With Genesis 4, we continue the saga of the earth’s first family. Adam and Eve, as most of us know, had two sons: “Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground” (4:2). One day, both sons brought an offering before God. Abel brought a firstborn of his flock, while Cain brought an offering of his produce. We all know the rest of the story: God accepted Abel’s sacrifice, but rejected Cain’s. Cain was infuriated and took his anger out on Abel and killed him. End of story, right?
But is that really all that’s going on in our story? First off, let’s face it: Does it really seem fair for God to reject Cain’s sacrifice? After all, Cain had simply brought his best to God, just like Abel, right? What’s the big deal? Here’s the critical point to remember: If we look carefully at Genesis 3, we see that God had already demonstrated the sacrificial system to the first family. Cain and Abel, therefore, understood what God wanted from them. “They knew that in these offerings they were to express faith in the Saviour whom the offerings typified, and at the same time to acknowledge their total dependence on Him for pardon…” (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 71)
Cain and Abel had a choice – follow God’s way or do things their way. And here’s the big difference: Abel brought a blood sacrifice to demonstrate his trust, not in his own best efforts, but in Someone Else’s ultimate sacrifice on his behalf. Abel understood that he didn’t have anything that God wanted, except his own heart. Cain, on the other, decided that he didn’t need a lamb. (After all, he would have to get one from his kid brother’s flock.) He would give God something even better! He would present God with a fruit offering of his own produce, the results of all of his own hard work! God would really appreciate that! After all, God would know how long and hard Cain had worked to till the ground and grow this precious produce. What a sacrifice! Sadly, however, Cain did not realize the point of the sacrifice was not to see who could offer the most, but to recognize their need of a Savior. Cain misunderstood the purpose of the sacrifice and, thereby, the character of his Creator.
But God still loved Cain. In fact, Genesis 4:6 records that Divine Mercy reached out to Cain and pleaded with him to soften his heart. But Cain rejected the plea and allowed himself to be so consumed by hatred that he was finally led to commit the first murder our universe has ever seen. But God still loved Cain. His mercy was once again extended only to be again rejected:
Notwithstanding that Cain had by his crimes merited the sentence of death, a merciful Creator still spared his life, and granted him opportunity for repentance. But Cain lived only to harden his heart, to encourage rebellion against the divine authority, and to become the head of a line of bold, abandoned sinners. This one apostate, led on by Satan, became a tempter to others; and his example and influence exerted their demoralizing power, until the earth became so corrupt and filled with violence as to call for its destruction. (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 78)