The story of Cain and Abel is more than that of rival brothers. It marks the beginning of a deep rift or antithesis between two groups of people. In Genesis 4 and 5, this antithesis can be traced along family lines; today, it takes the shape of faith versus unbelief.
Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden into a world and a life under the curse of sin. They had little hope except that promise (Gen 3:15): one day, the seed of the woman would crush the head of the Serpent.
Therefore, when Eve gives birth to her first son, she has great expectations. Therefore he called Cain (Qayin), which means “obtained”: “With the help of the LORD I have obtained a man!” (Gen 4:1) Is not this boy “seed of the woman”?
When the next boy is born, Adam and Eve are not so optimistic. His name, Abel (Hevel), means “futility” or “vanity”; it is the famous first word of the book of Ecclesiastes. Was Abel a “softer” boy than Cain, just as in the case of Jacob and Esau? Or had the parents realized that Cain was not the promised Savior?
The conflict arises when Cain and Abel both bring a sacrifice to God.
Abel is a shepherd, so he takes the firstborn animals of his flock and burns their meat as an offering. Cain, a crop farmer, offers some of his harvest as a sacrifice. The LORD accepts Abel’s offering but rejects Cain’s.
Why? I frequently hear the theory that Abel was correct in sacrificing an animal; after all, the ceremonies of Tabernacle and Temple always required the flowing of blood as an offering for sin. But this argument fails for two reasons: first, there is no indication that the ceremonies of Moses’ Law applied to the worship of this early time period; second, the Mosaic Law also allows for grain offerings.
It is safer to judge the matter from the text itself. We recognize that Cain simply offered “[some] of the harvest”; but Abel’s sacrifice was taken of the firstborn of his flock, and of their fat. Abel went out of his way to give the LORD the very best cuts of meat, but Cain was content with a random sample. Behind this choice was a difference in attitude. Abel put God first in his life; Cain kept him on the sideline.
This interpretation is confirmed in the New Testament. Hebrews 11 indicates that it was a question of faith:
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain,
through which he was commended as righteous,
God commending him by accepting his gifts. (Heb 11:4)
Abel was a man of devoted faith; Cain was not. The LORD responded accordingly, accepting Abel but not Cain. When Cain realized this, he allowed evil to creep deeper into his life, and in a murderous rage he killed his brother.
The Line of Cain
When Adam and Eve sinned, they were removed from God’s intimate presence; they lived outside of the Garden of Eden, and had to work hard to make a living. Cain’s punishment is further separation. The LORD sends him even farther away, to the Land of Nod, that is, the Land of Wandering. Cain will no longer be able to live off farming, but must become a hunter. (Gen 4:12, 15)
Genesis 4 gives us some information about the cultural development of Cain’s line. Instead of farms they build cities. They develop all kinds of tools, for work, warfare, and entertainment.
But the most telling aspect of Cain’s line is the spirit of Lamech’s song (4:23-24). In the clipped style of “gangsta rap”, he entertained his two wives with a song of ruthlessness and murder:
Ada and Zilla, listen to my song
women of Lamech, hear and sing along.
A man insulted me, I killed him dead;
a fellow hurt me, I chopped off his head.
Cain paid back seven times,
Lamech seventy-seven times.
So Cain’s family lived far away from the LORD, fended for themselves, claiming the right of the strongest. The line from Cain to Lamech represents humankind without God.
The Line of Seth
Adam and Eve had another son. His name Seth suggest that he is, in a sense, a replacement for Abel. Through Seth and his son Enosh, a second family line develops. Genesis 5 gives us the names and dates, but otherwise little information about this family.
But there are a few important details that we should not overlook. First, in the time of Enosh people “began to call on the name of the LORD.” Most likely, this is a description of worship activity. The line of Seth was a family of true worshipers, of believers who sought fellowship with the LORD, just as Abel had done.
A second detail is that special man in the seventh generation, Enoch (Gen 5:22). We are told that he “walked with God,” a beautiful description of an intimate relation of worship and fellowship. Elsewhere (Jude :14-15) we learn that Enoch was a prophet who announced that the LORD would come to judge the wicked world. Apparently, the godless culture of Cain had grown very influential at this time, and the LORD rewarded Enoch for his faithfulness by removing him from the evil world at a relatively early age.
A third detail about the family line of Seth is the birth of Noah, whose name means rest. His parents expected that God would bring relief from the curse and wickedness in the world (Gen 5:29).
In conclusion, Genesis 4 and 5 sketch the development of two human families: the godless, self-serving descendants of Cain, and the worshiping community of the family of Seth. These two groups of people stood over against each other, just as today faith and unbelief stand opposite of each other. We call this opposition the antithesis.