It’s a shame we have chapter divisions. Genesis 4 belongs with Genesis 3. We saw how the wise sovereign spelled out the conflict his subjects would experience as a result of grasping his power. That’s exactly what happens. In conflict of the worst kind, Cain grasps power over his brother’s life.
If you read Genesis 3 as a story about our personal sin (our need for personal salvation), you missed the bigger picture. Grasping power causes social conflict: it devastates society. If you watched the news today, you saw that. The biblical narrative restores not only individuals but the whole of society. The bible ends with a new city.
Adam and Eve understand the birth of their first child as evidence they that are still living under their sovereign’s blessing (4:1). They teach their children to honour the ruler by offering back to him some of the food he has provided. The narrator shows no interest in explaining why Cain’s offering was unacceptable, or how they knew. His concern is to record the wisdom of their ruler in warning Cain that he must gain control of his anger before it opens the door for evil to overpower him (4:7).
In Cain’s twisted imagination, death is not merely the inevitable long-term consequence of isolation from the source of their life (3:19). It is the means of overpowering a competitor. He deceives his brother, leading him to his death.
This is how it turns out when people grasp power over other people. Rulers deceive and if necessary assassinate their companions, even their brothers. They subjugate their enemies by threatening them, killing those who resist. Violence rules. Like Abel, the godly are destroyed from the earth, while the violent live on to produce offspring. If the victors write history, violence wins.
But violence does not rule. The true ruler steps in to investigate Cain’s crime. He acts because he cannot ignore Abel’s life-blood oozing out of his body and back into the ground (4:10).
Cain’s response to the sovereign is telling. He has just taken power over his brother’s life, power God never authorized him to have. His defence is to sneer, “Oh, you did mean me to take responsibility for my brother’s life?”
YHWH’s response to this crime is not what the family would want. They expect a punishment that fits the crime—an eye for an eye, and a life for a life (Ex 21:23; Lev 24:18; Deut 19:21). The divine ruler does not take Cain’s life. As with the crime of Genesis 3, he simply explains to Cain the consequences of his actions. Cain will spend the rest of his life on the run. He can no longer be part of the community of his family who will no longer have him (4:14). He sought approval, but received banishment.
Is that justice for a murderer? Cain knows the family won’t feel satisfied. He fears they will take matters into their own hands. He will never be safe. One night while he’s trying to sleep … But the sovereign hears Cain’s plea. He protects the murderer so the family can never have their justice! Cain is marked as under royal protection (4:15).
The God revealed in the Bible is not the kind of ruler people expect. He does not prevent evil in his realm. The godly die without justice. He does investigate these first two crimes, but his response is absurdly lenient. He found them guilty, explained what they had done, and then clothed and protected them! You probably know people who struggle to trust God when he does not satisfy their notions of justice.
If you’ve been a victim of violence and injustice, these may be your questions. Why is our ruler so absurdly gracious? What kind of world is God running? Seriously, can it work like this?
What others are saying
John E. Hartley, Genesis, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), 78-79:
The dramatic movement of Cain’s act of aggression parallels the flow of action in the preceding account of the first humans’ eating the forbidden fruit. Humans disobey God (4:8; 3:6), God questions those involved (4:9–10; 3:9–13), God pronounces sentence (4:11–12; 3:14–19), God redefines aspects of the way humans relate to each other (4:15; 3:21), and God banishes the offenders from their original habitations (4:14, 16; 3:23–24). Moreover, the vignettes in chapter 4 disclose consequences that grew out of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. Outside the garden death becomes a part of human experience, but in a very different way than anticipated. The first generation experiences death not as a penalty (2:17) but as a malevolent force destroying the innocent (4:8, 14, 15, 23, 25). The first recorded death is inflicted by one brother against another brother. The theme of an older brother’s hostility toward a younger brother recurs throughout Genesis.
Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 117:
The paradigmatic character of these stories is most clear in the account of Cain and Abel. In structure and phraseology there are many close parallels with the story of the fall. Just as Gen 3 describes how sin disrupts the relationships between man and wife, God and man, Gen 4:2–16 explains how sin introduces hate between brothers and separation from God. Yet there is also progression between the stories: Cain is portrayed as a much more hardened sinner than his father. Adam merely ate a fruit given him by his wife; Cain murdered his brother. Cain rejects the divine entreaty and then grumbles about his sentence. And this pattern is repeated with Lamek, who arrogantly asserts, “Cain will be avenged sevenfold, but Lamek seventy-sevenfold.”
Recommended reading by Brian Harris: Adam raised a Cain: When our children break our heart.
Read Genesis 4:1-15.