Humans, knowing good and evil, and being created with a desire for truth, goodness, and beauty, would have the inclination to choose life—relationship with God. But because full love relationship takes place within the scope of human essence—physical creation—God cannot embrace it and himself remain righteous, true to his TGB self. He must prevent that everlasting love relationship until such a time as God himself, through Christ, can remove the curse. The humans are, therefore, driven from the Garden, symbolizing losing the place of God’s pleasure. The Hebrew includes a play on words. Rather than allow Adam to “send out” his hand to take of relationship, God “sends out” Adam from the place of relationship.
Not only is the way to the tree (relationship) guarded against intrusion by the unworthy (cursed), it is guarded or kept (same Hebrew word for keeping as in Gen 17:9 with a good connotation) for the eventually worthy. He is keeping it to preserve what will not be mere relationship, but his fulfilled creational intent—everlasting love relationship.
The next section of the story begins unveiling a downward spiral of sin even though God intends to keep his covenant care. In the first verse of chapter 4 we learn that Eve gave birth to a son. It is interesting that we are not only told in so many words that she gave birth to a child, but the second half repeats the fact in Eve’s own words: “I have had a male child with the Lord’s help.” Why did Moses (through God’s inspiration) basically repeat the fact? Why did we have to hear Eve’s words that at first glance don’t seem to be adding any information to what we already learned? Actually, I do think we get a bit more with her statement. The word “help” is not actually in the Hebrew (although it doesn’t distort the thought too much). Eve said she had gotten or obtained a male “with the Lord”—a single Hebrew word whose prefix does mean “with.” Although we can see here that the Lord did indeed help her through the pain of childbirth to producing a new image bearer, the idea of the statement also provides recognition that this is a new individual being—from the Lord—but yet produced from the parent’s essence. It is a statement of cooperation showing the curse’s continuation from the parents while the spirit is a responsible, separate person on his own.
Verse 2 speaks of Abel next coming along. Was his birth nine months (or so) later? Or was Abel Cain’s twin, coming out just after Cain? The text doesn’t say, so our answer would be mere speculation. But with the contrast that we will see between the two brothers, I would favor the idea that they are twins. It is much the same pitting of one against the other as was shown with the twins Esau and Jacob.
We don’t even exit verse 2 before finding both Abel and Cain fully grown. That jump ahead shows us that this narrative is not meant to be mere history; it skips way too many interesting stories. How did Adam and Eve discover fire, food, how to protect themselves? Did they build a house? Did they fall into customary roles in domestic life? How did they treat sickness? How did they learn about the changes of pregnancy? Did they know that Cain and Abel would grow into the same-sized adults that they were? Well, we’re not told any of that. Rather, we move along to the next matter of more theological import. (And we need to keep in mind that this book is not mere history when we get to genealogies a little later.)
Cain became a farmer, and Abel became a shepherd. Is one profession a better spiritual choice than the other. It doesn’t appear so. And I bet Cain ate some of Abel’s lamb roast while Abel ate some of Cain’s vegetables. But we’re told about their professions to set up the offering scene.
The bare facts of what we’re told is that Cain brought the fruit of the ground to God as an offering, and Abel brought a lamb. We then learn that God accepted the offering of Abel but did not accept Cain’s. We don’t know exactly how God’s acceptance and disregard were actually shown. It is one of those hidden communication matters just as how God talked with Adam and Eve and how Adam knew of God’s presence in the Garden. And we are also not told in so many words exactly why God was pleased with one offering and not the other, which has led to endless speculation. I have my own ideas, and I think they tie into the story fairly well. But let’s look at some of the other suggestions people have proffered.
The one reason repeated most often is that Cain’s offering was not a blood sacrifice. Hebrews 9:22 tells us that without the shedding of blood there is no remission for sin. But then, were these offerings meant as sin offerings? Among the Levitical offering descriptions we see grain and drink offerings. Must we conclude that Cain should have figured out a lamb was necessary? Some people have suggested that God must have instructed them how to bring offerings, and he probably told them to bring a lamb, and therefore Cain just disobeyed. (Somehow that need to make everything about a master-servant relationship and obedience-disobedience keeps popping up.) But we do not have the textual evidence for concluding this.
It has been suggested that Cain’s offering was of inferior quality. They conclude his vegetables must have been rotten or somehow not choice. But again, we have no evidence for that. And the fact that Cain was so upset sort of leads one to suspect he was proud of his offering and feels unfairly treated.
Some people have presumed that the fact we aren’t told the reason for God’s choice is that there was no reason. God simply chose to favor one offering over the other based on his sovereign prerogative. After all, he is God. No one can tell him what he should or should not do. But this reason seems weakest of all. The Bible’s repeated emphasis of God being truth and goodness and beauty and displaying those in love loses all meaning if we start believing God either acts in caprice or in disregard of revelational purpose.
I think our answer must be in the thrust of what has been taught us so far. God had created his image bearers and placed them in the Garden to showcase his Covenant of Life. In that covenant, God was obligating himself to provide care—his truth, goodness, and beauty (the basis of love relationship). His image bearers, in order to continue in this love relationship of life, were to depend on him as the source of that TGB. Adam and Eve’s sin in eating of the tree, as we learned in chapter 3, was that they removed their faith, removed their dependence, from God and placed it in physical essence in hope of gaining satisfaction of TGB. That was their sin, their missing of the mark. That was the fall. That caused the curse to physical creation.
Yet even though they sinned, God showed his intention of continuing care in order to restore them, to redeem that cursed essence, so as to fulfill his creation purpose—everlasting love relationship. And that is the first thing we saw in chapter 4 as Eve cried out that she had gotten a child with the Lord. God had engaged and interacted and cared for them in bringing forth her son.
Now, importantly, I think, is how we see Abel bringing his offering. The Bible is careful to point out that this lamb was not some afterthought. It was not that Abel satisfied himself with the good of his flock and then thought, “I really should save something to give to God too. After all, he helped.” Abel brought the firstborn. Before he knew whether any more would be born to keep him alive, to keep him going, he brought that sacrifice—all of it with the fat portions (the best part) we’re told—to present to God. And the point of bringing the firstborn is to demonstrate that you do not place your trust in the food source for life. Giving up that firstborn to God meant that you trusted God for life. The offering showcased the exact opposite of Adam and Eve’s sin. They trusted in the physical essence, shoving God away. Abel brought his offering—this animal of physical essence—to sacrifice it (shove it away) in his embrace of God.
And that is exactly what is confirmed in Hebrews 11:4. Abel is noted in this chapter of OT faith for his faith: “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.” Remember “righteous” means faithful to the covenant. How was Abel faithful to the covenant? The Covenant of Life called on image bearers to depend on God for TGB. Abel’s offering demonstrated his dependence on God and not on his physical essence for TGB. Abel was faithful to that covenant. Abel was righteous.
But Cain, we are told in Hebrews, was not. And if we look carefully at Genesis 4 verse 3 about Cain’s offering, we see he presented it “in the course of time.” Literally, that phrase translates, “at the end of days.” While it is true that crops take time to grow, the emphasis in Scripture is always on the firstfruits. There were firstfruit offerings at the time of the Feast of Unleavened bread 50 days before Pentecost, when harvest was starting to be brought in, and months ahead of the fall harvest. The idea of firstfruits was the same idea as in offering the firstborn animal. It was demonstration of dependence on God. And the phrasing in Genesis 4:3 is there precisely to contrast with the “firstborn” of verse 4. Cain was not showing dependence on God; Cain was not demonstrating righteousness; Cain was still in the throes of dependence on self, offering something to God only at the end. And Cain’s offering was, therefore, not accepted.