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By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did.

By faith he was commended as a righteous man,

when God spoke well of his offerings . . . .

 Hebrews 11: 4

SIBLING RIVALRY is a common feature of family life. The natural desire for parental approval, praise and attention, commendable in principle, sometimes leads to problems of jealousy and resentment between brothers and between sisters, causing much frustration and stress to parents. Babies are sensitive soon after birth to the love and attention of mother and father, and the arrival of another child often poses a threat to that formerly- exclusive attention. Parental wisdom in dealing with this sibling rivalry usually brings results as the children mature and gain personal confidence.


While the competitive spirit is obviously a force for advancement in any branch of human endeavour, the noblest character will be as pleased at the achievements of another as at his own, and such an attitude should be encouraged and praised even from early childhood. But sibling rivalry often continues into adulthood, and relationships may be dramatically affected, causing much grief to ageing relatives.


The First Family

The characteristic of aggressiveness, latent in humanity before the fall into sin, was soon stimulated thereafter. The rivalries between Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers, foreshadowed the problems that have challenged brothers through the centuries.


While the Genesis account of the fall in Eden is concerned with the sin of man against God, the story of Cain and Abel marks the beginning of sin and death amongst mankind. The account is terse, stark and shocking, even to modern minds conditioned by centuries-long experience of evil.


Though Eve was probably familiar with the processes of birth among the animals, when her first son was born she credited his birth to God, saying ‘With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man’ (Genesis 4: 1). Despite their fall from grace, the first human pair evidently retained their reverence for the Creator, and dared to hope that this child would be the one who would ‘crush the serpent’s head’ (Genesis 3: 15), undo the damage done in Eden and restore their original sinless condition and favour with God.


As Cain grew to youth and manhood, he was joined by a brother, Abel, and no doubt also by sisters, as the family of Adam and Eve expanded. Some evidence of the animosity of Cain toward his brother may have been evident at an early age, a sibling rivalry Adam and Eve may have sought to appease or excuse. But the forces of evil were more powerful than they in their comparative ignorance could have conceived. The tragedy that overtook that first family set a pattern which has been repeated times without number, as the Creator in His wisdom allowed the growing human family to learn by bitter experience the consequences of sin.


A Man With a Downcast Face

The first Biblical reference to offerings recounts the occasion when the first two brothers presented to the Lord the products of their labour. With Cain devoting his energies to cultivation of the soil and Abel to the raising of sheep and goats, family co-operation appeared well ordered, and all seemed satisfactory until the fateful day that Cain’s offering was rejected by the Lord (Genesis 4: 3-5):

In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

Why was Cain’s offering refused and Abel’s accepted? It has been suggested that the offering of a slain lamb prefigured the sacrifice of Christ and was thus germane to the Divine purpose for mankind’s redemption, whereas the offering of Cain’s crops held no such significance.


 The account is brief and somewhat obscure, making it necessary to rely on the judgement of the New Testament witness: ‘By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings’ (Hebrews 11: 4).


Cain’s reaction to the Lord’s implied rebuke affords a clue to his nature. Wrath, resentment, a fallen face! How like a spoiled child! Accustomed thus far to the honour and privileges of the firstborn, the Lord’s rejection injured his pride and exposed his character as less worthy than that of his younger brother (Genesis 4: 6, 7):


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 master it.’


Here is the first intimation that man has a positive responsibility to strive against sin. Knowing full well the weaknesses of this elder brother, the Lord exhorted Cain to take stock of his position and fight the dark thoughts crowding into his mind before it was too late. Sin crouched at the door! But Cain did not heed the warning, and tragedy soon shattered the lives of that first family, setting in motion a tide of evil, unstoppable even to the present day.


The Murder of Abel and Cain’s Fear

A sudden uncontrollable impulse, or a premeditated act of revenge? In either case, the deed presented a stark evidence of the ease by which fallen humanity can be seduced by the ‘sin crouching at the door’. The death sentence the brothers had learned of from their parents in the vigour of youth had seemed a remote prospect, with no hint that man himself might be the executioner.


In more enlightened times grief for Abel’s premature loss of life may well be mingled with pity for the plight of Cain. Surely fear flooded his being as he realised the extent of his guilt, and when challenged by the Almighty, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ he was under no illusion that his sin was undiscovered. But his defiant yet apprehensive reply, ‘How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?’ brought forth the condemnation that broke his spirit (Genesis 4: 10-12):


Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.

So Cain was to be exiled from his home, his family, his land, a fugitive from justice. He said to the LORD, ‘My punishment is more than I can bear. . . . I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.’ But the LORD put some sort of a ‘mark’ on Cain so that no one of the population now spreading over the land would take revenge on him (Genesis 4: 13-15).

There is no record that Cain repented of his sin or regretted his loss of the Lord’s approval. Perhaps had he confessed the enormity of his crime and given evidence of sincere repentance, the outcome would have been different. But it appears that his appeal to the Lord was based on fear of reprisals from any who might attempt to exact punishment upon him.


The posterity of Cain, absorbed among the millions of mankind, await the deliverance from sin and death by that seed of the woman that would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3: 15). Cain in his turn will be called forth from the tomb to meet again with his brother Abel and to receive an opportunity for repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation, on the basis of the shed blood of that promised seed, our Lord Jesus Christ.



Copyright November 2010

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