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Genesis 4 – What History’s First Criminal Report Can Teach Us

This is part 3 of a series of papers that I have written exegeting and commentating on Genesis 1-11, known by scholars as The Bible’s “primeval history”. While they will be presented as blog posts on this website, you can download them as PDF files as well. Some of them will be rather lengthy, so you’ll be able to save this material to your devices and read them whenever you have the time. To download this paper click here –>

Abstract: Genesis 4 Is most notorious for the account of the first murder recorded in the Bible and most likely the one that first occurred in the history of mankind. However, there is a lot more that the Bible is telling us than just that one guy killed his brother. Genesis 4 actually contains a lot of things that we can learn from, both doctrinally and in the area of life application (i.e applying what we learn from the text to our lives). In this paper, I will go over the things Genesis 4 can teach us  in this order. (1) The danger of letting sin grow within you. (2) God was merciful to Cain even though he did not deserve it. (3) I will address “the Mark of Cain”. Although we don’t exactly know what the mark that God put on Cain was, we can rule some of the proposed options out with confidence. It’s not, for example, the curse of having black skin. (4) Human beings have libertarian Free Will and God does not causally determine all things, especially our sins. Sin is something that humans choose to do and we do not have to do it. 

Topic 1: The Danger Of Letting Sin Grow Within You 

The Christian group Casting Crowns has a song called “Slow Fade”. The song is about the problem of letting sin grow. “It’s a slow fade when you give yourself away It’s a slow fade when black and white have turned to gray. Thoughts invade, choices are made, a price will be paid When you give yourself away People never crumble in a day.”1 It takes time for people to become evil. It never happens overnight. The apostle James taught this when he wrote “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” (James 1:13-15). James’ words are similar to that of Yoda’s warning; “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” It is a process. First, temptation comes either through a demonic tempter (as in Genesis 3 and Matthew 4), through one’s own sinful nature as in James 1, or some worldly influence. Then one has a desire to do wrong.Then one is drawn away by that desire to do wrong.2 

This is why Jesus didn’t simply tell His followers what actions to refrain from committing, but He told them to keep evil out of their hearts. Evil is always born in the heart before it manifests itself as an external action. This is why Jesus said “For out of the heart come evil thoughts–murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” (Matthew 15:19) and why Solomon wrote “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4:23). It’s why Jesus said not to just not commit adultery, but not to even look at a woman with lust in the heart (Matthew 5:28). Jesus wasn’t saying that lust is equally as evil as adultery, but that adultery is the full manifestation of lust. It’s what happens when one acts on their lust. Sexual desire comes first, then sexual action. To avoid pre-marital sex or infidelity, don’t even let the desire for a woman fester in your heart. 

Relevant to our discussion of Cain and Abel is what Jesus had to say about anger. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:21-22). People don’t just spontaneously decide to kill someone on a whim. Most of the time, it begins with unrighteous anger. When you truly have a burning hatred of someone, when you are in a blind rage, when someone has done you a severe injustice, or when you are jealous of someone and know you can obtain what they have if they were just out of the picture (think of the David, Bathsheba, and Uriah love triangle) you want to kill them. Maybe you choose not to act on it, taking the way of escape Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians 10:13, but you thought about it. While there are no hints in Matthew 5, it’s possible that Jesus had Cain in the back of his mind when he warned of unrighteous anger. 

Why did Cain kill Abel? The narrative begins after the mention of their birth (which will become a topic near the end of this paper). It tells us that Cain was a shepherd and Abel was a farmer (Genesis 4:2). “In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.” (Genesis 4:3-5). 

John Walton writes in The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary thatFat Portions (4:4). Mention of the fat portions would contrast in the audience’s mind to whole burnt offerings, in which the whole animal is consumed. The description of Abel’s offering also contrasts with a blood offering. Usually if blood were offered, it was to deal with some offense, and the whole animal was also offered, not just the fat parts. Blood rites were not common in the ancient world and do not appear in the Bible until the period of the Exodus and Sinai. The fat parts [=suet] were inedible and would typically be offered as a gift before the meat was eaten in a ritual meal. Offering of the suet is not attested in Mesopotamia, but Milgram finds it among the Hittite, Canaanite, and Phonecians.”3

Abel was not offering a sacrifice to atone for any sin, Walton notes, but just to please Yahweh. This was not a sin offering. Was the reason that God rejected Cain’s sacrifice because he burned fruit instead of animals? Walton doesn’t think so. He writes “There is  intrinsically no problem for Cain to bring produce as a gift to God. The word used for his sacrifice (minha) is one that describe the kind of offering outlined in Leviticus 2, which is regularly something other than animal sacrifice. It was likewise common throughout the rest of the ancient world to offer food off from what was grown.”4

So it wasn’t the offering. So what was it? Well, we know from later in scripture that sacrifices aren’t efficacious on their own. One must be truly repentant when they make the sacrifice. If Cain was simply going through the motions, his sacrifice meant nothing. Psalm 51:16-17 says “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” Neither Cain’s nor Abel’s sacrifices were of the atonement type, but any kind of religious service to God, if one is not devoted to Him, will be displeasing to God. We know this from Amos 5. Speaking of the idolatrous Israel, God said through Amos ““I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” – (Amos 5:21-24). Thus, if Cain were living in sin and had no intention of changing his ways, God wouldn’t have pleased with any type of offering He brought, just as the Israelites’ idolatry rendered null the religious activities they took place in. 

Now, we see immediately in the passage that when Cain realized that God had rejected his offering “Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.” We aren’t told whether Cain was angry at God, Himself, or Abel, but given the events that follow, the latter is a reasonable inference. Cain likely harbored resentment towards Cain. We don’t know for sure, but this may not have been the first time the two brothers offered sacrifices with God accepting Abel’s and rejecting Cain’s. This may, for all we know, have happened plenty of times previously, with Cain’s resentment towards Abel growing each and every time. We can imagine Cain thinking to himself “Why does God like Abel more than me? Maybe He likes Abel instead of me? I wonder what sacrifice God would accept if there were no Abel? If Abel didn’t exist, perhaps God would finally accept my offering.” 

Keep in mind that this is very early in human history. Cain may not have known that God is omniscient and omnipresent, would have known Cain’s plans, would have known Cain was responsible, and that this would just make His relationship to God even more damaged. Cain didn’t have a Bible. 

If my speculations on Cain’s thought life and prior sacrifice-rejection-acceptance incidents are correct, this would present us with a gradually increasing resentment of Cain, sin growing within him, the unrighteous anger towards another that Jesus warned about thousands of years later in His Sermon On The Mount. God, knowing what’s inside every human heart (1 Samuel 16:7, 1 Kings 8:39), would know that this resentment was growing. Hence, He warned Cain “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (verses 6-7) 

God warned Cain that the resentment that had been growing inside him all this time was at it’s breaking point. Now was the time for him to decide whether to kill it or let it rule over him. Although I certainly think internal resentment played a big role, John Walton writes in The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary that he thinks a supernatural entity was also at work, given the Hebrew used and the cultural context. Walton writes Sin Is Crouching At Your Door (4:7). Recent commentators have preferred repointing the participle ‘crouching’ (Heb robes) to rabis And seeing it as a reference to a well-known Mesopotamian demon (rabisu) Lingers around doorways. ‘Sin’ Is then portrayed as a doorway demon waiting for its victim to cross the threshold. From the Old Babylonian. On in Mesopotamia, such demons were considered evil and were thought to Ambush their victims.” 5

It’s no secret that Satan and other demons can act on sinful desires already present. We see this multiple times throughout scripture, such as in the case of Satan tempting Jesus to break his period of fasting in Matthew 4, even though the thought most likely already occurred to him since he hadn’t eaten in 40 days. Demons can either start fires or pour fuel on ones already burning.

Unfortunately, Cain did not heed God’s warning. Cain gave into his desire for revenge. He listened to the word of Rabisu. He struck down Abel (Genesis 4:8). 

Topic 2: The Mercy Of God Towards Cain 

When people think of how God is portrayed in The Old Covenant, they tend to see him as this vengeful deity who is angry all the time and strikes people down for every little thing. The Genesis Flood, The Canaanite Conquest, and the dark warnings in The Prophets come to mind. Meanwhile God in The New Covenant is thought to be sweet and gentle, a Mr. Rogers fatherly figure who forgives and forgets, who is slow to anger. The irony is that The New Testament talks as much about God’s wrath as the Old Testament, you just don’t have as many instances of it being carried out because The New Testament covers such a short time period (the birth of Jesus, Jesus’ three year ministry, and The Acts of The Apostles up until Paul’s arrest in Rome). It’s a shame that all of God’s acts of mercy and love in the Old Testament tend to get overshadowed by the narratives of His wrath.

One of several such instances is how God deals with Cain. Cain had murdered Abel in cold blood. According to The Bible, the sentence for a murderer is death (see Genesis 9:6, Exodus 21:12). And yet, God does not strike Cain down. He simply banishes him to the east. Moreover, not only does God let Cain live, He goes the extra mile to prevent anyone else from striking Him down. Cain told God that whoever found him would kill him (verse 14), so God put a mark on Cain and said that anyone who killed him would suffer vengeance 7 times over (verse 15). 

This is mercy! This is mercy! Cain did an evil thing and He deserved to die for it, yet God spared him. This is all the more startling when you realize that Cain was probably not even sorry for what he did! When God called Cain out and pronounced his sentence of banishment, Cain’s response was all about him. “My punishment is too heavy for me to bear!” “Anyone who finds me will kill me!” Me, me, me, me. What about poor Abel lying dead in the field back there? Cain showed no remorse for what he had done to Abel. Instead, he was merely fearful of the consequences. God still had mercy on Him. 

Topic 3: The Mark Of Cain. 

What exactly is the Mark of Cain? Some have speculated that it’s a tattoo or some other physical mark of ink. The Hebrew word translated “mark” is ‘owth and refers to a “mark, sign, or token.” Elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, ‘owth is used 79 times and is most frequently translated as “sign.” writes “In the past, many believed the mark on Cain to be dark skin—that God changed the color of Cain’s skin to black in order to identify him. Since Cain also received a curse, the belief that the mark was black skin caused many to believe that people of dark skin were cursed. Many used the ‘mark of Cain’ teaching as a justification for the African slave trade and discrimination against people with black/dark skin. This interpretation of the mark of Cain is completely unbiblical. Nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures is ‘owth used to refer to skin color. The curse on Cain in Genesis chapter 4 was on Cain himself. Nothing is said of Cain’s curse being passed on to his descendants.” 6

We don’t know what the mark was, but we can be pretty sure that God didn’t curse Cain with permanent blackface. Whatever it was, it signaled to other people that Cain was not to be messed with. 

Topic 4: God’s Warning To Cain Is An Indication Of Libertarian Free Will. 

Verses 6-7 say “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” This is God’s warning to Cain that we looked at earlier in this chapter. God warned that evil was about to overtake Cain, and that he should not let it have him, but instead should rule over it. This passage should bother many Christians who consider themselves Calvinists and affirm Exhaustive Divine Determinism (EDD). EDD affirming Calvinists assert that God causally determines literally everything that ever has or will occur, including our actions, our thoughts, and desires. If it happens, God caused it. 

This is what their own theologians say. This is not a straw man I am erecting to tear down.7 As John Calvin said “”[God] arranges all things by his sovereign council, in such a way that individuals are born, who are doomed from the womb to certain death, and are to glorify him by their destruction.”8 and “God not only foresaw that Adam should fall, but also ordained that he should….I confess it is a horrible decree; yet no one can deny but God foreknew Adam’s fall, and therefore foreknew it, because he had ordained it so by his own decree.”9 and as Mark Talbot blasphemously says “God brings about all things in accordance with his will. It isn’t merely that God manages to turn the evil aspects of our world to good for those that love him; it is rather that he himself brings about these evil aspects. ….This includes God’s having brought about the Nazis’ brutality at Berkneu and Auschwitz as well as the terrible killings of Dennis Rader and even the sexual abuse of a young child..”10 

So if God causally determines all things, all things, every single thought and action and burp of every single human being who has ever lived, then that means that God causally determined Cain to kill Abel. But if God causally determined Cain to kill Abel, why did God warn Cain about sin crouching at his door? Why did God tell Cain not to let it master him, but to rule over it instead? The text seems to indicate that Cain could choose between A and Non-A. Cain could (A) choose to kill Abel or (Non-A) resist his sinful desires. This is called The Principle Of Alternative Possibilities (or PAP) and it is impossible on any form of determinism. Only if Cain had libertarian free will can we make sense of this passage. If Cain did not have libertarian free will, then this means that God was toying with Cain. This means God was extending one hand while the other hid a knife. This means that God was two-faced. “Sin is crouching at the door. It desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” all the while planning on causing Cain to not listen. This is the kind of god the Calvinists present us with. Thankfully, it’s not the God of The Bible. Cain was tempted to murder, but God provided him the way of escape (1 Corinthians 10:13) which he chose not to take. Numbers 23:19 says that God doesn’t lie. God is not deceitful. God would not command someone to do something that was impossible for them to do. God would not be like a parent who tells his child not to slap his brother, but proceeds to grab his hand and cause it to hit his brother, and then scold him saying “What have you done!?”. This is, by the way, another indicator that Cain acted freely is that it would make no sense for God to cause Cain to sin and then get angry at Cain for the sin He caused Cain to commit. God would essentially be like “How dare you do what I determined you to do!?” Appeals to mystery will not solve the issue. This is clear cut incoherence in the determinist’s system. 


Genesis 4, as we’ve seen, is far more than a story of a simple fatal domestic dispute. Genesis 4 has a lot to teach us. It serves as a warning not to let sinful desires and tendencies fester in us. They will grow like seeds, and when they are full grown, they will cause suffering to others, and to ourselves. We should heed God’s warning. When sin crouches at our door, desiring to rule over us, we should rule over it instead. We should not act on our sinful desire. Moreover, we see that God is merciful to Cain though he committed a deed deserving of death. God so often is seen as wrathful and vengeful in the Old Testament. It is unfortunate that acts of love and mercy such as what we have in Genesis 4 is overshadowed by events like The Genesis Flood and the Canaanite Conquest. God is just as much a god of love in the Old Testament as he is in the New Testament. God is just as much a god of wrath in the New Testament as he is in the Old Testament. Just how often did Jesus speak about Hell & the coming judgment? Moreover, Genesis 4 teaches us that men have libertarian free will. God does not cause us to sin. Sin is not inevitable. we have the freedom to choose either to sin or not sin. God gave us libertarian free will. God does not want us to do bad things. He tells us, he pleads with us not to do bad things. If we do bad things, we have only ourselves to blame. 




2: Although compatibilists love to use James 1:13-15 to support their view that people always carry out their strongest desire (in James’ case, a sinful one), 1 Corinthians 10:13 militates against such an idea. In 1 Corinthians 10:13, the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians “No temptation has overtaken you except that which is common to man, and God is faithful. He will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you can endure, but with the temptation will provide a way of escape also so that you will be able to endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13 is clear. People do not have to sin. Sinning is not inevitable. When we are tempted to sin, we have a choice between (A) the way of escape that God provides or (Non-A) giving into temptation. If we choose Non-A, we have no one to blame but ourselves. God provided the way of escape so that we could avoid sinning, but we chose not to take it. If determinism were true (and compatibilism is a certain type of determinism) then no one would actually have the ability to choose A or Non-A. The ability to choose between A and Non-A is called The Principle Of Alternative Possibilities (PAP) and this principle can only exist if people have libertarian free will, and people can only have libertarian free will if people are not causally determined. Thus, unless the divine determinist/compatibilist/Calvinist wishes to say that 1 Corinthians 10:13 is in error, or that The Bible contains a contradiction, we must conclude that whatever James means by “being dragged away by their own evil desire.” he doesn’t mean people don’t have a choice to not sin. Other translations render James 1:14 as “drawn away” (NHEB, KJV, NKJV)  or “lured away” (ESV) than the NIV and NLT’s more forceful language of being dragged. 

3: John Walton, The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, “Genesis” page 38, Zondervan Academic, October 24th 2009. 

4: ibid.

5: ibid. 

6:, “What Was The Mark That God Put On Cain?” — 

7: For some reason, Calvinists almost reflectively throw out straw man accusations whenever anything critical is said of their soteriology or their view of divine sovereignty. While I have seen misrepresentations of what Calvinists believe, most of the time this accusation is baseless. I have literally quoted Calvinist theologians and scholars explaining either T.U.L.I.P or determinism before giving my critique and I still get accused of attacking a straw man! If I’m attacking a caricature of Calvinism, then it must be that John Piper, R.C Sproul, Mark Talbot, and even John Calvin himself didn’t understand Calvinism! This is absurd. In some cases, I think these misguided souls confuse “Your belief is X” with “Your belief logically entails X”. So, for example, if I say the view that if God causally determines all things, he’s responsible for every sin ever committed, and therefore He would be worse than the devil, they say that I’m attacking a straw man. They are free to disagree with me that their views entail what I think they entail (e.g determinism entails that God is the author of sin and ergo, evil), but they need to do this with a response, not a false accusation of attacking a straw man. In other cases, I suspect that it’s a reflex. Hopefully, by getting the information from the Calvinists’ own mouths, I can deter any idea that I’m misrepresenting them. I don’t have much optimism for that though. 

8: John Calvin, Institutes 3.23.6

9: John Calvin, Institutes 3.23.7

10: Mark Talbot, “Suffering and The Sovereignty Of God”, Ill: Crossway Books, 2006. Pages 41-42.

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