The late Homer Hoeksema was professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


The peculiar character of sacred history comes to the fore immediately when we study the biblical narrative concerning the prediluvial world. For the Scriptures do not furnish us with any kind of account concerning the personal history of Adam and Eve, nor even with an account concerning their family and its history in detail. But it immediately centers our attention on but one event in the lives of their two son, Cain and Abel, and to this one event devotes what might seem, superficially considered, to be a disproportionately large place.

What, we may ask, might the historical significance of this obviously significant narrative be?

In answer to this question, we point out the following:

1.In the first place, it reveals that the prophetic announcement of Genesis 3:15 to the effect that Adam and Eve were to be the progenitors of a twofold and antagonistic seed goes into fulfillment immediately after the Fall. It is not delayed, but the conflict between these two parts of the one human race, existing side by side in spiritual enmity, begins to be revealed at the very dawn of history.

2.In the second place, the antithesis between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent is very marked. In Cain sin reveals itself as enmity against God and as a reaching out for the things of this world. In Abel the grace of God becomes manifest in a clinging to the promise and a willingness to be a pilgrim and stranger in the earth for the sake of the city that hath foundations. Between the two there is enmity, an enmity which becomes manifest sharply as soon as the right conditions and situation are present. Cain’s act of murder is not merely fratricide: it is the murder of the righteous by the unrighteous, of the godly by the ungodly. This history is intended to reveal that no human ties of blood relationship and natural love are strong enough to wipe out the antithesis or to prevent the conflict between the ungodly and the godly.

3.In these two sons of Adam and Eve we behold the representative commencement of the conflict of the ages. We see in their conflict the motif of subsequent history. For Cain is succeeded by his generations, who are also spiritually like him and who compound his sin. Abel is replaced by Seth and his generations, the generations of the sons of God. The conflict begun with Cain and Abel is carried on to its climax and ultimate realization in Christ and Antichrist.

4.Finally, we may observe that the victory in this conflict is by faith—faith which is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh” (Heb. 11:4).

The Setting

After a brief mention of the birth of Cain and Abel and of their respective occupations, the Bible simply introduces the narrative of the conflict between them by the words, “And in process of time it came to pass….” In attempting to place this narrative in its proper time-setting, we may note various scriptural data. In general, first of all, this event belongs within the first 130 years of history, for Adam was 130 years old when Seth, the replacement of Abel, was born. More specifically, in attempting to place the narrative in that 130-year period, we may at least say that it appears to have taken place later, rather than earlier, during that period. For one thing, Cain and Abel are grown men. For another, Cain was very probably married at this time. Still more, there must have been a good many more children of Adam and Eve at this time. For not only does Cain marry and beget children; but he also goes out soon after the curse is pronounced upon him and builds a city (Gen. 4:16, 17). While, therefore, we cannot precisely date this event (which is also unnecessary), it appears rather clear that it took place a good many years after the expulsion of our first parents from Paradise.

The Offerers

For a proper understanding of this facet of sacred history, it is important to consider its two main characters, Cain and Abel. Both of them brought offerings to Jehovah, but the Lord had respect only unto Abel and his offering. What accounts for this? What was the difference between the offerers?

In order to see that difference in sharp focus, we must consider the two offerers, first of all, from a natural point of view.

We note, in the first place, that Cain and Abel were brothers, sons of the same covenant parents and members of the same covenant household. It has even been suggested, on the basis of the fact that in connection with the birth of Abel the words, “And Adam knew Eve his wife,” are not repeated, that Cain and Abel were twin brothers. The latter, however, cannot be determined with certainty. If it were true, it would serve to sharpen the conflict and the antithesis involved, even as was the case later with Jacob and Esau. Apart from this possibility, however, the fact remains that Cain and Abel were brothers. In them, therefore, the fact that Eve was to be the mother of a twofold seed immediately begins to be realized. The conflict between Cain and Abel arises from a spiritual antithesis which exists in the natural sphere of a close, brotherly relationship.

In the second place, we may note certain natural differences between these sons:

1.Cain was firstborn. Very likely we must understand Eve’s words, “I have gotten a man from the Lord” (hence, Cain, “acquired”), as reflecting her faith in the promise of God, though she was mistaken. Abel is second, even granting the possibility that he may have been Cain’s twin. Here we see an instance of that which repeats itself frequently in the history of God’s covenant, namely, that the firstborn according to the flesh is not the heir of the promise.

2.There is ground for believing that Cain was the stronger of the two, endowed with the greater natural gifts. Apparently Eve’s second son calls to mind the frailty and vanity of human existence, for she names him Abel, which means “breath” or “vanity,” which would seem to point to the fact that Abel was a weakling. Besides, the very difference in occupations points to a difference in natural endowments. Cain turns his ambition to the earth. He will subdue the earth and grapple with the curse that is on the ground and labor for the development of the things of the world. But Abel turns to the quiet life of a keeper of sheep.

Moreover, even as Cain is the stronger and is endowed with greater natural gifts, so these traits also become manifest later in his generations. The men of talent and power, the men who become famous and powerful, the great builders of civilization, are found in Cain’s generations. All of this is significant. This difference between Cain and Abel is characteristic of all history and of God’s work in history. Not among God’s people, but among the ungodly are found, as a general rule, those who are endowed with the greater natural gifts. The mighty and the noble are not found among the children of the light, but among the children of darkness, who with their great natural endowments turn to the world, in order to find their portion below. At the same time, God has chosen the foolish and the weak and the base and the despised and the things that are not, in order to bring to nought things that are, in order that no flesh should glory in his presence (I Cor. 1:26-29).

In the third place, these very natural differences lend emphasis to the natural and historic and outward similarity between the two and thus underscore the sharp spiritual contrast between them. In the historic, external sense of the word, Cain and Abel were both children of God’s covenant, though Cain was in the spiritual sense a stranger to its fellowship and blessings. It is true, of course, that God’s covenant had not yet been revealed and established formally. The Lord had not yet singled out a tribe or nation or separate family as His covenant people. There was but one family which constituted the human race at this point.

But there can be no doubt that the covenant had been maintained and revealed after the Fall, that Adam and Eve had a part in it, and that the promise of the covenant had been given them. Cain and Abel both were born of covenant parents and were both, in the external sense of the word, covenant children. As such they occupied a similar position and had many things in common. They both had the same direct traditions from their parents and were acquainted with the early history of creation and of the Fall. They were both acquainted with Jehovah and His Word. They knew about Paradise and about the state of original righteousness and about the Fall into sin and death of their parents. They knew of the curse that was pronounced upon all things. They knew about the protevangel and about the enmity and conflict which the Lord had announced, as well as about the promise of victory for the seed of the woman.

The narrative plainly presupposes, as does the rest of Scripture, that they knew about proper sacrifice to the Lord as a means and symbol of exercising communion with God. They knew, too, about the necessity of a righteousness which was not their own and not by their own works.

There may be a danger of overestimating the degree of knowledge and light which they possessed, so that we think of Cain and Abel in terms of the fuller and brighter light of revelation which we now possess. But there is a greater danger in the opposite direction. We certainly must not conceive of these men as primitive, ignorant, heathen savages, standing very low on the evolutionary scale, possibly with their feet hardly on the rung of the ladder which represents humanity.

Do not forget that they possessed a veritable treasure of revelation even at that early date. We must not minimize the value of the direct tradition which they received from their parents, who could relate by firsthand experience concerning righteousness and life in contrast with corruption and death. Besides, we must not overlook the fact that their very surroundings reminded them of former things. The garden of Eden was still there; and the way to the tree of life, guarded by cherubim, was there. Above all, we must keep in mind that they were the recipients of direct revelation. God spoke to them. He spoke not only to Abel and gave him the testimony that he was righteous; but He also spoke to Cain, as is plain from the narrative of Genesis 4.

Yet spiritually there was day and night difference between Cain and Abel. The Word of the Lord was realized in them. The one was elect, the other reprobate. The one was of the seed of the woman, the other of the seed of the serpent. Not fatalistically was this Word of the protevangel carried out in them. On the contrary, the difference was a spiritual one which came to manifestation in and through their own natures and in and through their own conscious, intelligent, willing conduct, though fully in harmony with God’s sovereign decree and according to His promise. Cain was wicked, and his works were evil; Abel was righteous, and his works were righteous (I John 3:12).

Such were the offerers in this narrative.

They both offered: the righteous Abel and the wicked Cain, both of them covenant children, both of them of God-fearing parents, both of them born in the sphere of the covenant, both of them having received covenant training. The contrast between them is not between a heathen and a child of God, but between righteous and wicked in the sphere of the covenant.