It would be difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of a family more famous in both human and Biblical history than that of Adam and Eve, and likewise their sons Cain and Abel. Both Christians and non-Christians alike are typically familiar with the story of the two brothers, usually assumed to be twins (although there is no specific biblical wording to support this claim). Cain and Abel’s rivalry even served as a foundational basis for John Steinbeck’s 1952 magnum opus, East of Eden. In short, the Bible’s first brothers famously display all-too-common failings of mankind, both then and now: treachery, jealousy, anger, and ultimately violence from Cain, while also displaying obedience and service to God on Abel’s part.
The saga of this family and their tragedies provides us who are some 3,400+ years removed from the writing of Genesis multiple beneficial observations and lessons to be gleaned even today. The focus of this article will be to specifically look at Abel, history’s first recorded murder victim and martyr, and to provide and discuss two specific lessons we can derive from his life, obedience to God, and untimely death at the hands of his own brother. How can we apply these observations as 21st century New Testament Christians?
According to Gene Taylor’s Character Studies in Genesis, the definition of Abel’s name is a possible variant of the name Jabal, which means “shepherd” or “herdsman.” Abel itself is defined as “breath, vapor, transitoriness.” It is imperative to note that his saga is not merely some obscure Old Testament story, relegated to being a mere biblical footnote of remote antiquity. The Old Testament is certainly still relevant for our learning and profit (Rom. 15:4). The New Testament tells us in no uncertain terms that by faith, Abel is still “speaking,” albeit not in a literal sense (Heb. 11:4). Jesus Himself referred to Abel as a “righteous” man (Matt. 23:35), and both Cain and Abel are repeatedly referred to and mentioned throughout the New Testament (Heb. 12:24; Luke 11:51; 1 John 3:12; Jude 1:11). These brothers provide us a vivid example of polar opposites in terms of morality: one being moral and acquiescent to God, and the other obstinate and immoral. Easton’s Bible Dictionary described Cain as “a sullen, self-willed, haughty, vindictive man; wanting the religious element in his character, and defiant even in his attitude towards God….Doomed to be a wanderer and a fugitive in the earth…” The relevance of these brothers is every bit as applicable today as it was when the New Testament was written and assembled. It would behoove each and every one of us today to both study this drama, and take away from it pertinent applications for our modern lives. Let us note two specific examples.
First, notice that Abel’s life and death clearly show that God is aware of all that takes place on the earth. Those who commit sin with the false belief that their misdeeds will go unnoticed or unseen are in egregious, soul-threatening error.
Out of rage and jealousy, Cain killed Abel (Gen. 4:8). God then asked Cain, “Where is Abel thy brother?” and then told him, “. . . the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground” (4:9-10). The sheer audacity of Cain’s reply to God (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”) almost defies belief, but perhaps further highlights Cain’s mistaken, amazingly confident notion of being able to effectively hide his sin from God. God sees and knows everything. He is aware of the thoughts, actions, deeds, and sins of every person who has, or ever will live. There is no detail which escapes God’s eyes (Jer. 16:17).
Similar to Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), Cain foolishly lived under the illusion that his sins could be hidden, just as many Christians believe today. Nothing can be hidden from God. God knows the hairs on your head (Luke 12:7) and is aware of every detail of the earth, even when a bird falls from the sky (Matt. 10:29). Yet, just as vile and defiant sin will not go unseen and unpunished by God, Abel shows us that mankind’s obedient, dutiful, and righteous action will likewise not go unnoticed or unrewarded by God (Heb. 6:10).
Secondly, Abel’s worship shows that there is indeed such a thing as acceptable worship to God. Likewise, Cain’s offering shows that there exists worship which does NOT serve to please God. This runs contrary to the rampant viewpoint across much of modern society that any and all worship to God is equivalent and acceptable.
God did not accept the offering of Cain (Gen. 4:5). Contrast this with the previous verse, which tells us that God “had respect unto Abel and to his offering.” Hebrews 11:4 would likewise state, “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain.” James Burton Coffman noted in his commentary on Genesis: “Hebrews 11:4 categorically states the reason for the acceptability of Abel’s sacrifice as being solely due to his having offered it ‘by faith,’ a truth which emphatically declares that he offered in harmony with what God had commanded him to offer.”
The brothers had offered differing sacrifices to God. Cain, as a “tiller of the ground” (Gen. 4:2) “brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground.” Abel, “a keeper of sheep…brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions,” an animal sacrifice. Cain may well have possessed every bit as ardent a desire to worship God as his brother did. However, this does not negate Cain’s error in his attempt at substitution, replacing what God had specifically commanded with what God did not decree. Cain, to his eternal discredit, brought that which God had not authorized, which God had apparently not told him to bring, and God did not accept it. Further evidence of Cain’s moral repugnance is his reaction to correction from God (Gen. 4:6-7); he certainly does not demonstrate a contrite, repentant heart, as we clearly see when he kills his own brother, flees, and then possesses the shocking gall to complain as God’s wrath descends upon him (vs. 11-13). His focus was still on himself and not sorrow over his misdeeds. Abel’s offering was deemed acceptable by God, and Cain’s was not, which clearly serves to illustrate for all time that not all “sacrifices” are equal, or even acceptable, in the eyes of Almighty God.
When we offer to God some facet or element that is not authorized, God does not accept that specific offering. Simply stated, we possess two potential paths to follow in regard to worshiping God. We can worship as God has commanded and ordained, or we can worship in a manner which we deem to be “just as good”. Cain should serve as a warning for all ages of the folly of the second choice, while Abel can serve to illustrate for all time the mammoth importance of obeying God.
How many of us hear the cries and supposed justifications from postmodernists and progressives today that HOW we worship is negligible in importance, or even irrelevant? In the New Testament, the Lord has provided for us a pattern and specific guidelines for worship. When we as His children worship Him appropriately in spirit and in truth, then such worship is pleasing in His sight (John 4:23-24). Worshiping God as we see fit, based on how we “feel”, summarily disregarding God’s expectations, desires, and commands, is not acceptable or pleasing unto God. Logically, none of us as “Christians” would desire to have our “sacrifice”, or obedience to God, deemed “lacking” or “rejected”, as was Cain’s.
In his article “Abel vs. Cain,” Frank Walton said, “Cain was the first religious innovator, which illustrates the error of ‘will-worship’ (Col. 2:23) or ‘self-chosen religion.’ Those who ‘reject authority’ (Jude 8), as in worship and add unauthorized items, have dangerously entered ‘the way of Cain’ (v. 11). This is the way of rebellion against God’s appointed way of acceptable worship and fellowship. In prompting Abel’s murder, Cain’s unauthorized worship is specifically enumerated as ‘his works were evil’ (1 John 3:12). A rebellious person is a selfish person, who is more concerned with presumptuously doing what he wants in religion than submitting to what God requires.”
Abel’s example of devotion and obedience to God are still perfectly applicable to us today….as is Cain’s sheer disregard for obedience to the Lord. Is your faith grounded in resolute, unwavering, and indefatigable pursuit of God and His will? Or is your faith and behavior more aligned with that of Cain’s, focused on your own “convenience” and intractableness, ultimately resulting in separation from God? Your soul and your eternal destiny hangs in the balance of a thorough and honest answer to that question.