A Bible Murder Mystery: Genesis 4 — The Story of Cain and Abel

The most famous murder in the Bible is the first one, when Cain killed his brother, Abel. Facts of the physical homicide are plainly stated, so this murder mystery is not an investigation to figure out who was the perpetrator, but what was his motive for committing the crime, and why God handled it the way he did.

The Outlaw Bible Student website receives visitors from nearly 200 countries and many of the people visiting are new Christians, some others are without a deep knowledge of the Bible, and a few have no real knowledge at all, so we will review the whole story. I will include some little-known facts to add interest for those mature in the faith. If possible, please read Genesis 4:1–16, as those are the verses of our study.

Earth’s first human couple, Adam and Eve, after being removed from the garden in Eden, gave birth to two sons. “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the LORD,’” (Genesis 4:1, NRSV).1 When the Bible states that the man knew (Hebrew, yada)2 his wife, this was a common euphemism used for sexual relations between humans (but never used when between animals). Eve’s comment of producing a man may imply that she mistakenly expected this male child to mature into the promised seed mentioned by God in Genesis 3:15.

“Next she bore his brother Abel . . .” (Genesis 4:2a). Some academics believe that these first children were twins, since the fact that a second child was immediately reported and the Bible does not plainly state that she “conceived again.”3 This assertion although speculative, is reasonable. French theologian John Calvin believed all children were born in pairs, during this early period.4

Learning the basics of survival from Adam, Cain (the older) became a farmer, whereas Abel (the younger) became a shepherd of flocks. We can assume that Eve and any daughters would have had supporting vocations — preparing food, providing water, and later the raising of children, too. Realize that the creation story in the Bible provides necessary facts, but not all the details. We will investigate ideas for some of the missing details later, especially in answer to the question I am frequently asked, “Where did Cain get his wife?”

Now, here is where the real trouble and origin of the crime began. “In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. 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, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast,” (Genesis 4:3-5, NIV).

The word for angry is the Hebrew charah,5 which means to be very jealous or extremely displeased. And maybe the downcast face indicated depression,6 if so, then psychologically, Cain was depressed because of jealousy. “The LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 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 4:6-7, ESV).

Some commentators say the rejection of Cain’s contribution is because a vegetable offering is not as good as a blood offering, but Canadian-American theologian, Dr. Victor Hamilton, points out, “There seems to be no obvious distinction between the two offerings. A fruit or vegetable offering is neither superior nor inferior to an animal offering.”7 Others say that although the Bible will later indicate many details about offerings and sacrifices, this early creation story event gives no such blood-offering reason or explanation of God’s decision and, for that reason, it did not matter. Therefore, they argue that both offerings were appropriate to the brother’s occupations.

It is possible, however, that God did expect a blood sacrifice. This early part of human history is compressed, so many details are left out, but it is reasonable that God made sure they knew the importance of a blood sacrifice to cover their sins. After all, the whole idea of redeeming humankind eventually leads to Jesus sacrificing himself to purchase back our eternal life.

God’s rhetorical question to Cain (Why are you angry…?) was designed to get his attention and make him think. God’s advice was offered (If you do well….) to Cain as instructive — all designed to correct his error and point him in the right direction. A wrong decision can trap you, while a right one will lead you upon a righteous path. God wanted to provoke a change of heart and assured Cain that it was possible to do so. God is explaining to Cain that he still retains his own power of decision; “Sin is now crouching demon-like at Cain’s door.”8 But in Cain’s eyes “Abel seems to have been viewed as better than he by no less a one than God. Solution? Destroy number one, and move up.”9

Perpetrator & Victim — Prosecutor, Judge, and Sentence

“Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him, (Genesis 4:8).“Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the LORD said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth,” (Genesis 4:9-12).

Just as his parents before him, Cain does not repent of his sin and he is banished from his home and family. Instead of repentance, Cain responds with self-pity. He fears only physical pain and social exposure to himself.10 “Cain said to the LORD, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I will be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me,’” (Genesis 4:13-14).

“Then the LORD said to him, ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.’ And the LORD put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden,” (Genesis 4:15-16).

Isn’t it ironic? Cain kills his brother, but now worries for fear that someone else will kill him. God promises protection for Cain, but why? First, there was, as yet, no criminal law threatening death to a murderer, and secondly, God decided he should receive both law and grace. “Sin cannot be ignored or justified. Cain must pay a penalty for his actions. But the God who pronounces the sentence also makes available to the criminal his protection and concern that he, too, not become a victim of violence. Cain is banned and blessed.” In effect, Cain’s fate was worse than death as he lost all sense of belonging and any sense of identity with a community. “Cain, once a farmer, is now ousted from civilization and is to become a vagabond. Rootlessness is the punishment and the wilderness is the refuge of the sinner.”11

The portrayal of Cain is complicated. This story, like many in early Genesis, offers little in clear explanation of matters such as human desire and motivation, but only records the unfolding of the human condition — “it narrates them and it does so in dramatic fashion.”12 But upon investigation, we can ferret out some details that aren’t plainly evident.

The Reason Cain’s Offering was Rejected

Why was Cain’s offering rejected but Abel’s accepted? Many commentators have given many suggestions for the reason, but God has already given us the correct answer. Cain brought God an offering of the fruit of the ground, while Abel brought God an offering of the firstlings of his flock and their fat portions, (Genesis 4:3-4). The firstborn of Abel’s flock, with the fatty portions, was better than just a random selection from a vegetable crop. Why?

It wasn’t ‘animal vs. plant’; it was the first and best portion of anything produced that God required. Abel was thankful and wanted God to have the best, whereas Cain just wanted to fulfill his obligation and get it out of the way. Had Cain’s mind been enlightened, he would have understood his dependence upon the Creator and “he would have offered not a token gift, but one from the heart, and along with Abel, both he and his gift would have been pleasing to God.”13

“When the offering is the true expression of the soul’s gratitude, love, [and] devotedness, then it is acceptable.” But when it is merely a superficial offering that reveals no real feeling on the part of the worshiper, it is plainly of no effect.14 This is true of all sacrifices. It remains invalid and of no effect to those who do not yield themselves to God. “Sacrifices were intended to be the embodiment and expression of a state of feeling toward God, of a submission or offering of men’s selves to God, of a return to that right relation which ought ever to subsist between creature and Creator.”15

Abel’s role in this story was small and brief. Although his place in history is important, he never spoke, but because of his faith, he is long remembered. This is even mentioned in the New Testament, “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks,” (Hebrews 11:4).

Now, where did Cain get his wife?

If there was only one small family on earth, where did the exiled Cain get his wife? The biblical record does provide the answer. Adam “had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred thirty years; and he died,” (Genesis 5:4b-5).

“Living over 900 years means living ten times longer than we do today. Proportionately, the female period of [fertility] . . . today, 30 to 35 years – would then be about 350 years. At a rate of only one child every seven years, this would result in 50 children for Adam’s immediate family.” A footnote in The Works of Josephus states that an old tradition indicates Adam’s children included 33 sons and 23 daughters.16

Early marriages were between brother and sister. This did not create the same problems as it would today, for humans were still in near-perfect physical condition and God’s laws against incest were still in the future (besides, what other choice was possible?). Irish biblical scholar and theologian Robert Henry Charles, known for his expert translations of apocryphal and pseudepigraphal works including the book of Jubilees, wrote that Cain was born 70 years after his parents’ creation. He married his sister, Awan (a.k.a. Asouam), in the year 135 (after creation), when she was 50 years old.17

It seems reasonable that Cain was already married and took his wife with him when he was exiled. Some sources report that Awan was intended for Abel, but Cain fell in love with her.18 If true, I guess that would indicate Cain’s heart may have been unrighteous for some time, not just during the ‘offering event.’

What is the moral of this story?

There are a couple of things we can learn from this first sibling rivalry. Sin can overtake us at any time. When the LORD said to Cain, “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7), he was giving warning. He was giving Cain a chance to correct his ways before allowing his jealousy and anger to influence his thoughts and actions.

Acting in an irrational way can lead to destruction — both for us and for others. If you are presented with a situation of right and wrong, choosing right will bring you a reward, choosing wrong will bring you punishment. Fully obeying God will keep sin under control.

Copyright © 2019, Dr. Ray Hermann

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References & Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), ©1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  2. יָדַע yâda˓, know of a person carnally [passions of the body]
    Whitaker, Richard, et al., The Abridged Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament, based on the lexicon of Wilhelm Gesenius, (Boston; New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1906).
  3. Carasik, Michael (Ed. & Translator), “Genesis: Introduction and Commentary,” The Commentators’ Bible: The Tubin JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, Genesis, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2018), p. 48.
  4. Jamieson, Robert et al., Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), vol. 1, p. 20.
  5. חָרָה chârâh, Strong’s Hebrew #2734: to glow or grow warm; fig. (usually) to blaze up, of anger, zeal, jealousy:— be angry, burn, be displeased, × earnestly, fret self, grieve, be (wax) hot, be incensed, kindle, × very, be wroth.
    Strong, James, The New Strong’s Complete Dictionary of Bible Words, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996).
  6. נָפַל nâphal, anger, dejection, or depression.
    The NET Bible First Edition Notes, (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Genesis 4:5.
  7. Hamilton, Victor P., The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), p. 233.
  8. Hamilton, Victor P., “Genesis,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), vol. 3, p. 20.
  9. Borgman, Paul, Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), pp. 32-33.
  10. Waltke, Bruce K., and Fredricks, Cathi J., Genesis: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), p. 98.
  11. Hamilton, Victor P., The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (see above), pp. 222-233, 235.
  12. Smith, Mark S., The Genesis of Good and Evil, (Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press, 2019), p. 7.
  13. Waltke, Bruce K., “Cain and His Offering,” (Westminster Theological Journal, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, 1986), No. 48, pp. 371-372. (Also available online.) https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/01-genesis/text/articles-books/waltke_cain_wtj.pdf
  14. Dods, Marcus, “The Book of Genesis,” in The Expositor’s Bible: Genesis to Ruth, Nicoll, W. Robertson, (Ed.), (Hartford, CT: S.S. Scranton Co., 1903), vol. 1, p. 13.
  15. Ibid., pp. 13-14.
  16. “How many children did Adam and Eve have?” (Creation Moments, retrieved 27 August 2019), https://creationmoments.com/article/how-many-children-did-adam-and-eve-have/
  17. Charles, R. H., The Book of Jubilees or The Little Genesis: Notes, (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1902), p. 30.
  18. “Awan–The Wife of Cain,” (Women of History, 24 November 2013), https://womenofhistory.blogspot.com/2013/11/awan-wife-of-cain.html
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