The story of Cain and Abel in the book of Genesis is well known to many people in the world. The huge majority if asked, religious or not, have at one point or another heard or read about this story; however, most would probably not recognize the meaning and symbolism it holds for us today.
To begin, let us look at the kind of work differentiated between both Cain and Abel. Abel’s line of work was very symbolic since he was a keeper of sheep and we know how David was a shepherd and how Jesus many times was referred to as a keeper of sheep. This showed how He cares for the Church and His people by looking after them, watching over them, loving them, and feeding them. He is using today the ministry in God’s church for this task as well, showing compassion and love for others, a giving attitude and even the willingness to give one’s life for the flock if the circumstance arises.
Cain’s line of work was quite different. It was very labor-intensive by raising fruits and vegetables. His type was predicted already by God in Genesis 3:17-19 and how there was much work involved to provide food.
In Genesis 4:3, we read about the process of time, the end of days, which could signify the end of agriculture and the beginning of Autumn. Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible states that this might refer to the time “after harvest, after the fruits of the earth were gathered in, and so a proper season to bring an offering to the Lord, in gratitude for the plenty of good things they had been favoured with.” Their offerings would then be symbolic of the Feast of Tabernacles where we also give up offerings to God. This shows the brothers might have appeared before God at a precise time near the Autumn of the year, which could mean that they were told by God when to bring the offerings.
Now when it came to what was given, we read in verses 3-5 that God approved Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, and as a result, Cain became angry. He had the wrong attitude since his offering was not from the heart, and in verse 7 God makes it clear what Cain should do: “If you do well shall you not be accepted? And if you do not well, sin lies at the door.”
The Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary states the following:
“… sin lieth at the door—sin, that is, a sin offering—a common meaning of the word in Scripture (as in Ho[sea] 4:8; 2Co[rinthians] 5:21; Heb[rews] 9:28). The purport of the divine rebuke to Cain was this, ‘Why art thou angry, as if unjustly treated? If thou doest well (that is, wert innocent and sinless) a thank offering would have been accepted as a token of thy dependence as a creature. But as thou doest not well (that is, art a sinner), a sin offering is necessary, by bringing which thou wouldest have met with acceptance and retained the honors of thy birthright.’ This language implies that previous instructions had been given as to the mode of worship; Abel offered through faith (Heb[rews] 11:4).”
In other words, the phrase in verse 7 could be understood to convey the following thought:
“If you do well, shall you not be accepted [in the future and bring the proper sacrifice]? And if you do not well, sin [a sin offering] lies at the door.”
God was really being compassionate with Cain here, giving him another chance, showing that He had mercy. If Cain would repent and still bring the proper offering (“if you do well”), then he would be accepted; but if he did not do so, then “sin [a sin offering] lies at the door.” At the end of verse 7, Cain would have to gain control over sin, over his mistakes, by an offering provided by God, which was a noble gesture of grace on God’s part. Yet in spite of this act of mercy, Cain did not accept God’s grace of supplying a sin-offering for him to conquer sin. He responded with something terrible and in no way in accordance with God’s command. He offered up his own brother, as stated in verses 8-9. The sin of murder continued with lying.
The Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary includes these additional remarks:
“If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?—A better rendering is, ‘Shalt thou not have the excellency’? which is the true sense of the words referring to the high privileges and authority belonging to the first-born in patriarchal times…. it was Cain’s conviction, that this honor had been withdrawn from him, by the rejection of his sacrifice, and conferred on his younger brother—hence the secret flame of jealousy, which kindled into a settled hatred and fell revenge.”
Cain had his chance and he blew it, and as a result, he was now to be sent away from the land (verses 10-12). He was to be a wanderer — one without a fixed dwelling place. Yet Cain considered this punishment to be harsh, more than he could handle (verses 13-14). Cain’s punishment involved him being “driven out” from the land he formerly tilled, and away from the “face” of God. However, Cain did not show any remorse for what he had done, by killing his brother, and he didn’t repent of that sin. God could have killed him right there on the spot but He chose to spare his life, even preventing others from killing him (verse 15), perhaps still giving him a chance to think about what he had done, so his heart could change, but that didn’t seem to be the case.
We saw here how one brother was more righteous than the other and also more giving, especially in the heart, while the other brother was not. Because God was more accepting of Abel’s offering, rather than Cain’s, jealously crept in and got the better of him, thus resorting to murder – the first recorded murder in the Bible (1 John 3:12). As a consequence, his life would prove to be very difficult and his blessings would be taken away. Being righteous could very well have its sacrifices. Because Abel was willing to do what God wanted and to please God rather than pleasing man, his life was given up, just as Christ’s life was given up as a sacrifice for us so that we can be saved.
God could have intervened on Abel’s behalf but He let it happen since He had something better in store for him anyway. Life is only temporary. Abel was righteous in God’s eyes, and he will be in God’s Kingdom. This was a good lesson for mankind. Human nature is carnal and hostile towards God. We read about what happened to Adam and Eve, and how easy it is for sin to take over.
In this world today, we should have the attitude that Abel had by pleasing God rather than man. We in the church will be hated by others because of our beliefs, and the end time prophecies tell us how the church will be persecuted for righteousness sake. Those who hate God and disobey His laws will have their reward, which isn’t a pleasant one by any means. And those who love God and obey His laws will also have their reward, blessings beyond what the human mind can even comprehend.