We often zip through well-known Bible stories, but when I reread Genesis 4 recently, I was taken in by its beauty. I offer you the fruit of me reading it with care.

First, in reading any biblical narrative, we have to look for the protagonist and remember that the story is about them. For example, this story is not about Abel’s martyrdom. The original readers would have realized that a character whose name means “vapor” probably does not have an essential role in the story. This story is about Cain.

When I reread this story, I felt compassion for Cain because his sacrifice was rejected. However, I later realized that God also had sympathy for Cain, but not so much that he would redefine “proper.”

A bit of background is needed here. See, God’s choice of sacrifice was not an arbitrary show of favoritism. To “look with favor” (NIV) means to regard as “proper.”[1] While Cain offered some random fruit, Abel offered the fat portions of the firstborn of his flock. Abel’s offering was precious and in keeping with the requirements.

Cain was understandably devastated. However, God did not leave Cain alone with his sense of rejection and disappointment but mercifully reached out to him. Like a caring Father, the LORD spoke the truth in love to Cain and reminded him[2] that if he would do what is “proper,” he would be accepted.

In our modern world that emphasizes humanity’s right to free choice and demands tolerance and pluralism, these words might seem cruel, but there is deep mercy in them. Back then, just like now, God had provided a way of having fellowship with him and being welcomed. But only one “proper” way was acceptable to him.

In a further show of mercy, God warns Cain that if he chooses not to do what is “proper” before God, a force is waiting to overpower him. God personifies sin here and cautions Cain that he must master it. But Cain does not accept God’s words of correction and his invitation to fellowship. Instead, he lets sin personified pounce on him. He chooses vengeance.

After Cain murdered Abel out of envy, in yet another show of mercy, God approached Cain with a simple query, rhetorical though the question might be. Cain, however, did not use this chance to confess. Instead, he shunned God’s mercy and replied with biting sarcasm.

Failing to receive the proper response, the LORD then issued a judgment. Because Cain murdered his brother out of jealousy, shedding his blood on the land, Cain could no longer cultivate the ground successfully. Furthermore, he was cursed to wander around restlessly because of his wickedness.

After judgment was issued, Cain finally softened up and showed remorse. He finally appreciated the weight of what he had done. He realized that he would no longer live in God’s presence. Regarding his fear of being killed, God never said Cain would die for what he did, but perhaps he realized that murder was a capital offense.

As the last act of mercy, perhaps because he had shown some remorse, God put a mark on Cain that would protect him from being killed for his actions. But he still had to leave God’s presence, be removed even further East of Eden than his parents, and wander around restlessly. His fellowship with God and humans was irrevocably damaged.

I hope this blog gave you a greater appreciation for just how merciful God was to Cain and is to us today. May we have soft hearts so that when God’s Spirit convicts us and tries to nudge us back on track, sometimes through others (e.g., Nathan; 2 Sam 12), we would cry out for mercy and not be clever about it. May we give in to his tug so that our fellowship with him and our spiritual siblings would not suffer damage.

Let us master what would damage this fellowship and have us wander restlessly through our lives by submitting our lives to God (Jam 4:7). Let us be living sacrifices, which is our “proper” service to God, and not conform to the world around us (Rom 12:1) that is not open to correction and will only devote themselves to the God of mercy on their terms.

Short bio

Izaak holds an MTh from SATS, where he has lectured in biblical studies since 2015. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in Old Testament with a focus on Deuteronomy at SATS. Izaak is passionate about helping believers delight in the beautiful things that the Old Testament reveals about the character of God. Izaak is married to Karien and lives in Stellenbosch, where they fellowship at the local Joshua Generation Church.

[1] Hoogendyk, Isaiah (ed). 2017. The Lexham Analytical Lexicon of the Hebrew Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[2] The phrasing suggests he was aware.