The story of Cain and Abel usually comes off sounding like that of a poor sap who makes an unfortunate blunder and then gets carried away by anger in the aftermath. But what really happened? Could there be more of Cain inside each of us than we care to admit?
“Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. 3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. 4 And Abel also brought an offering — fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
6 “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 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 master it.’ ” (Genesis 4: 2-7)
Cain’s first misstep is bringing vegetables to God and calling it an offering. Surely he knew that a proper offering had to be a blood sacrifice, which Cain could have supplied (no doubt, he had his own livestock). However, he tried to get by with something that was less costly for him. This couldn’t have been the first time someone tried to accomplish something important without paying full price, and we are still giving God our leftovers thousands of years later.
When Cain’s offering is rejected, he becomes angry with his brother, whom he imagines is somehow to blame for his loss of favor with God (though Abel had nothing to do with the rules Cain has managed to land on the wrong side of). His anger is probably partly a cover for the hurt and shame he feels, but more importantly, he believes his brother has bested him, as though they were in competition against each other. But Cain’s issue is with God. Having been born into sin (unlike his parents), Cain’s preset narcissism feels natural to him. He doesn’t understand that his real enemy is his own fallen nature, which God tells him he must overcome (v. 7).
Cain’s perspective foreshadows elements of our enduring world system, by which we fight against people and situations instead of identifying our real problem, which is sin. But this isn’t simply a misunderstanding. Cain’s response reveals his intent. His main goal isn’t a healthy relationship with God. He is circumventing God’s established order (sound familiar?). Cain is trying to make things come out well for Cain.
The vast majority of human wickedness arises from our attempts to meet our needs apart from God. All the Seven Deadly Sins are exaggerations of God-given desires. Pride is a bloated distortion of the desire to feel vital and valuable. Greed is an exaggeration of the need to sustain ourselves. Gluttony is an exaggerated appetite for food, and so on. Every sin is an attempt to go through the back door, which almost always results in the loss of balance and restraint. The sin lies in our permitting our desires to shunt aside the rights of others; making our own prosperity a greater priority than God’s approval (idolatry); and, most centrally, refusing to trust God and be content with what he gives us.
Witness the gentleness of God in the account. Cain, whose own misdeeds have put him on the sidelines, is about to beat his innocent brother to death with a rock (over hurt feelings, no less). Though Cain intends to singlehandedly increase the wickedness in the world (murder hasn’t even been invented yet), God makes no accusation and treats him like an adult, though he is behaving like a petulant child. He exhorts Cain not to trust his anger, which is misplaced (v. 6), and assures him everything can easily be set right unless he persists in disobedience (v. 7). God’s approach shows personal concern for Cain. Everything he says is aimed at helping him get back on track. The real shocker is that God doesn’t command Cain not to slay his brother. He leaves the choice with him, though it isn’t obvious from the text: “[Sin] desires to have you, but you must master it” (v. 7, emphasis mine).
Just what does “you must” mean for us?
In John Steinbeck’s magnum opus, East of Eden, a Chinese philosopher, Lee, discusses his view that the story of Cain and Abel has been incorrectly translated in English-language Bibles. Lee draws on the extensive research of his San Francisco relatives and tells his friend, the main character, that the Hebrew word timshel, which has often been rendered “you must,” actually means “you may.” This becomes an important symbol in the novel, leaving the characters (and the reader) to grapple with the weighty concept that mankind is neither compelled to pursue sainthood nor doomed to sin, but rather has the power to choose.
Though John Steinbeck was not a believer, his analysis was spot-on. Obedience to God is always voluntary. What comes back to bite the rebel is usually the consequences of his own choices. God’s judgment, when it comes, is concerned with keeping overall human rebellion in check. God maintains sovereign control, but people are always permitted to make moral choices. God’s family, which is being built slowly during this fallen age, is made up of voluntary members who have freely chosen to love God and surrender to his will for their lives.
God’s will is always better than our own plans. However, the moral choices we must make are excruciating. Life is a series of gauntlets. C.S. Lewis called our freedom to choose “the intolerable compliment.” It isn’t that God’s commands are unreasonable. To the contrary, they make perfect sense. All of human history is one repeating story about people shooting themselves in the foot. Obeying God would be a simple, easy matter but for the sinful nature, which makes a billion forbidden paths sparkle with intrigue. The awful choice before us comes into our hands like a searing-hot stone most of us would just as soon dump in a creek somewhere. But there’s no getting rid of it. There are only two choices on the menu: relationship with God, or life as a spiritual fugitive, bouncing from one calamity to the next.
Once we have made the initial decision to acknowledge God’s authority, the way can be eased by adopting a proper perspective. God’s judgment against me is taken away by the blood of Christ. Now my choices should be much easier to make (though I am in constant need of God’s wisdom, grace and strength). It is increasingly clear that the inclinations of my flesh are irrational and destructive. I can persist in my indulgences, but why? As the Apostle Paul said, “Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial” (1 Corinthians 10:23).