Original Sin Gen 4:1-26


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Genesis 4:1-26

There are sermons aplenty in Genesis 4, but there is also a great over-arching theme and it is that theme that I want to consider with you this morning. Genesis 4 belongs to the opening chapter of the book. Here too, then, the foundation for all subsequent human history is being laid down. It is in chapter 4 that we see the spreading of sin through the life of mankind and the catastrophic   consequences of that. [Collins, 189-191, 210]

Text Comments

v.1 As you know, “to know” is in the Bible a common euphemism for sexual intercourse, but only between human beings, never between animals. [Sarna, 31] For men and women uniquely the sexual relationship is a matter of intimate personal knowledge. [Waltke, 96] The separation of that relationship from real knowledge of one another, the project of the sexual modern revolution, is a perversion of both sex and what ought to be the true and deep and lasting intimacy between a man and a woman, the intimacy that only marriage can create.

It is debated whether Eve thought that Cain was the seed promised in 3:15. In any case, her statement demonstrates some faith, as she knows the Lord has helped her. But there may be some pride in Eve’s remark as well. Unlike the remarks of Hannah in 1 Sam. 2 or of Mary in Luke 1, Eve divides the credit between the Lord and herself. [Waltke, 96] She will do better in v. 25.

v.2       These are already adult men and a lot of their personal history has been omitted. In spite of the Fall human beings continued to carry out the mandate to exercise dominion over the earth.

v.5 Notice that Cain was angry, angry at God and angry at this brother. Now we read of another sinister feeling and attitude that darkens human life, in addition to the fear and shame that Adam and Eve felt once they had sinned against God.

There has been a long and vigorous debate as to why the Lord preferred Abel’s offering. Hebrews 11:4 tells us that Abel had faith whereas Cain did not, but that does not settle the question. We want to know how Abel’s faith was demonstrated in the offering he brought. Was it in the spirit with which he offered his sacrifice or was it in the sacrifice itself? Was it because Abel offered a blood sacrifice? The text doesn’t say, so any suggestion we make must be tentative. Most commentators of our persuasion prefer to think that the difference lay in the hearts of the two men, in their attitude toward God. I’m not entirely convinced that is a sufficient explanation. Ask yourself this question: how did they know to bring any sacrifice to God? Surely God had given instructions. They are grown men by this time; years had passed. And while grain or produce offerings were a part of Israel’s worship later as we have been reading in Leviticus of late the fact that the two offerings are distinguished as to type and not as to the spirit with which they were brought suggests to me that already we have one man insisting upon coming to God on his own terms and the other man coming as God had said he must come. This could, therefore, be the next anticipation of the Lord Jesus Christ and his work on the cross after Gen. 3:15. It is also important that Abel offered the “firstborn” of his flock and the fat portions, that is, the best of the meat; but nothing similar is said of Cain’s offering. Cain’s sin, therefore, may also have been the sin of making a token show of gratitude and commitment to God while withholding genuine loyalty and devotion, a sin that vast multitudes would imitate in the ages that would follow. Notice the phrases “Abel and his offering” and “Cain and his offering.” “The worshipper and his offering are inseparable.” [Waltke, 97]

v.6       God begins with a question, as he had with Adam. He gave Cain the opportunity to confess his crime.

 v.8 The murder was pre-meditated. The greater evil of the deed is accentuated merely by the fact that twice in a single verse we are reminded that Abel was Cain’s brother.

v.9       Cain, like his father Adam, tried to hide what he had done from God. At least Adam, when confronted by the Lord, told the truth. Cain told a barefaced lie and followed it with a clever retort that had no respect or reverence for God in it.

v.12     The Lord’s judgment of Cain echoes that pronounced on Adam in 3:17-18. They were both banished from the place where they were; they were both told that the ground would now become their enemy as well as their friend. In this way we are taught that the curse visited upon Adam was likewise visited upon his descendants.

v.14     The effect of his sentence is that Cain would be banished from his home and family. And, of course, he would likewise be banished from the presence of the Lord, as Cain himself says in v 14. His fear is that other descendants of Adam and Eve, the family members themselves, would seek to avenge Abel’s death. It’s very interesting that Cain understood the threat. The principle of justice, of moral retribution, was enshrined in the human heart from the beginning. Cain was afraid of man more than of God and regarded his punishment as unfair. In that he is here the quintessential unbelieving human being.

v.15     The mark was apparently some form of tattoo that identified Cain as the one God had promised to protect from vengeance. [Sarna, 35; Waltke, 99] In any case, while it warded off potential enemies and lengthened Cain’s life, it was at the same time a constant reminder of his banishment. The promise of temporary protection is the utmost that divine mercy can do for the impenitent.

v.16     As the Lord had shown mercy to Adam and Eve, so he showed mercy to Cain. He protected him in this way from the vengeance that Cain feared, but there was no humble admission of sin or acceptance of the divine verdict on Cain’s part. Indeed, notice the irony. He had killed a man but now worries that someone will kill him! [Collins, 212] “Nod” is a symbolic name. It means the land of wandering. Sinners are people with no permanent home!

v.17     The age-old question is: where did Cain’s wife come from? The standard answer, obvious as it is, has been that she was one of the other children of Adam and Eve. As we read in 5:4, the first couple had other sons and daughters. We don’t know at what age Cain may have married. What is more to the point: the narrator is obviously uninterested in that question and so makes no effort to answer it. We may be curious about such things, but the Bible wasn’t written to satisfy our curiosity.

From the foundation of this city that Cain built Augustine dates the earthly city that is opposed to the city of God in his 5th century masterpiece The City of God.

v.19     Sin is escalating. Now, the sanctity of life having already been violated, the sanctity of marriage is violated. Lamech takes two wives, not one.

v.22     We might have expected the narrator to say nothing complementary about Cain and his descendants, but even sinful man produces culture, even wonderful products of inventiveness and utility, such as we have here: the building of cities, the creation of music, and metallurgy (which, of course, requires mining, the extraction of metal from ore, and working with the finished metal). And, we may take this as a hint of still more. Even sinful men will do good things, beautiful things, noble and honorable things — at least noble and honorable and good to a certain degree. For man still bears the image of God, still has God’s law written on his heart, and God’s mercy –as here to Cain– keeps him from being as bad as he might otherwise be. Man made in the image of God creates; he is not made in the image of nature that simply reproduces itself.

But we also have an anti-pagan polemic in these verses. In the pagan myths these advances in human culture are regularly ascribed to divine or semi-divine figures. [Sarna, 35-36] In the Bible man has this creative power because he was made in the image of God the creator!

It is unclear why Naamah is mentioned though the suggestion is that she was some important person. [Sarna, 38]

v.24     Again we have an escalation of sin, in this case still greater violence. Lamech is the first terrorist, who threatens innocent life to aggrandize himself. And like most terrorists, he clothes his violence in some pretended search for justice.

v.26     The phrase “call upon the name of the Lord” is regularly used later in Genesis and throughout the Bible to describe “regular divine worship.” What we have here, then, is the origin of “going to church.”

The Bible, especially what we call the Old Testament, does not ordinarily, does not usually explain. By that I mean it doesn’t pause to provide an interpretation of events as they occur. More often it shows us the truth rather than explaining it to us. We do not get a theological explanation of the relationship between Adam’s sin and ours until Paul gives us such an explanation in Romans 5. But already, here at the headwaters of the Bible, it is made perfectly and emphatically clear that what Adam and Eve had done had a catastrophic moral effect upon their posterity. Sin spread from them to their children and to their children’s children.

This is the doctrine of “original sin,” an essential tenet of historic, biblical Christianity. Christians have argued about precisely how we are to state and understand the doctrine of “original sin,” but they have not disputed the fact of it. A typical definition of original sin is given in our Westminster Shorter Catechism. After explaining that “The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself but for his posterity, all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression,” the catechism goes on to ask: “Wherein consists the sinfulness that estate whereinto man fell? The answer: “The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want [or lack] of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.”

What is being asserted is that since the fall mankind is bent; from the inside out he suffers from a powerful tendency to think and to practice evil of all sorts and that the misery and woe we see everywhere we look in human life is the inevitable result of that sinful nature and tendency. Human life was supposed to be one thing, a very beautiful thing. It has become something very different. You won’t find the term “original sin” in Genesis 4. Actually you’ll not find it anywhere in the Bible. Nor will you read in the Old Testament an explanation of how the succeeding generations of human beings inherited a penchant for selfishness, vanity, and cruelty from their first parents. But you can see the truth of original sin painted in vivid colors here in Genesis 4. What we have here is a description of what human life has become now that the first man has rebelled against God. And it is not a pretty picture.

It is important to take note of the fact that Gen. 4 belongs to the account of the creation and fall that began at 2:4 with the heading or title: “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” You have the next such title at 5:1, indicating that there a new section of the narrative begins. What that means is that Gen. 4 is clearly meant to finish the story of the beginning of man in the world. We don’t have the whole story until we have read the history related in this chapter. Or, in other words, we haven’t really understood what happened in the fall until we have read chapter 4.

There are certain striking similarities between the account of the fall in chapter 3 and the history of Gen. 4. 1) The sin was committed and God came looking for Cain and asked him why he was behaving as he was in much the same way that he questioned Adam in chapter 3. 2) Judgment followed for Cain as it did for Adam and Eve and in much the same way. Both were banished; both would find the ground an enemy as well as a friend. Cain is cast away as Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden. 3) God showed mercy to Cain as he did to Adam and Eve. And so on. In other words, chapter 4 shows us that the fall is repeating itself in the next generation; the cycle of sin and its consequences is now to be a fact of human life. Each generation was not to start fresh, as it were, with the possibility of living sinless lives, but already under the power of sin, already inclined to rebellion. Adam and Eve really did ruin it for everyone!

But even more important in this history is what is revealed about the nature of human sin. If its origin is reported in Gen. 3, Gen. 4 shows us what sin is, what it means that human beings have become sinners, and what human life is going to be like now that it has been corrupted at its root.

The doctrine of original sin has always had many detractors. They hate it for its pessimistic view of humanity and especially for its denial that man can be whatever he wishes to be. But the fact is, for all of man’s genius, for all of his undoubted accomplishments — which the Bible frankly acknowledges even here in Gen. 4 — he remains a sinner and cannot be anything else, at least, not without the grace of God. As G.K. Chesterton tartly put it: original sin is the only Christian doctrine with overwhelming empirical demonstration. You see the truth of it everywhere you look. We had a typical week this past week. The shooting in Ottawa, the hatcheting of police officers in Queens, the school shooting in nearby Marysville, this crime here, that crime there. But, of course, that only scratches the surface. Man’s indifference to other men, his conceit, his pettiness, his dishonesty, his acting against the interest of others, his anger; that is the stuff of life in matters large and small. No human being is untouched by it in any single day of his or her life and no single human being fails to contribute to this moral ugliness every day of his or her life.

These facts have always made it easy for Christians to defend the doctrine of original sin. Not only do we see human beings behaving badly everywhere we look and no matter when we look, all human beings; but they self-consciously affirm that they know better.

If animals kill one another, if a lion runs down a wildebeest and kills it, we accept that it is the lion’s nature. We don’t accuse the lion in the name of the wildebeest or punish the lion in the name of justice. It is a lion being a lion. We accept that without thought. But if a human being murders another human being, we all recognize it to be a crime. We are utterly unwilling to think or to say that it is just man being man. As Pascal put it, what is nature in animals we call wretchedness in man.” [Cited in Collins, 258] If man deceives another man, if he tells lies, if he steals another’s property, if a husband cheats on his wife, if a parent neglects his or her children or worse, abuses them, if a man or woman is vain, or indolent, we all think that he or she has done wrong. No one consistently maintains, no one ever has, that there is no code of conduct that human beings are obliged to obey.

But everyone, I mean everyone, violates that same code of conduct all the time. We all violate it in smaller ways and larger ways every day. After all of this time, after all of the extraordinary achievements in science, engineering, technology, in art, music, and literature, we still struggle with and human life is still darkened by the same tendencies to envy, anger, arrogance, deceit, lust, cruelty, and the will to power that we find on display in Genesis 4. We have solved some lesser problems in human life. But the problem is as impervious to a human solution today as it has ever been. Why is it that no one ever resists the forbidden fruit? Why do we recognize mankind and honest men themselves so easily in Genesis 4?

But there is more to say in defense of the doctrine of original sin. The best men and women in the world have always been the defenders of the doctrine. We see this in the church, of course. The greatest saints were to the man and woman deeply convinced of their own moral debility and failure; they saw it much more clearly and were alarmed much more by it than the general run of human beings. When the saintly Scottish pastor Robert Murray McCheyne admitted that he saw in his own heart the seeds of every conceivable sin, he meant that he knew himself capable of any bad act if only the circumstances were right. Thoughtful unbelievers are just as likely to admit that the problem of human evil is intractable. I could regale you with citations.

The other evening Florence and I watched You’ve Got Mail, a breezy romantic comedy made so long ago — young people you won’t believe this! — that the characters connected to the internet by dial-up! The movie hardly intends to be a serious exploration of the human condition, but central to the story is characters behaving in petty, unkind, even cruel ways, knowing that they behaved badly, and being troubled by their consciences for having done so. And the writers and director obviously expected all of us to understand and to sympathize; to recognize ourselves and our behavior in that of the characters.

But I needn’t quote unbelievers making my point. I can simply ask why everyone thinks it important to fix everyone else. If human beings deny their own original sin, they seem to assume that everyone else has the problem! Why are they so sure that others are wrong about one thing or another, and not simply wrong but morally defective? Republicans think that about Democrats, capitalists about socialists, scholars about other scholars, one group of teens about another group, boyfriends about their ex-girlfriends, athletes about referees, and on and on. The only one who is always right apparently is the person making the judgments about everybody else, and even he or she now and again suffers from that most universal of human experiences: the guilty conscience.

People who refuse to admit that they are sinners, who refuse to admit that they do wrong as often as they do, are not good people, but deeply dishonest people. Wise people, experienced people, thoughtful people, honest people, whether or not they are Christian believers, will admit the truth that C.S. Lewis, with his characteristic insight, put this way:

“When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his badness less and less.

“Those who are seriously attempting chastity are more conscious and soon know a great deal more about their own sexuality than anyone else. They come to know their desires as Wellington knew Napoleon, or as Sherlock Holmes knew Moriarty; as a rat-catcher knows rats or a plumber knows about leaky pipes.” [Mere Christianity, III, iv; v; cited in Collins, 277]

That is, people who are seriously attempting to control their sinful impulses learn quickly how intractable those impulses really are. Solving the problem of sexual sin not by teaching self-denial but by justifying capitulation to sexual temptation — as the sexual revolution proposes to do — will not make us better people but more deluded about ourselves and our motives; nor will it protect us from the ravages of a debased sexual life; it will make them worse. Bad behavior is a fact of human life. It comes from inside of us, not outside. It is a problem of our nature, not of our environment. It is first our tendency, our predilection, our bias, the bent of our appetites before it is our actual unworthy thoughts, words, and deeds.

Every human being is at war within himself or herself; strange to say. So much of our inner life we have to hide from others, guard it from being exposed. Why? Precisely because we know that were others to know what we thought and how we thought they would lose all respect for us. We want to appear to be someone that in many respects we know very well we are not. Every honest person admits this. But what a remarkable admission it is. We have the evidence of original sin within ourselves. There is much about ourselves that we must hide because we know what people would think of us if we didn’t.

What is more, all human beings are, at some level, aware of how sin gains traction when it is indulged. Sin is a kind of virus, a kind of living, breathing, devouring thing that consumes its prey, but that does not lie still or dormant, content to occupy the same place for generations. As it works it hardens the heart, dulls the mind, embitters and weakens the spirit, and enervates the will until what once was thought unthinkable in human behavior becomes acceptable, even normal. Mass murder is more often committed by the sane than the insane and a succession of sins typically lead up to it. One does not begin with mass murder but with spite and envy and petty hatred. This is the development of evil that Paul describes so eloquently in Romans 1 and that Alexander Pope immortalized in his famous lines

Vice is a monster of so frightful a mien, That to be trusted needs but to be seen. Yet, seen too oft, familiar with her face, We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

This is another demonstration of original sin, of the fact that moral defect is a principle of human life. If given the opportunity it will invariably erupt into actual acts of deceit, cruelty, impurity and so on. And once given such an opportunity, once gathering strength from it, it craves yet more, or as the Lord put it to Cain in v. 7, sin desires to have men, to control them, to bring them completely under its power. We see this most visibly in the case of addicts who became addicted one step at a time, and in the case of people whose consciences have been so scarred that they are no longer able to make even the most basic of moral distinctions. But it is just as true on the more mundane level of the ordinary habits of life: gossip, backbiting, laziness, gluttony, and greed. Why is it that people who lose control of their moral impulses almost invariably act badly and to the harm of others? Why do they shoot up a school rather than, say, mow a neighbor’s lawn or weed his flower beds in the middle of a rainy night?

Then, finally, there is this evidence for original sin. It is that man seems determined to avoid any acknowledgment of his problem. Cain resisted every opportunity to acknowledge his fault, to seek forgiveness for it, and to submit to God who was, after all, the one who had punished him for his crime. Such possibilities did not interest Cain. Such possibilities do not interest most human beings. There is a relentless defiance of the facts that is also a principle of human life. Man will go his own way no matter that a thousand facts must die. An ancient Friedrich Nietzsche was the schoolmaster in the city Cain built. And he gave the rebellion against God and against God’s law its philosophical respectability first in that city. Nietzsche’s starting point was the non-existence of God and, whether the unbelief in the living God or simply indifference to God took religious form or philosophical form or hedonistic form through the centuries, this has always been the true explanation of human life as we know it: man defying the truth about himself made in the image of God and setting himself up as his own god and his own master and seeking to build a kingdom for himself in God’s world. Here is Friedrich Nietzsche in The Joyful Wisdom, published in 1882.

“The most important of more recent events — that ‘god is dead’, that the belief in the Christian God has become unworthy of belief — already begins to cast its first shadows over Europe…. In fact, we philosophers and ‘free spirits’ feel ourselves irradiated as by a new dawn by the report that the ‘old God is dead’; our hearts overflow with gratitude, astonishment, presentment and expectation. At last the horizon seems open once more, granting even that it is not bright; our ships can at last put out to sea in face of every danger; every hazard is again permitted to the discerner; the sea, our sea, lies open before us… [In Colin Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith, p. 139]

Here is Nietzsche’s point. If god does not exist — damn the evidence that he does! — man can now make his own way. He can fend for himself. He can face squarely the human predicament, man alone in the universe; but he can fashion his own values and live accordingly. Of course man has been trying to fend for himself since the fall! Nietzsche’s sea proved very quickly to be just another land of Nod.

Well, you can hear Cain and Lamech in all of that! The City of Man all over again, one more among the umpteenth attempts to build this city so that it will not fall as it has always fallen before. Original sin explains man’s determination to do without God — the natural rebellion of his heart — and explains why it has never worked and never will. Sinful man is displeasing to God and God will never allow him to succeed. He can have his lyre and his pipe, his iron and his bronze, but a home in this world he will never find. It is God’s mercy that he doesn’t.

How impressive at the moment this city of man around which and next to which we live, though also cruel and heartless; but how utterly futile and fragile. And then, how gently, how silently, the city of God steals into the world: it was then that men began to call on the name of the Lord. Only God could help them. Only God could break their bondage to this predilection for thinking and doing evil and acting so stupidly so much of the time. Only God could get them back to true goodness, so they began to call upon him.