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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 4

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 4-26

B. What became of the creation 2:4-4:26

Moses described what happened to the creation by recording significant events in the Garden of Eden, the murder of Abel, and the family of Cain.

"The section begins with a description of the creation of Adam and Eve and traces their sin, God’s curse on sin, and the expansion of sin in their descendants. No longer at rest, mankind experienced flight and fear, making his way in the world, surviving, and developing civilization. As if in answer to the blessings of Creation, this passage supplies a threefold cursing (of Satan [Genesis 3:14], of the ground because of man [Genesis 3:17], and of Cain [Genesis 4:11]).

"Yet in this deteriorating life there is a token of grace (Genesis 4:15) and a ray of hope (man began to call on Yahweh)." [Note: Idem, "Genesis," p. 24.]

Verses 1-8

Was Eve thanking God for helping her bear a son (Cain), [Note: Mathews, p. 265; Wenham, pp. 101-2.] or was she boasting that she had created a man (Cain) as God had created a man (Adam, Genesis 4:1)? [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., pp. 111-12; Waltke, Genesis, p. 96.] The former alternative seems preferable (cf. Genesis 4:25). "Cain" means "acquisition," a portent of his own primary proclivity. Abel, from the Hebrew hebel, means "breath, vapor, exhalation, or what ascends." As things turned out, his life was short, like a vapor. "Abel" also means "meadow" elsewhere.

Why did God "have regard" for Abel’s offering and not Cain’s (Genesis 4:4)? It was because Abel had faith (Hebrews 11:4). What did Abel believe that Cain did not? The Bible does not say specifically. The answer may lie in one or more of the following explanations. [Note: See Jack P. Lewis, "The Offering of Abel (Genesis 4:4): A History of Interpretation," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37:4 (December 1994):481-96.]

1. Some commentators believed Abel’s attitude reveals his faith. Cain’s improper attitude toward God is evident in Genesis 4:5. [Note: Davis, p. 99; Pentecost, p. 41; et al.]

2. Others say Abel’s faith is evident in his bringing the best of the flock (Genesis 4:4) whereas Moses did not so describe Cain’s offering (Genesis 4:3).

"He [the writer] characterizes Abel’s offerings from the flocks as ’from the firstborn’ and ’from their fat.’ By offering the firstborn Abel signified that he recognized God as the Author and Owner of Life. In common with the rest of the ancient Near East, the Hebrews believed that the deity, or lord of the manor, was entitled to the first share of all produce. The firstfruits of plants and the firstborn of animals and man were his. . . .

"Abel’s offering conformed with this theology; Cain’s did not. In such a laconic story the interpreter may not ignore that whereas Abel’s gift is qualified by ’firstborn,’ the parallel ’firstfruits’ does not modify Cain’s. . . .

"Abel also offered the ’fat’ which in the so-called ’P’ [Priestly] material belonged to the Lord and was burned symbolically by the priests. This tastiest and best burning part of the offering represented the best. Abel’s sacrifice, the interlocutor aims to say, passed the test with flying colors. Cain’s sacrifice, however, lacks a parallel to ’fat.’" [Note: Bruce K. Waltke, "Cain and His Offering," Westminster Theological Journal 48:2 (Fall 1986):368. Cf. idem, Genesis, p. 97; Keil and Delitzsch, 1:110; and Hamilton, p. 223.]

Possibly Cain’s bad attitude resulted in his not offering the best to God. In other words, both options 1 and 2 could be correct.

"Abel went out of his way to please God (which meant he had faith in God, Hebrews 1:6), whereas Cain was simply discharging a duty." [Note: Ross, "Genesis," p. 34.]

"We think the absence of ’firstfruits’ for Cain in juxtaposition with Seth’s ’firstborn’ would not have been lost on the Mosaic audience.

"Both giver and gift were under the scrutiny of God. Cain’s offering did not measure up because he retained the best of his produce for himself." [Note: Mathews, p. 268. I prefer this view.]

3. Many believe that Abel realized the need for the death of a living substitute to atone for his sins, but Cain did not. If he understood this, he may have learned it by divine revelation that Scripture did not record explicitly. [Note: Thomas, et al.] Perhaps Cain and Abel learned that an animal sacrifice satisfied God whereas a vegetable sacrifice did not from the fact that the fig leaves that Adam and Eve used to cover their nakedness were not satisfactory but an animal skin was (Genesis 3:7; Genesis 3:21). They provided the fig leaves, but God provided the animal skins. Thus the contrast in the case of Cain and Abel may also be between what man provides (works) and what God provides (grace).

"Faith always presupposes a Divine revelation to which it is the response . . ." [Note: Ibid., p. 55.]

"Whatever the cause of God’s rejection of Cain’s offering, the narrative itself focuses our attention on Cain’s response. It is there that the narrative seeks to make its point." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 112.]

God questioned Cain, as He had Adam and Eve (cf. Genesis 3:9; Genesis 3:11), to elicit Cain’s admission of sin with a view to repentance, not simply to scold him. His father reluctantly admitted his guilt, but Cain tried to cover it up by lying. Cain was "much more hardened than the first human pair." [Note: von Rad, p. 106.] "Sin is crouching at the door" (v.7) probably means that the power and tragic consequences of sin could master the person who opens the door to it (cf. Genesis 3:16).

"The consequences of his reaction to God’s correction are more far-reaching than the initial sin itself, for if he pursues sin’s anger, it will result in sin’s mastery over him. This is his decision. It is possible for Cain to recover from sin quickly if he chooses the right thing." [Note: Mathews, p. 270.]

The Apostle John revealed the reason Cain killed Abel in 1 John 3:12: ". . . his own works were evil and his brother’s righteous." Abel’s attitude of faith in God resulted in righteous works that produced guilt in Cain. The seriousness of Cain’s sin is clear from God’s repeated references to Abel as Cain’s "brother" (Genesis 4:9-11).

"If you want to find out Cain’s condition of heart you will find it after the service which he pretended to render; you know a man best out of church . . ." [Note: Joseph Parker, The People’s Bible, 1:147.]

Later, under the Mosaic Law, the fact that a killing took place in a field, out of the range of help, was proof of premeditation (cf. Deuteronomy 22:25-27).

"Cain and his unrighteous offspring served as a reminder to Israel that its destiny was measured in the scales of ethical behavior." [Note: Mathews, p. 269.]

Verses 1-16

2. The murder of Abel 4:1-16

Chapter 4 shows the spread of sin from Adam’s family to the larger society that his descendants produced. Not only did sin affect everyone, but people became increasingly more wicked as time passed. Human self-assertion leads to violence. Genesis 4:1-16 show that the Fall affected Adam and Eve’s children as well as themselves. Genesis 4:17-26 trace what became of Cain and Seth and their descendants. Note that the chapter begins and ends with the subject of worship.

God had warned Adam and Eve about sin. Even so, Cain murdered his brother, the beginning of sibling rivalry, because God accepted Abel’s offering but not his own. Sibling rivalry plagued each of the godly families in Genesis. Cain denied responsibility for his sin and objected to the severity of God’s punishment. God graciously provided protection for Cain in response to his complaint. Chapter 3 gives the cause and chapter 4 the effect.

There are structural and conceptual parallels between this pericope (section of verses) and the previous one (Genesis 2:4 to Genesis 3:24). [Note: Wenham, p. 99.]

A Scene 1 (narrative): Cain and Abel are active, Yahweh passive (Genesis 4:2-5).

B Scene 2 (dialogue): Yahweh questions Cain (Genesis 4:6-7).

C Scene 3 (dialogue and narrative): Cain and Abel are alone (Genesis 4:8).

B’ Scene 4 (dialogue): Yahweh confronts Cain (Genesis 4:9-14).

A’ Scene 5 (narrative): Yahweh is active, Cain passive (Genesis 4:15-16).

Both stories conclude with the sinners leaving God’s presence and going to live east of Eden (Genesis 3:24; Genesis 4:16).

". . . though the writer of Genesis wants to highlight the parallels between the two stories, he does not regard the murder of Abel simply as a rerun of the fall. There is development: sin is more firmly entrenched and humanity is further alienated from God." [Note: Ibid., p. 100.]

Verses 9-16

As in chapter 3, God came investigating the crime with questions (Genesis 4:9-10). [Note: See P. A. Riemann, "Am I My Brother’s Keeper?" Interpretation 24 (1970):482-91.] There the result was God cursing the ground and people generally, but here the result is His cursing Cain, another evidence that wickedness was worsening.

Cain’s punishment consisted of his being banished from God’s presence and unable to enjoy his family’s company and the fruitfulness of a settled pastoral life (Genesis 4:11-12; Genesis 4:14). He would have to wander from place to place seeking food rather than living a sedentary life. This punishment was just since he had alienated himself from his brother and God.

"Cain is not being condemned to a Bedouin-like existence; the terminology is too extreme to describe such a life-style. Rather it seems likely that the curse on Cain reflects the expulsion from the family that was the fate in tribal societies of those who murdered close relatives. . . . ’To be driven away from the land’ (cf. Genesis 4:14) is to have all relationships, particularly with the family, broken. Moreover, it is to have one’s relationship with the LORD broken . . ." [Note: Wenham, p. 108.]

"Nomadism according to the Sumerian flood story is a plight from which the gods rescued man; according to the Bible a nomadic existence was a judgment imposed on the first murderer. This contrast fits in with the overall optimism of Mesopotamia which believes in human progress over against the biblical picture of the inexorable advance of sin . . . It would seem likely that the other human achievements listed here-farming, metalwork, and music-are also seen by Genesis as somehow under the shadow of Cain’s sin." [Note: Ibid., pp. 98-99.]

Cain’s response to his punishment was self-pity rather than repentance and an expression of remorse over the extent of his iniquity. [Note: See Waltke, Genesis, p. 98; Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 114.] No one would be his keeper (cf. Genesis 4:9).

Cain’s sin resulted in his being "driven" out (Genesis 4:14; cf. Genesis 3:23). Note again that sin results in broken relationships and alienation, and alienation from God leads to fear of other people (cf. Job 15:20-25). God in grace allowed Cain and his family to continue to live under His care, but apparently without salvation. Note also that human immorality again impacted earth’s ecology (cf. Genesis 3:17).

The commentators have interpreted Cain’s "sign" or "mark" (Genesis 4:15) in a variety of ways. One view is that it was partial paralysis, based on the meaning of the word used to translate "sign" in the Septuatint. An old Jewish interpretation understood it to be the word "Yahweh," and another viewed it as a long horn growing out of the middle of Cain’s forehead. Some medieval paintings represent Cain with a horn on his head following this view. Other ideas are that it was some other identifying mark on Cain in view of parallels with other marks that identify and protect their bearers in Scripture (cf. Ezekiel 9:4; Revelation 7:3; Revelation 13:16-18; Revelation 14:1). [Note: Mathews, p. 278; Wenham, p. 109; Waltke, Genesis, p. 99.] Still other interpreters believe that the mark was a verification of God’s promise to Cain. This last view rests on the usual meaning of "sign" in the Old Testament (cf. Judges 6:36-40; 2 Kings 2:9-12; et al.), which the Hebrew construction supports here. [Note: See Bush, p. 104.] The text does not identify the sign, but it was some immediate indication that God gave Cain to assure him that he would not die (cf. Genesis 21:13; Genesis 21:18; Genesis 27:37; Genesis 45:7; Genesis 45:9; Genesis 46:3 with Genesis 21:14; Genesis 44:21). Whatever it was, Cain’s mark served to protect him as well as to remind him and others of his banishment.

"Nod" (Genesis 4:16) means "wandering," so the very name of the place where he lived also reminded Cain of his sentence (Genesis 4:12).

"The ungodly here are portrayed as living on in the world (with a protective mark of grace . . .) without being saved. Their sense of guilt was eased by their cultural development and their geographical expansion." [Note: Ross, "Genesis," p. 33.]

Cain was a man who did not care to please God. Because he did not, God did not bless him as He did Abel, who was a man of faith. Cain’s anger and jealousy over Abel’s blessing brought disaster on himself. God has preserved his example to help us avoid it. Those who worship God must have as their goal to please Him rather than letting envy and hatred ruin their lives.

Verses 17-24

The descendants of Cain 4:17-24

"By virtue of being Cain’s descendants, the people named in the genealogy all inherit his curse. Thus the Cainite genealogy becomes part of the Yahwist’s account of man’s increasing sin." [Note: R. R. Wilson, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World, p. 155.]

Cain’s wife (Genesis 4:17) was evidently one of his sisters or nieces (cf. Genesis 5:4). God did not prohibit marrying siblings and close relatives until the Mosaic Law.

"Because harmful mutations so greatly outnumber any supposed helpful ones, it’s considered unwise nowadays (and illegal in many states) to marry someone too closely related to you. Why? Because you greatly increase the odds that bad genes will show up. By the way, you also increase the odds of bringing out really excellent trait combinations. But did you ever hear anybody say, ’Don’t marry your first cousin or you’ll have a genius for a child?’ They don’t usually say that, because the odds of something bad happening are far, far, far, far, far greater.

"That would not have been a problem, by the way, shortly after creation (no problem for Cain and his wife, for example). Until mutations had a chance to accumulate in the human population, no such risk of bad combinations existed." [Note: Gary Parker, Creation Facts of Life, p. 98. This is an excellent book that deals with the evidence of creation, Darwin and biologic change, and the fossil evidence. See also Ham, et al., pp. 17, 177-85.]

Lamech (Genesis 4:19) was the first bigamist. Bigamy was common in the ancient Near East, but it was never God’s desire (cf. Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-5). God permitted it, however, as He did many other customs of which He disapproved (e.g., divorce, marrying concubines, polygamy, etc.). That is, He allowed people who practiced them to continue to live.

"To be sure, no rebuke from God is directed at Lamech for his violation of the marital arrangement. It is simply recorded. But that is the case with most OT illustrations of polygamy. Abraham is not condemned for cohabiting with Sarah and Hagar, nor is Jacob for marrying simultaneously Leah and Rachel. In fact, however, nearly every polygamous househould [sic] in the OT suffers most unpleasant and shattering experiences precisely because of this ad hoc relationship. The domestic struggles that ensue are devastating." [Note: Hamilton, p. 238. Cf. Deuteronomy 21:15-17.]

"Cain’s family is a microcosm: its pattern of technical prowess and moral failure is that of humanity." [Note: Kidner, p. 78.]

God shows the destructive consequences of sin (cf. Genesis 2:24) more often than He states them in the Old Testament. Polygamy is one form of sin.

Polygamy is ". . . the symptom of an unbalanced view of marriage, which regards it as an institution in which the wife’s ultimate raison d’etre [reason for being] is the production of children. Where God had created the woman first and foremost for partnership, society made her in effect a means to an end, even if a noble end, and wrote its view into its marriage contracts." [Note: Ibid., p. 36.]

This is the first occurrence of polygamy in Genesis. We shall find several cases of it throughout the Old Testament. People practiced it widely in the ancient Near East, but it was contrary to the will of God (Genesis 2:24). Besides indulging the flesh, polygamy was an attempt to ensure the survival of the family by providing male successors. [Note: For a good, brief introduction to polygamy, see M. Stephen Davis, "Polygamy in the Ancient World," Biblical Illustrator 14:1 (Fall 1987):34-36.] The presence of polygamy in Lamech’s generation shows how sin escalated in the marriage relationship following the Fall.

The reference to forging (lit. sharpening) iron implements (Genesis 4:22) appears anacronistic since the smelting of iron was not common until the Iron Age, in the second millennium B.C. Perhaps this is a reference to the cold forging of meteoric iron, which was common earlier. [Note: The New Bible Dictionary, 1962 ed., s.v. "Mining and Metals," by A. Stuart. See also Mathews, p. 287; and Hamilton, p. 239.]

We could paraphrase the idea in Lamech’s mind as expressed in Genesis 4:23-24 more clearly as follows. "If I am threatened again, I will retaliate again, even more forcefully than Cain did." Lamech may have been claiming that he had killed in self-defense. Nevertheless he was boasting and shows himself thereby to be more barbaric than his forefather Cain (cf. Exodus 21:25). The seventh generations from Adam through Cain and Seth, ungodly Lamech (Genesis 4:19-24) and godly Enoch (Genesis 5:24), stand in sharp contrast to each other. The former man inflicts death, and the latter does not die. Some scholars have called Lamech’s poem the "Song of the Sword." Lamech thought himself invincible with his newly acquired weapons.

"Both Cain’s antediluvian lineage and the postdiluvian Babel cautioned later Israel that cities founded upon arrogance resulted in violence and ultimately destruction." [Note: Mathews, pp. 282-83.]

Verses 17-26

3. The spread of civilization and sin 4:17-26

Cain prospered even though he rebelled against God. This is another indication of God’s grace. Cain’s descendants took the lead in building cities, developing music, advancing agriculture, creating weapons, and spreading civilization. However the descendants of Seth made an even more important advance, the worship of God.

Verses 25-26

The family of Seth 4:25-26

Seth’s name, from the Hebrew verb translated "granted" and meaning "to set or place," expresses Eve’s faith that God would continue to provide seed despite death. [Note: Waltke, Genesis, p. 101.]

Many commentators regarded Genesis 4:26 as the first reference to prayer as we know it in the Bible. Prayer is basic to man’s relationship with God, which is a major theme in Genesis. However the phrase "call on the name of the Lord" usually refers to proclamation rather than prayer in the Pentateuch. [Note: Ross, Creation and . . ., p. 169.] Here it probably refers to the beginning of public worship of Yahweh.

"Genesis 4 concludes the story of mankind that was cut off in the flood, a tale that opened with Genesis 2:4, ’This is the history. . . .’ With the aid of a genealogy from Adam to Lamek, the seventh generation, it traces the development of technology and arts on the one hand and the growth of violence on the other. Only in the last two verses introducing the descendants of Seth do we have glimmers of hope, for from him, as chap. 5 will describe, descended Noah, the survivor of the flood, and it was in Enosh’s day that the public worship of God was reintroduced." [Note: Wenham, p. 116.]

Chapter 4 also teaches that it is important for the righteous to preserve the knowledge of God when they live in an ungodly society.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Genesis 4". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/genesis-4.html. 2012.
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