There is one passage in scripture that throws me for a loop every time I read it. It is Galatians 4:21-31. In this passage, Paul compares Israel to Hagar, Abraham’s slave concubine. It throws me because it would seem to me that Sarah should be a picture of Israel, not Hagar. She received the promise of a son and her line became Israel. But that’s not how Paul uses Abraham and Sarah’s story.
There’s another passage like this that is counter-intuitive: Genesis 4. It also throws me because upon deeper reflection of the chapter I’ve come to realize that Cain, that faithless, murderer Cain, is also a picture of Israel. Allow me to dig deeper with you to show you why, and what Genesis 4 is ultimately all about.
I will present my case for the Cain/Israel comparison broken down in five areas:
- Cain’s Confusion
- Cain & His Crime
- Cain Cast Out
- Cain & The Covenant
- Cain & The Church
I will attempt to show from scripture why Cain is a picture, or type, for Israel, and how that leads us to representations of Jesus and the church, also found in Genesis 4. This is important because the early chapters of Genesis, really, the whole book of Genesis, provides the template for God’s dealing with Israel and the church. The major themes in Genesis are repeated in the rest of Moses’ writings and throughout the Old Testament itself, all leading to Jesus.
Let’s begin with Genesis 4:2-7 (ESV). “Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 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 contrary to you, but you must rule over it.’”
Many people have wondered, why did God reject Cain’s offering? In the Mosaic Law we see regulations governing grain sacrifices (Leviticus 2). Now, the Mosaic Law had not been given in the time of Cain, but it does show us something important. First, it shows that offerings from the plant world (grain) were usually (but not always) given in addition to a blood sacrifice or at the same time as the blood sacrifice. Second, there was no plant offering that served as a cover for sin. Only an animal sacrifice could do that.
Cain and Abel already had a model of animal sacrifice from Genesis 3:21. It was Abel who followed this model, whereas Cain seemed to have rejected it. Thus, God was pleased with Abel’s offering because Abel offered it according to what God had previously modeled or prescribed. But Cain offered a sacrifice of his own works, not something prescribed or modeled by God. As we know from elsewhere in scripture, our works cannot bring us closer to God.
Cain & His Crime
“Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (Genesis 4:8 ESV).
Abel pleased the Lord because he didn’t come to the Lord based on his own merits. He approached God based upon God’s revelation to him. But Cain, being jealous of Abel since Abel was accepted but Cain rejected, rose up and killed his brother. The one who rejected God’s ways killed the one who reflected God’s ways. This is just like Israel and Jesus. Cain’s life is a picture in prophecy about what Israel would do to Jesus. Just as Cain killed Abel, so too, Israel killed Jesus. More specifically, it was the Jewish leadership of the Sanhedrin that murdered the Lord. The murder of Abel by Cain is a pre-figuring of the murder of Jesus by the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day. Just as Cain rejected Abel’s blood sacrifice, so too, Israel rejected the blood sacrifice of Jesus and desired to approach God on their own merits.
Cain Cast Out
“The Lord said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth…Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Genesis 4:10-12, 16 ESV).
Cain was driven into exile in the east for his sin (Genesis 4:16). Israel and Judah were also driven in exile to the east for their sins against the covenant (II Kings 17:23, 5:21). Interesting, it was said of Cain that he would be a “Wanderer on the earth.” Similarly, when God pronounced judgment on Judah for their sins, he referred to Israel no longer wandering if they would obey him, “I will not cause the feet of Israel to wander anymore out of the land that I gave to their fathers” (II Kings 21:8).
Cain & The Covenant
“Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.’ And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him” (Genesis 4:13-15 ESV).
Remember God’s covenant with Abraham? “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3). Deuteronomy is filled with references to the blessings and the cursings of the Mosaic covenant. Notice the similarities. First, God tells Cain that if he does well he will be blessed (Genesis 4:7). Then he tells Cain that anyone who kills him will be cursed (Genesis 4:15). Is this not similar to Genesis 12? This may also be compared to the covenant stipulated in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Just as God’s mark on Cain and his promise to Cain was meant as a protection (“If anyone kills Cain…”), so too, the Mosaic Law was a protection to Israel. “You shall therefore keep the whole commandment that I command you today, that you may be strong, and go in and take possession of the land that you are going over to possess, and that you may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them” (Deuteronomy 11:8-9).
Cain & The Church
Considering all of these things, this brings us to Seth (Genesis 4:25). If Cain is Israel and Abel is Jesus, then Seth points to the church. Seth’s line in Genesis 5 is often called the “Righteous” line. While we have no stories of Seth, but we do have his descendants, specifically, Abraham, the Old Testament’s model of faith. As Israel did not achieve righteousness through the law, the church has received it through a promise, based on faith. This is what Seth and his line represent. Seth represents the new Israel, the church. It is here, at the birth of his son, Enosh, that the scripture first reveals, “At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord” (Genesis 4:26).
So, what are we to make of this? How does this interpretation impact us?
First, all of scripture is about Jesus (Luke 24:27). He is the author and object of our faith. If scripture is so focused on Jesus, we should be too. Our very lives, in some fashion, should point to the reality of Jesus as did the lives of these biblical figures.
Second, it’s about faith vs works. What was the mark on Cain? It doesn’t matter. If it were important God would have told us. The mark is a type for something else, the covenant of the law. It protected Israel as it protected Cain, but it could not grant life—only Jesus can do that. Just as we come to believe in Jesus through faith, so too, we should daily live our Christian lives by faith in him.