Genesis chapter four discusses Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve’s first sons. Cain means, “Acquired,” as Eve says, “With the LORD’s help I have acquired a male” (Gen. 4:1).
Abel is derived from a word meaning, “Son.” Cain “worked the ground” and offered the Lord produce (Gen. 4:2-3). Abel offered firstborn animals (especially their fat portions) from his flocks (Gen. 4:4). We know the Lord accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, and that Cain murdered Abel out of jealousy (Gen. 4:8).
What we have in Cain and Abel are two covenants. Cain worked the ground. The ground is what man’s flesh was formed out of; it was also cursed at the fall (Gen. 2:7, 3:17). Cain’s offering came from the stuff of man’s cursed flesh. He produced it by his own effort and work. This is a covenant where a person believes God is pleased by the best their flesh can produce.
Abel didn’t rely on what he could produce by working the ground. He relied on the death of a firstborn animal. This is a covenant where the firstborn’s death makes a person acceptable to God. God had already demonstrated such a covenant. After the fall, He covered Adam and Eve with the skins of animals who died to provide that covering.
Clearly, Abel understood this covenant while Cain did not. Said another way, God’s chosen covenant had been revealed to Abel while Cain was blind to it. The Lord tried to teach and encourage Cain: “And why do you look despondent? If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door” (Gen. 4:6-7). In other words, “Don’t be discouraged, Cain. There is hope! Do what is right. Rely on the firstborn’s death instead of your own work!” But the Lord’s word remained veiled to Cain. Instead of hoping in the firstborn’s death, Cain heard that he must try harder and do better. But he had already done his best and could do no more. Because of this he resented God and Abel.
John explains that Cain murdered Abel because “his works were evil, and his brother’s were righteous” (1 John 3:12). We hear John saying Abel behaved better morally. But Genesis makes no comment about Cain’s or Abel’s morality. They only differed in how they related to God: one through his own works, one through the death of another.
Cain and Abel show us a choice of covenants or relationships with God. In one, we draw on all the strength of our flesh to live in a way that pleases God. In the other, we rely on the death of the Firstborn, Jesus Christ, the Lamb from God’s flock. We know God is pleased with Him alone, and His only pleasure in us is through Jesus.
We naturally operate in the Cain covenant. All we know is our cursed flesh. It makes perfect sense to gussie up our flesh for the Lord. In order to break with this covenant, our eyes must be opened to another way, the way Jesus is.
God has instructed us all through the Bible about this better covenant through Jesus. But unless our eyes are opened, we remain blind to it. We continue to project our Cain mentality onto the scriptures. While God is everywhere trying to teach us about His Son, all we hear is “Behave better. Try harder. You’ve got to give God 110 %.” Paul discusses this in 2 Corinthians 3. He explains that we read the Bible with a veil over our hearts until our hearts turn to Jesus. The veil is only removed in Him. There is only freedom where the Spirit of the Lord is.