In the autumn of 1952, Nobel Prize winning author John Steinbeck published a now famous work called East of Eden. Critics described the work as his “most ambitious” novel, while (according to his third and last wife Elaine) Steinbeck considered it his “magnum opus.”
If you haven’t read it, the novel has some rough language and tough scenes (so I hesitate to recommend it even if it is a classic work), but the plot line details the growth of two families – the Trask family and the Hamilton family – and shows how the two intertwined over the decades. The manuscript was addressed to Thom and John Steinbeck, the two sons of the author who were both grade school aged at the time of the publishing.
Steinbeck wanted to eloquently describe life in the now lush (but once harsh and uninviting) Salinas Valley. The area has become one of the most productive agricultural regions in central California, following the course of the Salinas River south of San Francisco Bay and Silicon Valley. The story offered grand detail of the landscape – the sights, sounds, smells, and colors. Its beginnings were filled with stories of grit, dirt, rock and stiff-lipped arduous laborers.
I won’t ruin the plot of the novel except to offer up its underlying theme. Set in an ongoing philosophical debate by two of the stories characters, a discussion about Cain and Abel revealed the author’s true query: Do men have the power to choose their course in life, or are they somehow compelled to plot a course toward “sainthood” or “doomed sinner”?
The title of the book was taken from Genesis 4:16, the last verse we will consider in this lesson. East of Eden suggests an ending place after one has savagely betrayed another. The story details a scorned walk into banished lands.
The problem is that many people tell the story of their life as if ongoing rebellion is somehow God’s fault. The banishment and its exhausting and punishing effects seem to just happen to these hapless victims.
That isn’t the truth. While it is true we are born broken, it is also true that our continued troubles come as the result of our deliberate choice to continue in rebellion against God.
That is at the heart of the next part of the Genesis story. In chapter four, we get the opportunity to remain tucked behind a bush and witness the first murder of a man by another man. As we are shocked by this heinous crime, consider an essential underlying truth of the passage…
Key Principle: Though our sin nature was passed from Adam, it offers no excuse to the rebel. We must admit to ourselves that we still choose to sin – because our default setting is set to “selfish.”
Take a moment and read the text of God’s Word from the familiar story of Cain and Abel:
Genesis 4:1 Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, “I have gotten a man child with the help of the Lord.” 2 Again, she gave birth to his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. 3 So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground. 4 Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; 5 but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. 6 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” 8 Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground. 11 Now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you cultivate the ground, it will no longer yield its strength to you; you will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is too great to bear! 14 Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Your face I will be hidden, and I will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15 So the Lord said to him, “Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord appointed a sign for Cain, so that no one finding him would slay him. 16 Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
Before we explore what we just read, let’s refresh memories concerning the path behind us in our book study of the first of our collected works of Moses. We have looked at some important truths over these studies:
• First, when we began our study, we noted the divisions of the book into a prologue and ten “scrolls” that unfolded a deliberate story – beginning with the Creation and moving into the formation of a tribal family through whom God decided to show Himself to the world.
• Next, we looked at the prologue of Genesis 1:1-2:3 where the text revealed the facts that God both made everything and that He liked what He made. Each element of creation served His decreed purpose.
• Finally, as we dove headlong into the first “scroll” in Genesis 2:4-4:26 unfolded the story of “what went wrong” in God’s treasured Creation. We are still in the midst of that tale in this study.
As you look at the familiar story of Cain and Abel, you will note that God took three steps on behalf of a rebel in spite of his continued angry insurgence.
First, God offered a rest and blessing even after rebellion.
Adam and Eve sinned and were dismissed from the Garden. Yet, the sun rose. A new day began…
First, Eve experienced God’s blessing in spite of her sin:
Genesis 4:1 Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, “I have gotten a man child with the help of the LORD.” 2 Again, she gave birth to his brother Abel.
Sin and rebellion wasn’t the END of the human story – and that opening offers great hope and promise for all of us! God purposed to move the human story forward – and Eve knew that God was at work. Though the words of the story of Cain and Abel were meant as a sampling of sin’s consequences and spread, even those words included the goodness of God in spite of human failing. It is an important reminder: God works in spite of us because of His character and His decree. He desires obedience, but doesn’t only bless us because of obedience.
Eve overtly credited God with her offspring, suggesting that she saw God as continuing in blessing even after expulsion from the Garden.
Many scholars see an implication of personal repentance in the exclamation of Eve that her womb was filled with the help of the Lord. They do so because people who reject God are prone to overlook His goodness, and do not easily offer Him credit when they reach their greatest life moments. Clearly, for Eve, becoming the mother of the living was her greatest achievement, and she saw it as something from the hand of God
Second, the next generation grew into relationship with God:
Note the beginning of the account:
Genesis 4:2b …And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.
Two things are obvious about these words:
The first one is there is a diversity of what the children of Adam and Eve accomplished. Two children from the same parents can respond to the opportunities and challenges of life in two very different ways. Bear in mind that Biblical scholars believe the depth of variation in the earliest genetic material was far greater than what we have today. As a result, the differences between the sons may have been much more drastic physically than in the case of our children. They may have looked quite different, and clearly, they chose different occupational paths.
Stop and consider for a second the words of Proverbs 22:6:
Train up a child in the way he should go,
Even when he is old he will not depart from it.
The child-rearing lessons of the text appear, many believe, are taken from the images of a growing fig tree and its fruit. For instance, the term “train” is the Hebrew word “khawnak” – a word that was also used in reference to the work of a midwife rubbing the gums of a newborn with oil, or with the white milky juice of a “pag” or green fig. In Arab culture, chewed dates or figs are still used to get a reluctant baby to nurse from a mother. The idea is to “squeeze into the child things that will cause the child to intrinsically desire truth.” Add to that the phrase, “in the way he should go” which should be more accurately translated “according to his bend” and the illusion to the fig tree is obvious.
Let’s say the verse this way: “Squeeze into the child truth that causes him to desire more, but do it according to the bend of the child, and when they are old, they will not depart from those truths because they were intrinsic and explained in a way that made sense to them.”
Since we know children may be starkly different from one another, we must recognize each will require different ways to reach into their heart. Each will respond uniquely to the type and number of restrictions we place on them. A good parent learns the child before they make the rules. That allows them to speak into the life of a very young child in a language the child will recognize as loving and intentionally helping. As the child grows, a parent must prepare them for a more impersonal system meant for older children and young adults.
Next, note how closely these early young men were identified by what they accomplished in life. In our last lesson, we made the point that behavior and identity are not the same thing. Here it is important to understand how early that confusion was woven into the human experience. From some of the earliest words of Scripture, we see accomplishment and behavior became a summary statement of one’s identity. It can be hard to see it as you read, because it has become so fluent in our thinking. Cain farmed. Abel shepherded. Yet, look at the words and you will see something different: Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. It is subtle, but it is there. We all refer to people by what they do, and are very casual about it. That isn’t wrong; it is simply incomplete. We are all much more than what we do.
Remember, though the crossing of identity and accomplishment is a very old idea, it can easily lead to a misunderstanding. Remember the story of of Cain and Abel isn’t one of success, but one of complete failure and breakdown in relationship. Let’s say it clearly, so we don’t allow a haze to remain on the text:
Cain wasn’t simply a farmer. Abel wasn’t simply a shepherd. Both began as children implanted into the womb by God’s grace.
They were sons of a family who saw, experienced, and even FAILED God. I don’t want to read too much into the way they were introduced, but it is important to see how early in history men framed their identity by their work, and to understand why that can be a dangerous proposition.
I implore young men and women not to wrap your identity in your accomplishments. The day will come as you age when you will no longer be able to do what you once did. Does that diminish your identity? It will tend to do so if you don’t understand that your accomplishments are not what make you who you are, rather your character is. When the lights go down and the crowd has moved on to younger talent, you will need to know the things you did were not who you are – or your life will fall apart. Go back to the text…
Second, God still made Himself personally available to fallen men.
Watch how the relationship between each man and God developed individually. Moses recorded:
Genesis 4:3 So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. 4 Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering; 5 but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell.
Before we focus on the details of the respective offerings, there is something that must be addressed about these words. It is obvious that much more was going on in the background of the story that is not verbalized in it. Don’t forget that.
For instance, other children were clearly born to Eve, because Cain and Abel needed and found wives to continue the adventure of human history. Unrecorded instruction must have been given to men and women on the subject of worship. Cain and Abel knew to bring offerings of their labor to the Lord, but the call to do so is not overtly specified in the text up to this point. How did they know? The answer is simple, but also critical. Most people who lived in the time of the text never got as much as an honorable mention in it. Much happened that was not recorded because the nature of history is selective. Many events and many people critical to forming the most important ideals are left in the unremembered dust of history.
Not to be too pointed, but would you allow me to ask: One hundred years from now, how many people will know ANY contribution you made on the planet? It is simply a mistake to think that only those mentioned in the text were born, and only instructions mentioned in the text were offered. That is clearly not the case if you read the whole account closely.
Look carefully at the words that describe the offerings given to God.
• You will note that each man gave from his increase (that increase came because of God’s enabling).
• You will note that Cain came first with an offering, and Abel followed.
• You will note that God didn’t receive the two offerings the same way.
Because of the brevity of the account, we don’t really have detail on what the specific issue that was between God and Cain – but there clearly was an issue. We also cannot be certain how Cain KNEW his offering didn’t get God’s approval, but we know from the story that Cain knew God simply didn’t regard his offering as He did in the case of his brother’s offering. The Hebrew term translated “regard” is “shaw-aw” and is normally translated with words like “gazed at.” The word suggests something that draws your attention in a way that makes it difficult to look away. God’s “eye” was caught by Abel’s offering, but not by Cain’s offering.
Third, God offered counsel to the distraught rebel.
Without God’s gaze, Cain became angry within (khawraw is “burnt up”) and despondent (with a sullen face) without. Rather than drop to his knees to ask God about His lack of regard, Cain simply turned to emotionalism and burned inwardly. I suspect he didn’t ask because he knew what the problem was already.
Regardless of what you think caused God’s disregard, I would like you to be open to the idea that the source of Cain’s trouble was neither God nor his brother Abel. In fact, his problem was made plain by God’s own declaration. To find it we must keep reading:
Genesis 4:6 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” 8 Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.
Here is the heart of the passage. It seems clear that Cain thought he was entitled to be considered acceptable to God, especially if his brother was! Yet, God made it clear:
• Cain had a choice in the presentation of his offering.
• Cain had a choice in his response to God’s apparent rejection.
• Cain’s wrong choices about both invited the lion at the door to bound into his door and pounce on him.
• Cain could not insist that he couldn’t be held responsible because God made clear: “You must master it!”
Consider for a moment the phrase: “It lies crouching at his door.” Of whom or what was God speaking? It will take more investigation to find the answer. Stop and think of it this way: There are three primary reasons why you may do wrong.
First, we act out our identity – and we are born sinners. We can almost “auto-sin” by nature. Our default switch is set to self-protection and self-focus. Because Cain was conceived after the Fall of man, he was formed with that flawed switch – yet that wasn’t a fool-proof excuse to be released from responsibility for his choices, as God made clear.
Second, we get enticed by the enemy and drawn into rebellion. Clearly, God’s enemy is involved in fanning the flames of mutiny in us and in our culture. Yet God has offered a resistance plan – so it IS possible to resist. Further, God didn’t blame the enemy for Cain’s choices – He blamed Cain.
Third, we respond to chastening with “digging in” further. Cain may simply have chosen the path of continued intentional rebellion instead of softening before God – and each step is easier to continue and harder to reverse. Rebellion causes a momentum flow like a downhill ride. The initial push against inertia is more than it takes to “go with the flow” once rebellion has taken hold.
In this case, the fallen nature within Cain assisted him in choosing to do wrong, AND the continued momentum made it easier to remain in rebellion than turn back in repentance, so he chose to keep digging himself in. It appears to me the enemy was a part of the problem only after Cain invited him in by rebellion. Remember our key principle:
Though our sin nature was passed from Adam to all of us, we must admit to ourselves that we still willfully choose to sin – because our default setting is set to “selfish.”
There is a temptation to blame Satan for things that believers do without his assistance. Cain’s trouble was the continual rebellion and rejection of God’s right to rule as He sees fit. That mutinous rejection robbed Cain of happiness and set him up for a terrible attack in his life. It wasn’t simply Cain’s basic sin nature that became the main problem here; rather his main problem was his refusal to turn around the actions of his life in softness toward God and recognition of His right to rule. The wrong choice wounded his heart and set him up for attack. Enter Satan.
Let’s think of it this way: While there was a sin nature infecting Adam and Eve’s sons, the setting of the jaw in rebellion was the real culprit.
How do I know it wasn’t Satan at the beginning? 1 John 3 mentions:
1 John 3:11 For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another; 12 not as Cain, [who] was of the evil one and slew his brother. And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother’s were righteous.
If you look closely at what John revealed, long after the fact (by means of the Spirit) you will note that he depicted Cain as lacking love, being “of the evil one” and committing a murder. Look at the order. First there was a choice to love and do good, THEN (only after that choice) did sin crouch at the door. Satan entered a situation where disobedience was already an acceptable option. That is why we identified the one crouching at the door as the very lion who sought to devour, Satan himself. John asked, “Why did Cain murder Abel?” His answer was straightforward: “Cain’s deeds were evil, while Abel’s deeds were righteous. That isn’t a complete answer, but it is a hint. Remember, when Jesus addressed the statute of murder, He reminded us that:
For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person.
The problem for Cain was not that he was being treated unfairly, nor was it his ignorance of offerings. Sin is of the heart. His problem was the heart with which he brought the offering.
Remember Abel? Hebrews 11:4 reminds:
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. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.
What did Abel do by faith? He offered to God an acceptable sacrifice. Why was his offering accepted? It was NOT the substance of the offering, since Moses was clear – Cain was a farmer; Abel was a shepherd. The issue was what was in their hearts, not their hands.
At this point, you would think God was DONE with Cain, but He wasn’t. God willingly engaged Cain long after Cain wouldn’t speak the truth:
Genesis 4:9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.
If my count is correct, this is the third time God pressed Cain to come clean and make right his rebellion. Only when the rebel wrapped himself in mutiny, God made plain the cost of what he chose to do:
Genesis 4:11 Now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you cultivate the ground, it will no longer yield its strength to you; you will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is too great to bear! 14 Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Your face I will be hidden, and I will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15 So the LORD said to him, “Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD appointed a sign for Cain, so that no one finding him would slay him. 16 Then Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
You end up in Nod, east of Eden, when you dig in instead of turning back.
Though our sin nature was passed from Adam to all of us, we must admit to ourselves that we still willfully choose to sin – because our default setting is set to “selfish.”
Stop overplaying that God has somehow abandoned you because of your gross sinfulness. It isn’t true.
• He blesses even when we don’t deserve it.
• He makes Himself available even after we are willfully wrong.
• He offers counsel when we are bewildered by the troubles of life.
If you are honest, it isn’t the number of times God makes overtures in your life to please Him. The real problem is how comfortable you and I become with living in rebellion!