A Better Sacrifice
Scripture: Genesis 4:1–25
Genesis 4 tells a well-known story. It is a very human story. It is a story that has fascinated, intrigued and horrified us ever since it happened, ever since it was written down. Genesis is a book of firsts. In this chapter, we have the first babies born. It is a story of the first brothers. Shockingly, it is also the story of the first murder: brother against brother.
I grew up in a family of five boys. I was number three in the pecking order. Growing up among brothers, the story of Cain and Abel always made a lot of sense to me. I could relate to the murder part of the story! Well, not really. But our home was no stranger to the turbulent realities of sibling rivalry and the potential for violence often lay not very far beneath the surface of our home. I am thankful that by the grace of God we all grew up to love and respect one another and we are all good friends today. But I know that there were some days when my parents wondered if we would all live to reach adulthood.
Genesis chapter 4 is a very important chapter in the unfolding of the early history of the human race. Genesis 3 told the story of man’s fall into sin in the Garden of Eden. God announced the consequences of their sin and then drove them from the Garden. In Genesis 4, we see how quickly the consequences of sin manifested themselves, and how quickly sin’s effects spread and established a grip on the human race and on human history. Sin is not a static force. It is progressive by its very nature. Or maybe I should say “regressive”. One sin leads to another and to another and more and more people are affected and infected. One lesson that is very clear from this chapter is this: Sin’s regression drives us ever farther from God.
This is so clear as we trace the story of Cain in this chapter and the history of his descendants. Sin’s regression drove him every farther from the presence of God. The story started hopefully enough. Eve rejoices in the birth of her first son. She names him Cain which is a play on the Hebrew word for “obtained” or “gotten”. She gives glory to God. “I have gotten a man child with the help of God,” she declares.
Cain grew up to be a tiller of the ground; a farmer. Nothing wrong with that. God commanded Adam and his descendants to work the soil and take their food from it. Cain even acknowledged the presence of God in his life. Verse 3 tells that he “brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.” But that is where things started to go wrong. Right there, in the presence of God while making an offering. You see, Abel also brought an offering to God. He brought some of his flock as an offering. And God looked with favor at Abel and his offering, but he did not look with favor on Cain or his offering.
We are going to come back to the question of the offerings a little later in the message, and why God accepted the one and not the other. For now, let’s continue to trace Cain’s story and the regression of sin in his life. When Cain saw that God had accepted Abel’s offering and not his, he was consumed with jealousy. This is one of the root emotions in most sibling rivalry, isn’t it? “Who is the favored one?” is the question that brothers and sisters are constantly asking. “It’s not fair!” is the constant complaint.
Cain’s jealousy very quickly turned to anger. The original text says literally, “He burned”. Anger became a hot flame within him. Now remember my thesis statement. Sin’s regression drives us ever farther from God. Cain is in God’s presence. He has just offered a sacrifice to God. But even in the presence of God, he is consumed with jealousy which turns quickly to hot flames of anger. But God is a God of grace. He speaks to Cain. He lovingly admonishes him as we see in verse 7.
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.”
God is giving Cain a chance to repent. He is urging him to make the right choice. If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? As we will see in a little while, I think he is urging him to offer the right sacrifice, and so be accepted in God’s presence. He also warns him about the threatening presence of sin. It is a vivid word picture. Sin is personified as a lion or leopard, crouching outside the house, waiting to pounce on any victim who ventures outside. But God also urges Cain to master the sin which was threatening him.
Sadly and significantly, Cain does not answer God. He makes no response. He ignores God’s words of warning. Do you see how quickly sin’s influence is spreading? Instead he speaks to his brother. Together they go out into the field. Did Cain know what he was going to do? Was it premeditated, or did he act out of a fit of uncontrolled rage? We do not know. All we know is that out in the field, with no one else around, Cain attacked his brother and killed him. Did he strangle him with his bare hands? Did he pick up a stone and strike him? We don’t know the details. We do know that when he was done, Abel lay dead at his feet. We do know that blood drenched the soil beneath his body.
What happened then? Did he bury him? Did he hide him in some bushes? Did he simply run away? We can imagine a variety of scenarios. What we do know is that God once again entered the picture. I believe God came in a gesture of grace. Even after so heinous an act, God is giving Cain a chance to confess and repent. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
Now we see once again how quickly sin spreads; how one sin leads to another sin. God is giving Cain a chance to repent. Instead he adds sin to sin. “I don’t know,” he replied. He lied. It was a blatant cover up. And so useless. Did he really think that God didn’t know the truth? Sin made him stupid as well. And to his sin of lying he adds defiance and defensive bluster. He adds the classic words: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It is breathtaking in its defiant boldness, is it not? He is talking to God! How quickly sin has driven the wedge between Cain and God. Sin’s regression drives us ever farther from God.
God now steps quickly into his role as judge. He has given Cain the chance to confess and repent. That opportunity has been refused. So God presents the evidence, the verdict and the sentence in verses 10-12.
The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. 11Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”
The evidence: Abel’s blood crying out and giving testimony from the ground. The verdict: guilty of murder. The sentence: a life of restless wandering. What will Cain’s response be now? Look at his words in verse 13:
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. 14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
Let me ask: Do you sense any repentance in his words? Any contrition? Any sorrow for sin? I don’t. All I hear is self-pity and regret about his punishment. In II Corinthians 7:10, Paul makes a distinction between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow: Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. All I see in Cain’s words is worldly sorrow and regret for the consequences of sin.
One of Cain’s fears is that others will kill him in an act of vengeance. In response, God puts a seal of his own protection on Cain. We are not sure why God did this. Maybe he wanted the occasional appearances of the perpetual fugitive to serve as reminder of the consequences of sin. Maybe it was just another gesture of his grace, giving Cain a lifetime to repent of his sins. But whatever the case, the penalty of his sin is limited to a lifetime of wandering.
Verse 16 concludes with the words: So Cain went from the LORD’s presence and lived in the land of Nod. Did you get that? He “went out from the presence of the Lord.” The regression of sin drives us ever farther from God. He lived out his life far from the presence of the Lord.
There is another subtext in this chapter in the following verses. It is another reality of the regression of sin and its contagious nature. The next few verses describe the first generations of Cain’s descendants. On one hand, they are rather a high achieving lot. One became the father of the Bedouin culture and lifestyle, living in tents and raising livestock. Another was a musician and developed the first musical instruments. Still another learned to forge metal and make tools. These were significant cultural achievements and the first developments of what we call civilization. But it was all done in a godless environment. This chapter chronicles the introduction of polygamy – departing from the model of monogamy which God laid down in the creation. The chapter also includes the first human poem. Culture? Yes. But the theme of the poem is one of boasting and vengeance. The line of Cain and his descendants was drifting further and further from God and his revealed will. The regression of sin drives us ever farther from God. And that gap only grows as one godless generation follows another.
Thankfully, there is another contrasting plot line in Genesis 4. There is a fork in the road in the opening verses of the chapter. We have followed Cain on his journey down one branch of the road. It is not a pretty picture. But let’s go back to the fork in the road and to the choice of the second brother. So far we have only considered him as a victim of his brother’s violence. Cain was the first murderer. Abel was the first murder victim. But he was more than that. Did you know that his name is the very first one listed in the great faith chapter in Hebrews 11:4?
First of all, what do we know about him? His name was Abel. The text does not give any explanation of the significance of his name. Some believe it is a play on the root word meaning “vanity or emptiness.” Others believe it may come from a similar root in the Akkadian language meaning “son”. Since no explanation is given, we probably should not press the etymology. We are told that he kept or tended flocks, probably referring to sheep and goats.
In due time, he brought an offering to the Lord. His offering is described as being “from the firstborn” and “from the fat portions” of the animals. In other words, he brought the best of the best to offer to the Lord. In response to his actions, we are clearly told: The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering. The contrast of God’s response to the two brothers and their offering is clear. But what made the difference? Why did God regard the one with favor but not the other? This question has produced considerable debate. Was it the content of the offering: fruits of the soil versus a blood sacrifice from the offspring of Abel’s flock? Was it the fact that Abel gave the firstborn and the fat portion – the best of the best he had – while Cain simply gave “some of the fruits of the soil” in a kind of off-hand way. Or was it because God simply knew the condition of the hearts of the two men? After all, it was the man himself who was first regarded, and then the offering.
The answer probably incorporates all of the above. But let me highlight what I believe is the key ingredient in understanding the difference between the two offerings. It is found in the passage I referred to just a moment ago: Hebrews 11:4:
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. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.
The key ingredient is faith. Abel offered his sacrifice by faith. Cain did not. As I said, Abel is the very first person mentioned in the faith chapter. We are told that his faith still speaks to us. His life was short, but his influence lives after him. So it was Abel’s faith that God saw, identified and approved of. Now that still leaves us with the question: how was Abel’s faith manifested? What was it in his sacrifice that demonstrated faith? Here I am treading on more uncertain ground. But let me share my conclusions. Obviously, God sees and knows the human heart. Identical actions can be viewed very differently by God because he sees the heart behind the action. So God saw Abel’s faith even before he saw his actions. But I also believe that Abel’s faith was demonstrated in the sacrifice he brought. I can’t prove it from the text, but I believe that God had communicated to Adam and Eve and their sons not only the necessity of sacrifice, but the kind of sacrifices he desired. And I believe from the very beginning he desired blood sacrifice.
I believe the necessity of shedding blood to cover sin is hinted at in Genesis 3, when God made “garments of skin” to cover the nakedness and shame of Adam and Eve. Obviously in the unfolding of God’s revelation in the Old and New Testament, we are clearly taught that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” The book of Hebrews makes a strong point of this necessity in the Old Testament and uses it to point toward the sufficiency of Jesus’ sacrifice when he shed his blood for our sins.
There is another clue to what Abel did right and what Cain did wrong in a rather obscure reference in the little New Testament letter of Jude. In this letter, Jude is warning against the false teachers who were troubling the churches. Notice what he says in verse 11: Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error; they have been destroyed in Korah’s rebellion. Now here is the question; what do these three have in common? “The way of Cain…Balaam’s error…Korah’s rebellion.” In a sermon series from Moses and the history of Israel a couple years ago, I spent a long time pondering this question. Here is the conclusion I came to.
They were all guilty of “man-made religion.” They were all guilty of coming to God on their own terms and offering him what they felt like offering him. Balaam was a false prophet, a prophet for profit, who sold his services to the highest bidder and was guilty of gross syncretism. Korah’s rebellion is a reference to events recorded in Numbers 16. God had clearly given instruction that Aaron and his sons were the only ones allowed to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people. Korah and his followers were jealous of Aaron. They wanted to be priests. They wanted to offer the sacrifices even though God had not appointed them as priests. If you read the rest of the story, you will say that God’s anger broke out against them. Korah and his household were literally swallowed alive by the earth, and the fire of God’s anger came out of the tabernacle and consumed the 250 would be priests as they stood with their censers to offer incense offerings. It was man-made religion. It was man approaching God arrogantly; the way they wanted to, rather than the way he clearly instructed. This also, I believe, is the “way of Cain.” He came on his own terms. He came and offered God what he felt like offering him, and thought it would be good enough. And so God did not accept him or his offering, because it was not the offering he had asked for and which he required. It was not offered in obedience or in faith. And when God says “If you do good…” I believe he is simply giving him another chance to bring the required offering; a blood sacrifice for sin.
It is a consistent theme of Scripture. When we approach God, it must be on his terms, not ours. We must approach him by the way that he provides and which he instructs us to take. Abel did that. By faith he offered the better sacrifice; a blood sacrifice which foreshadowed the sacrifice of the Lamb of God for the sins of the world. God accepted his offering and his faith still speaks to us today.
In addition to the example of Abel and his faith, there is one more note of hope in this otherwise dark chapter. It is found in the last few verses. Adam and Eve had many offspring. The names given here are selective, not exhaustive. In verse 25, we are told that Eve gave birth to another son. She named him Seth which means placed, put or granted. She specifically welcomed him and named him as a replacement to Abel, the son who had been murdered. Seth took Abel’s place. Abel never had any offspring, any sons to carry on the line of faith. Seth did. He became the forbearer of the offspring of Adam who would choose the path of righteousness and follow the ways of God. This is foretold in the closing words of the chapter: At that time men began to call on the name of the LORD. Godly worship was established as the pattern for those who would follow God and his ways by faith.
The fork in the road is still very clear. Every one of us faces it. On one side is the way of Cain; the road of self-reliance, of man-made religion, of arrogance and sin, of humanism and man-centered civilization. It is a path that leads us ever farther from God and towards a life of restless wandering.
Then there is the way of Abel; the road of faith; approaching God by way of the better sacrifice; the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. The apostles summarized it this way in Acts 4:12: Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” That name is Jesus.
If you are following the way of Cain, and you are tired of the restless wandering, I would hasten to point out that our God is a God of grace. He offers the opportunity of U-turns. He offered Cain several. Cain ignored them all and blundered on to his final doom. Don’t make the same mistake. Turn around. Repent. Come back to the fork in the road. Choose the better sacrifice. Call on the name of Jesus.
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- Share the worst case of “sibling rivalry” you have ever experienced or witnessed. What were the issues? What was the final outcome?
- One of the principle points in the sermon is the progressive (or regressive) nature of sin. How have you seen this principle (one sin leads to another and another, etc.) illustrated in your experience? (Your examples can be personal or based on observation of others.)
- Genesis 4 records some impressive cultural achievements and advances of civilization among Cain’s descendants, yet in a godless environment. Discuss how this relates to our attitude as Christians toward man’s achievements in art, science and technology in our day?
- What “U-turns” did God offer Cain? In what ways did God offer you “U-turns” and how many of them did you ignore before you came to faith in Christ?
- Discuss the contrast between Abel’s sacrifice and Cain’s. Does identifying the common ingredient as “man-made religion” in Jude 11 make sense to you? Can you give additional examples from Scripture and/or life?
- “When we approach God, we must come on his terms, not ours.” Do you agree or disagree? What are the implications?