It’s Christmastime—a season when company buffets of roast beef and honey-baked ham end with white elephant exchanges. Elementary schools hold food drives and Salvation Army volunteers patiently wait for their kettles to fill with coins. Icicle lights hang off eaves in neighborhoods where fruitcakes are sometimes still wrapped in red cellophane and received with polite appreciation. At home fires crackle, while at the mall window displays compete to lure in shoppers on search-and-destroy missions for “the perfect gift.” Those preferring to avoid mall traffic browse through stacks of catalogs or surf the Net—because, after all, it’s the season for gift giving.
What’s the most memorable gift anyone has ever given you?
When the great outdoorsman, Teddy Roosevelt, was president, an admirer sent him a coyote. (Unfortunately, when it arrived, it broke free and terrorized the First Family and the White House staff.) In O. Henry’s story, The Gift of the Magi, a husband sells his watch to buy his wife combs, while she sells her hair to buy him a watch chain. When my friend lost her hair to chemotherapy, her husband bought her a silver brush—expressing his hope for the future—and with it a matching mirror inscribed with “My Hero.” The sorts of gifts we give can reveal a lot about us and about our relationship with each recipient.
That was certainly the case in a different First Family—the children of Adam and Eve. In Genesis 4 we read about a murder that happened all because, simply put, one of the brothers gave a half-hearted gift. Unfortunately in this case, the recipient was the Lord.
But before we talk about details of the who-done-it, we need to set the stage. Prior to this story, our first parents had been expelled from Eden, where they had enjoyed a serene existence. But their choice to disobey God had resulted in God’s cursing of the snake and the ground. And it had also involved God’s pronouncement that there was going to be conflict. Adam and Eve probably could not have imagined how deeply they would feel the devastation within their own family, but their oldest child broke their hearts. And it had all seemed to start out so well.
The first verse we read after Adam and Eve leave Eden says, “Now the man had intimate relations with his wife, Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have created a man along with the Lord ‘“ (v. 1). The text actually says, “The man ‘knew’ his wife...” To “know” someone in the biblical sense is often used as a euphemism for intimate relations. So Adam ‘‘knew” Eve, and she got pregnant and had a son. Eve called him Cain because “Cain” sounds a lot like what she said when she gave birth to him. She chose a name that—in Hebrew—sounds like the word “create.”
That makes a lot of sense to me. You see, our daughter was eight months old when we adopted her. After a decade of infertility that included seven pregnancy losses and three failed adoptions, we finally had good news. Now obviously because of her age, she already had a name when she came to us. But we decided to change it as part of our bonding process with her. Because I had been unable to carry a child to term, we could not pass on to a daughter any of our genetics. So we chose to name our new arrival “Alexandra”—which is the longer form of my own name, Sandra. If, as her mother, I was unable to give her a part of my physical self, I wanted her to carry with her a different part of me. As she says, “Your tummy was broken, but I grew in your heart.” Like Eve I gave my child a name that sounds like something I wanted to communicate about her.
Hebrew parents did that all the time. For example, “Isaac” sounds a lot like the Hebrew word for “laugh.” And because Sarah laughed when told she was going to have to buy Depends and Pampers in the same aisle, the name seemed appropriate.
Just think about that. Imagine how you would marvel at the miracle of human birth if you’d never seen a tiny human. If for the first time you saw in the face of a son the reflection of your own humanity, unlike the animals you’ve seen reproduced, you’d stand amazed. After the agony of childbirth with no epidural or La Maze preparation, Eve must have stared at this tiny creature who looked back at her through eyes that blended her features with Adam’s. His nose. Her mouth. Her hair coloring. Her husband’s ears. “A little bit of you and a little bit of me.”
It is no wonder that Eve would give her son a name that reflects how this must have made her marvel. Often infertile couples express that some of the key losses not “solved” by adoption are the loss of their own genetic continuity, the loss of creating a miracle in cooperation with God, and the loss of a jointly-conceived child. In sort, they grieve the loss of the moment Eve seems to be describing; her expression wraps them all together: “I have created a man along with the Lord.” In partnership with God she has been a co-creator. Where did her “work” stop and God’s begin? It would be impossible to say.
The Hebrew word for man is “Adam.” So Eve’s reference to her son as a “man” rather than “child” or “infant,” as we might expect, seems to point back to God’s own creation of “Adam.” It emphasizes again the marvel of the creative process at work. Perhaps Eve’s expression is equivalent to what believing women typically say today after giving birth: “It’s a miracle!”
When I wrote books “with” my late co-author, Dr. Bill Cutrer, people would ask who wrote what. They expected me to say I wrote the relational stuff, and he wrote the medical scenes. But that’s not how it worked. He knew a lot about relationships, and I’ve experienced some medical procedures through the years. We dreamed up ideas. We argued. We compromised. We blended and we bent. I did some research; he added some stories from his medical practice. I tweaked it based on input received from ministry through the years. By the time each book was finished, it was such a synergistic blend of our thoughts combined with those of our spouses, edited by both—it was a complete co-creation. It would be impossible to carve out what was the effort of one or the other. We were co-authors. And I think that’s similar to what Eve expresses here about the miracle of birth: “I have created a man along with the Lord!”
So the scene begins beautifully, and I imagine this new mom, like any mother, had great hopes for her little blessing. And soon she has another one. In verse two we read that she names him Abel, and we get a little nervous. Though the text doesn’t say it, Abel means “breath” or “vanity.” If you’ve read in Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” that is the word used here. And it makes us stop to wonder, Will the breath of “Breath man” be snuffed out before its time?
Well, time goes by and the boys grow up. Do you wonder if they wrestled? Did they find a pomegranate and play ball? All we’re told is their occupations: “Now Abel was shepherding a flock, but Cain was working the ground.” You’ve got a shepherd and a farmer. And notice that Cain worked the “ground.” Nothing wrong with that. But it is what God cursed. So we wonder if the author is foreshadowing here that there’s bad news ahead.
Now here’s where it starts to get sticky. In verses three and four we read, “And it happened in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the ground. But Abel brought of the firstlings of his sheep and of their fat.”
If we look first at what Abel brought, we notice it was “of the firstlings.” Those are the firstborn animals. Later in the law God will require the firstborn of everything to be offered to Him. We also see here that Abel brought of their fat portions. In our culture we appreciate non-fat foods, but most other places in the world, even today, have a different view. One time when my husband and I were in Russia, we toured a hospital that invited us to eat hors d’oeuvres. At one point Gary thought he was popping a square of mozzarella cheese into his mouth, but he discovered too late that it was raw fat. So he choked it down, trying to veil his disgust. But to the Russians it was a delicacy of the highest order, and they had offered us their best stuff. That’s exactly how God regarded the fat on animals. When offered to him in sacrifice, it made a most pleasing gift.
Contrast that with the gift Cain brought. The text says simply, “He brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the ground.” There’s nothing wrong with bringing grain or produce—the text calls what both brothers brought an “offering,” so it must have fit within the category of “generally allowable gifts.” But there’s a problem here. Where are the firstfruits? We don’t see the emphasis on bringing God the very best. He just brought some of the stuff he grew. Nothing special. It reminds me of a morning when one of the women in our Bible study brought leftover donuts as a joke. Only Cain was serious.
The first ten years of my life, I grew up in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, an incredibly fertile plain with a river running by the house. There was plenty of water and good soil. My dad worked a government job, but to help support his wife and five kids, he had a one-acre garden in addition to a pear orchard and a Christmas tree farm. He was good at it, too. Every year he would set aside the largest, most perfectly formed pears and exhibit them in the state fair. Sometimes his rhubarb was of good enough quality to enter, too. Or an amazingly large squash would sprout up and make it all the way to the judges’ booth. For his display Dad chose only the biggest and the best—the choicest fruit. And afterwards he lined his walls with award ribbons. That’s the quality that God wants from Cain here. You don’t take your leftovers to the Judge. You take the finest. Hebrews 11:4 tells us that “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.”
Unfortunately, unlike his brother’s gift, Cain’s offering revealed a lot about his view of God. He didn’t bring anything that cost him anything; he saved the best for himself. And you know what? That’s not good enough for God. So we read in verse four, “And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.”
Uh-oh. Big brother gets outdone by little brother. Big brother has spent his days working hard in the sin-cursed ground and he expects God to be like a gleaner—to come along after the fields have been harvested and accept what got dropped on the ground. And Cain probably even thinks he’s being generous here. Hey, at least he brought something! But while he has simply put together some veggies, his brother has, like the Hallmark slogan goes, “Cared enough to send the very best.” And God is smart enough to see and reward the difference.
Well, sure enough, when God prefers Abel’s offering, Cain gets upset. We read in verse five, “So Cain was very angry and his face fell.”
But God is also gracious, so he gives Cain a chance to make it right. He initiates a conversation here. We read in verse six, “Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must rule it.”
It’s like God is saying, “Don’t worry. It’s not too late.” When we read that Cain’s “face fell,” it’s a lot like how we use that phrase today. Only here it has more the idea of anger behind it than sadness or dejection. But no problem—God makes sure Cain knows he can still offer an acceptable sacrifice. The Lord also warns Cain that he’s in a power struggle with sin and he needs to stop and choose wisely.
If you’ve ever seen the musical “Oklahoma!” you’ve heard the song, “Oh, the Farmer and the Cowhand Should Be Friends.” You’ve seen how the ranch hands and the farmers constantly competed. And that’s certainly true here, multiplied by some sibling rivalry. Cain is probably feeling all sorts of competitive instincts and negative emotions. His kid brother has shown him up, and he’s not going to take it lightly. In my junior year of high school my little sister—a sophomore—and I both played on the varsity soccer team. And at the awards banquet she got the award for “Most Valuable Player.” I got nothing. My little sis was a better soccer player than I was, and now everyone knew it. Was I happy for her, recognizing I could excel in other arenas? Are you kidding? Mostly I was jealous! It’s ugly, but that’s how we often think, isn’t it?
God acknowledges Cain’s jealous rage, and he warns him that sin is crouching.
Last Christmas we gave our daughter a kitten. And for the past year, every morning when we’ve opened our bedroom door, Princess Peaches has come in to join us on the bed. Our favorite game is to move our fingers under the covers, convincing her there’s a mouse under there. And she falls for it every time. So she hides behind my husband’s knee and waits for just the right moment. Then fast as a blink she jumps through the air and pounces on her prey with claws extended. She’s so good at it that we had to have her de-clawed, because sometimes when we thought the game was over, we’d take out our hands and a few minutes later, they’d be bleeding.
Now picture what a bigger feline could do...a lion maybe, or a cougar. It could devour a person in minutes. And the writer here paints that sort of image by personifying sin as a lurking animal, waiting for its prey’s most vulnerable moment for the pounce. Sin lurks here, just waiting for the opportunity to devour Cain.
So what does Cain do? Does he say, “Okay, let me go back and get the biggest apples”? No way. Verse eight reads, “Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And it happened when they were in the field that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and he killed him.”
Can you believe it? He lures him out into the field where no one can witness what’s going to happen and no one will hear the yells for help. And Cain kills his brother in cold blood. His own brother! Instead of mastering sin, he has silenced little “Buddy” for good.
So we’re barely four chapters into the book and we’ve already got a murder mystery. Who did it? The Lord knows and He shows up again. And He does the same thing with Cain that he did when Adam sinned. He asks questions first. That’s always a good idea when somebody’s messed up—give them a chance to confess. In verse nine we read that God asks, “Where is Abel, your brother?”
Well, unlike his father, Adam’s son shows no shame. He starts out with a lie: “I don’t know.” But then he adds a smart-alecky “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Or the actual word order here is “Keeper of my brother, am I?” The word “keeper” here is the same word that described what Abel did. He “kept” sheep. And it’s like Cain is saying, “Am I the keeper of the keeper?” “Am I the shepherd of the shepherd?” It’s a less-than-subtle dig that suggests God is being unreasonable in even asking.
Do you sometimes get this attitude toward God? Do you blame him for stuff that goes wrong when you’ve made bad choices to begin with? Last year I caught Alexandra, then five years old, sucking her thumb, and I told her to stop. And do you know what she said? “Well, God should not have given me an arm with a hand on it.” In other words it’s God’s fault that I’m sucking my thumb! It starts early. We’re all prone to mistrust God—to think He’s really demanding and unreasonable and out to hunt down and slay our happiness. We want to blame him rather than take responsibility for our own sin. Back in the orchard Adam told God he ate the fruit because of “The woman you gave me,” as though God Himself were responsible for Adam’s choice. Now his son acts the same way, times two. Since the first human and the first sin, we’ve had this tendency to blame God. It’s much more comfortable than owning up to our wrongs.
So Cain smarts off and blames God. And what happens next in the Genesis story amazes me. If it were up to me, I’d do lightning right here on the spot. Capital punishment. Show no mercy to this selfish, smart-mouth.
But God—our gracious God—asks another question. Verse ten reads, “And He said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.’” From the ground God had cursed, the ground that Cain had worked, the ground that received Abel’s blood, we see the evidence of Cain’s evil. And here’s the penalty. God says, “And now you are being cursed from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive the blood of your brother from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer continue giving its strength to you; you will become a homeless roamer in the land.’”
What? He doesn’t kill him? At this point we expect Cain to say, “Wow. Thanks for not doing to me what I did to my brother. Thanks for not giving me what I deserve.” But nooooooo. What does Cain say? Read verse 13: “Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear!”
Can you believe it? This guy is clueless. He’s getting mercy and he still thinks he’s being mistreated. He continues in verse 14 with, “Look, you have driven me out today away from the ground, and I must hide myself from your presence; and I will be a homeless roamer in the land, and anyone who finds me will kill me.”
“They’ll kill me!” he complains. Can you imagine? They might want to do to Cain what he did to his brother. How unfair!
Now you might wonder who these people are who are going to kill him. If Cain was the firstborn of Adam and Eve, how could the earth be populated? We’re not really told, but it’s possible that by now Adam and Eve have had a lot of other children, and if so, all of them would be outraged at Cain’s actions—for killing their brother. And we have to figure that if the ground will no longer cooperate to yield produce to Cain, he may have to beg his family members for food. Again, we expect God to say, “How does it feel?” Or “Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it.” Or like the Eagles’ hit, “Get Over It!”
But not this God. Instead, he shows mercy yet again. In verse 15 we read, “So the Lord said to him, ‘No, if anyone kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold.’” If you wonder what sevenfold vengeance is, it may help to know that back then they considered seven the perfect number. It was often associated with completeness. So it’s like God is saying, “I will completely avenge anyone who kills Cain.” When Gary and I went camping back in the eighties, if he’d see a mosquito flying nearby, he’d say, “I’ll kill him to the max in a second without mercy.” Then smash. And although “to the max” is an outdated expression, perhaps it helps us understand what’s being expressed here. It’s as though God is saying, “If anyone messes with you, I’ll avenge your murder to the max.”
Then the text goes on to say, “And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest anyone who came upon him should harm him.” Now in our world full of street signs, billboards, and store signs, we usually think of a sign as a visual image, perhaps something reminiscent of the Grateful Dead’s “Dire Wolf” like a placard saying, “Don’t Murder Me.” But this word could mean something a little different from that. In Joshua 2:12, when Rahab asked for a sign, she received protection for herself and her family. So the sign could simply be God’s protection. Other signs in the Hebrew Bible included a broad range of options like Noah’s rainbow reminding everyone that God would never again destroy the world with water. Or when Moses asked God for a sign that He would deliver his people, God told him the sign would be that His people would someday serve Him on the mountain where Moses confronted the burning bush.
It’s also been suggested that this could have been a special hairstyle, a mark like a tattoo—even a growling dog, though if you’re going to go there, I think a skunk might be more fitting. That would keep anyone from going near the guy. We aren’t told what the sign was, but we do know its function—to protect the murderer from anyone who might want to injure him.
What? Protect him from injury? Yes, one more time we see God’s grace. The word “murder” has been used in this chapter up until now. But when God promises to protect Cain, we see a different word—he says “lest anyone injure Cain.” In other words, he’s not just protecting Cain from those who would murder him, but from anyone who would beat him up!
So how does the story end? Verse sixteen tells us, “Then Cain departed from the presence of Yahweh and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” East of Eden is the direction Adam and Eve went when driven from the orchard. And “Nod” means wandering. So Cain went to the land of wandering—away from the presence of the Lord.
Eve’s miracle baby has caused nothing but heartbreak. And the couple who departed from God’s presence now see their son departing even further from His face.
And that is where all of us would remain without Jesus Christ. Because of Him we are no longer in the process of departing further and further from God. Through the reconciliation brought by the most pleasing sacrifice of all time, we are invited back into fellowship with the Father no matter what we’ve done.
And knowing that should evoke in us a desire to return to Him what Cain should have given—not our leftovers but our best.
What do we give to the God of grace? Do we give him our sleepiest hours or our most productive energy? Do we give him our spare change or do we give generously and sacrificially? Does our offering cost us or is it simply convenient? Do we treat His children with neglect or respect? How deliberate are you in showing how much God means to you by what you give back to him?
It’s Christmastime—a season when we get so frenzied attending company Christmas buffets and hanging the icicles on the house that we lose sight of the greatest Gift ever given. We get all wrapped up in giving gifts to others in honor of His birthday, but like Cain we offer Him—the Reason for the Season—the leftovers. Our leftover time. Some leftover canned goods we didn’t plan to use anyway. A little leftover energy. A few coins of leftover pocket change in the kettle.
So we need to stop. And in the midst of the hustle and bustle, let’s carve out some time to prepare our best, most memorable gift. If it’ll help, consider using the visual reminder of wrapping a box and putting it under the tree as a “sign” of a decision to give God His due.
What does our God of extreme grace really want from us? If we asked the Spirit to tell us His heart’s desire, what would top His Christmas list? What would really please the One who would “rather die than live without us”? No longer does he want animal fat and first fruits. Romans 12:1 and 2 tells us that he wants us—our lives—as living sacrifices. More than anything, the Father wants the love and devotion of each “miracle” child’s whole and undivided heart.
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I would do my part.
O what can I give Him?
Give Him my heart.