1 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” 2 And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” – Genesis 4:1-7 ESV
God had banned Adam and Eve from the garden, but He had not stripped them of their divine mandate to rule over His creation as His vice-regents.
Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” – Genesis 2:28 NLT
Even in their fallen condition, their ability to procreate remained intact. They were still free to produce more of their kind and fill the earth. But it will soon become evident that their capacity to reproduce would result in far more than pain in childbirth for Eve. The fruit of Eve’s womb would result in a harvest of sorrow and suffering as one of the lingering and all-pervasive side effects of sin began to manifest itself. Yet, chapter four opens up on a seemingly positive note.
Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain… – Genesis 4:1 ESV
The New Living Translation puts a bit less poetically.
Now Adam had sexual relations with his wife, Eve, and she became pregnant. – Genesis 4:1 NLT
The first couple began a family and gave birth to their first child, a son, whom Eve named Cain. There is an interesting and somewhat controversial debate over exactly what Eve meant when she declared the name of her son. The English Standard Version translates it as “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” But the New English Translation provides a distinctively different take:
“I have created a man just as the Lord did!” – Genesis 4:1 NET
The reason for this disparity has to do with the Hebrew words Moses used to record her statement. The English phrase “I have gotten” is one word in Hebrew – קָנִיתִי (qaniti), and it has a variety of meanings, including “to get, to acquire, or to create.” When pronounced in Hebrew, it sounds similar to Cain’s name – קַיִן (qayin). It would seem, considering the context of the creation account and Eve’s original desire to be “like God,” that she is displaying a bit of hubris over her life-giving power. In essence, she is declaring her god-like capacity to create life ex nihilo (out of nothing), just as God had done. That is what leads her to exclaim, “I have created a man just as the Lord did!”
The English Standard Version translates the Hebrew preposition, אֶת (ʾet) as “with the help of the Lord.” But it could just as easily be translated as “along with,” which would give it a more comparative meaning. In a sense, Eve is expressing that, due to her ability to create life, she bears a likeness to God. They have this one thing “in common”: The ability to create life. This interpretation of the verse makes much more sense considering the context of all that has happened thus far in the narrative, and all that will happen in the verses that follow.
Cain’s name means “possession,” and it would seem that Eve believed her son belonged to her. She had created him and, therefore, he was her possession. But it would not be long before Eve realized the folly of that assumption. Cain would grow to be a self-possessed young man who had inherited his parent’s predilection for autonomy and self-rule. He would be owned by no one, including God.
Not long after the birth of Cain, Adam and Eve welcomed a second son into the world, whom they named Abel – הֶבֶל (heḇel). In Hebrew, his name carries a somewhat ominous and foreboding character. It can be translated as “breath,” but also as “vapor” or “vanity.” It seems likely that Eve had a more positive thought in mind when she named her second child, but there is a prophetic character to her words. As will become readily evident from the context, Abel’s life will be short-lived. His “breath” will abruptly cease due to the possessive nature of his brother, Cain.
As Moses prepares his readers for what is to come, he provides them with a brief description of the two brothers.
Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. – Genesis 4:2 ESV
Moses provides no decisive chronology in the text. There is no indication as to the age of the two brothers when this event took place, but both are old enough to share in the responsibility to care for God’s creation. It’s important to note that, of the two brothers, Cain was actually doing exactly what God had originally commanded his father to do.
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. – Genesis 2:15 ESV
Each brother was carrying out God’s mandate to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28 ESV). Abel had become a shepherd. Cain had become a farmer. Moses makes no attempt to compare one to the other or to give any sense of superiority to either man’s choice of occupation. They were both doing the will of God.
But at some point in time, both brothers made the decision to bring an offering to God. Nowhere in the text does it indicate that God required this of them. It simply states, “In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions” (Genesis 4:3-4 ESV).
Both men brought an “offering” – מִנְחָה (minḥâ). This is a rather generic term that could include any type of gift or tribute. There is nothing to suggest that God had demanded a particular type of offering. As will soon become evident, the problem lie not in the nature of the offering but in the heart of the giver. Moses points out that “the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Genesis 4:4-5 ESV). Another way to put this is that God accepted one brother and his gift while rejecting the other. Cain got snubbed by God. But why? What was the problem?
The author of Hebrews provides us with insight into what happened that day.
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. – Hebrews 11:4 ESV
It seems that the sole differentiator between the two sacrifices was the faith of the two brothers. One exhibited faith while the other did not. But how is that displayed in the context of Genesis 4? To understand what is going on, one must take a close look at what the two brothers brought to God. The nature of their gift reveals the character of their faith.
Cain brought “an offering of the fruit of the ground” (Genesis 4:3 ESV). Moses doesn’t elaborate as to the nature of the “fruit,” but simply reveals that it came from the ground. It could have been some form of grain, grapes, figs, or even olives. Cain was a horticulturalist, so he brought a portion of what he had raised. But Abel brought “the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions” (Genesis 4:4 ESV). This phrase could just as easily be translated as “from the fattest of the firstborn of the flock” (NET Bible Study Notes). There is nothing to indicate that Abel offered a blood sacrifice. At this stage in man’s relationship with God, there had been no decree given that required the death of an animal as some form of atonement. These were both meant to be offerings of gratitude to God for His goodness and provision.
But what stands out is that Abel offered up the fattest of the firstborn of his flock. And when he gave these animals to God, they become the Lord’s possession. Abel was making a permanent commitment of his most prized possessions. Once given to God, they would no longer be available to Abel for food, breeding, or the manufacture of wool for clothing. He was giving up a prime source of future sustenance. In so doing, he was committing his future care to God. He would no longer have those animals as resources on which to rely. That is why the author of Hebrews described Abel’s offering as “a more acceptable sacrifice.” His gift was an outward expression of faith, displaying his determination to trust God for his future well-being.
Yet Cain gave God a portion of his produce. In other words, he offered God some of the fruit his plants had produced. But notice that he did not give God the plants themselves. Cain did not give God his best fruit-bearing tree or most productive vine. There was no ultimate sacrifice of future fruit-bearing potential. He still had all his trees, crops, and vines. Whatever he gave up could be easily replaced with the next harvest. So, in a sense, Cain was placing his faith in his own fruit-producing capabilities. He would meet his own needs. Cain exhibited his proclivity for self-sustenance and autonomy. He was not going to give to God what he believed to be rightfully his.
So, when God rejected his offering, Cain grew hot under the collar. He literally burned with anger. This response reveals a lot about Cain’s inner disposition. He had expected God to bless him on his own terms. Yet God had rejected his self-prescribed offering. Moses doesn’t reveal how God displayed His favor for one and not the other. But it is clear that Cain knew his offering had not measured up to God’s expectations. What he failed to comprehend was that his heart was the problem. So, God asked him, “Why are you so angry?…Why do you look so dejected?” (Genesis 4:6 NLT). And then God followed up His questions with the following lesson on godly living in a fallen world.
“You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.” – Genesis 4:7 NLT
God wanted Cain to know that acceptance by God was based on faithful obedience to His will and humble reliance upon His provision. Cain needed to need God. But he desired self-reliance and self-sufficiency. He wanted to be the master of his own fate. And God warned him that the path of autonomy would never lead to self-control. It would always result in slavery to sin and captivity to the flesh. The apostle John would later explain what was at the root of Cain’s problem.
We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. – 1 John 3:12 ESV
Cain was already under the mastery of sin, and his behavior reflected the scope of his captivity. He was a man trapped and controlled by evil. And it would not be long before his anger turned more violent and deadly.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.