Cain and Abel

by Troy Lacey on June 26, 2020

One of the most frequently asked questions our speakers and correspondence department receive is Where did Cain get his wife? Other questions involving the first family often also center around Cain. Why was Cain’s offering rejected? What was the mark of Cain? Who was he afraid of? It seems like Cain gets all the press, while his brother Abel rarely gets mentioned. But when you go back and look through Scripture, the references are not so one sided. Cain and Abel are both featured throughout the biblical text. There are sixteen mentions of Cain and nine of Abel by name, and one unnamed reference of Abel (1 John 3:12).

What We Don’t Know About Cain and Abel

There are many things about both brothers that are not directly mentioned in Scripture. How far apart were Cain and Abel in age? Why did Cain become a farmer and Abel a herdsman? Did the boys get along with each other when they were young? How “old” were Adam and Eve when the boys were born? And when asking this last question, we need to keep in mind that Adam and Eve were unique among all other humans because they were not born but created mature and commanded to “be fruitful and multiply” right after they were created (Genesis 1:28). Eve could have been, and likely was, a mother by the time she was a one-year-old, and Adam could have been taking Cain on walks as a “two-year-old” man.

But Scripture doesn’t fill in these details nor gives us the age of Adam, Eve, Cain, or Abel at the time of the historical account in Genesis 4:3–5, although it gives us a clue and an upper limit for their ages at the time of Abel’s death. When she and Adam were 130 years old (Genesis 5:3), Eve gave birth to Seth, and she viewed him as a replacement for Abel (Genesis 4:25). Since Seth was likely their next son after Abel’s death, then Abel certainly died before Adam and Eve were 130, but probably not too long before that. So, it is quite possible that Cain and Abel were in their 120s at the time of their infamous encounter. Other than the boys’ births being mentioned in Genesis 4:1–2, we know nothing of the brothers’ lives until that fateful day of the two sacrifices.

The Sacrifice of Cain and Abel

Directly after the mention of their births, we are told that Cain worked with crops and that Abel was a shepherd. Then we get an undetermined time reference of “in the course of time” or “in the process of time” and the details of the sacrifice. Cain brought to the Lord the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions (Genesis 4:3–4). God accepted (various translations say “regarded” “respected” or “favored”) Abel’s offering, but did not accept Cain’s offering.

Directly after the mention of their births, we are told that Cain worked with crops and Abel was a shepherd.

We don’t know why God had regard for Abel’s sacrifice but not for Cain’s. Over the years there have been three main reasons postulated by theologians and Bible scholars. Here we briefly summarize the views along with some of their strengths and weaknesses.

  1. In killing animals to clothe Adam and Eve’s sin (Genesis 3:21), God had set forth a pattern that there were to be blood sacrifices offered to him as sin offerings. Although not recorded in Scripture, God likely instructed Adam (and then Adam would have instructed his sons) that an animal needed to be sacrificed to God to cover sin. Cain, knowing this, still decided to offer what he wanted, not what God demanded. We’ll call this the “type of sacrifice” position. The strength of this argument is that it is appealing to the only other previous mention of a sacrifice, done by God himself, as a sin covering, and that it acknowledges the importance of blood sacrifices mentioned elsewhere in Scripture (Hebrews 9:22). The weakness is that there is no mention that this was a sin offering in the passage, and there were many thanksgiving sacrifices later in Leviticus which were grain, not blood, offerings.

  2. The second, which we’ll call the “quality of the sacrifice” position, analyzes the text and notices that it specifically mentions that Abel brought the firstborn animals from his flock and also their fat portions while all it says of Cain was that he brought the fruit of the ground. Perhaps Cain had just thrown together his sacrifice, or maybe deliberately offered the stunted and blighted portions of his crops to the Lord. This argument is seemingly bolstered by Hebrews 11:4, which called Abel’s sacrifice a “more excellent sacrifice” that could be referring to quality. We know from later Scripture (Leviticus 1:3, 10; Malachi 1:8) that God did not respect just any animal sacrifice: it needed to be an unblemished animal. He also required grain offerings to be done in certain ways (Leviticus 2:1–7) and that no leaven was to be mixed in with the grain (Leviticus 2:11). The weakness with this argument is that we are not directly told that Cain’s offering was of poor quality or had leaven in it, or even if rules similar to the Levitical ones (given over 2,000 years later) would have been in place at the time of Genesis 4.

  3. The third position we’ll call the “heart behind the sacrifice.” This position looks at statements God made to Cain afterwards, as well as some later scriptural passages. In Genesis 4:7, God asks Cain “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” The clear implication is that Cain had not done well but had unrepentant sin when he offered the sacrifice. Perhaps Cain had an unrepentant heart, and God may have rejected the sacrifice because of Cain’s defiant attitude. 1 John 3:11–12 (NKJV) may support this position: “We should love one another, not as Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous.” This passage tells us that Cain’s works were evil before he murdered Abel. And these “evil works” could refer to Cain’s offering itself. This would imply that Cain did, in fact, violate instructions God had given (but that aren’t listed in Genesis) for what type or quality of offerings to give. The weakness behind this position is that we only learn of Cain’s anger and “evil works” after God had rejected his offering. That rejection may have been what sparked the evil works, not the sacrifice itself.

Other views incorporate two or all three of these positions together, and indeed they can be easily seen to have some connection. A sinful attitude would lead towards open defiance of God’s commands or lack of effort in giving God the best of one’s possessions. But ultimately, since the Bible doesn’t tell us exactly what was required of Cain and Abel (like what is clearly expressed in the Levitical laws), we can’t know for sure which of the reasons explain why God respected Abel’s offering and not Cain’s.

The Sacrifice of Abel to Cain’s Anger

Some time afterward, Cain and Abel were out in the field when Cain killed Abel. It’s hard to pin down how much time elapsed between the sacrifice and the murder. Likely a little time had passed as Cain stewed over his rejection and rebuke from God (Genesis 4:6–7). Also, since there appears to be no suspicion on Abel’s part, this may imply that some time had elapsed between the two events. But since this is the first recorded murder, Abel may have had little reason to be wary.

The mention of being out in the field at first seems merely circumstantial, but this meant that Cain might have left his crops and went out to Abel’s “work area” where he herded his flocks. Furthermore it was away from Adam and Eve and any other children they likely had by this point.1 And the mention in verse 8 of Cain talking with Abel just before he killed him might imply that Cain was attempting to distract his brother’s attention away from what Cain was going to do. Some translations of verse 8, like the NET, NIV, RSV, YLT, and HCSB say here that Cain asked Abel to come out with him to the fields. But however this murder played out, the fact that Cain could be casually talking with his brother whom he was about to kill shows how callous Cain was. In other words, this is not sudden rage, but premeditated, clear, and calculated murder.

The Mark of Cain

Genesis 4:9–15 tells us that God quickly confronts Cain with his murder, sweeps away Cain’s loathsome lie, and says that the ground itself has testified of Cain’s heinous sin. If Cain’s sacrificial offering was supposed to be a blood offering, then in a sadly ironic way, Cain, who did not offer a blood sacrifice to God, has now spilled innocent blood on the ground (vs. 10–11), which condemns him. God pronounces a curse on Cain, perhaps adding an even stronger enforcement to the curse on the ground from Genesis 3:17–19 for the rest of Cain’s lifelong agricultural endeavors (Genesis 4:12). God also tells Cain that he will be “a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”

If Cain’s sacrificial offering was supposed to be a blood offering, then in a sadly ironic way, Cain, who did not offer a blood sacrifice to God, has now spilled innocent blood on the ground (vs. 10–11), which condemns him.

Cain, suddenly aware that he is now public enemy number one and that he will be a hunted man, cries that his punishment is too great. Even his response here is oddly phrased and hypocritical. He bemoans his new lot in life. He worries first about his ability to feed himself, then that he will be hidden from the face of God, and lastly that he will constantly fear for his life. Yet just a little while earlier, Cain did not fear to take his brother’s life, and while seeking to hide his actions from God had brazenly asked God if he was his brother’s keeper.

Even while punishing Cain, God extends mercy and tells Cain that he will offer protection in the form of a mark. This mark will serve as a reminder that if someone seeks to kill Cain, he will suffer “sevenfold” vengeance. What and where this mark was goes unmentioned, so any hypothesis is simply that: an educated guess. Likely, though, it was something visible and physical since people would recognize it and be aware of the consequences of seeking to take vengeance on Cain for murdering Abel. Cain then apparently takes his wife and flees to the land of Nod (which literally means “wandering”) east of Eden.

Further Biblical References to Cain and Abel

After Genesis 4, the next reference to Abel occurs in Matthew 23:35 (where Abel is called “righteous”) along with the parallel passage in Luke 11:51. These passages are often termed the “woe to you” chapters because they contain the imprecations of Jesus upon hypocritical scribes, Pharisees, and lawyers. Here Jesus is condemning many of the religious leaders of his day as being of the same mind as those who through the years have persecuted true believers in God. Abel is listed as the first martyr in both passages, underscoring that Jesus viewed the book of Genesis as historical.

Abel is listed as the first martyr in both passages, underscoring that Jesus viewed the book of Genesis as historical.

Cain and Abel both are also mentioned in Hebrews 11:4, where Abel’s faith and righteousness are commended. Then Abel is mentioned again in Hebrews 12:24 where his blood speaking (c.f. Genesis 4:10) is compared to the greater sacrifice of Jesus’ blood at the Crucifixion. Abel’s blood testified that he was righteous and condemned his brother Cain. Jesus’ blood testified that he was infinitely righteous and able to give everlasting life to those who believe on him (John 3:16; Romans 5:15–17; Romans 6:23).

Cain is mentioned two more times. In 1 John 3:12, his works are described as evil, and his (unnamed here) brother’s works as righteous. Then the last mention of Cain occurs in the Book of Jude, where Jude is warning against people who have “crept in” (vs. 4) to churches and led people away from the truth as they “walked in the way of Cain” (vs. 11). Jude warns that ultimately their deeds will be exposed as full of hateful anger (which shares the same underlying root as murder, according to Jesus in Matthew 5:21–22) as self-serving profiteers and those who reject authority and cause division.

The Lasting Legacies of Cain and Abel

In all of these post-Genesis biblical mentions, the same themes about Cain and Abel are repeated. Abel was faithful and righteous, sacrificing to God the best he had; whereas Cain was jealous, hateful, and murderous with his works being described as evil. Whatever the reason for Cain’s sacrifice being rejected, rather than producing a godly sorrow which would have led him to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10), it instead produced worldly sorrow (in Cain’s case self-pity and jealousy), which then led to Abel’s death. In the New Testament Cain is mentioned as an example of those who oppose God and his people and of those who are angry and resentful even to the point of murder. Even after God showed him mercy both before and after he murdered Abel (Genesis 4:6-7, 15), Cain did not repent.

In contrast, Abel is mentioned as having faith when he offered his sacrifice to God. Abel is the first person listed in the Hebrews 11 “hall of faith” chapter. Abel is described as being righteous and doing righteous works. Even after death, his blood still speaks to us today. He is held up as the first martyr for following God, and his blood is compared with the infinitely greater blood of Christ, who in his incarnation suffered death at the hands of angry sinners (Acts 2:23, 36, 3:14–15; Hebrews 12:3).

The legacies of Cain and Abel could hardly be any more different. Abel is honored for his faith, and Cain is used as an object lesson in hate. 1 John 3:12 tells us that Cain was “of the evil one,” meaning he shared the same lying and murderous character traits of Satan. Cain mockingly asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” when he knew he was his brother’s killer. Truly we can see Cain’s character mentioned in John 8 as if Christ were addressing him along with the self-righteous people of his day.

You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:44)


  1. Genesis 5:4 gives us a recap of Adam’s life and mentions that he (and Eve) had “sons and daughters.” We know for certain that at least one daughter had to have been born long before the sacrifice mentioned in Genesis 4, because Cain took his wife with him to Nod and there had children. But there may also have been other daughters and sons born to Adam by this time. In fact, Cain’s statement in Genesis 4:14 (in light of Genesis 3:20) only makes sense if there were several siblings by this time.


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