adam will ultimately return to the ground (that is, die).
The curse God gives Cain is the following:
But now Cursed are you from(?) the ground which opened its mouth to receive the blood of your brother from your hand. For you will serve the ground, but it will no longer give its strength to you. You will be a homeless wanderer on the earth.
Note the elements:
- Cain is cursed, not the ground, though the ground has effects.
- Cain will work the ground, but it will not give fruit for him.
- Cain will wander about without a home until he dies.
This is a worse curse than that suffered by Adam. Indeed, the Hebrew word “from” in “from the ground” can also be used as a comparative–the text can read as “cursed are you more than the ground.” The alternative readings would be “cursed are you from the ground” so that you are not separate from it and have to wander, or “cursed are you because of the ground” which testifies to your guilt.
Perhaps the best rendering though is to realize that none of these three options are wrong because all of them are right. The two witnesses that convicted Cain before God were the blood of Abel and the ground that received it. As a result, his punishment involved being separated from the ground that he tilled to wander all the earth. His curse then was worse than the curse on the ground of Genesis 3. In all respects, Cain has failed to redeem humanity from the curse.
Even worse, Cain proves unable to bear the guilt of his sin. That is, in his lament “My punishment (or guilt) is too great for me to bear!” (v. 13), Cain admits that he is unable to pay for his sin before God. He cannot then save humanity from sin, because he is unable to bear God’s wrath for the sake of himself, let alone that of others. He needs grace from God, as seen in God’s merciful provision of a sign to prevent his death in vengeance (vv. 14–15).
Ultimately, Cain fails to return humanity to the garden of Eden. Cain fails to fulfill Eve’s hope. Instead, he goes off to wander about east of Eden (v. 16). What we’ve learned in the story of Cain is that no man is able to save humanity.
No man, that is, except the God-man Jesus Christ. What Cain failed to do–worship God rightly by faith, identify temptation, resist temptation, break the curse, bear the punishment of sin, and return humanity to a right relationship with God–Jesus Christ did through his death and resurrection. The point of the story of Cain and Abel then is this: you, apart from Jesus Christ, are like Cain, trying to save yourself, but proving ultimately unable. You fell into sin. You didn’t confess it to God. You couldn’t pay for it. You are deserving of a worse curse, not deliverance from it. You end up wandering farther and farther away from the presence of God in the paradise of Eden. You need Jesus Christ to save you from your sin. Cain’s failure points us then to our need for Jesus Christ. The right response is to place your faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior.