“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?” —Joel 2:12-14
The Scriptural narrative doesn’t wait long before it introduces us to the important concept of sacrifice in God’s economy.
After Adam and Eve’s rebellion against the Lord’s one command of not eating the forbidden fruit, before He banishes them from the paradise of the Garden of Eden, He makes for them a “covering” (from the same Hebrew root from which we get the word “atone”) of animal skins to clothe their nakedness (Genesis 3:21). Surely this merciful act included the slaughter of an animal whose fur was used as a protective garment for those created in God’s image.
Genesis 4 introduces us to the gruesome story of Cain and Abel. Sons of Adam and Eve, Cain, the eldest, became a farmer and Abel became a shepherd. In the course of time, suggesting God might have requested an offering, true to his vocation Cain brought “some of the fruit of the soil” as His act of worship (Genesis 4:3). Abel brought, “the fat portions of the firstborn of his flock” (Genesis 4:4). God looked on Abel and his sacrifice with “favor” but He didn’t receive Cain or his offering in the same way.
Could it be that the text suggests Abel brought the best that he had and Cain didn’t? Possibly.
Could it be that Abel’s offering involved the shedding of blood and Cain’s didn’t? More than likely.
Was it that Abel was righteous and Cain wasn’t? Surely (see 1 John 3:12).
Unable to handle the rejection, the elder brother became furious … and God knew it. So in a preemptive act of mercy, God approached Cain to warn him of the danger of “sin crouching at your door.” Sin that wanted to consume him and sin that Cain must deal with in a decisive manner (“master it”).
Ignoring God’s gracious advice, He committed premeditated murder. He lured Abel into the field, attacked and killed him with no justification whatsoever. Soon thereafter comes the famous (paraphrased) dialogue between God and the first criminal:
“Where is your brother?”
“I don’t know. I’m not responsible for Him.”
The latter part of Cain’s response was mostly a lie – we are at least partly responsible for caring for our neighbor and telling them the truth, but we aren’t entirely liable for their response and what they do with it (see Ezekiel 33:1-6). So the first part was definitely a falsehood.
Yet we see God once again (as we did after Adam and Eve’s disobedience as well) mercifully pursuing His crowning creation, possibly with reconciliation and restoration in mind. But Cain’s overt deception and unremorseful posture ruined all hope of avoiding his sin’s consequences. He, too, saw the land of his labor cursed and was banished from God’s presence (are you remembering Genesis 3?)
Without a hint of repentance, the villain complains about his punishment – it was too severe, more than he could bear (Genesis 4:13). Plus, perish the thought, he would be a marked man and would likely suffer the same crime as he perpetrated against his innocent brother. In other words, he soon would be murdered also and was overcome with the thought of suffering the same fate as he had meted out.
Doesn’t this sound like us? We may have wounded someone else but dread the thought of the same treatment. We have lied but hate to be lied to. We have refused to protect innocents but expect God to protect us. We have misbehaved but plead with God for the removal of the consequences. Some things never change – and human nature is one of them.
As with Cain, despite our duplicity, God’s mercy continues. So that the murderer would not receive equivalent retribution – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – He gave him a mark. The Hebrew word used here is ‘owth and is used 79 times in the Old Testament. Usually it is translated “sign.” This sign protected Cain from receiving what he deserved – death at the hand of another.
What an amazing picture of what God has done for us! We have sinned and we deserve to die … but He gives us mercy. We are murderers (Matthew 5:21-22; 1 John 3:15) but He gives us grace. This is what the story of Cain and Abel is all about – hidden below the surface of dark intrigue and violence is a God who doesn’t give us what we deserve. Instead of putting us to death, He had His Son “put to death” for us.
And in the perfection and submission of Jesus we see sacrifice and mercy merge.
I measure [God’s] love for me by the magnitude of the wrath I deserved and the wonder of [His] mercy by putting Christ in my place. —John Piper