In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve sin because they choose to trust the word of the serpent over the word of God.
This same sin continues in Genesis 4, but in a slightly different way behind the scenes.
If we read carefully, we can see that the sins of Genesis 4 were due to a mishandling of God’s word that took place in Genesis 4:1.
Acquired One vs. Worthless One
After Adam and Eve rebel against God, he pronounces judgment on the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15).
Imagine Eve hearing those words and looking around Eden. Seeing no other women, what would she have likely assumed? That the promised “seed of the woman” is a promise to her. She will bear a son, he will crush the serpent, and she will re-enter paradise.
Indeed, this is exactly how Eve understands God’s promise in Genesis 4:1. She has a son and names him Cain, explaining, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.” The name Cain sounds similar to the Hebrew word for “I have gotten”—he’s literally named “the one I have gotten.” Eve’s excitement is evident: Cain, this “acquired one,” is the seed God has promised.
Adam and Eve soon have a second son and name him Abel (Gen. 4:2). Eve is less enthusiastic this time around, not even explaining why she chose his name. The Scriptures elsewhere explain it, though. In Ecclesiastes, “Abel” is the book’s most prominent word; it’s translated “vanity.” Eve already has her “acquired one” who will crush the serpent and restore her to paradise, so why had God given her another son? Abel seems pointless. He is the “worthless one.”
Eve already has her ‘acquired one’ who will crush the serpent and restore her to paradise, so why had God given her another son? Abel seems pointless. He is the ‘worthless one.’
What would these names have done to the psyches of these two boys? Every time someone calls Cain, he hears them singing his praises. He is God’s gift to the world, the one who will purge creation of the serpent’s sway. Abel, on the other hand, hears nothing but negativity: unlike his brother, he is pointless. (Credit to C. Judson Davis, Hebrew professor at Bryan College, for teaching the meaning of these names.)
This character divide shows itself when the brothers offer their sacrifices. In Genesis 3:21, God had given a paradigm for sacrifice by killing an animal to cover Adam and Eve’s shame. Animal sacrifices are bloody, messy, and smelly—and arrogant people are not always drawn to blue-collar work. Sure enough, Cain chooses to sacrifice in his own way, not following God’s example as Abel does. It’s a principle the Bible will later crystallize: God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). The rejection hurts Cain’s pride, and eventually his arrogance leads him to murder (Gen. 4:8) and apostasy (Gen. 4:17; cf. 1 John 3:12; Jude 11).
The Sin Behind Cain’s Sins
Cain’s arrogance, anger, and apostasy are most noticeable, but another sin lurks behind these. In fact, the chief sin of Genesis 4 is the same as Genesis 3. In both chapters, God’s people fail to heed his words.
In Genesis 3, Eve is tricked into distrusting God’s word (Gen. 3:1–7). In Genesis 4, she trusts God’s promise but misinterprets and misapplies it. She thinks the promise is about her in a woodenly literal way and will have a fairly immediate fulfillment. Her mistaken beliefs about God’s word lead her to give her sons horrible names (and potentially parent them poorly, too). This in turn cultivates Cain’s arrogance, which culminates in anger, murder, and apostasy. But it all stemmed from a mishandling of God’s word.
The chief sin of chapter 4 is the same as chapter 3. In both, God’s people fail to heed his words.
When I encounter Genesis 3–4, I’m challenged to ponder my own relationship to God’s word. Genesis 3 prompts me to ask if I’m trusting God’s word as my highest authority; Genesis 4 prompts me to ask if I’m following Paul’s command: “Do your best to present yourself as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Good interpretations are worth sweating over because poor interpretations can have disastrous consequences. By God’s grace, not every misinterpretation yields such dire circumstances. Still, mishandling his words in any capacity is dangerous. Am I striving to understand and teach Holy Scripture with maximum accuracy, or have I allowed myself to become lazy—and thus begun to drift away (Heb. 2:1)?
Our Better Brother
In Genesis 4, even though Abel’s blood calls for vengeance from the ground (v. 10), God still shows mercy to Cain (vv. 15–16).
The author of Hebrews later picks up on this, teaching that Jesus’s “sprinkled blood . . . speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:24). If God is willing to show Cain mercy when Abel’s blood cries out for revenge, how much more must he be willing to show us mercy when Jesus’s blood calls out for forgiveness (Luke 23:34)?
By our sin we, like Cain, have struck down our “brother” (Heb. 2:11). Yet Christ came precisely for this purpose: to be crushed for us and for our salvation (Isa. 53:4). He is the true seed of the woman who has crushed the serpent’s head, and now all sinners are invited to come to him with great joy (Heb. 12:22–24).