Exposition of Genesis 1–11: Genesis 4:9–12

Genesis 4:9–12
9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he replied, “I don’t know! Am I my brother’s guardian?”  10 But the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!  11 So now, you are banished from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.  12 When you try to cultivate the ground it will no longer yield its best for you. You will be a homeless wanderer on the earth.”
(NET Bible)

Crime and God’s Punishment

In the Bible one often sees that the punishment fits the crime. Paul said: “Do not be deceived. God will not be made a fool. For a person will reap what he sows” (Gal. 6:7). Jesus said, “The measure you use will be the measure you receive” (Matt. 7:2b).

If we care for no one except ourselves, then who will care for us? On the other hand, what will be the result of a life characterized by love and generosity? How will God intervene to see that this measure-for-measure approach is maintained?

Just as Adam and his wife were not free from God’s knowledge of their actions (Genesis 3:9–13), so Cain is forced to deal with God’s sudden arrival and penetrating question (Gen. 3:9, ESV): “Where is Abel your brother?”

Gordon Wenham offers insight into Cain’s defiant reply:

When Adam was challenged, he at least told the truth if not the whole truth (3:10), but Cain tells a bare-faced lie, “I do not know,” and follows it with an impertinent witticism, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Since Abel kept sheep and [“keeper”] is a term for shepherds (cf. Exod. 22:6, 9; 1 Sam. 17:20), Cain’s reply could be paraphrased “Am I the shepherd’s shepherd?”[1]

What can we say about Cain’s response to God’s question? It is clearly self-justifying. The response has the shameless audacity that characterizes those who have no grasp of the difference between an all-powerful God and a mortal man. Cain’s attitude can be found in many people throughout the pages of the Bible and in contemporary society. For this reason Jesus said, “If someone who is blind leads another who is blind, both will fall into a pit” (Matt. 15:14). For Cain the pit comes swiftly.

Genesis 4:10  But the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”

In saying “What have you done?” Victor Hamilton says, “God is making an accusation, not seeking information.”[2] The blood defiles the God-created ground, and the blood figuratively cries out to God for relief.

Genesis 4:10 contains a world of implicit theology: God monitors all human activity; God judges human actions; human acts have consequences; human life is sacred; bloodguilt cannot be ignored.

Genesis 4:11–12  So now, you are banished from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.  12 When you try to cultivate the ground it will no longer yield its best for you. You will be a homeless wanderer on the earth.”

Just as sin had waited to devour Cain, the ground swallowed Abel’s blood. The striking series of questions and statements, each two words long in Hebrew, tells a simple story:

Genesis 4:9          “Where is Abel” (literal translation)

Genesis 4:10        “What have you done” (literal translation)

Genesis 4:11        “Cursed are you” (literal translation)

Hamilton clarifies the idea of being banished or banned from the soil by saying that it “obviously means not that he is barred from contact with the soil but from enjoyment of its productivity.”[3]

Wenham says, “In Gen. 3 man is not cursed, only the ground and the serpent, so cursing Cain is a serious development.”[4]

The text of Genesis 4:12 is hard to translate. While NET says the land “will no longer yield its best,” the ESV says “it shall no longer yield to you its strength,” and the NIV 1984 and 2011 say “it will no longer yield its crops” (emphasis added in all cases). There is a big difference between the land yielding its best and yielding any crops at all! The NIV is more likely correct because Cain is condemned to be a “homeless wanderer on the earth” (Gen. 4:12, NET), a condition that prevents cultivation of crops, and he soon complains of being driven off the land (Gen. 4:14).

So, if Cain cannot enjoy the productivity of the soil, how will he live? The irony is that this man who killed his brother and denied any responsibility to care for him will now have to depend on his brothers for sustenance. Will they treat him with the selfishness of Cain or the generosity of dead Abel?

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



[1] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Incorporated, 1987) 106.

[2] 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) 231.

[3] Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 232.

[4] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 107.

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