If Genesis 4 tells us anything, it is that sin disrupts our worship of God. While God created humanity to bless them (Gen 1:28) and live out God’s image (Gen 1:26–27), sin peeled away this blessing, and the curse came (Gen 3:14–19). Ironically, Adam and Eve thought that they would become like God by eating of the tree (3:5), even though they were already like God in his image (1:26–27). Tragically, because of their misconception of what it meant to be in the image of God, they were barred from God’s presence.
Sadly, as the narrative continues, we learn how the “sinfulness of sin” marred the worshipfulness of worship (Genesis 4). The stories of Eve and Cain show us how pride and hate wreak havoc in our service to God. And yet, God is faithful when we are faithless. He can use even our failure to bring us back to repentance and worship of him. This is seen specifically in the two narratives when Eve trusts in Yahweh’s promises, and Cain repents. I know that the first question that pops in your mind is “What? Wasn’t he just a reprobate? Cain repented then? ” My answer to that question is yes, I believe he did (at that one time). Though this might be a hard sell, I believe the text leads us to this conclusion without having to spiritualize the text or simply read it as “ancient history” with no present relevance today.
WORSHIP AND CAIN’S REPENTANCE
Let’s just agree to pass over the debate as to why God accepted Abel’s offering and not Cain’s offering. The text doesn’t comment on the “why” of God’s reasoning behind rejecting Cain’s offering. Actually, the point of Genesis 4:1–16 is the discussion between God and Cain and not the offerings or the murder per se. In fact, what we are supposed to think about in this passage is Cain’s response to God. We should take the time to think about how Cain’s interactions with God after having his offering rejected affected his relationship with God. With just a cursory observation, it can be seen that leading up to the discussion between God and Cain, Cain’s response seriously emaciates his communion with God. Sin has consequences, one of the most chilling consequences being that it separates God from man. Of course, in this case (and in many cases where sin is involved) there is also a physical consequence. God punishes Cain physically by exiling him and cursing him to wander (4:12). Here’s where things get sticky, for if I am claiming that Cain repented, why didn’t God restore him to the relationship they had previously? Why, instead, was he exiled and cursed to wander?
In order to better understand this, we need to first look at Cain’s response. In Genesis 4:13, Cain says “My punishment is greater than I can bear” (ESV). Interestingly, a footnote in the ESV indicates that this sentence can also be translated “my guilt is greater than I can bear.” A quick analysis of the original Hebrew will help here. The Hebrew word that is used here is anon, and it’s most common translations are guilt or sin. In this case, Genesis 4:13 would literally mean “my guilt is too great to bear/forgive.” This would mean that guilt burdened Cain to grief, and he cried out to God in desperation. But to understand the exact meaning of the text, we need to consider the context carefully.
What really sets the context and reinforces this interpretation is God’s response to Cain. In fact, it is Genesis 4:15 that makes me think he was truly repentant (at least at this time): “Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! 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.” Yahweh responds by saying “Not so!” That is, your sin is not too great to bear. In other words, even though Cain sinned against Yahweh, God was faithful to forgive and provide Cain with divine protection. God’s faithfulness to bless overcame Cain’s unfaithfulness.
What an encouragement to see from the narrative of Cain that though sin disrupts worship of God, repentance returns us into the protection and presence of God. While Cain did not return to fellowship with his family and the situation that he had previously, God did grant to him grace and protection. Sadly, Cain’s legacy is full of sin and rebellion. He did not learn the lesson that we, as readers, ought to learn. Unlike Cain, we need to continually repent and return to God, so that we can rightly worship him. After all, this is how Genesis 4 ends—with Seth’s family worshipping God (v. 26).
There are a few different applications that we can take away from the narrative of Cain. First of all, God desires worship from those who live a life of repentance and faith. Though Cain repented, we do not see worship following his repentance. This is a clear indication that Cain was not truly a believer in Yahweh. In fact, in Jude 11 we are told that Cain walked in his own way, in rebellion. And in 1 John 3:12, we are told that he is of the evil one. Clearly then, though Cain repented once, he did not implement repentance as lifestyle habit, returning to worship of Yahweh.
The second thing to learn is that even in our most faithless moments, God is still faithful. What is especially astonishing is that God was so faithful to an unbeliever like Cain! If his faithfulness and kindness extends to even those who do not return to him in worship, how much more will he be to us with renewed hearts and who worship him in spirit and in truth? This example of God’s faithfulness should give Christians great comfort and security.
Lastly, we must understand that we can (and should) always repent and turn to him. In this way, we truly worship God.