The Murder of the First Messiah (Genesis 4:1-16)

After the people of Israel escaped from slavery in Egypt they lived for two years at the foot of Mount Sinai in Arabia, while God prepared them for life in their new their homeland.

Then, two years, two months, and twenty days after they left Egypt, the cloud of God lifted from over the tabernacle and headed north and west, into the wilderness, toward the promised land. The people followed. And we are told that the cloud of God hovered over them the whole way, protecting them from the fierce desert sun, so they could travel in the shade.

The journey only took them a few weeks, and when they arrived, they sent 12 spies into the country to help them plan their attack.

The spies came back. Two of them said, “This land is delightful. Let’s go in!”

The other ten spies said, “Yes, yes, very nice countryside. But, also, very full of — ahem — giants. They will squash us if we go in!”

And when the people heard this, they said, “Oh, great! Moses, did you bring us here to die? We are going back to Egypt!”

And when God heard this, he said, “Oh, don’t wanna go in izzit? Fine! Everybody: back in the car! We are going to drive around in the desert for the next 40 years until you’ve worked this nonsense out of your system!”

And when the people heard that, they had a sudden change of heart: “Ohhhh! You mean the choice is between ‘going into the land’ or ‘wandering in the desert’? See, we didn’t realize that! We thought the choice was between ‘going into the land’ or ‘going back to Egypt’. This is all just an unfortunate misunderstanding! We’re ready to follow you now. Are you ready? I’m ready. See? We’re all ready now. So: lead on! We follow!”

But when Moses saw everybody getting ready to charge into the land, he said, “Ah, guys? Guys? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the cloud of God is going that way, eastward, back out into the wilderness. He is not leading you into the land. So you have a decision to make here: are you going to follow God, and trust him to protect you and provide for you even in the wilderness? — or are you going to leave his protection and try to provide for yourselves?”

And really, the people should have known the right answer to that question.

Because, during those years back at Mount Sinai, Moses would have told them a certain story about two brothers in the wilderness, and how one of those brothers faced a very similar choice — and made the wrong decision. The people already knew what the consequences of not following God would be —

But, you know, how about if we pause here, and take a look at Moses’ story of the two brothers in the wilderness, and see what it says for ourselves. And then we’ll come back later to find out what the people of Israel decided to do.

So, as we pick up Moses’ story here, Adam and Eve have been driven out of the garden, away from the mountain of God, into the wilderness, where — through painful toil — they have to bring life out of the ground and life out of each other…and all without God.

But not quite without God. God is everywhere, and he is still with his children, even in the wilderness. And he proves that he is still with them by keeping his promises: he promised children for Eve, and he promised food for Adam.

And that is how Moses starts the story: [1] Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain.

God is keeping his promise to give Eve children. And it is clear from Eve’s response that she understands this:

She said, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.”

In other words, “God is keeping his promise to me!” She has produced life! — which is also the hope of a Messiah, a Saviour, who will crush the serpent’s head and save mankind.

And Moses wants to make sure we get this point, that is why he uses Eve’s name here for the second and the last time. He wants us to remember that she is the “mother of all the living” — that ultimately, through her, salvation will come to mankind.

The story goes on: [2] later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.

[3] In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. [4] And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.

So here we see that God is keeping his promise to give Adam food. And this blessing has been passed on to his sons, so much so that they are pausing here to worship God with their thanksgiving offerings.

The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, [5] but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

Now, there has been a lot of discussion over the years about why God accepted Abel’s offering, but rejected Cain’s.

One very popular answer is that Abel’s offering was a blood sacrifice, but Cain’s was just a vegetable sacrifice. However, later on, in God’s law, vegetable sacrifices are part of the system. Vegetable sacrifices are for thanksgiving; blood sacrifices are for sin. Cain and Abel are giving thanks, not atoning for sin, and Moses makes that clear by using the word “offering” instead of the word “sacrifice”.

There is something else Moses makes clear: he points out that Abel’s offering was from “the firstborn of his flock”, while Cain just brought “some of the fruits of the soil”. This is why God accepted Abel’s offering but rejected Cain’s: Abel brought the firstfruits, but Cain only brought some fruits. And later on, in God’s law, we do find that the people are instructed to bring their firstfruits as an offering.

Let me define firstfruits: firstfruits are the first fruits harvested during harvest season. The first grain to ripen, the first lambs to be born. Basically: the firstfruits are the first 10% of the farmer’s income.

And this raises a question for us: why? Why did God tell his people to give the firstfruits, the first 10%? Why wasn’t it enough for someone to just bring the best of their fruits? For instance, what if someone gave their lastfruits but they gave 20% or 30%? Wouldn’t that be better?

Well, God is not actually interested in how much someone gives. He is more interested in how much the gift costs. Firstfruits cost more than lastfruits, even if they are only 10% compared to 20 or 30%.

To understand this, we need to try to imagine what it is like to be a farmer or a herder. Let’s say you have a large field of wheat, and you have a large herd of pregnant sheep. As harvest season approaches, about 10% of the wheat will ripen before the rest, and about 10% of the sheep will give birth before the rest. So, you harvest that 10% and give it to God. Firstfruits. Then you go back to your field, your flock, and wait for the other 90% to ripen — and that 90% is what you have to live on. That is your salary.

But, let’s say that, when you get home from giving your first 10%, you discover that rain has destroyed the rest of your wheat. And when you go to check on your flock, a virus has struck and all the lambs are stillborn.

Then you would really wish you had kept that first 10%! Right?

That is why firstfruits cost more than lastfruits: giving up the first 10% of your crops and herds every year is an act of faith in God. It is a way of saying, “God, I don’t know what the future holds. Maybe I will double my profits this year; maybe I will lose everything. But whatever happens, I will worship you with these offerings. I will trust you with my future.”

Which means that the opposite is also true: someone who holds back their firstfruits is really telling God, “I don’t trust you. Let me gather all my crops and make sure I am taken care of. Then I will give you the last 10% or 20% or whatever you want.” But God doesn’t care if it’s 10% or 20 or 30 or 70! — he’s not interested in numbers, he’s interested in the relationship. He wants to know if we trust him.

So this is why God accepted Abel’s offering, but rejected Cain’s: Abel believed God would keep his promise to provide food. Cain did not. And that is also how the New Testament analyzes this situation: “By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did.”

Ironically, Cain’s sin of unbelief is exactly like Adam’s sin. Adam did not trust God’s promise to provide the knowledge he would need, so he took the fruit of knowledge for himself. Now, Cain — like father, like son — does not trust God’s promise to provide the food he needs, so he takes the firstfruits for himself.

[6] 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?

God is telling Cain that he has decision to make: “Are you going to follow me, and trust in my protection and provision even in this wilderness? — or are you going to leave my protection and continue to try to provide for yourself?”

And — by the way — God has also noticed that Cain’s temptation is exactly like Adam’s temptation. We know this because of what he says next:

But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

These are the same words God used when he spoke to Cain’s mother in Chapter 3, when he told her, “From now on your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

Basically, God is reminding Cain about how his father Adam failed. Adam was created first, before his wife. As the “older brother” he was under a covenant obligation to lead his wife — his “younger sister” — into true worship. Instead, he broke the covenant. He led his wife away from true worship by letting her lead him away from true worship.

Now, just like Adam, Cain — as the older brother — is under a covenant obligation to lead his younger brother into true worship. Instead, he broke that covenant by leading his younger brother away from true worship. The difference, this time, is that the younger sibling refused to follow. And the younger sibling was right. So now Cain is angry because, frankly, he has been humiliated.

Now, what is the solution?

Repentance, of course! If you do something that turns out to be wrong, the best thing to do is swallow your pride, admit it, and go back the way you came. That’s what God just told him: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? Cain, son, return to true worship! Approach me in faith and trust and you will find that I am faithful! Give me your firstfruits next time and you will find that I will provide the other 90% for you!”

But what keeps Cain from repenting? His pride. Because if he turned around now he would basically be following his younger brother into true worship — and he’s not going to do that! He is the older brother! He is not going to humble himself and admit that his younger brother was right while he was wrong!

Pride is the sin that is crouching at Cain’s door, waiting to lead him even further away from true worship. And God is pleading with his son, “Humble yourself. Repent. You must get control of that sin or it will devour you.”

But, some time later, [8] Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

This is how the New Testament summarizes this moment: why did Cain murder his brother? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righeous.

Cain killed Abel out of envy. He could not bear the humiliation of his little brother being right while he was wrong, so he got rid of the source of his humiliation.

Except that Abel was not actually the source of Cain’s humiliation:

[9] Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?

I don’t know, ” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?

And we can see here how far Cain has fallen in comparison to his father Adam. When God asked Adam about his sin, Adam tried to hide it and tried to blame God — but at least he was ashamed of what he had done.

Cain is not. He has already graduated to Platinum Pagan Club Membership: he lies. He offers no explanation at all. And then he redefines the whole system to make sure he has nothing to be ashamed of anyway: “Oh, am I my brother’s keeper now? Am I the ‘older brother’ again? I thought I was demoted already. I thought Abel was your new golden boy! You should be asking Abel where I am!”

[10] The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. [11] Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. [12] When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

Cain was supposed to use the power and authority of his postion as the older brother to protect Abel and lead him to God’s blessing. Instead, he used his trusted position to kill Abel and get his own way.

Cain removed Abel’s protection; so now, in consequence, God removes Cain’s protection. Cain was under the protection of a covenant; now he is under a curse — and we should notice that this is the first time a human being is directly cursed in scripture. Murder is a big deal!

But, again, we need to understand that this curse is not a biological one. It is not as if God suddenly changed Cain’s DNA so he would be a terrible farmer. Ancient people didn’t think in those scientific terms.

This curse — just like the curses in Chapter 3 — is a relational curse. Cain’s biology has not changed; his covenant relationship with God and with his family has changed. Cain is now a terrible farmer, not because his DNA is different, but because from now on he will be on the run, a restless wanderer on the earth.

Why? Well, we have to remember that the cultures of that time were revenge cultures, just like many tribal cultures still are today. There were no police, no prisons to put murderers in. So the only way a family could get justice for their murdered family member was by tracking down the murderer and killing him. That is what being under a blood curse means: it means that there is a bounty on your head, and anyone who meets you might try to kill you for the reward money.

Obviously, it is very hard to be a successful farmer when you are being hunted! You would have to move constantly, or else travel far into the wilderness away from people, to where the ground is no good for farming anyway.

So Cain is now truly under a curse in a way that Adam and Eve were not. Adam was under God’s covenant to protect the garden. He broke the covenant, and brought death into his family. But he only brought death indirectly, and he was very sorry he did it. So he lost the garden, he lost his home with God, but he did not lose his family.

Cain was under God’s covenant to protect his little brother. He broke that covenant. Just like Adam, he brought death into his family — but he did it directly, with his own hand. And he is not sorry! So now he has lost his home — not just with God! — but with his family also. From now on he will be a restless wanderer on the earth, hunted by his own brothers, who need to avenge Abel’s murder.

And Cain understands this very clearly:

[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.”

There is something ironic going on here. Before, when Cain was the older brother — the one with all the power and authority — God’s covenant just got in his way, and kept him from doing what he wanted.

But now that he is powerless, suddenly he realizes how valuable God’s covenant is! Suddenly he realizes he does not want to live without God’s protective covenant!

He broke covenant with Abel; now God is breaking covenant with Cain. And Cain’s complaint is, basically: “Wait a minute! You mean you’re going to treat me exactly like I treated my younger brother?”

[15] But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.”

God has just promised that — if someone does track Cain down and kill him — God himself will act as Cain’s brother, and will avenge his death. That’s what God means when he says they will suffer vengeance seven times over. In many ancient cultures, seven was a number that symbolized completeness. It was a way of saying, “God himself will bring complete vengeance upon anyone who attacks you.”

And what we’re seeing here is that God, in his mercy — even now! — is not leaving Cain totally unprotected in the wilderness.

Cain has deliberately destroyed the family covenant he enjoyed with Adam and Eve and all the rest of his brothers. God is honouring Cain’s personhood by letting him reap the fruit of his actions. But even though Cain can no longer enjoy the protection of a family, he still has God’s protection — if he wants it.

And that is pretty amazing, isn’t it? How many of us would give this guy another chance?

Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.

And there has been a lot of discussion over the years about this part also: what was this mark that God put on Cain?

People have come up with many strange answers: it has been suggested that Cain grew a horn on his head; that he got leprosy; that God gave him a dog that protected him from attackers; that God put a tattoo on his arm, or that he had God’s name branded on his forehead to warn people away…

But there is a simpler answer. The word “mark” is also the word for “sign” which is related to the word for “oath” or “promise”. Moses is basically repeating for a second time what God just said, to make sure we don’t miss the significance of it: God just put a “promise” on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. Moses is showing us, again, that God is so patient, so merciful, even toward those who hate him. God is always trying to lead his children gently back to himself.

He put protective clothing on Adam and Eve before he drove them out of the garden; now he puts a protective promise on Cain before driving him from the land.

[16] So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

The land of Nod just means “the land of wandering”, so this is a direct fulfillment of God’s curse: you will be a restless wanderer on the earth. Tradition says that the land of Nod is now Afghanistan, which is why, sometimes, in old records, you’ll see Afghanistan called “the land of Cain”. But this idea is based on the idea that the garden of Eden was in the mountains of Afghanistan, where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers begin. And we already discussed in the first sermon of this series why this is unlikely. Really, it is impossible for us to know where the garden of Eden was.

Besides, Moses is not interested in giving us directions to the garden of Eden, or to the land of Nod. He is interested in teaching us the significance of these places and their relation to each other. And he does this by telling us that the land of Nod is east of Eden.

Now, why is “the east” significant?

Well, the first time Moses mentioned “the east” was right back at the beginning of Book 2, when the Lord God planted a garden in the east, in Eden — the land of Delight. That time, “the east” was associated with delight, with the rising sun, with the mountain of God.

But the second time Moses mentioned “the east” was at the end of Chapter 3, when God placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim to guard the way to the tree of life. And so, when Adam and Eve stood at the east gate of the garden, and looked westward back into the garden, all they saw was God’s angels blocking the way. And so this concept of “the east” got spoilt; delight and joy and life got mixed in with feelings of sorrow and judgement and death.

And so now, when Moses mentions “the east” for the third time, we are supposed to feel that ambivalence. The east is good if you are in the west, travelling eastward toward the garden! But the east is bad if you are in the east, looking westward back into the garden you have lost.

So this is the question Moses wants us to be asking at this point: is Cain’s movement further east a good thing or a bad thing?

On the one hand, Cain appears to be travelling farther away from the garden of Eden. Apparently the rest of the family is living just outside the eastern gate of the garden, they are trying to stay as close as possible to God’s presence. Cain is moving further away — which is bad. Right?

On the other hand, Cain is travelling toward the rising sun, which is good, because the rising sun is also symbolic of God’s presence. Remember, when Moses led God’s people out of Egypt, he led them out of the west toward the east, toward the rising sun, toward Sinai, the mountain of God.

So we are ending here today on a bit of a cliffhanger. Cain is moving east. But it is hard to tell if this is an act of faith for Cain, or if it is an act of continued rebellion. God has promised to be Cain’s big brother, he has promised to be Cain’s kinsman-redeemer — Cain’s Messiah! — if Cain should ever need avenging. So is Cain travelling east because he has finally learned to have faith in God’s promises? Or is he travelling east because he is, once again, rejecting God’s promise and saying, “I am going to protect myself”?

And the ancient people of Israel, as they stood there at the eastern gate of the promised land, looking westward into the promised land of delight, looking eastward at God’s presence heading back out into the wilderness, they had a choice to make. Will they travel west, without God, into the land? Or will they follow God eastward and become restless wanderers in the wilderness?

Will they submit to God’s wandering curse but remain under his care? Or will they deliberately leave God’s protection and try to provide for themselves in the promised land?

They chose Option B. They marched into the land without God, and got smashed. They were driven back out, eastward, and the cloud of God led them back out into the wilderness, into the land of Nod, where they wandered for the next 40 years. And as we read the story of those 40 years, just like with Cain it is hard to tell sometimes if their travels in the east are an act of faith in God, or if they simply had no choice.

But in the New Testament, Paul tells us the answer: they only followed God eastward because they had no choice. God protected them from their enemies, his cloud continued to protect them from the sun. The ground no longer yielded food for them — because they were wandering — but the sky provided food: bread from heaven. But still, Paul tells us, in the end they had no faith, and they all died there in the wilderness.

But, good news: God saved their children. God raised up the next generation. It was the next generation that he led westward into the land of delight, the land of promise. And he promoted Israel to the position of “older brother” over all the pagan nations around them. Their job was to lead their “younger brother” nations into true worship of the true God.

They failed. When God actually showed up — Jesus of Nazareth — the “older brother” nation of Israel led their “younger brother” nation of Rome to murder him. And the strange thing is, Jesus knew this was going to happen, and he warned the leaders of Israel not to do it, just as God warned Cain not to do it. Jesus told them that if they murdered him, they would lose their temple, they would lose their homeland, they would become a nation of restless wanderers on the earth.

And the leaders of Israel should have known he was telling the truth: because the truth is right here in Genesis, Chapter 4. The parallels are exact:

Cain was responsible to lead Abel into true worship; the leaders of Israel were responsible to lead the Greeks and Romans into true worship.

Cain led Abel to reject true worship; the leaders of Israel led the Greeks to reject Jesus.

Abel practiced true worship anyway; the Greeks accepted Jesus anyway!

Cain refused to repent, grew jealous of Abel, and murdered him; the leaders of Israel refused to repent, grew jealous of the Greek Christians, and made false reports about them to Rome. They tried to murder Christianity, which is Judaism’s younger brother.

So God condemned Cain to wander; and that is exactly what has happened to Israel also. From that day until now, Israel has been a wandering nation, a people scattered across the face of the earth. To this day Israel does not have a legitimate homeland.

And so, what we’re finding out here, is that Abel is actually the first shadow of the Messiah. Abel’s life of pure worship, and his murder at the hands of his own brother, are prophecies of what the Messiah’s life and death would be like. Jesus also lived a life of pure worship, and he was was murdered by his own brothers. But as the New Testament points out, even though Abel’s spilled blood spoke and brought judgement upon Cain, Jesus’ spilled blood speaks an even better word and brings salvation to all who repent.

It is Jesus who leads us — his little brothers and sisters — into true worship in a true homeland, where no longer will there be any curse.

And now, as we do every week, we have ask: so what? How is this supposed to change our lives? What practical things are we supposed to do because of what we have read here?

Well, ummm…”Don’t murder your brother” comes to mind. Not sure if that is directly relevant to us, though…

We could say, “Don’t murder your brother’s murderer, trust God to curse him.” And that would be a good application if we were in a culture that practices honour killings. But…again, perhaps not so directly relevant to our situation…

We could turn this into a sermon about how you had better tithe your firstfruits or else…! But that’s not actually the point either. It is a factor in the story, but that’s not really what Moses was trying to teach God’s people.

So: what was Moses trying to teach God’s people?

Well, in this we can actually follow the writers of the New Testament. When they looked back at the story of Cain and Abel, they came up with two very specific and very practical applications.

In the Book of 1 John, we are told this: do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one.

Then, in the Book of Hebrews, we are given this advice: see to it that you do not refuse him who speaks.

Now, what do those applications mean, and how do we apply them to our lives?

First: do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one. The evil one tempted Adam, and Adam sinned. The evil one used the exact same temptation on Cain, and Cain sinned in the same way: he lost faith in God’s promises. He decided to take care of himself, even if that meant betraying his own family. The evil one tempts us in exactly the same way. So the application is simple: don’t fall for that! Cling to God’s covenant promises.

Which leads us to the second application, from the Book of Hebrew: see to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. God spoke and warned Cain to repent, and follow his younger brother into true worship. In the same way, the New Testament Book of Hebrews is warning Israel to repent, and follow their younger brothers — the Greek Christians — into true worship. And so here, today, God’s Word is warning us to listen to him who speaks: we are being called to repent of being like Cain, and we are being called to follow our brother Jesus into true worship.

Moses’ whole point here is to teach God’s people what true worship looks like! — what true faith looks like!

So, practically speaking, then: what does true worship look like: tithing 10%?

Ah! See, you knew I’d work that back in here, right?

No. How much we give is less important than when we give. When we give is what reveals the quality of our faith. When a brother or sister is in need, do we trust God enough to give? When our future is uncertain, do we trust our Father enough to give? Abel gave his firstfruits, and trusted God for the rest. Cain did not.

But even then, hope was not lost: Cain could have turned around and followed his younger brother into worship. He could have followed God even through the humiliation of admitting that he was wrong. He could have trusted his Father to carry him through that wilderness and back to the altar of true worship.

In the same way, the evil one is always tempting us to walk away from our Father’s covenant, and to provide for ourselves at the cost of everyone around us. Just like Cain, just like the people of Israel, we often face a decision: will we reach out and take what we think we need! or will we trust our Father to provide even if it means years of wandering in the wilderness?

And then, when we do give in to the temptation, and break our covenant with God and with our family — that is when pride crouches at our door, and whispers to us, and tells us that repentance is too hard, too humiliating, that it will cost too much. Pride’s desire is to dominate us! and it is at that point that we must rule over it, or be lost. Repent! And you will find that it does not cost too much, because the sprinkled blood of Jesus speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

So, in the end here, this is what true worship — true faith — looks like: trust, and failure, and repentance, and trust, and failure, and repentance, and trust again. When the temptation comes to compromise your faith for a promotion or for safety or for whatever, flee from that temptation into the promises of God. Then, when you fall, and Satan tells you it is too late to repent, resist him! standing firm in the faith that tells you it is never too late to return to worship. If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?

Here is Moses’ closing advice to us: follow God even if it looks like he is leading you into the wilderness. Trust him. Do not go off seeking your own provision. Do not walk away from his protection. And if you do suddenly find yourself alone in the middle of a desert where you thought you would find a garden, then: repent quickly. Our Father will take you back.

And that’s good news, yeah?

The best. 

Scroll to top