This post is a chapter excerpted from my upcoming book, “Gory Stories of the Bible.”
Though Abel died, he still speaks. -Hebrews 11:4
After the all the fruit stealing, backstabbing, blame-shifting, and divine cursing in Genesis 3, you might be tempted to think it can’t get much worse. You would be wrong. Never underestimate fallen humanity’s ability to take something bad and make it truly awful. We have a preternatural ability to self-destruct and make a mess of things. I subscribe to the “Murphy’s Law” of human nature: if it can go wrong, it will go wrong. If there was ever any doubt of that, just read Genesis 4.
The dust hasn’t even settled from the disaster of the previous chapter, and immediately things are going wrong again. Eve gives birth to two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain, the oldest, is the one on whom the hope of the world rests. Coming on the heels of God’s promise in Genesis 3:15, the question hanging over Cain as the first “offspring of the woman” is, “Will he be the one who crushes the serpent’s head?”
Alas, it is not to be. Genesis 4:3-5 sets up the world’s first sibling rivalry, a rivalry that brings the world crashing down all over again:
In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.
When Abel brings his offering, God is pleased and accepts it and him. But when Cain brings his offering, God is not pleased, and Cain finds himself rejected. Why did God accept Abel, and reject Cain?
No, it’s not because Cain brought vegetables and Abel brought lamb chops (although, if you showed up to a cookout at my house with veggie burgers, I might turn you away too). God didn’t take issue with the menu; he took issue with the heart. Hebrews 11:4 illuminates the situation like this: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain.” Abel’s faith—his trust and love for God—was what God accepted. Cain, by implication, lacked faith. He didn’t trust or love God, but brought his offering for some other reason. Duty? Fear? Manipulation? We don’t know, and the text doesn’t say. All we know is that Cain was turned away… and he was not happy about it.
As is so often the case, the wound of rejection began a chain reaction in Cain’s heart that would lead to disaster. Hurt became fear. Fear led to anger (say that in a Yoda voice). Anger curdled into hate. Hate started casting around for revenge.
God saw the dominoes falling and offered Cain a way out:
“The LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6-7)
God’s word to Cain was a gentle rebuke and a sharp warning. “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” In other words: “Cain, the correct response here isn’t to blame your brother; it’s to repent.” And the warning: “Sin is crouching at the door.” The Hebrew word translated “crouching” has the sense of lying down and lurking. Given the serpentine enemy we met in Genesis 3, perhaps a better translation would be “coiled.” “The snake has escaped from Eden and he’s living in your heart,” God warns Cain. “He’ll eat you alive if you give him the chance.”
Cain disregards God’s warning, revealing his true heart. Anger and hate lead to premeditated murder, and before we have time to even register our shock, Abel’s blood is soaking into the dirt at Cain’s feet. We’ve moved from fruit stealing to homicide in a single chapter; the downward spiral of depravity unleashed at the Fall has begun.
God confronts Cain with the horror of his crime: “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” As the earth drank in the first of many bloodstains, the victim’s blood cried out. Unheard by Cain but echoing through the halls of heaven was the cry, “Justice!” Abel’s blood screamed for justice, for divine restitution to repay what had been done to him.
This was the first bloodshed in history, but it wouldn’t be the last. Last year, 473,000 people were murdered worldwide (not including 44 million babies dismembered in their mother’s wombs). 108 million victims died in wars in the twentieth century alone. If the single voice of Abel’s blood roused heaven’s retribution, what must the outrage in the ears of God sound like today? Abel’s story is a sobering reminder that our victims are not voiceless. History truly is a conveyor belt of corpses— and the blood of each one is shouting for justice.
So why is the story of the first murder in the Bible?
For starters, Cain’s brutality holds up a mirror to human nature— and the picture isn’t pretty. Humanity hasn’t changed at all since the primordial days of Genesis 4. We still fear and rage and hate and kill; we still demand our own way and sulk or sin when we don’t get it. The open wound of the Fall is still festering in our hearts. If you want an explanation for the chaos you see on the news, Genesis 4:7 still provides the best answer: “Sin is crouching at the door, and its desire is for you.” We are still hunted by our serpentine desires.
But there’s something much more important going on in this gory story than judgment. Abel, as the first innocent victim in the Bible, foreshadows a future innocent victim— the greatest Victim in the Bible. Hebrews 12:24 makes a breathtaking connection between history’s first violence and history’s violent climax:
You have come to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Abel’s blood cried out from the ground, “Justice!” And ever since then, every other drop of innocent blood has cried the same, ringing in heaven’s ears with a cacophonous demand for vengeance. Every victim’s blood—except one. Listen to an unexpected cry coming from the cross, as the blood of Jesus speaks a better word: “Mercy!”
The bloody cross is God’s decisive response to our bloody world. At the cross, God turns victimhood upside down into victory and overwrites tragedy with triumph. The innocent victim dies, and the guilty go free—both an inversion and a satisfaction of justice. At the cross, there is mercy available for both the victims and the violent, for all who will lay down their rights and their wrongs at the pierced feet of the Savior. Today, his blood continues to speak that better word: “Mercy!”