I’m a first-born. First born or not, I bet you can identify the stereotypical traits of the oldest kid. Some of those might include overachiever, bossy, problem-solver, older than their age, precocious, worrier, anxious, nervous, responsible, burdened, successful, burn out, wise, bull-headed… Those are some that I can think of. The first-born usually finds himself or herself in a role of parent-in-training. When the younger siblings need direction or supervision, the older is the free babysitter. Parents will call on the older child to do stuff that requires more maturity and experience, so they get cooking duty or grass cutting responsibilities. Often they become the driver to run errands or take the little ones to practice. They tend to grow up quickly, especially when there are younger kids to take care of. As a result, they probably feel a burden of responsibility that should be left for parents. Still this kind of thing has been going on from the beginning.
Boys in particular step into the adult provider role pretty early. You know the story. Dad is a farmer, so eldest son will become a farmer. Dad is a blacksmith so junior will be the next partner in the business. At least that is the way it was for centuries. If the family was successful then the oldest son would come into quite an inheritance. If the family business was not doing so well, the son would bear the burden of restoring prosperity to the family. Can you see where I am going? There is more to the Cain and Abel story than we might have thought about before. Let’s take a look.
Cain, as the oldest, would have felt the responsibility to carry on the family name. Adam was a gardener turned farmer, so Cain would be a farmer. Cain would have heard the stories of the garden of Eden. He would probably ask about how they ended up “toiling” in the dirt instead of eating choice fruit. He would have heard how Adam and Eve took fruit that didn’t belong to them. He would have heard about the curse for the serpent and the promise to Eve. I bet Eve even told Cain that he was the chosen one to “crush the head of the serpent” and restore order to a fallen world. Cain’s name even has significance and probably is an indication of his attitude. His name means to spear (the sharp stick thing) and to mourn or lament. In a most basic form, his name means note or tune of the lament. So I can see Cain as an introspective type who feels an incredible burden to “save the world” and make things right with God.
Abel on the other hand is the second born. If words are important, Abel only has a few said about him. His name probably gives us a clue about his demeanor. It means “breath” or “vanity.” His name means fleeting and could be interpreted as “being foolish.” Of course that is Abel. Think about second-borns all around the planet. If the first-born is an extreme overachiever, bossy-get-all-the-attention kid, then you know the second born is the wild one that is always getting in trouble. They are the “free spirit” that is just in love with life. That might be an over simplification but I think you are getting the idea.
So the story of the garden would have affected each of these boys differently based on how they were wired and their position. I suggest that Cain had every intention of fixing stuff and Abel was more of a go-with-the-flow kind of guy. So Cain has this amazing idea. “If we took fruit from God and God got mad then I should grow some fruit and give it back to God.” Cain was very much still living in the bushes. The fear that drove Adam and Eve into hiding had been inherited by Cain. He felt that he could make it right with God if he could make God happy. Cain had some fallen thinking. God wasn’t angry at them. Somehow he missed that part of the story. Instead of faith in a good God, Cain had a fear of an angry God. Cain’s reaction to his fallen understanding was to “pay a tribute” to God with the intention of changing the situation. Cain was sure his effort would make things right. That is called religion.
Abel on the other hand remembered the story differently. He must have liked the part about God giving them clothes. He would have known that God killed an animal and used the skin to clothe his parents. They would have shared how ashamed they were and still God provided. Abel was sure of the goodness of God as demonstrated in His sacrifice for them. God killed the first animal to deliver mankind from condemnation. That really struck a note with “free spirit” Abel. Abel was probably a joy filled guy who just enjoyed life. I bet it really upset the “responsible one” Cain. Abel expresses his gratitude for God and His gift for them by sacrificing an animal to remember what God had done. Abel acted out of admiration and adoration, not out of duty. Abel understood the grace of God. Abel didn’t need religion he saw Jesus instead.
Hebrews 11:4 By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. (ESV)
So when Cain gave an offering to God, a religious duty to “move God,” he gets this reaction:
Gen 4:5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. (ESV)
Cain had worked and worked and planned and planned. What Cain missed was the nature of God. He was reacting to an angry God instead of worshiping a God of love. He missed God’s goodness but instead focused on his own human efforts. His reaction is the fallen human reaction to religion. God gives him a pep talk:
Gen 4:6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
Paul gives us the same pep talk:
Romans 12:21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (ESV)
And of course God is the source of all good and He loves to give it to us:
Matt 7:11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (ESV)
God says nothing about the “offering.” He is encouraging Cain to change his countenance. When we see the goodness of God we see the Kingdom. When we see the Kingdom we step into the Kingdom. When we are in the Kingdom and the Kingdom is in us, it looks like this:
Rom 14:17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (ESV)
God wants a relationship. He is a relationship. He died to demonstrate His love so we would seek Him in relationship. He lets us kill Him, and still He seeks us to be in us as the Holy Spirit. Our fallen nature is to substitute our efforts, our offering, our works, our best effort in the place of God Himself. Jesus eliminates the need for religion. We have God with us. We don’t need religion to satisfy an angry God since He is with us. We have the Kingdom in us. Cain would not have known this or seen this truth. God uses his example as how to seek God and not self. We get to live a better relationship than even Abel. His blood cries to us that God has made a way. Jesus on the cross is the proof.
1 John 3:11-13 For the original command, as you know, is that we should love one another. We are none of us to have the spirit of Cain, who was a son of the devil and murdered his brother. Have you realised his motive? It was just because he realised the goodness of his brother’s life and the rottenness of his own. Don’t be surprised, therefore, if the world hates you. (Phillips)
Jesus rescues us and restores us so we don’t have to be like Cain. We are free to love and be loved. We are free to become love. When we are born again and the Holy Spirit comes into our lives we are transformed. We are no longer offering “fruit” to appease an angry God. We are in a perfect, righteous relationship with God. We are joined with the Holy Spirit. We are His kids and we get to live like His kids, first-born or not.