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How Sin Led to the First Murder -- a study of Genesis 4:1-15

The consequences of sin are endless.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 4:1-15

Right off the heels of seeing Adam and Eve expelled from the garden in Eden, we learn about their children. They had very different hearts for the Lord, which lead to jealousy, anger, murder, and then leaving "home" for good. The consequences of sin will spiral from there. We are challenged to keep our hearts in tune with God's.

But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. (4:7)

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

While I don't believe in "new year's resolutions" (if there's something you should be doing, just start doing it), I do believe that the turning of a calendar year is a good time to look back and look ahead.

  • What has God done in your personal life, your family, and your Bible study group in 2023? Where has your discipleship walk stalled? Where has it grown stronger?

  • Related, what are those areas of your personal spiritual life and discipleship you need to focus on in 2024? For your entire group? Your family?

Goals matter, particularly goals in discipleship. Our desire should be to believe we are walking more closely with Jesus over the course of a year. But how can we know that without "measurements"? And what do you consider valid measurements in discipleship? That's the value of setting goals. You get to work those out with God.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Your Whole Heart in Worship

There is one goal I'd like to submit for your consideration (and this is going to sound dangerously like a resolution) -- would you consider improving your worship attendance and participation in 2024?

If you Google "worship attendance trends", you'll find some depressing articles. It's become a truism that people aren't going to church like they used to. (Aside: when you're doing research, you need to pay attention to dates. Several of the articles that claim to be talking about 2023 were (perhaps unknowingly) using data from 2022. Or 2014 🤔.)

Luckily for me, the exact numbers really aren't that important -- someone else's attendance patterns should have zero impact on your attendance patterns. So, here is a simple chart that claims to have year-end numbers for 2022:

The article says these numbers are for all religious practitioners in America, not just Christians. Let's say that these numbers are just roughly correct for right now. Where do you fall in those groupings? And then the two biggest questions:

  • Why?

  • What would it take for you to "move up"?

[Soapbox aside: I've had people tell me that they don't come to church because they "don't get anything out of it" (more or less). Well, considering that God commands us to (1) worship Him, (2) have Christian fellowship, and (3) learn His Word, and you're standing aloof from those things, how do you even know what you're supposed to be "getting out of it"? Let alone that worship attendance and participation isn't really about you in the first place?]

Here are a couple of articles from this year that talk about the trends:

Your Whole Heart

But I haven't actually gotten to the point of this topic: when you do attend a worship service, how much of your heart is engaged in worship? This is an impossible question to quantify, and I'm not really sure how to help you answer it. When you're in a worship service, what are you thinking about? When you sing, assuming you sing, are you making the words your own in directing them to God? When you listen, are you trying to learn and apply?

When I talk about your attendance and participation, I'm trying to cover both of those ideas -- your physical presence and also your heart's focus. In other words, you have two separate tasks:

  1. Being physically present in a worship service more often in 2024.

  2. When you're present, engaging your heart more in 2024.

What's This About?

Well, we're learning about Cain this week. Cain's worship was "unacceptable" -- his heart wasn't in it. And it was a symptom of his heart being far from God. The result? The first murder. Jesus tells us that we don't have to commit murder to be guilty of committing murder "in our heart", so this is a topic to take very seriously.

Wearing Your Emotions on Your Sleeve

How good are you at hiding your emotions? Poker players seem pretty good at it. Dogs, not so much. What about you?

I've gotten worse at it over the years. (No, really!) There are some ways in which that's okay. And it's gotten me into trouble, too.

How do you determine the difference between a time when it's good to "wear your heart on your sleeve" and when you should keep it buttoned up?

This week's passage is a weird twist of that question. Cain is wearing his emotions on his sleeve. But at the same time, he's talking to God, so it's not like he could hide those emotions. So, knowing we can't hide our emotions from God, how much of our emotion should we display in worship? How reserved should we be? In corporate worship, it's not just about God, but we're also participating with the other people in our church (see above).

It might be too early in the morning to ask that deep of a question, but perhaps you can find a spot to work that in.


Where We Are in Genesis

We haven't skipped any verses, so this week's lesson picks up right where the last left off. Sin has "entered the world", and this week we learn of its first devastating consequences.

I chose those words carefully -- I have "personified sin", as if sin is something that can act on its own. That's intentional -- God does the same thing in this week's passage:

sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must rule over it

The point: we can't blame Satan for everything. Yes, Satan "opened the door" for sin by tempting Adam and Eve, but they had to choose to act on it. And now that sin is a "part of the picture" (this is what most of us mean by "original sin" leading to a "sin nature"), we have to account for it in our own lives. Satan doesn't have to tempt everyone; they will tempt themselves.

In other words, due to the events of chapter 3, sin is now an "active participant" in the events of chapter 4 and beyond.


This Week's Big Idea: Cain's Wife

I'm sure you're probably sick of controversial topics in Genesis, but they're not over yet. This week's focal passage tries to avoid this thorny question, but all someone has to do is read the next verses:

16 Then Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden. 17 Cain was intimate with his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to Enoch. Then Cain became the builder of a city, and he named the city Enoch after his son.

If Cain was the first person to wander the earth, where did this "Land of Nod" come from, where did Can's wife come from, and where did this city come from?

Skeptics love this one. "See, all Christians are stupid." Thanks, buddy, and Merry Christmas to you.

Here are three explanations.

  1. Christians who support the idea of Darwinian evolution claim that this is evidence for parallel groups of primates evolving into humans. In our first lesson on Genesis, I explained why I don't believe that idea is theologically coherent.

  2. Most Christians believe that Adam and Eve simply had a bunch of kids, not mentioned in the Bible. Yes, this would make Cain's wife his sister, but remember that the gene pool was as close to "pure" as it would ever be. When you're starting with two people, there really aren't any other options.

  3. Here's a fascinating suggestion -- God created other humans the same way He created Adam or Eve. This suggestion leans into Abraham being "chosen" from among the peoples of the earth. God created humans, and then He "chose" Adam from among them to be His representative.

I really like the theological picture in option 3, but there's really not much we can say about it one way or the other. Consequently, I still lean toward option 2.

As far as the rest of the questions go, Cain was the first to "found"(?) the Land of Nod ("Nod" means "to wander") and the city of Enoch. Perhaps he invited some of his brothers and sisters to join him in Nod, or perhaps it was entirely populated with his own children.

[Aside on incest. Understandably, people today get really hung up on the practical implications of starting the world's population from two people: incest. Let's get this out of the way: God's law is very clear that any form of incest is against His law (see Lev 18). But we are pre-law in Genesis 4. Unless that option 3 is correct, there's just no way around it. And I lean really heavily into this "pure gene pool" idea. It takes generations for the feared degenerative effects to take place, and these first generations had near-perfect bodies and lived for hundreds of years. Sounds like a sci-fi/fantasy novel, doesn't it? Just you wait.]


Part 1: Sibling Rivalry? (Genesis 4:1-7)

The man was intimate with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain. She said, “I have had a male child with the Lord’s help.” 2 She also gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel became a shepherd of flocks, but Cain worked the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain presented some of the land’s produce as an offering to the Lord. 4 And Abel also presented an offering—some of the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions. The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but he did not have regard for Cain and his offering. Cain was furious, and he looked despondent.
6 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you furious? And why do you look despondent? 7 If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

Here, the Hebrew reads "the adam", which is why many translations don't call Adam by name here. The name "Eve" means "life-giving one" (because she would indeed be the source of life for all subsequent humans). "Was intimate with" is the Hebrew word yada, which just means "to know". It's regularly used in the Hebrew Bible as a euphemism.

The rest of verse 1 is a little tricky. The verb translated "I have had" is actually the Hebrew word for "I have created" -- qaniti. Of course, that's where the name "Cain" comes from. There are two ways we could translate Eve's words:

  • "I have created a man with the Lord's help" or

  • "I have created a man, just like the Lord did"

Your leader guide leans into the former, making it a very positive, spiritually-affirming statement. I think it's more likely to be the latter, and that doesn't make it any less spiritually-affirming. This is the very first childbirth! No midwives, no textbooks. I think we can assume that God has explained childbirth to Adam and Eve (can you imagine that conversation!!?), and they've probably watched a number of animals give birth (would that help or hurt??!), nothing changes the fact this this is the very first childbirth. All of a sudden, there's a new person in the world, and he came out of Eve! Let her have this moment of wonder and joy.

[Aside: could the wording indicate just a little residual disconnect between Eve and God? Yes, yes I think it could. We have to be aware that things are not all as they should be, else how could we explain how Eve's first two children result in a murder?]

I put this in the category of Sarah's response to giving birth --

God has made me laugh, and everyone will laugh with me (Gen 21:6)

Back to the passage.

"Abel" is an ominous name. It sounds like the Hebrew word for "breath" or "vanity". A strange choice -- I believe it is foreshadowing.

We have all heard the story about Cain and Abel. I have heard many people claim that God preferred the offering of the firstborn animal to the offering of the crop. That is not true. This passage goes out of its way to describe the offering and the scenario. God commands His people to bring offerings of crops and livestock (see Lev 6). Rather, this is about the hearts of the ones making the offering.

Verse 2 gives us a hint. Abel worked with livestock; Cain worked with crops. In Genesis 3, raising crops was specifically put under the curse. Perhaps Cain's life was "harder" than Abel's. Or at least, perhaps it seemed that way to Cain.

I grew up in a suburb of Houston, so my understanding of the tensions between farmers and ranchers was entirely shaped by the musical "Oklahoma".

Perhaps someone with better knowledge than mine can explain the long-standing tensions between farmers and ranchers. I cannot help but think that Cain and Able experienced some of these same feelings.

That tension has nothing to do with the offerings. But I think it might help us understand how things went so wrong for Cain.

"In the course of time" indicates a set passage of time. In other words, Cain didn't randomly decide to make an offering and then Abel scrambled to show him up. No, this was a predetermined thing, either worked out as a family (with Adam), or perhaps God Himself gave them guidance on what to do. The word used for "offering" is the same used of the dedication (grain) offering in Leviticus 2.

The clear difference is in the "how" --

  • Cain brought "some of" his crops.

  • Abel brought "the fattest of the firstborn" of his flocks.

The word used for God's reaction to the offering means "look on with favor", so it's not that God "accepted" the one and "rejected" the other; He simply had more regard for the one than the other. See Hebrews 11:

By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was approved as a righteous man, because God approved his gifts, and even though he is dead, he still speaks through his faith. 11:4)

We don't know how God communicated this.

[Aside: armchair psychology. I have to wonder if Cain thought that the act of worship itself was sufficient. "You just told me to bring a sacrifice; you didn't say anything about my heart being in it!" And that makes me think about the people in our pews whose hearts aren't in it. Why do they come? Maybe some of them believe that God is pleased with them just showing up (but I doubt it). Some of them are probably more concerned with what family members think. And some of them probably don't really know why they are there. That leads to two challenges for each of us: (1) knowing why we come to worship; (2) being able to help others see why they should attend and participate in worship.]

Cain's reaction verified what was in his heart. Both of the descriptions used refer to anger. Cain jumped right into anger. We've talked at great length about anger in other studies, and I'll save space by referring you to them:

This would be an easy topic to discuss -- has anything good ever happened when you've been really angry?

Probably not.

God counters Cain with a rhetorical question (just like He asked Adam). Verse 7 is not a condemnation but a challenge. "You have the choice of what to do next -- will you make the right choice?"

This is where God personifies "sin". Cain tempted to sin -- to do something terrible, in fact. God knows it's happening inside of Cain, and God challenges him not to give into it. This is another clear description of the what and the why of "free will". God could have commanded (and imposed) Cain what to do, but He didn't. He allowed Cain to make the choice. And here we are, thousands of years later, still trying to learn the importance of the choice. And I believe that God has used the story of Cain and Abel to help prevent countless further tragedies in human history.

The idea of "sin personified" is very helpful to us today. At least, it should help us take very seriously our vulnerability to sin and our capacity to do terrible things. If we're aware of and appreciate our own weakness, we can cry out to God for His spiritual strength not to give in to the temptation to sin.

Paul talks about this in terms of "flesh" vs. "spirit", and we studied it at length when we studied Romans. Here are two helpful deep dives:

Our "flesh" has a set of priorities: indulging itself and preserving itself. But our "spirit" should have a different set of priorities: serving others and living for Jesus. Those spiritual priorities are often at odds with the flesh. The article I linked above about worship attendance draws some neat conclusions:

Second, let’s raise the bar. Instead of trying to find the lowest level of connection and commitment people are willing to take on, let’s raise the bar to where the Bible puts it. Jake Meador notes, “a vibrant, life-giving church requires more, not less, time and energy from its members. It asks people to prioritize one another over our career, to prioritize prayer and time reading scripture over accomplishment.” That’s a tough sell in an age of hyper-individualism and consumerism. In fact, it sounds downright impossible. But that’s actually a good place to be because God does his best work when things seem impossible.

Wow! What a challenging way to link worship and discipleship.


Aside: "The Lord's (Yahweh's) help"?

In Genesis 4:1, Eve calls God by His covenant name "Yahweh". How does this reconcile with Exodus 3:14?

2 Then God spoke to Moses, telling him, “I am the Lord. 3 I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but I was not known to them by my name ‘the Lord.’

I only bring this up because you will hear certain (more liberal) scholars say that this is proof of a theory which says that a number of different people wrote the Pentateuch (the "JEDP Documentary Hypothesis" -- "J" representing the parts of the Pentateuch that use "Yahweh"/"Jehovah" and "E" representing those parts that use "Elohim". See the internet for more). What do we do with it?

We have several options:

  1. Adam came before Abraham. Simple enough.

  2. God was talking about the written form of His name -- YHWH.

  3. Moses, who wrote Genesis, wanted to make sure his Hebrew audience knew that this was their God Eve was talking about.

I've not personally ever had a question about this. Option 1 seems pretty straightforward.


Part 2: Fratricide (Genesis 4:8-12)

8 Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s guardian?”
10 Then he said, “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground! 11 So now you are cursed, alienated from the ground that opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood you have shed. 12 If you work the ground, it will never again give you its yield. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

We all know what happened next, which is why I spent so much time on the previous set of verses. Cain "invited" his brother to join him in the field (actually, the Hebrew text doesn't tell us what Cain said to Abel; that could be intentional, or it could be an ancient copy error) where he killed him.

You'll see the word "brother" a bunch in these verses. This is intended to be a shocking revelation. The Hebrew word means "rose against" and is most often used to describe a murder.

Cain is cheeky enough to respond to God with a rhetorical question of his own. You probably know it as "am I my brother's keeper?", but "guardian" is the correct translation. It's also an ironic response -- Cain is indeed responsible for Abel's whereabouts.

So now let's walk back through what I said about sin in chapter 3:

  • Sin results in hiding

  • Sin results in blame

  • Sin results in lasting consequences

See the pattern repeated in chapter 4? As the author of Ecclesiastes would say, "There is nothing new under the sun."

Verse 11 could mean either that Cain will be "cursed by" the ground or "banished from" the ground. Verse 12 supports either interpretation. The point is simple -- if Cain was jealous of Abel because he thought that working the ground was tough, he ain't seen nothing yet. Sin has consequences.

And yes, we should see a parallel with the punishment of Adam and Eve.

Your application is to remember that God gave Cain a warning (in the form of an encouragement) to do the right thing. The way verse 8 follows verse 7, we are given the very clear sense that Cain deliberately ignored God's words to him.


Part 3: Grace Even for Cain (Genesis 4:13-15)

13 But Cain answered the Lord, “My punishment is too great to bear! 14 Since you are banishing me today from the face of the earth, and I must hide from your presence and become a restless wanderer on the earth, whoever finds me will kill me.” 15 Then the Lord replied to him, “In that case, whoever kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” And he placed a mark on Cain so that whoever found him would not kill him.

To me, this is the most shocking part of the story. I am quite inclined to say that Cain, of all people, didn't deserve mercy! Good thing God doesn't listen to me.

Cain speaks with the pathetic fear of someone who just realized that his awful decision will result in real, lifelong consequences. And then (only then), he wants something done about it. Note that he doesn't express any remorse over Abel or his action! He's sad about his punishment.

How often have we seen that? (You might have a story of your own child, or a student in your class, changing his tune when he realizes just how severe the punishment is.) Cain just whines and whines and whines!

Rather than see all of the ways God has been gracious to him over the course of his life, Cain immediately jumps to the conclusion that he will be "running from God" until he dies. He's going to "wander the earth" (read: run from God).

We think of Genesis as a book of firsts; this strikes me as the first time God would want to roll His eyes.

Nevertheless, God shows mercy to Cain. the biggest thing to note: Cain was unrepentant. God showed mercy to Cain in spite of his heart. I think that's a very big deal.

The form of that mercy is quite weird; I read it in terms of the way people thought and acted in that day. Here we go again with the apparent presence of a bunch of other people. Here's how I understand that from the perspective of all people being descended from Adam and Eve: Cain just killed everybody's brother or uncle. If anybody should fear some kind of vigilante retribution, it's him. Now, this does not mean that anybody else would actually kill him! He could be projecting his own evil heart onto everyone else! God condescends to that with this odd "mark". We don't know what it was or that Cain really needed it, but it's a demonstration of God's mercy.

A Big Picture

I recommend a primary focus on "sin" for your application -- it's threat and consequences. Think about it -- it's still just about a perfect world. The only people around are family. (Well, that might be a problem.) And Cain still gives into temptation to sin.

What are those sins in your life that are most troubling to you? What temptations are you fighting a losing battle against?

Cain's story serves as proof that people are capable of the most awful things. But Cain's story also reminds us that it's when people ignore God that they are at their worst.

If you're a Christian, you have the power of the Holy Spirit to help you resist temptation. And you have your friends in your Bible study group to call on for counsel and accountability. Use this in 2024!


Adam's Family Tree

We skip the genealogies before jumping into the story of Noah. I thought you might like a visual representation of those verses, so here's a chart I found online.

Here's what I find interesting about this chart -- and it's something I've seen/heard more than a few times: a "righteous line" and an "unrighteous line". They get that from the fact that Jesus descended from one particular line (which is inarguable). Here's what I don't like about that: it's wrong. The truth is that even in the so-called "righteous line", there were lots of unrighteous people. Else, why would all of Noah's relatives be destroyed in the flood? Why would Abraham's closest relatives not follow God with him? And why would representatives of even the "unrighteous lines" show up in God's story as helping God's people?

No, "righteous" and "unrighteous" isn't as simple as which family you're born into. We understand that much more clearly today, having heard Jesus tell us,

And don’t presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones. (Matt 3:9)

Rather, the righteous example we see of Abel, of Enoch, of Noah, and others, is based on their heart, not their genes.

Let's model that for our kids and the kids in our churches.


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