Many people have heard of Cain from the Bible but don’t know much about him. The Old Testament figure is central to one of the Bible’s earliest and most famous stories about a fractured family relationship involving envy, greed, and anger. Many have also heard of the “mark of Cain,” which a few Bible readers have poorly interpreted in the past. So who was Cain?
Cain was the first child born to Adam and Eve. Eve then gave birth to Abel, making Cain an older brother. Later in life, when God accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, Cain killed Abel. Besides punishing Cain, God gave him a mark to protect him from others seeking retaliation.
Why did God reject Cain’s offering? Why did he kill his brother Abel? What is the mark of Cain? What does the New Testament say about him? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
God Rejects Cain’s Offering
Cain and Abel are the main characters of Genesis 4. The Old Testament doesn’t mention Cain outside that chapter. The New Testament mentions him three times, in Hebrews, 1 John, and Jude (more below).
In Genesis, the story of Cain and Abel is part of Adam and Eve’s narrative, showing that sin, which entered the world through their parents’ disobedience in the Garden of Eden, would spread from one generation to the next. As an illustration of this, the tragic story includes the failure of Cain to love God (because he offered unacceptable worship) and love others (because he murdered his brother).
Cain offered God some of his crops
The story reveals that Cain and Abel had different professions, which also relate to the sacrifice they offered God. “Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 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” (Gen. 4:2-4, ESV).
|1st son of Adam and Eve||2nd son of Adam and Eve|
|Name meaning: acquire||Name meaning: vapor|
|Profession: farmer||Profession: shepherd|
|Offering: fruit||Offering: sheep|
The story pivots when God accepts Abel’s offering but rejects Cain’s. “And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard (Gen. 4:4-5, ESV). Genesis scholars disagree about the reason for God’s rejection of Cain’s crops. Some argue it was the nature of the offering; others contend that Cain was somehow internally disingenuous.
Genesis scholar Victor Hamilton writes, “Gen. 4 does not supply a reason for or an explanation of this divine choice.” He adds, “Perhaps the silence is the message itself. As outside viewers, we are unable to detect any difference between the two brothers and their offerings. Perhaps the fault is an internal one, an attitude that is known only to God.” 
Cain Can’t Control His Anger
When God rejected him, Cain became angry. “So Cain was very angry, and his face fell” (Gen. 4:5). However, even though God rejected Cain’s offering, he didn’t reject him as a person. This is clear from what he says next, and it’s seen in God’s protection of him after he kills his brother (more below).
In response, God tells Cain that he must control his anger as opposed to his anger controlling him. “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 contrary to you, but you must rule over it” (Gen. 4:6-7).
As the rest of the story reveals, Cain can’t control his anger. So he let the sin that was crouching at the door inside the house. Cain failed to rule over his anger; instead, it ruled over him.
Cain Kills His Brother Abel
God demonstrated a willingness to be patient with Cain’s anger and disappointment. Additionally, the story mentions nothing about Abel disliking his older brother. Nevertheless, Cain premeditated murdering his brother. “Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him” (Gen. 4:8, ESV).
Abel had God’s image
In the storyline of Genesis, God’s creation of human life is a miraculous gift. God demonstrated his wisdom, power, and goodness when he created Cain’s parents, Adam and Eve.
Furthermore, God made every human being in his image, making them after his likeness (Gen. 1:26-27). Even though sin would transfer from one generation to the next, the image of God would, too (cf. Gen. 5:3).
When Cain killed Abel, which is the first murder recorded in the Bible, he destroyed one of God’s image-bearers. Like other human beings, Abel displayed God’s image, and Cain obliterated the likeness.
God marks Cain to protect him
In the aftermath of the murder, God wanted Cain to confess responsibility. Instead, Cain dodged accountability and lied to God. “The Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?'” (Gen. 4:9, ESV). God responded that he knew about the murder and that Abel’s blood is “crying to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10).
God’s patience with Cain had run out: “And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Gen. 4:11-12).
Cain complained that the punishment was too severe and, ironically, feared someone would murder him in retaliation (Gen. 4:13-14). In response, God let the punishment stand but protected him with a mark. “‘If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.’ And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him” (Gen. 4:15).
What is the mark of Cain?
Some interpreters in the past have called Cain’s external, visible mark a “curse,” which is incorrect. A few have even suggested that the mark is brown skin, an interpretation with no textual or historical basis.
To be clear, no reputable Bible scholar argues that the mark is dark skin. This is only an interpretation that racist people have adopted and forced onto the text to justify their sin.
Genesis scholar Kenneth Mathews writes, “‘Mark’ in our passage is not a sign of the ‘curse’; in fact, it assures Cain’s safety rather than acts as a reproach.”  Hamilton adds, “The sign identifies Cain as one who is especially protected by God.” 
The end of Cain’s story and the beginning of Seth’s
Genesis 4 concludes by describing Cain’s offspring. The short passage includes the first reference to a man taking two wives (Gen. 4:19) and the continuation of extreme, unjust violence (Gen. 4:23b).
Concerning Adam and Eve, whose second-born son was no longer alive, God gave them another son they named Seth. Though Cain’s line provides the reader with little optimism for the future, the first mention of Seth includes a note of hopefulness. “To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord” (Gen. 4:26).
Cain in the New Testament
The New Testament mentions Cain three times. Not surprisingly, writers use him as a negative illustration because God rejected his offering, and he killed his brother in anger.
(1) The writer of Hebrews mentions that Cain failed to give God an acceptable offering. “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” (Heb. 11:4).
(2) John notes that Satan played a role in Cain killing Abel. “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12).
(3) Jude writes, “Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion” (Jude 11). In context, Jude is comparing false teachers in the church to Cain. False teachers, like Cain, choose selfishness, pride, and deception over loving God and others people.
 The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 by Victor Hamilton. NICOT. p. 224-225.
 Genesis 1:1-11:27 by Kenneth Mathews. NAC. p. 278.
 Hamilton. p. 235.
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