Our study has shown us that these events here at the beginning of Genesis are not simply interesting storybook stories. These events—these stories—are theological lessons. God placed them here at the beginning of his Word—his message to us—so that we can learn some great truths about why and how he is doing what he is doing in regard to us. We learned about God’s Covenant of Life. The story event of God placing Adam and Eve in the Garden was to show his obligation to the Covenant of Life: he would provide his truth, goodness, and beauty (TGB) in caring for his image bearers. And then we had the story event of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil with its prohibition of eating from it. That was to teach the lesson that his image bearers’ obligation in the Covenant of Life was to depend on God for his TGB (and not to seek to be satisfied in TGB from any other perceived source).
We learned about the Fall from relationship with God. The story event of Adam and Eve eating from the tree taught the lesson that God’s image bearers chose for themselves—to try to satisfy themselves in TGB through their own physical essence. They made their physical essence their idol and, therefore, ended up condemning themselves.
We learned about the consequence of separation from God. The story event of the condemnations pronounced on all the characters included the curse of the serpent. Of course, that serpent was Satan, so the curse was leveled against him. It was at this point that he was cast out from heaven. (Remember that heaven is not some particular locational place. To be in heaven is to be near to God. To be cast out means to be separated from God.) There was also a condemnation that the seed of the serpent (evil) and the seed of the woman (humankind) would be in constant conflict. We read of birth pains and husband rule spoken to Eve. That taught the lesson that even the relationship between image bearers was harmed. And we read of the ground being cursed, revealing the lesson that the physical essence humans were meant to dominate would instead dominate them.
But we also learned about the Restoration hope. We were told that the woman’s seed would strike the serpents head. By that we were taught that, with God’s help, image bearers would ultimately defeat the curse on the physical. (Of course, this defeat was accomplished by God himself as he came in the flesh as an image bearer to withstand the curse.)
We also learned about God’s Restoration Plan. The story event of the woman being named Eve taught that God would preserve life. The expulsion from the Garden taught that God protects the way to relationship with him. The story event of Abel’s offering taught that we could return to God through faith in him. And the story event of Cain’s potential sin sacrifice taught that the return to God would ultimately be accomplished only through putting the cursed physical essence to death and, by virtue of righteous faithfulness to the Covenant of Life, taking back dominion over the flesh, bringing it to life and to God.
This whole brief review of the lessons we’ve learned in the stories we’ve read is meant to heighten our sensibilities as we continue reading now into the next event highlighting Cain’s murder of his brother and its consequences. We must remember even in this that we are not only being told a story; we are being taught a lesson.
In preparing ourselves for chapter 4’s verse 8 murder, let’s go back for a moment to the verse 7 lesson. It needs to be well settled in our minds. God had told a despondent, troubled Cain that if he did well (as had his brother Abel), he would be lifted up. But if he did not do well—if he sinned by trusting in self and physical-essence-idol worship, he could still come back to God by presenting a sin sacrifice. That sin sacrifice represented physical essence and its dominating influence over him. By putting it to death (that thing that sought to dominate him), he would be returning to his rightful place of domination. But it was all for purpose of relationship with God.
Well, the disgruntled Cain left his meeting with God to go talk to his brother. Perhaps he went with murderous intention—perhaps not. We aren’t told exactly when the idea took hold, but sometime after he left God, God’s words (or at least part of them) still seem to have run through his head. Taking God’s words at surface value rather than as intended, Cain—in his disgruntled state—seems to have heard only that the thing that dominated him must be put to death so that he can dominate once more. As he saw his brother, Cain became infuriated that this one of no consequence was upstaging him—was seemingly dominating him in matters of virtue. Well, God said to put that dominating thing to death. And so, Cain rose up and did so. He killed his brother.
Now, I’m sure that Cain didn’t think clearly through a logical process that God was suggesting he kill Abel. It was (as it always is) the confused distortion of an enraged mind that put things together in a murderous flash. And the Bible seems to make clear the distortion by saying precisely that in characterizing Cain’s action as “rising up” (in the Hebrew) before killing Abel. The “rising up” by himself to perform evil is in direct contrast to verse 7’s lifting up by God if he performed well. (And again, the “performing” is not a works-based merit system. The performing is a revelation of the heart attitude either in dependence on God or in idolatry for self.) So the choice of activity—following God or clinging to self—was revealed in the contrast between these two verses. God had said to put down self by killing the sacrifice. Cain, rather, lifted himself up and killed Abel (the one who represented following God).
Verse 9 then tells us that God asked Cain, “Where is your brother?” In chapter 3, God had asked Adam, “Where are you?” highlighting the separation of image bearer from God. Now the question is “Where is your brother?” highlighting the separation of image bearers even from each other. All of it is due to sin, as explained in the consequences listed in chapter 3.
Cain’s reply showed his sour mood. He said, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” But before we go into examining that answer, let’s think a bit more about the scene. Where do you think this conversation is taking place? Although this discussion immediately follows the murder, Cain is probably not still in the field. God wouldn’t be asking where Abel was if he were right there lying on the ground. So had Cain walked back to his house? But why would God be talking to him there?
Remember that Adam and Eve talked with God in the Garden because God was with them in relationship. But Adam and Eve had been expelled from the Garden after sin precisely to paint the picture that that kind of relationship—that closeness, that walking and talking—would not continue. Did God suddenly give up on that picture just to talk with Cain? Probably not.
Way back at the beginning of chapter 2, we learned that God made the seventh day (the Sabbath) holy. It was a time for reflection on creation. For image bearers, that meant a time when they could both enjoy the creation that had been given to them and to thank God who gave it to them, thus reflecting on God the covenant provider of TGB. That practice of reflection and worship on the Sabbath probably continued on each Sabbath outside the Garden. Thus, Adam, Eve, and family would probably approach the Garden entrance—the place (the temple) of God’s presence—each Sabbath to reflect and to worship. And, as we discussed, it was there also that Abel and Cain would have brought their offerings.
So the discussion in verse 9 most probably took place at that Garden entry on the next Sabbath. The family again came as they had done before each week to worship God. But this time, Abel is not with them. Of course, God knows what happened to Abel, and so he directs to Cain the obvious question—why is Abel not with you on this Sabbath as he had been before? Where is your brother Abel?
Most commentators seem to think that Cain was lying to God and hiding the fact of his crime. I’m not so sure that was Cain’s intent in his answer. Again, think of the scend. They are there at the very spot where the sacrifices were given and where Abel’s sacrifice was accepted because it showed Abel’s dependence on God for care. It was God who promised in his Covenant of Life obligation to care for—to keep—Abel. So, in his insolence, Cain may have intended to spit back at God in sarcastic rebuke, “I’m not the one who is supposed to be my brother’s keeper. You are!” And perhaps coursing just below the surface of that cutting remark is this question: “Why didn’t you take care of him as you promised you would?”
Remember that although we are very much caught up in this conversation and the details of the story itself, the narrative is given by God to teach a lesson. And that lesson has to do with that underlying question that Cain was so insolently bringing up: is God faithful to his Covenant of Life obligation to provide care. And it is in God’s reply that we find the answer that yes, he is still righteous (faithful to the covenant).