The (Whole) Story of Cain and Abel

Let’s face it. The Bible is intimidating. It’s the largest book most of us will ever begin the daunting task of reading and when we finally complete it we may feel accomplished with an internal question asking, “Now what?”

The intimidating part about the Bible, at least for Christians, is that the goal isn’t just to complete it, but rather the goal is to extract practical understanding of who God is that guides us into a genuine relationship with Him. This certainly doesn’t come easy. One way to make the task easier is by taking intentional time to treat the Bible as a collection of works that tells a whole-unified story that leads the reader to righteousness and godliness if they choose to believe its testimony about God. By approaching the Bible with a whole-story perspective, the reader is able to come to a greater understanding of God.

I want to show you one of these themes that stand out to me as I read the Bible. As you read this, remember, the Bible isn’t just to teach us knowledge. It is meant to lead us to being, acting, and living different because of the truth it presents.

Oh Brother…

If you haven’t guessed yet, the theme that I want to present begins with the fourth chapter of Genesis. Here’s a pro tip: nearly all Bible themes originate in Genesis.

After Adam and Eve were sent from the garden because of sin, they had children. We don’t know how many, but based on their life spans I’d assume there were many. Genesis 4 tells a story about two of them, Cain and Abel. Most of us know this story fairly well. Abel is considered righteous when he offered fat portions from his animals to God while Cain’s offering of the harvest from his field is not accepted. Cain gets brutally jealous to the point that he murders his brother. God then sends Cain out of the land he was in.

It really is a simple story. Now I ask you, what do you get out of that?  

If you said, “Murder is bad,” that is a good answer. It is also the same answer a five-year old would give. That doesn’t make the answer bad, it’s just simple. I hope we can recognize that the Bible is trying to make a much bigger point than about murder (but if that is what you need to learn, then that is still training in righteousness!). To get more out of this we need to dive into the context.  

These brothers were the first brothers who ever had the opportunity to be brothers. Based on the Bible, they didn’t really have any other option for friends. They were all they had besides their parents. Being children of the original humans, they likely heard stories of the garden and the glory that Adam and Eve witnessed in the garden. It isn’t known what those first parents shared, but it can be assumed that Cain and Abel were taught enough to seek God’s favor for themselves. This explains why they were making offerings to God in the first place.  

Something important happens between the offering and the murder that we often ignore. God spoke.  

Now, if you read the Bible a lot this might not seem like a big deal, but think about it. Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden where they walked and lived with God. Now, even though they were out of the garden, God was still speaking to people. He still walked among them in one way or another. Here is what God said.  

Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it. 
Genesis 4:6,7   

I am tempted to stop and just write an entire post about what God said here, but I will settle with pointing out the main points of promise of acceptance and warning of sin. God is trying to make it clear to Cain that if he would change his path he will be accepted by God, but if he doesn’t, sin is ready to devour him.  

Many who are spiritual would long for an encounter with God like this. “If only God would speak to me…” We each have our own ending to that sentence. So how did Cain respond to this encounter?  

Well, not good.  

Why doesn’t Cain do differently? Why does he STILL kill Abel? These are the deeper questions the Scriptures are leading us to ask.  

When God told Cain to do right, and warned him about refusing to do so, it had no effect on his ability to understand or overcome this sin that God referred to. It is almost as if Cain’s nature was to contend with his brother. This is the lesson that we should learn from the story. The nature of man is so prone to sin that a brother is prone to fight his own brother, friend, and fellow seeker of God.  

The message of Cain and Abel isn’t a lesson about murder. It’s a lesson about the nature of man. We will see in a moment that this lesson will echo throughout the rest of the scriptures.  

I do want to make a quick note that Abel’s the victim in this story that is in contrast to Cain, but he does not have a nature that is different from Cain’s. His blood cried out to God from the earth and led to the casting out of Cain. Justice was what Abel cried out for. Although we may deem it appropriate in the circumstance, it was still revenge for himself and against his brother. Hold on to this for now. I’ll bring it up again later.

Brothers Under Sin

Now you probably either see where I’m going here, or you’re asking “Alex, how does this have anything to do with themes?”

If you fall in the second category, think about what we gleaned from Cain and Abel. Under sin, man’s nature is to oppose, fight, and even kill his own brother. Can you think of any other stories where this similar theme can be found? Seriously take a few minutes to think about it.  

Here are a few:

  • Jacob and Esau
  • Joseph and his brothers
  • Moses and Aaron
  • Judah and the Northern Kingdom of Israel  

In short, the entire Bible is filled with this pattern! The Israelites viewed themselves as children of Abraham. They saw their fellow citizens as extended brothers, but it was those same brothers that often fought and killed each other. Even into the New Testament the Israelites failed to be their brother’s keeper. The Pharisees exalted themselves and failed to be true brothers to the sick, the poor, tax payers, even their own parents (See Matthew 15) although they were all Israelites.  

We have all experienced this hatred in some way and, if we would admit it, participated in it too. I’m not just talking about how you treat a sibling. We have all treated and have been treated with hate at some point or another. This was the nature that Jesus lived among.  

Jesus was an Israelite, but he also had brothers of his own. In fact, every gospel writer brings up the relationship between Jesus and His brothers. (See Matthew 13:55-56, Mark 3:20-21, 6:3, Luke 8:19, John 7:3-5.)  

Jesus’ brothers were clearly of the same nature that Cain had in Genesis 4. Jesus was the righteous one, but they did not respond to this fact well just Cain did not respond appropriately to Abel. Here are some ways Jesus’ brothers responded to Him.  

  • They taunted and mocked Him. (John 7:3,4)
  • They did not believe in Him. (John 7:5)
  • They appealed against Him and His ministry to the point of wanting to arrest Him. (Mark 3:20-21)

These brothers did not crucify Jesus, but they were certainly aligned with the opposition that ended up doing so. The rule of sin held on to all men, even the brothers of Jesus, and this led them to crucify the Anointed One. On the cross, Cain murdered Abel. It was the same sin-nature that murdered the Son of God.

Brothers in Jesus

If this was where the story ended the point would still remain: Under sin, man fights his brother and is certainly unable to truly love His brother in the long run.  

Now let’s compare this true understanding from the Old Testament to the teaching of Jesus. He said,  

“I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” 
Matthew 5:22   

Jesus also gave us an Old Testament commandment as a commandment mutually great to loving God- loving your neighbor. Love between brothers in Christ became the greatest and most central mark to a life transformed by Jesus. John says it this way.  

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. 1 John 2:29   

Before Jesus, our nature was to contend with our brother. In Jesus, our new nature is to love our brother. Jesus came to defeat sin’s power over us and transform the pattern that existed since the fall which was initially portrayed in Cain. Jesus, who was the true brother, wanted to bring many brothers and sister to the Father.  

And who better to transform than His own brothers?  

Stick with me here. In Acts 1:13-14 we see that Mary and all of Jesus’ brothers were gathered with the disciples to pray. They were there to receive the Holy Spirit and present in many of the Jerusalem events in the book of Acts.

FUN FACT: Jesus made a post-resurrection appearance to James, His oldest brother. (See 1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

Jesus, the righteous one, was crucified thanks to the efforts of those who opposed Him. James may not have been present, but his heart certainly aligned with them. Then Jesus appears to James. This reminds me of God’s conversation with Cain after he murders Abel, except this time, the guilty brother was not cursed. Instead the guilty was forgiven! This is what Hebrews means when it says that Jesus’ blood of the covenant speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Abel’s blood cried out for justice. Jesus’ blood cried out for mercy.  

With Abel’s death, the guilty was cursed. With Jesus’ death, the guilty were forgiven.

After encountering His risen brother-Messiah, James repented and followed Jesus along with the other disciples. He was considered an apostle (Galatians 1:19) and the head of the church in Jerusalem throughout the book of Acts. James was eventually martyred for his faith by his still sin-bound Israelite brothers. (See Josephus, Antiquities)  

Notice, the theme that we began with in Genesis exists in the New Testament, but Jesus changes the direction of the theme for those who encounter Him. Man’s nature in sin is void of love for his brother, but Jesus was able to utterly dethrone sin and its hold on man’s nature to turn His Cain-like brother into a Godly brother.  

The Bible testifies that the strong power of sin has been defeated by Jesus that leads to transformed lives of love. In response to this truth, you have the power to love your brother, and every person, the way Jesus did. Where do you need to live out this truth in your life?  

ANOTHER FUN FACT: Judas, Jesus’ other brother, was also transformed. This phenomena didn’t just happen once, but twice! And so we can expect it to happen for every true believer in Jesus. He went by the name of Jude and wrote the so-named book in the New Testament. See Jude 1.  

Let me know what themes you see throughout the Bible and how they guide or empower you to transform the way you live.

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