III. THE BROTHERS AT WORSHIP. Born in the same home, educated by the same parents, trained to the same duty of devotion, the first brothers became worshippers of the same God, at the same time, and in the same place, at the same altar, and in the same way, viz., by the presentation of oblations, yet their service was essentially diverse. 1. Their offerings. These were not the same—(1) In matter. Cain brought of the fruit of the ground; Abel of the firstlings of his flock, and of the fat thereof. The one was bloodless, the other bloody. Each one’s offering was connected with, perhaps suggested by, his daily calling. So the trades, temperaments, abilities of men determine the kinds of their religious service and devotion. This diversity in men’s oblations is natural, appropriate, beautiful, right. God requires the consecration to himself of the first-fruits of men’s powers and callings (Prov. 3:9). (2) In measure. Abel offered unto God a more excellent (literally, a greater) sacrifice than Cain (Heb. 11:4). Cain brought of the fruit, not fruits, of the earth—offering with a penurious hand, as many of God’s worshippers do still. Abel brought of the fattest and the best of his flocks; so should all God’s worshippers reserve for him the first-fruits of their years, powers, labours, increase. (3) In meaning. The elder brother’s offering was an acknowledgment of dependence upon God, an expression, probably (?), of gratitude to God, possibly also a recognition of God’s claim to be worshipped; the younger son’s declared consciousness of sin, faith in atoning blood, hope in Divine mercy. 2. Their worship. The state of the heart is the essential thing in worship. If the offering of the hand be the husk, the devotion of the soul is the kernel of true religion. Not only was Abel’s offering better than Cain’s; it was offered in a better way. (1) In faith, trusting in the promise, having an outlook towards the woman’s seed (Heb. 11:4). Without faith in the Lamb of God who died for sin no worship can be accepted. (2) In obedience. Abel’s worship was offered in the way prescribed. God does not leave men to invent forms of religion. Christianity condemns will-worship (Col. 2:18). The most costly offerings will not suffice for obedience to Divine prescription (1 Sam. 15:22). (3) In sincerity. Cain was a formalist; Abel a worshipper of God in spirit and in truth. Only such can worship God (John 4:24). Hypocrisy and formalism, though accompanied with splendid ritual, God rejects (Prov. 21:27; Isa. 1:13–15;—Matt. 6:5). 3. Their receptions. These were—(1) Diametrically opposite. Abel was accepted by God, received into Divine favour, regarded as righteous, considered as a justified person. Cain was not accepted; not because the fruits of the earth were in themselves unworthy of God’s acceptance, but because, in presenting them, he virtually proclaimed his disbelief in God’s promise and repudiation of God’s way of salvation. (2) Visibly proclaimed. By some outward sign God expressed in the one case his approbation, and in the other his displeasure. By the gospel he now solemnly declares his reception of the true and rejection of the false worshipper (John 3:36). More reliable are the announcements which God now makes through his word than those which he then delivered through the medium of signs. (3) Distinctly understood. Neither Cain nor Abel was in any dubiety as to his position. The mind of God had been explicitly revealed. The one was assured that he was righteous; the other knew that he was reprobate. So may every one ascertain his standing in God’s sight who listens to the inspired declarations of the Divine word (John 3:18; Rom. 3:20; 4:5).
Genesis, ed. H. D. M. Spence-Jones, The Pulpit Commentary (London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), 83-84.
Ver. 4.—And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock. Either the firstborn, which God afterwards demanded (Exod. 13:12), or the choicest and best (Job 18:13; Jer. 31:19; Heb. 12:23). And the fat thereof. Literally, the fatness of them, i. e. the fattest of the firstlings, “the best he had, and the best of those best” (Inglis; cf. Gen. 45:18; Num. 18:2; Ps. 167:14); a proof that flesh was eaten before the Flood, since “it had been no praise to Abel to offer the fatlings if he used not to eat of them” (Willet), and “si anteposuit Abel utilitate suas Deum, non dubium quia solitus sit ex labore suo utilitatem percipere” (Justin). And the Lord had respect. Literally, looked upon; ἐπεῖδεν, LXX. (cf. Num. 16:15); probably consuming it by fire from heaven, or from the flaming sword (cf. Levit. 9:24; 1 Chron. 21:26; 2 Chron. 7:1; 1 Kings 18:38; Jerome, Chrysostom, Cyril). Theodotion renders ἐνεπύρισεν, inflammant; and Heb. 11:4, μαρτυροῦντος ἐπὶ τοῖς δώροις, is supposed to lend considerable weight to the opinion. Unto Abel and his offering. Accepting first his person and then his gift (cf. Prov. 12:2; 15:8; 2 Cor. 8:12). “The sacrifice was accepted for the man, and not the man for the sacrifice” (Ainsworth); but still “without a doubt the words of Moses imply that the matter of Abel’s offering was more excellent and suitable than that of Cain’s,” and one can hardly entertain a doubt that this was the idea of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews” (Prof. Lindsay, ‘Lectures on Hebrews,’ Edin. 1867). Abel’s sacrifice was πλείονα, fuller than Cain’s; it had more in it; it had faith, which was wanting in the other. It was also offered in obedience to Divine prescription. The universal prevalence of sacrifice rather points to Divine prescription than to man’s invention as its proper source. Had Divine worship been of purely human origin, it is almost certain that greater diversity would have prevailed in its forms Besides, the fact that the mode of worship was not left to human ingenuity under the law, and that will-worship is specifically condemned under the Christian dispensation (Col. 2:23), favours the presumption that it was Divinely appointed from the first.
Ver. 5.—But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. Because of the absence of those qualities which distinguished Abel and his offering; not because the heart of Cain was “no more pure,” but “imbued with a criminal propensity” (Kalisch), which it was not until his offering was rejected. The visible sign, whatever it was, being awanting in the case of Cain’s oblation, its absence left the offerer in no dubiety as to the Divine displeasure with both himself and his offering. In the rejection of Cain’s offering Bohlen sees the animus of a Levitical narrator, who looks down slightingly on offerings of the fruits and flowers of earth; but, as Havernick well remarks, the theocracy was essentially based on agriculture, while the Mosaic institute distinctly recognised the legality and value of bloodless offerings. And Cain was very wroth (literally, it burned with Cain exceedingly), and his countenance fell. In fierce resentment against his brother, possibly in disappointed rage against himself, almost certainly in anger against God (cf. Neh. 6:16; Job 29:24; Jer. 3:12, and contrast Job 11:15). There was apparently no sorrow for sin, “no spirit of inquiry, self-examination, prayer to God for light or pardon, clearly showing that Cain was far from a right state of mind” (Murphy). Yet the Lord does not forthwith abandon the contumacious and insensate transgressor, but patiently expostulates with and instructs him as to how he too might obtain the same blessing of acceptance which his younger brother enjoyed.
Vers. 6, 7—And the Lord (Jehovah) said unto Cain. Speaking either mediately by Adam (Luther), or more probably directly by his own voice from between the cherubim where the flaming sword, the visible symbol of the Divine presence, had been established (cf. Exod. 20:24). Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? The ensuing verse is a veritable crux interpretum, concerning which the greatest diversity of sentiment exists. Passing by the manifest mistranslation of the LXX., “If thou hast offered rightly, but hast not divided rightly, hast thou not sinned? Rest quiet; toward thee is his (or its) resort, and thou shalt rule over him (or it),” which Augustine, Ambrose, and Chrysostom followed, at the same time “wearying themselves with many interpretations, and being divided among themselves as to how Cain divided not rightly” (Willet), the different opinions that have been entertained as to the meaning of its several clauses, their connection, and precise import when united, may be thus exhibited. If thou doest well. Either (1) if thou wert innocent and sinless (Candlish, Jamieson), or (2) if thou, like Abel, presentest a right offering in a right spirit (Vulgate, Luther, Calvin), or (3) if thou retrace thy steps and amend thine offering and intention (Willet, Murphy). Shalt thou not be accepted? Literally, Is there not lifting up? (seāth, from nasa, to raise up). Either—1. Of the countenance (Gesenius, Fürst, Dathe, Rosenmüller, Knobel, Lange, Delitzsch). 2. Of the sacrifice, viz., by acceptance of it (Calvin); akin to which are the interpretations—Is there not a lifting up of the burden of guilt? Is there not forgiveness? (Luther); Is there not acceptance with God? (Speaker’s Commentary); Is there not a bearing away of blessing? (Ainsworth). Vulgate, Shalt thou not receive? (sc. the Divine favour). “Verum quamvis נָשָׂאעַוֹן peccatum condonare significet, nusquam tamen שְׂאֵת veniam sonat” (Rosen.). 3. Of the person, i. e. by establishing Cain’s pre-eminency as the elder brother, to which reference is clearly made in the concluding clause of the verse (Bush). And if thou doest not well, sin—chattath, from chata, to miss the mark like an archer, properly signifies a sin (Exod. 28:9; Isa. 6:27; cf. Greek, ἔτη); also a sin offering (Levit. 6:18, 23); also penalty (Zech. 14:19), though this is doubtful. Hence it has been taken to mean in this place—1. Sin (Dathe, Rosenmüller, Keil, Kalisch, Wordsworth, Speaker’s Commentary, Murphy). 2. The punishment of sin (Onkelos, Grotius, Cornelius à Lapide, Ainsworth), the guilt of sin, the sense of unpardoned transgression; “interius conscientiæ judicium, quod hominem convictum sui peccati undique obsessum premit” (Calvin). 3. A sin offering (Lightfoot, Poole, Magee, Candlish, Exell)—lieth (literally, lying; robets, from rabats, to couch as a beast of prey; cf. ch. 29:2; 49:9) at the door. Literally, at the opening = at the door of the conscience, expressive of the nearness and severity of the Divine retribution (Calvin); of the soul, indicating the close contiguity of the devouring monster sin to the evil-doer (Kalisch); of paradise (Bonar); of Abel’s fold (Exell), suggesting the locality where a sacrificial victim might be obtained; of the house, conveying the ideas of publicity and certainty of detection for the transgressor whose sin, though lying asleep, was only sleeping at the door, i. e. “in a place where it will surely be disturbed; and, therefore, it is impossible but that it must be awoke and roused up, when as a furious beast it will lay hold on thee” (Luther); i. e. “statim se prodet, peccatum tuum non magis celari potest, quam id quod pro foribus jacet” (Rosenmüller). And unto thee shall be his—i. e. (1) Abel’s (LXX. (?), Chrysostom, Ambrose, Grotius, Calvin, Ainsworth, Bush, Speaker’s, Bonar, Exell); or (2) sin’s (Vulgate (?), Luther, Rosenmüller, Von Bohlen, Kalisch, Keil, Delitzsch, Murphy); or (3) the sin offering’s (Faber, Candlish)—desire (vide ch. 3:16), and thou shalt rule over him. I. e., according to the interpretation adopted of the preceding words—(1) thou shaft maintain thy rights of primogeniture over Abel, who, as younger son, shall be obsequious and deferential towards thee; or, (2) “the entire submission and service of sin will be yielded to thee, and thou shalt make thyself master of it,” sc. by yielding to it and being hurried on to greater wickedness—a warning against the downward course of sin (Murphy); or, while sin lurks for thee like a beast of prey, and “the demon of allurement” thirsts for thee to gratify thy passion, thou shalt (or mayst) rule over it, sc. by giving up thy wrath and restraining thine evil propensities—a word of hopeful encouragement to draw the sinner back to holy paths (Keil); or, “peccatum tanquam mulier impudica sistitur, quæ hominem ad libidinem suam explendam tentet, cui igitur resistere debeat” (Rosenmüller); or, (3) the sacrificial victim is not far to seek, it is already courting thine acceptance, and thou mayst at once avail thyself of it (Candlish) Of the various solutions of this “difficillimus locus,” all of which are plausible, and none of which are entirely destitute of support, that appears the most entitled to acceptance which, excluding any reference either to Abel or to a sin offering, regards the language as warning Cain against the dangers of yielding to sin.
Genesis, ed. H. D. M. Spence-Jones, The Pulpit Commentary (London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), 78-80.
Let us inquire into the points of difference between the offerings of Cain and Abel, and they will suggest distinguishing marks to apply to ourselves. Had it not been for our text, we might have failed to discover the real causes of the acceptance of Abel and the rejection of Cain. But the apostle tells us, that “BY FAITH, Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he, being dead, yet speaketh.” From these words, connected with the passage in Genesis, we gather what were the essential differences between these worshipers. First of all, ABEL WAS A GOOD MAN, AND CAIN A BAD ONE. The former is expressly called by our Lord, “righteous Abel;” he was a good man, a holy servant of God, a true believer in the promised Messiah: and though he was not accepted before God through the merits of his own righteousness, yet he obtained witness that he was righteous, that he was a faithful servant of God, and that he lived according to godliness: for it is most certain, that “if he had regarded iniquity in his heart, the Lord would not have heard him.” No man who comes before God with the love of sin in his heart, and under its bondage, shall be accepted of him, for “the sacrifice of the wicked is abomination: how much more when he bringeth it with a wicked mind!” Cain was an ungodly man, an impenitent and unhumbled man: he was “of that wicked one.” This is clearly implied by God himself, when He condescended to reason with him: “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?” He was a sinner, but not one who wished to forsake his sins: this was one ground of his rejection.
But further, THERE WAS AN ESSENTIAL DIFFERENCE IN THE NATURE OF THEIR OFFERINGS. Cain brought merely the fruits of the field, but Abel brought an atoning sacrifice. He slew a victim, an innocent victim, and by blood-shedding indicated that he felt he was a sinner, standing in need of an atonement. There is every reason to believe that God instituted sacrifices immediately after the fall, as typical representations of the sacrifice of Christ; for in the twenty-first verse of the third chapter it is said, that “Unto Adam also, and to his wife, did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them:” and, as animals were not then allowed to be used as food, we conclude that these were the skins of beasts slain as sacrifices. The universal tradition of such rites, found in every part of the world, is a remarkable confirmation of this idea: but Cain despised the appointed mode of access, judged that God would accept a thank-offering as willingly as a sacrifice, and presenting the fruits of the earth in the pride of his heart, was therefore rejected. And lastly, we are informed by St. Paul that there was another essential difference—“BY FAITH, ABEL OFFERED A MORE EXCELLENT SACRIFICE THAN CAIN.” Doubtless Cain had a species of faith; he believed in the existence and power of God, or he would not have approached him to worship; but he had not saving faith, he had not a lively and practical faith, “that faith which worketh by love;” he had no reliance on the promised salvation of the Messiah, or he would have brought the sacrifice by which it was typified. Abel, on the contrary, presented himself and his offering in believing dependence on the virtue of that atonement which was to be revealed more clearly in after ages; and therefore he was accepted.
Now these points of difference between professed worshipers still exist, and form the ground of their acceptance or rejection: thus, some among us are good, and some bad men; some are godly, and some are ungodly; some are “lovers of pleasure,” and some are “lovers of God;” some are of this world, and some are not of this world. Some are living in sin, and devoted to sin; they approach this house in a spirit unhumbled and unholy, and they leave it in the same, to return to their vices, worldliness, or indifference, as the case may be. Will God regard such worshipers? Will He “have respect” to their offering? Will He not say to such as He did to the Jews—“Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting”? Does he not say to such, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts”? Can we be accepted while we live in sin?—Impossible; all who do so are children of Cain, and as long as they continue impenitent, like him, they will be rejected!
Others there are who resemble Cain in the nature of the offering which they bring, and in the unbelieving spirit in which they present it: they come before God as Deists might come, as our first parents might have approached Him before the fall, but not as sinners needing a Saviour: this is fatal to any professed worshipers. We may think, my brethren, that God will be satisfied with such homage, that He will be as well pleased with an offering of the fruits of the earth, as he would be with a “lamb slain;” we may imagine, that if we come before Him with devout feelings, and observe His sabbaths, and hear His word, that all must be well, and that God will certainly accept such worship from His creatures. So Cain thought and acted, and therefore he was rejected. God declares, that without shedding of blood there is no remission of sins; that there is but one way of access to himself; and that all who attempt to approach Him in any other shall be rejected. And shall we reject the gracious method revealed to us? Jesus saith, “I am the way and the truth and the life; no man cometh unto the Father but by me;” and shall we attempt to approach God in any other manner? My brethren, let us learn from Abel, who “being dead, yet speaketh,” that if we would please God and find mercy at His hands, it must be through that blood and sacrifice which was typified by Abel’s offering. Come to God pleading the merits of Jesus, come in deep repentance and in humble faith, and then, “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”
Francis Close, The Book of Genesis Considered and Illustrated in a Series of Historical Discourses, Preached in the Church of the Holy Trinity, Cheltenham (London: Thomas Arnold, 1841), 54-57.
In process of time. Heb. At the end of days; which some think points at some certain stated time; for certainly even then the people of God were not without a stated time for worship. At the end of days; that is, on the sabbath day, which was at the end of the days of the week; or at the year’s end; on some yearly solemnity which they were taught to observe, perhaps on some solemn remembrance of the fall. Or at the year’s end, when they had gathered in the harvest; when they perceived that God had blessed them, they came, as ’twas fit they should, with their thank-offerings.
Cain, a wicked man, had his offering as ready as Abel, a good man. Outward duties of religion may be performed by the bad, even as by the good. The hypocrite doth often go as far, every jot, in outward performances as the true Christian; hears as many sermons,—offers up as many prayers,—gives as much alms,—and is yet a hypocrite all the while. The bare performance of these duties doth not, cannot render a man acceptable to the heart-searching God. Nay, it should seem that Cain came with his offering before Abel; and is it not common for hypocrites to be as forward to perform outward duties as the true Christian? If the Pharisee and the publican go up to the temple to pray, the Pharisee will be sure to be there first. Luke 18:10.
From the offerings of Cain and Abel, we learn the antiquity of religious worship. The service of God is no novelty. I know there is an old way which wicked men have trodden; Job 22:15; but old as it is, the way of religion and godliness is older. Ask for the old paths. Jer. 6:16. The devil was not up so soon, but God was up before him.
Grotius thinks that reason taught them that, seeing God was the best, they should honour him, by parting with the best they had to him and for him. Religion is agreeable with the principles of right reason.
But I rather think that God did in an immediate way reveal this manner of worship to Adam, and that he taught it to his sons. Otherwise, without a warrant, how could they expect that God should own them in it? for, doubtless, uninstituted worship is unaccepted worship. How could Abel offer in faith, if he had no divine revelation upon which to ground that faith? Heb. 11:4.
“I cannot see how natural light should dictate that God would accept of the blood of other creatures as a token of man’s obedience to himself.” “Cain’s sacrifice seems more agreeable to natural light than Abel’s, being a eucharistical offering, without hurt to other creatures. Abel’s was a bloody sacrifice, but it was offered in faith; (Heb. 11:4;) which is a higher principle than natural light, and must suppose a divine revelation.”—STILLINGFLEET.
“As to eucharistical sacrifices, such as the first-fruits and the like oblations, men’s own reason might suggest and persuade them that it was fit to present them, as the most natural signification of a thankful mind; and thus far there might be sacrifices in a state of innocence. But sin having changed the scene, expiatory sacrifices must be founded upon a positive institution, because pardon of sin being a matter of pure grace and favour, whatever was a means to signify and convey that, must be appointed by God himself.”—CAVE.
It was a great mercy of God to Adam, to reveal unto him this method of obtaining acceptance with himself; that, when he had lost by sin the tree of life, (which, whilst he had it, was a standing pledge of the divine favour,) God was graciously pleased to put him in a way of worship by sacrificing, which was to be, and no doubt was to him, an evidence of the restitution of that forfeited favour. And it was well done of Adam to teach his children this way. He did not, as too many fathers do, provide only for their comfortable subsistence in this world, by putting them in a calling; but he provided also for their souls’ subsistence in a better world, by putting them in a way of worshipping God. Contrary to this is the preposterous care of many parents;—care which was very commendable, if their children had bodies only, and no souls to look after. Adam, like Abraham, did command his children that they should keep the way of the Lord. Gen. 18:19. See Ephes. 6:4.
And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering:
5 But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.
Hitherto Cain and Abel have gone together; but now we must part them. They both brought their offerings, but they were not both accepted; like the Pharisee and the publican. Luke 18:14.
The Lord had respect unto Abel; was well pleased with him,—looked on him, as the word is; cast a gracious eye of favour upon him. Now this is the great thing we should aim at and labour after in all we do,—especially in religious duties,—to be accepted of the Lord. 2 Cor. 5:9. Abel had not only comfort in his own conscience, by the secret whispers of the Spirit of God, saying, “Well done;” but also credit before others: for that it was evidenced in some way seems to be clear from Heb. 11:4,—he obtained witness, God testifying of his gifts. How he testified of them doth not appear; whether by a voice from heaven, or, as others think, by blessing Abel’s possessions, and not Cain’s; or, as is most probably conjectured, by fire from heaven, which consumed Abel’s sacrifice, and not Cain’s. That seems to have been the way by which God was wont to evidence his acceptance of sacrifices; as of Abraham’s, Gen. 15:17; of Manoah’s, Judg. 13:20; of Elijah’s, 1 Kings 18:38; of Gideon’s, Judg. 6:21; and of Solomon’s, 2 Chron. 7:1. And here, that which we render had respect, some render he kindled: also in Ps. 20:3, that which the text reads accept, the margin reads turn to ashes. No sacrifices are acceptable to God, but those that are kindled with fire from heaven. God himself works in us all the works that he is well pleased with.
Why did God accept Abel and not Cain? What reason was there for it? Of a truth, I perceive, saith Peter, that God is no respecter of persons. Acts 10:34. This difference was not without good cause. When there was a difference in the duty, ’twas fit there should be a difference in the success. God showed himself to be no respecter of persons in that he preferred the younger brother, that offered aright, before the elder brother, that did not.
1. Some think there was a difference in the quality of the offerings. Both brought that which appertained to their callings; and ’twas well to offer of that in which God had blessed them. 1 Cor. 16:2. But of Cain it is said that he brought of the fruit of the ground; any thing next to hand,—no matter what; some of the light corn, or some that he had not occasion for, but had been left at the year’s end. But Abel took more care: he brought of the firstlings of the flock; that is, the choicest and best that he had: and of the fat thereof; that is, the best of those best. The principle that Abel went upon was, that he that is the best should have the best; and therefore he would not, he did not, vow and sacrifice unto the Lord a corrupt thing: he did not bring the torn, and the lame, and the sick, for sacrifice; for he knew that was evil. Deut. 15:21.
Those that think to deceive God, by putting him off with any thing worthless in his service, will prove in the end but to deceive themselves. But those that offer as Abel offered,—that bring the best they have, and are sorry they can bring no better,—are like to speed as Abel sped; to be, like him, accepted of the Lord. God must have the firstlings; the first of our time, and the first of our strength. God must have the fat,—the best service, the most inward worship.
2. Others think the difference was in the quality of the offerers, and in the principles upon which they acted in this service. (1.) Abel was a justified person: so was not Cain. ’Tis said, the Lord had respect to Abel and his offering. Observe, first to Abel, and then to his offering. Under the covenant of works in the state of innocency, the respect was had, first, to the deed, and then to the doer, for the deed’s sake; first, to the performance, and then to the person for the performance’s sake. But under the new covenant, the order is inverted. First, respect is had to the person as a chosen vessel, a member of Christ, and then to the performance for the sake of the person, or rather for the sake of Christ, the great High Priest of our profession, (Heb. 3:1,) in whom only God is (if he be at all) well pleased with us. But as for that man that is out of Christ,—unconverted, unregenerate, such a one as Cain was,—nothing that he doth is acceptable to God. His plowing is sin; Prov. 21:4; nay, his praying is sin; the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord; Prov. 15:8; and for that very reason,—because he is wicked; for a good man obtaineth favour of the Lord. Prov. 12:2. (2.) Abel offered in faith: so did not Cain. This was the distinguishing mark: the Holy Ghost tells us so. By faith Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain; Heb. 11:4; that is, Abel had an eye to God in what he did,—to the will and command of God as his rule, to the honour and glory of God as his end. Abel offered by faith in the promised Messiah, the great gospel sacrifice, by virtue of which only, all other sacrifices and offerings are accepted.
It is faith alone that puts an excellency upon all our offerings. Our services are pleasing to God no further than they are done with an eye to Christ. Upon that great altar must all our sacrifices be offered, or there is no acceptance.
Cain angrily resented God’s different acceptance of their services. He was wroth. There are eight words in Hebrew, they tell us, which signify anger; and that which is here used notes the most vehement indignation, the highest degree of anger. The reason of this anger was, because his brother’s offering was accepted, and his own was not: or, as the Apostle expresses it, because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous. 1 John 3:12. He was angry at God, as if he had done him wrong in not accepting him. He was angry with his brother for—I know not what. He was vexed at the disgrace that was cast upon him; vexed to see his younger brother preferred before him; vexed to see a visible testimony given to his brother’s works, find not to his own. This was great wickedness in Cain; and that which was at the bottom of it was, pride of heart,—which is evermore the companion of hypocrisy. That heart that is swelled up with pride, will, upon the least disgrace, be ready to burst with anger. Cain’s anger discovered itself in his looks: his countenance fell. Where anger is burning like fire in the heart, it will appear like flame or smoke in the countenance. What a change do the heats of passion make in the very faces of men! so that if they would but look at their face in a glass, they could not but be ashamed.
Philip Henry, Exposition of the First Eleven Chapters of Genesis (London: J. Nisbet and Co., 1839), 101-09.
Why were the two offerings regarded thus differently, when each is described in similar language, and each is manifestly intended as an expression of reverence and thankfulness? The ground of the difference is not stated, and it can only therefore be inferred. But it can hardly have lain in anything except the different spirit and temper actuating the two brothers. Cain, it is to be noticed, as soon as he perceives that his gift has not been accepted, becomes angry and discontented—in itself a sufficient indication that his frame of mind was not what it should have been. There must have been in his purpose some secret flaw which vitiated his offering: it may have been envy at his brother’s better fortune, it may have been some other thought or feeling inconsistent with ‘a sacrifice of righteousness,’ i.e. a sacrifice offered with a pure and sincere purpose (Ps. 4:5). It seems thus to be at least a collateral aim of the narrator to illustrate and emphasize the prophetic teaching that it is not the gift, but the spirit in which the gift is offered, which determines its value in the sight of God1. Cf. Heb. 11:4; 1 Jn. 3:12; also Jude 11.
6, 7. A Divine warning follows, bidding Cain control his temper, and hinting at the consequences if he fails to do so.
7. The margin must be followed. If thou doest well, i.e. hast a right and sincere purpose, it will shew itself in thy countenance, shall there not be lifting up? viz. of thy countenance, it will not be downcast and sullen, but bright and open: and if thou doest not well, hast sinister, envious thoughts, sin is then near at hand, couching like some wild animal at the door, and unto thee is its desire, it is eager to spring upon and overpower thee: but thou shouldest rule over it, conquer the rising temptation before it is too strong for thee, and subdue it. The text is open to suspicion; but as thus understood, it teaches a profound psychological truth, the danger viz. of harbouring a sullen and unreasoning discontent: it is a temper which is only too likely to lead to fatal consequences, and which, therefore, as soon as it begins to shew itself, should at all costs be checked.
11. from the ground. From must either denote the direction from which the curse is to proceed, or mean pregnantly away from: v. 14a rather supports the latter interpretation. Ground seems here (cf. v. 14) to mean the cultivated soil in contrast to the face of the earth in general. Cain must leave the cultivated soil on which he has hitherto prospered, and become a wanderer in wild and unknown regions.
her mouth. Cf. for the poetical figure Nu. 16:32, and (of Sheol) Is. 5:14. The ‘ground,’ after having swallowed the gruesome drink which Cain has provided for it, can no longer bear him, but must cast him off as accursed.
12. The particulars of the curse. The ground will no longer respond to his toil: so he will ever have to be seeking a new resting-place, while a guilty conscience will the more increase his restlessness. That the ground will refuse him its strength is in excess of the curse pronounced in 3:17.
strength. I.e. produce (Job 31:39).
a fugitive. More exactly, a totterer (cf. the verb in Is. 19:1), the word denoting the hesitating, uncertain gait of one not knowing where to go, or fainting for lack of food, or drunken (Am. 4:8; Ps. 109:10, 107:27 [‘stagger’]: the renderings ‘be moved,’ ‘wander,’ ‘be vagabond,’ are all inadequate).
13, 14. Cain, though not penitent, is humbled and alarmed: so he pleads for a mitigation of the punishment.
14. Cain is still pictured as in ‘Eden’ (v. 16), though not in the garden: Jehovah’s presence is supposed to be confined to the garden and its precincts; beyond these limits he will be hidden from His face, and deprived of the protection which, according to ancient ideas, proximity to a sanctuary conferred even upon a murderer: he will be a wanderer over the wide earth; above all, his guilty imagination brings before him the vision of the blood-avenger, dogging his steps, and causing him daily to tremble for his life1. ‘Cf. the striking picture of the supposed murderer of Laius in Soph. Oed. Tyr. 463–482; and that of the restlessness of the evil conscience in Job 15:20–24’ (W. L.).
It has often been asked, Who could there have been to slay Cain? According to the existing Book of Genesis, it is plain that there could have been no one. The inconsistency is one of which, however, the narrator (or compiler) is evidently unconscious. Comp. p. 72.
15. A concession is made to Cain’s fears; and he receives a promise of immunity from the blood-avenger. But he is not restored to happiness: banished from his relations and from the presence of God, haunted in his wanderings by an uneasy conscience, Cain remains a lesson and a spectacle for all time.
S. R. Driver, The Book of Genesis, With Introduction and Notes (New York; London: Edwin S. Gorham; Methuen & Co., 1904), 64-67.
3.1 And they both went and found Abel murdered by the hand of Cain his brother. 2 And God saith to Michael the archangel: ‘Say to Adam: “Reveal not the secret that thou knowest to Cain thy son, for he is a son of wrath. But grieve not, for I will give thee another son in his stead; he shall show (to thee) all that thou shalt do. Do thou tell him nothing.”’ 3 Thus spake the archangel to Adam. But he kept the word in his heart, and with him also Eve, though they grieved concerning Abel their son.
, vol. 2, Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, ed. Robert Henry Charles (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004), 139.
“Sin is crouching.” רבץ “crouching” is frequently and plausibly identified with Akk rābiṡu, denoting various officials and also demons, especially those that guard entrances to buildings. Here then sin is personified as a demon crouching like a wild beast on Cain’s doorstep.
Gordon J. Wenham, vol. 1, Word Biblical Commentary : Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 106.
Here we come to another interpretive obstacle in the verse, how to understand sin as “crouching” and what is meant by “door.”271 “Sin” is likened to an animal “crouching” or “lurking” (NRSV) at the “door,” meaning the animal’s resting place, ready to stir if incited. “Crouch” (rābaṣ) is commonly used of domesticated animals in repose (i.e., 29:2; 49:9; Exod 23:5), including wild animals such as the lion (Gen 49:9). This pictures sin temporarily at bay and subject to its master but coming alive when stirred. Some commentators have compared the Hebrew rōbēṣ (“crouch”) to the cognate Akkadian term rābiṣum, a mythological demon attending the doorways of buildings to guard its inhabitants or conversely to threaten them.272 The REB thus reads, “Sin is a demon crouching at the door.” If there is an allusion to the door demon, then the narrative is personifying sin as a demonic spirit ready to pounce on Cain once he opens the “door” of opportunity. This may well correspond with the “seed” of the serpent in 3:15, which will do battle with the “seed” of the woman Eve. The imagery is effectively the same and the message clear: sin can be stirred up by wrong choices.
K. A. Mathews, vol. 1A, Genesis 1-11:26, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 270-71.
Abel as Vanity:
“Abel” (Hebrew הבל). Unlike the case with Cain, no explanation of his name is given by his mother. It is improbable that it was derived from Akk. aplu, “son.” Probably its meaning was too obvious to warrant comment. הבל means “breath” or “vanity” (Eccl 1:2). “Man is a like a breath, his days are like a passing shadow” (Ps 144:4; cf. Job 7:16). Abel’s name thus alludes unwittingly to the fate in store for him, that his life will be cut short. His junior status and the remark that “he became a shepherd” may also adumbrate the Lord’s preference for him. For although Adam was appointed to till the ground (2:15), the elect patriarchs’ preferred profession was shepherding (47:3) as David’s was later (1 Sam 16:11). Though the eldest son had certain legal privileges (see, e.g., 25:32; 27:1–40; Deut 21:15–17), the biblical narratives regularly show God’s choice falling on the younger brother (e.g., Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau; Ephraim, not Manasseh; David, the youngest son of Jesse). Already in this verse, then, there are hints that Abel is the elect younger brother.
Gordon J. Wenham, vol. 1, Word Biblical Commentary : Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 102.
From the description of Abel as “his brother,” it is apparent that the story is told with Cain in focus. Its language underscores the despicable act of this murderer, who out of envy committed fratricide. “Abel” means “breath” (hebel), but since there is no play on his name, as there is with “Cain,” it is best to restrain from making more of its significance. At most the name may be an allusion to the brevity of life as a result of the fall.
K. A. Mathews, vol. 1A, Genesis 1-11:26, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 265.
הֶבֶל—breath, nothingness, perishableness. The second son is so named undoubtedly with reference to his “being destroyed by Cain, and having, like a breath of wind, only a fleeting, brief existence”5 (Knobel). It may be questioned whether this Massoretic pronunciation of the name was intended by the original legend. As the name of the first shepherd, הבל might be a variation from יבל, ver. 20.6 Others refer to Assyrian ablu (hablu), i.e. son, in favour of which one may advance the meanings of the names of the other primitive men, Adam, Cain, Seth, Enosh.7 But in the present narrative הֶבֶֽל is alone suitable. Besides, it is not anywhere said that he was already so named at his birth.
A. Dillmann, Genesis Critically and Exegetically Expounded, Vol. 1, trans. Wm. B. Stevenson (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1897), 184.
His brother Habel. Habel means breath, vanity. Does a sense of the vanity of earthly things grow in the minds of our first parents? Has the mother found her sorrow multiplied? Has she had many daughters between these sons? Is there something delicate and fragile in the appearance of Habel? Has Cain disappointed a mother’s hopes? Some of all of these thoughts may have prompted the name. There is something remarkable in the phrase “his brother Habel.” It evidently points with touching simplicity to the coming outrage that was to destroy the peace and purity of the first home.
James G. Murphy, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1863), 164.
And she again bare his brother Abel. It is well known whence the name of Cain is deduced, and for what reason it was given to him. For his mother said, קניתי (kaniti,) I have gotten a man; and therefore she called his name Cain. The same explanation is not given with respect to Abel. 226 The opinion of some, that he was so called by his mother out of contempt, as if he would prove superfluous and almost useless, is perfectly absurd; for she remembered the end to which her fruitfulness would lead; nor had she forgotten the benediction, “Increase and multiply.” We should (in my judgment) more correctly infer that whereas Eve had testified, in the name given to her firstborn, the joy which suddenly burst upon her, and celebrated the grace of God; she afterwards, in her other offspring, returned to the recollection of the miseries of the human race. And certainly, though the new blessing of God was an occasion for no common joy; yet, on the other hand, she could not look upon a posterity devoted to so many and great evils, of which she had herself been the cause, without the most bitter grief. Therefore, she wished that a monument of her sorrow should exist in the name she gave her second son; and she would, at the same time, hold up a common mirror, by which she might admonish her whole progeny of the vanity of man. That some censure the judgment of Eve as absurd, because she regarded her just and holy sons as worthy to be rejected in comparison with her other wicked and abandoned son, is what I do not approve. For Eve had reason why she should congratulate herself in her firstborn; and no blame attaches to her for having proposed, in her second son, a memorial to herself and to all others, of their own vanity, to induce them to exercise themselves in diligent reflection on their own evils.
John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries: Genesis, electronic ed., Logos Library System; Calvin’s Commentaries, Ge 4:2.
Abel. Heb. Hébel, which means a breath (Is. 57:13), fig. of something evanescent, Ps. 39:5 (RVm.). This was no doubt the meaning which the name suggested to the Hebrews; but what its original meaning was, is quite uncertain. Possibly, it is the Ass. ablu, ‘son’: for other speculations, see EncB. s.v. Abel introduces pastoral life, Cain agricultural life (such as that to which Adam had been condemned, 3:17), both relatively primitive and simple modes of life1, especially the former, which would naturally be the stage next following that at which men supported themselves on the spontaneous produce of the soil, and by fishing and hunting (p. 68).
S. R. Driver, The Book of Genesis, With Introduction and Notes (New York; London: Edwin S. Gorham; Methuen & Co, 1904), 63.
The name Hebel (Gen 4:2, 4, 8-9, 25; pausai Häbel, 4:2) is unexplained in the OT, but a substantive hebel occurs seventy-three times in the MT signifying “breath, vapor, vanity.”1 Whether there is a connection between the name and the substantive is debated. The Great Bible, the Geneva Bible and the Bishops’ Bible spelled the name “Habel,” but the Douay used “Abel” as did the KJV and the major English Bibles since.
Jack P. Lewis, “The Offering of Abel (Gen. 4:4): A History of Interpretation” JETS 37/4 (December 1994) 481-496
And the Lord had respect unto Abel, etc. God is said to have respect unto the man to whom he vouchsafes his favor. We must, however, notice the order here observed by Moses; for he does not simply state that the worship which Abel had paid was pleasing to God, but he begins with the person of the offerer; by which he signifies, that God will regard no works with favor except those the doer of which is already previously accepted and approved by him. And no wonder; for man sees things which are apparent, but God looks into the heart, (1 Samuel 16:7;) therefore, he estimates works no otherwise than as they proceed from the fountain of the heart. Whence also it happens, that he not only rejects but abhors the sacrifices of the wicked, however splendid they may appear in the eyes of men. For if he, who is polluted in his soul, by his mere touch contaminates, with his own impurities, things otherwise pure and clean, how can that but be impure which proceeds from himself? When God repudiates the feigned righteousness in which the Jews were glorying, he objects, through his Prophet, that their hands were “full of blood,” (Isaiah 1:15.) For the same reason Haggai contends against the hypocrites. The external appearance, therefore, of works, which may delude our too carnal eyes, vanishes in the presence of God. Nor were even the heathens ignorant of this; whose poets, when they speak with a sober and well-regulated mind of the worship of God, require both a clean heart and pure hands. Hence, even among all nations, is to be traced the solemn rite of washing before sacrifices. Now seeing that in another place, the Spirit testifies, by the mouth of Peter, that‘hearts are purified by faith,’(Acts 15:9;) and seeing that the purity of the holy patriarchs was of the very same kind, the apostle does not in vain infer, that the offering of Abel was, by faith, more excellent than that of Cain. Therefore, in the first place, we must hold, that all works done before faith, whatever splendor of righteousness may appear in them, were nothing but mere sins, being defiled from their roots, and were offensive to the Lord, whom nothing can please without inward purity of heart. I wish they who imagine that men, by their own motion of freewill, are rendered meet to receive the grace of God, would reflect on this. Certainly, no controversy would then remain on the question, whether God justifies men gratuitously, and that by faith? For this must be received as a settled point, that, in the judgment of God, no respect is had to works until man is received into favor. Another point appears equally certain; since the whole human race is hateful to God, there is no other way of reconciliation to divine favor than through faith. Moreover, since faith is a gratuitous gift of God, and a special illumination of the Spirit, then it is easy to infer, that we are prevented 230 by his mere grace, just as if he had raised us from the dead. In which sense also Peter says, that it is God who purifies the hearts by faith. For there would be no agreement of the fact with the statement, unless God had so formed faith in the hearts of men that it might be truly deemed his gift. It may now be seen in what way purity is the effect of faith. It is a vapid and trifling philosophy, to adduce this as the cause of purity, that men are not induced to seek God as their rewarder except by faith. They who speak thus entirely bury the grace of God, which his Spirit chiefly commends. Others also speak coldly, who teach that we are purified by faiths only on account of the gift of regenerations in order that we may be accepted of God. For not only do they omit half the truth, but build without a foundation; since, on account of the curse on the human race, it became necessary that gratuitous reconciliation should precede. Again, since God never so regenerates his people in this world, that they can worship him perfectly; no work of man can possibly be acceptable without expiation. And to this point the ceremony of legal washing belongs, in order that men may learn, that as often as they wish to draw near unto God, purity must be sought elsewhere. Wherefore God will then at length have respect to our obedience, when he looks upon us in Christ.
5. But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. It is not to be doubted, that Cain conducted himself as hypocrites are accustomed to do; namely, that he wished to appease God, as one discharging a debt, by external sacrifices, without the least intention of dedicating himself to God. But this is true worship, to offer ourselves as spiritual sacrifices to God. When God sees such hypocrisy, combined with gross and manifest mockery of himself; it is not surprising that he hates it, and is unable to bear it; whence also it follows, that he rejects with contempt the works of those who withdraw themselves from him. For it is his will, first to have us devoted to himself; he then seeks our works in testimony of our obedience to him, but only in the second place. It is to be remarked, that all the figments by which men mock both God and themselves are the fruits of unbelief: To this is added pride, because unbelievers, despising the Mediator’s grace, throw themselves fearlessly into the presence of God. The Jews foolishly imagine that the oblations of Cain were unacceptable, because he defrauded God of the full ears of corn, and meanly offered him only barren or half-filled ears. Deeper and more hidden was the evil; namely that impurity of heart of which I have been speaking; just as, on the other hand, the strong scent of burning fat could not conciliate the divine favor to the sacrifices of Abel; but, being pervaded by the good odour of faith, they had a sweet-smelling savor.
John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries: Genesis, electronic ed., Logos Library System; Calvin’s Commentaries, Ge 4:4–5.