Exposition of Genesis 1–11: Genesis 4:2b–5

Genesis 4:2b–5
2b Abel took care of the flocks, while Cain cultivated the ground. 3 At the designated time Cain brought some of the fruit of the ground for an offering to the LORD.  4 But Abel brought some of the firstborn of his flock– even the fattest of them. And the LORD was pleased with Abel and his offering,  5 but with Cain and his offering he was not pleased. So Cain became very angry, and his expression was downcast.
(NET Bible)

A Gathering Storm

Each of us has likely both pleased the Lord and displeased him. We may even have done both in the same day! How do we determine whether we have pleased God or not? If we have displeased God, what is our appropriate response? If we have pleased God, what possible concerns might we have?

The narrator strips the story to its essentials, and that focuses our attention on the two brothers. We do not know the occasion or the method of sacrifice. All who read the story see the fact that God is pleased with one person/sacrifice but not with the other; this forces one to look back and see why.

Cain cultivates the ground like his father Adam, and Abel tends flocks. There is no reason to prefer one vocation over another at this time in biblical history.

In translating “at the designated time” (Gen. 4:3, emphasis added), the NET Bible may make matters seem more definite than they deserve. Most translations and commentators take some form of “in the course of time” (ESV, NASB, NIV, and RSV) as the meaning. To this point, there is no reason to believe any systematic sacrificial system had been established. That leads to the impression that the sacrifices were spontaneous, emerging from the heart of the person.

But, if the sacrifices come from the heart, what do they reveal? Victor Hamilton says, “Perhaps we are justified in seeing in Abel’s offering a gift that is of the finest quality, as opposed to that of his brother, which is more common.”[1] Of course, we probably would not be sifting for these differences except for the fact that God responds differently to the two men and their offerings.

Concerning the two men and their offerings, the NET Bible Notes say: “Here are two types of worshipers – one (Cain) merely discharges a duty at the proper time, while the other (Abel) goes out of his way to please God with the first and the best.”[2]

The author of Hebrews says the difference demonstrates the faith of Abel, a faith that caused the Lord to commend Abel as “righteous” (Heb. 11:4). Hamilton says: “Gen. 4 does not supply a reason for or an explanation of this divine choice. The NT will indeed address itself to this issue, but the OT itself is silent.”[3]

While we do not understand how the pleasure of God becomes known to the brothers, they immediately know. We are not told about Abel’s feelings, because the focus of the story again narrows to Cain alone. Cain becomes very angry — the Bible’s first mention of anger — but that is not all. The verb describing how Cain’s face changes is used for the collapse of a tent or a wall. The rejection from God rocks Cain to the core! Yet what comes to mind for Cain is not a thought of repentance or a plan for renewed efforts to please God. His faith-dead heart leads him another way.

Gordon Wenham correctly points out, “Being ‘very angry’ is often prelude to homicidal acts (cf. 34:7; 1 Sam. 18:8; Neh. 4:1; cf. Num. 16:15; 2 Sam. 3:8).”[4] Perhaps for this reason, Paul says: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger. Do not give the devil an opportunity” (Eph. 4:26–27). “Be angry” is a command, so not all anger is sin, but it can escalate swiftly!

Cain’s rage has opened the door to opportunity; it will not be long in coming.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990) 223.

[2] NET Bible Notes for Genesis 4:3.

[3] Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 223.

[4] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Incorporated, 1987) 104.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!