By way of explanation, we have in today’s chapters the first of many biblical genealogies. These genealogies are often filled with unpronounceable names of people who are unknown to us. These lists are dry and boring to us. What is helpful to know is that genealogies serve as markers in the text, almost always separating one important narrative from the next. For instance, we have a genealogy just before the story of Noah. After Noah’s story, we’ll see another genealogy before the Tower of Babel, and another before the calling of Abram. Though dry in and of themselves, genealogies tell us to be on the lookout for something important that is coming.
Now, on to the substance of Genesis 4-6.
The story of Cain and Abel is famous well beyond Judeo-Christian faith communities; and yet, we really have very little understanding about this iconic text which seems to create more questions than it answers. Perhaps it is possible, as we are just beginning the entire story of God’s great rescue of humanity, that stirring questions in our hearts is precisely the point!
Cain is the firstborn of Adam and Eve. He is therefore the first heir of their fallen nature, and, as a worker of the ground, he is the first to inherit the curse of the ground (“cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you . . . ” [Gen. 3:17c-18a]). Interestingly Cain is also the first to bring an offering to God. However, when his younger brother, Abel, a keeper of sheep, brings an offering, Abel’s offering is accepted, but the Lord has no regard for Cain’s offering.
While there has been much theological debate over why one offering was superior to the other, it seems that the author’s specific mention that Abel’s offering was “of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions” is the clue. The difference is not in the substance of the offerings themselves, but in the heart behind them. While Cain gave a portion of his harvest, Abel gave his firstborn lamb, in faith and trust that God would later provide others. Without too much speculation, we can conclude that Cain gave out of a sense of duty, while Abel gave out of a sense of adoration and gratitude. Abel’s offering was received, and Cain’s was not.
Despite the fact that God maintains a relationship with Cain, encouraging him to master his sin, we quickly see the full extent of fallen human nature. Where we saw blame and shame in the conversation between Adam, Eve, and God in chapter 3, we now see jealousy, hatred, and murder between Cain and Abel, followed by Cain’s further foolish attempt to deceive God: “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9).
As we see raw and exposed the root of our own fallen nature, we also catch an early aroma of the Christian Gospel. In this instructive narrative we see in the first son of Adam the full and natural end of human depravity. However, we see in the second son of Adam the offer of a firstborn lamb as a sacrifice given in love to God. We then see the second son killed unjustly by the very one who should have been his protector. Jesus Christ, whom John the Baptist called the lamb of God, and whom St. Paul called the second Adam, was given as a loving sacrifice to God and by God on our behalf. He was unjustly killed by the very ones who should have recognized, worshiped, and protected him. And, thank God, God accepted his perfect atoning sacrifice and the pure heart with which it was given, declaring us free by the blood of the Lamb!