We live in a world of constant comparison. It’s a chaotic, unending cycle, and it’s driving us mad. We compare childcare practices like, “I would never feed my child that”—whatever that is. We compare our neighborhoods like, “I would never live in that neighborhood—whatever and wherever that neighborhood is.” We compare our social media likes and our wardrobes and the size of our homes. We compare the cars we drive and the grocery stores we shop. We compare the number of kids we have and the number of influencers we know. We compare our beauty to Instagram celebrities and our lawns to our gardener-next door neighbor. And if we really love Jesus, we compare the places we’ve been and the things we’ve done in his name with humble brags like, “I go to Honduras every year to partner with an orphanage for disabled children.” We’re all exhausted by the unending demands of comparison, but, the harsh reality is that we aren’t willing to pay the price to escape it.
Genesis 4 is the story of the first humans who were born into a fallen world, Cain and Abel. They never knew the stillness and shalom of God’s world perfectly at rest. The only world they knew is the one cursed by sin. So their story is the story of humanity in exile, separated from God and one another. As we know, their story turns violent, a jarring picture of the effects of sin and a horrific foretaste of the deadly disaster of the human drama.
Yet Genesis 4 doesn’t simply present the fruit of humanity’s sin; it reveals more clearly its root. The story of Genesis 4 exposes a link between the fruit of violence towards others and the root of self-justification. Cain’s murder of his brother is rooted in self-justification, of comparing himself to his brother in an attempt to place himself more favorably before God.
But this isn’t just a story about Cain. It’s our story. Though we may not realize it, our constant comparison to others is, in some deep and profound way, an attempt to justify ourselves.In an attempt to regain Eden, we turn the spectrum of comparison into a ladder of religion and do whatever we can to convince ourselves that we are nearer to God than our neighbor. The tragic consequence, Genesis 4 tell us, is that comparison always, in various forms, manifests in violence towards others. Ironically, the only way to escape the doomed-to-fail attempt to ascend to God by comparing ourselves to others is to admit that we are sinners who can do nothing to win the favor of God.
1 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” 2 And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”
8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14 Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
There’s a lot of assumptions we bring to the narrative, especially when it comes to understanding Cain and Abel in relation to one another and God. But if we take the narrative on its own terms, there’s not much to draw from. Cain is the firstborn and a worker of the ground. Abel is the younger brother and a keeper of sheep. Other than that, we don’t know anything else. In regard to the sacrifice they bring, the narrative doesn’t tell us God asked for an offering. All that is offered is that Cain and Abel brought an offering of the fruit of the ground and Abel brought the firstborn of his flock. To read “firstborn” as a differentiating descriptor of Abel’s sacrifice versus Cain’s is probably an over-read. There’s nothing in the narrative to substantiate the claim that Abel is doing a better work than Cain or that Abel’s offering is inherently more acceptable. This is another instance of explanatory silence in the narrative. We don’t necessarily know why; just that. We are forced to leave our pre-conjured-up questions at the door and enter the narrative on its own terms. For now, all we know is that God had regard for Abel’s offering and not for Cain’s.
The concept of sacrifice is worth teasing out still, though. The first actions of the first humans born in exile are to offer sacrifice, so there is a narratival connection between sin and the need—real or perceived—to offer sacrifice. In their (and our) separated state, sacrifice is an attempt to “tie back” to God, to regain the Edenic favor of God.
In the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s people often have an awkward relationship with sacrifices. They often treat sacrifices as perfunctory exercises to assuage the wrath of God and secure the favor of God. But sacrifices are not mechanical. There are countless examples of God berating Israel for their sacrifices because they bring them with selfish hearts. Often, Israel sacrificed to God as a means to manipulate God, to control Him by winning his favor. In its worst expression, sacrifice is an arrogant attempt at self-justification. In this way, the external offering of sacrifice does not match up with the internal reality of the heart.
But God delights not in the sacrifice but in those who come to him with humble and grateful hearts, recognizing that God cannot be bought but He is worthy of our everything—a reality that can be beautifully pictured in sacrifice. The sacrifices God delights in are those that express and match up with the internal reality of the heart. In our own way, the obedience and humility and money we offer to God can be masquerading attempts to manipulate and control God. We put good deeds in and expect to get good favor in return.
Back to Cain. Cain’s sacrifice is rejected, but Cain himself is not. God comes to Cain who is angered by God’s acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice over his own and tells him that if he will do well now, he will be accepted. On the contrary, if he does not do well, sin will master him like it did his parents, and he will be destroyed. So the story of Cain is not yet over. Rather, Cain’s reaction in this circumstance will prove his underlying motive. God seems concerned not with the sacrifice per se but Cain’s response to the whole thing. In other words, if Cain embraces his fallenness, that he is a sinner who does not deserve and cannot earn the favor of God, he will do well. If he attempts to defy his fallenness and sinfulness, he will be be destroyed (and destroy others). How he responds will expose the true motivation of his heart.
Cain’s murder of his brother proves that he’s a ladder climber, that he was attempting to craft his acceptance before God over and against his brother. His murderous action proves his sacrifice was not the product of a broken and contrite heart but an arrogant one. This should give us pause to consider how we respond to the acceptance and approval others—when a friend gets a promotion or has more social media followers or has more satisfaction in their job or receives some material blessing. The envy that often rises in our hearts is an act of violence. It reduces the other person while elevating ourselves all in attempt to place ourselves over and against them on the so-called religious assent to God. Even the self-pity produced by comparison is an act of violence as we rob others of relationship. In our self-pity, we will never enter the joy of others. To be clear, there is difference between self-pity and a broken and contrite heart. Self-pity is an act of violence towards ourselves that hardens us towards God and one another. A broken spirit and contrite heart is an act of grace that opens us to God and one another.
In a recasting of Genesis 3, God curses Cain for murdering his brother. He exiles him and cuts him off from the land. Cain is just like his father, and, more severely, he can’t help but be just like his father. The sin of Adam is on repeat in his posterity. In the context of the narrative, Adam, Even and Cain are all that remain. The future is dim. We cannot escape the sin of our first parents. Their failure is our own.
Cain is undone by God’s verdict. We typically understand God’s response of putting a sign on Cain as God’s protecting Cain, of God’s extending grace to underserving Cain. While that might be so to a degree, in the context of the narrative, there is something deeper and more profound happening. Cain is now a walking reminder of the depths of human depravity, of the human ability to murder to feel better about ourselves.
In our own self-justifying sin, we want to view Cain’s mark like a scarlet letter—a sign of Cain’s hideous sin. But it’s not a scarlet letter. It’s a mirror. We are to see ourselves in Cain. We long to be the righteous victim, the one in the right. We want to distance ourselves from Cain and can’t stand the thought of admitting that we are Cain. This is why God promises to enact seven-fold judgement on those who seek judgement on Cain. No matter how “righteous” the intention, anyone who kills Cain in retribution would be guilty of the same sin—of thinking themselves better than Cain. This is the tragic irony of human justice and human religion. In all of our attempts to escape sin, we perpetuate it. We prove our inability to get beyond it.
Try as we might our constant comparison to others in an attempt to justify ourselves does not free us from sin—it is sin. The only way to escape the cycle of comparison and the violence it produces is to admit that we are just like Adam and Eve and Cain. We are sinners. We are sinners who desperately try a thousand different things to justify ourselves as the ones who deserve God’s favor and tear down others as the ones undeserving of it. In a strange and paradoxical way, Jesus himself proved that identifying with sin is the only way to overcome it. “God made him who knew no sin to become sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God.” No sinner ever has been totally willing to identify with sin, so the sinless One comes in love and does it for us. His enduring the curse and consequence of sin is our escape from it.
For this treatment of Genesis 4, a great gratitude is owed to Eden and Afterward: A Mockingbird Guide to Genesis by William McDavid.