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


Once more it must be emphasized that a clear understanding of the character of Cain’s sin is essential.

What took place when Cain killed his brother Abel? Was it a mere murder — homicide, or even fratricide? That would bring the narrative wholly in the sphere of the merely natural. It would rule out the specific scriptural element. The Word of God does not deal with mere murders. It treats of the history of God’s kingdom and covenant and thus of the battle between the righteous and the wicked. This is the battle that centers in Christ, that is consummated at the parousia, in the day of the Lord, and in which God takes the side of the people of His covenant over against the world. Unless we keep this in mind, there are many elements in the narrative of the events following Cain’s murder of his brother which are left unexplained. Why does the earth cry to the Lord? Why does the punishment of Cain assume this peculiar form? Why may not Cain be killed, and how are we to think of the mark upon him?

Hence, we must keep in mind that the wicked had killed the righteous; the seed of the serpent had attacked and sought to destroy the seed of the woman. This is plain from the narrative in Genesis: Cain killed Abel as the righteous offerer, the friend of God. This is evident from I John 3:12: he killed Abel because his works were righteous, while his own works were evil.

Now the result of this murder was certainly that Abel’s soul had glory and victory in heaven. Nevertheless he seemed defeated as far as the earth was concerned. This might not be. God maintains His cause, defends His people, and gives them complete victory. Thus, not the wicked but the righteous shall inherit the earth and all things. This had to become plain in the history of Cain and Abel, even as it did later in the history of Noah and his eight. For this reason Cain receives a peculiar punishment. He may not be slain for his murder of Abel, but he must be cursed from the earth as one who is dispossessed as far as earthly things are concerned.

We must, however, see this punishment of Cain not only from the viewpoint of this one event, this one manifestation of conflict, but also in its historical perspective, in connection with and as an integral part of the subsequent history. It is obvious that at this point in history we stand at the beginning of the conflict, not at the end. It is obvious that the punishment of Cain does not represent the final outcome of the conflict, either as far as the whole of history is concerned or as far as this particular epoch is concerned. With regard to the former, the consummation is in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ; with regard to the latter, the consummation is at the time of Noah and the Flood. History, therefore, must go on. Abel must be replaced by Seth presently, so that the seed of the woman is continued. But also the seed of the serpent must continue. Cain must be punished in such a way, therefore, that this is accomplished. Not only so, but the punishment of Cain must be of such a kind that the purposes of God with respect to subsequent history are served, not only in that the conflict is continued but also in that there is development toward the goal of the typical consummation accomplished in the Flood. Through this very dealing of the Lord with Cain, the course of the history of the world before the Flood is so channeled that the line of Cain is preserved and allowed to become great in the world, great also in wickedness and in power to persecute the seed of the woman. Even the curse upon Cain must serve this purpose.

The Trial of Cain

The Lord puts Cain on trial, as it were.

This trial begins with a penetrating question which Jehovah puts to Cain: “Where is Abel thy brother?”

The Scriptures are silent as to the details of the scene, except that it seems rather obvious from the narrative that the scene was not that of the murder. It seems rather that Cain had slain his brother and had gone about his business, and the Lord stops him in the way. Perhaps this question came to Cain from the Lord as he was busy offering again. We know not. But it is characteristic of the wicked in history that they sin and rebel against God, kill the righteous, crucify the Christ and reject Him, and trample underfoot the blood of atonement — all in a religious manner! They continue their offerings, build their temples and churches, labor for charity and missions, and strive, as they claim, for the kingdom of God. The abominable wickedness of it all is that they do all these things as if they could possibly draw the Lord into communion with their evil life and walk. While we do not know what Cain was doing at the moment, it would be very characteristic of him as a wicked man to have been offering sacrifice at the very time when the Lord spoke to him. For remember that Cain, murderer though he was, was not like the heathen; he was a religious man, living in the historical sphere of the covenant, where God was served.

As to the form of the Lord’s question, it is apparently an innocent and very general question. It does not accuse Cain at all directly. It suggested no guilt and no crime. As such, it leaves the matter strictly to Cain. Yet the question was a searching one, and one calculated to leave Cain still more without excuse. For it served the purpose of exposing the inward attitude of Cain’s mind and heart toward his own sin. The Lord, of course, was in need of no information about Abel or about Cain’s murder of his brother. He knew exactly what had taken place, and He surely had no need of inquiring from Cain as to the whereabouts of Abel. Nor, we must remember, did the Lord have any need of finding out the attitude of Cain: that He knew also. But Cain must be exposed in the judgment of God; the thoughts of his heart must be revealed. To this end the question is designed. Will Cain now answer the Lord truthfully? Will he confess to having murdered the righteous?

In this connection, we must bear in mind that it is not the mere sin of Cain as such which invokes the curse pronounced upon him. This is never the case. David, for example, also murdered his brother (Uriah), but there was forgiveness for David, while there is no forgiveness for Cain. Even at the cross there was forgiveness, according to Jesus’ prayer, for them who crucified Him, and that cross was surely the murder of the Righteous by the wicked. But there was no forgiveness for Cain. It was not the mere sin, but the sin compounded by impenitence that invoked the curse upon Cain. Suppose, for a moment, that Cain had repented and confessed his sin before the face of God. He surely would have been forgiven. Any sinner who repents finds forgiveness with God — not because of his repentance, indeed, but in the way of it. But there was no repentance in the heart and mind of Cain. He was hardened. Cain not only did wickedly. He defended his sin rather than repent of it.

This had to become manifest, in order that Cain might be left wholly without excuse and in order that God might be justified in His judgment. To that end Cain is put on trial; and to that end this initial question is put to him.

Cain’s answer to this question breathes defiance: “I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?”

In the first place, by his answer he denies the very fact of his sin. This is plain evidence that there was no inkling of sorrow and repentance in Cain, not even remorse. The true, contrite heart never covers up. It acknowledges sin. It is filled with godly sorrow over sin and desires to have sin taken out of the way. But then, surely, full acknowledgment, first of all, of the fact of sin is necessary. But Cain attempts to deny and to cover up, and that, too, by means of a lie. The proper answer would have been, of course: “I murdered him.” But he denies all knowledge.

In the second place, Cain impudently and brazenly disavows all responsibility. For he adds to his denial the defiant rhetorical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” By this question he stated emphatically that he was not his brother’s keeper. But this was not true. It was certainly his responsibility to be his brother’s keeper just because he occupied the position of his brother’s brother. But this disavowal of all responsibility was a clear manifestation of the hatred which filled him. Love loves to keep the brother. But Cain hated his brother, and in this defiant question he even now defends the principle of hatred over against God. He is even impudent and brazen about it. He acts as though the Lord’s very question is absolutely no concern of his, as though the very whereabouts of Abel was no responsibility of his — all the while knowing not only that he was responsible, but that he had violated that responsibility by his murder.

Thus Cain is exposed as being inwardly as wicked as was his outward deed. He is a defender and representative of darkness. Far from being a penitent sinner, he is a denier and defender of his sin. He is as wicked as his deed. He is exactly the opposite of one that is truly penitent, one who is ashamed and humble, one who hates and condemns his own sin.

Cain Convicted

Again the Lord addresses a question to Cain, “What hast thou done?” To this question the statement is added, “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.”

The question is not a question for information, not a question to which an answer was expected from Cain. But it is a question which points the finger of accusation, divine accusation and indictment, at Cain. It is a question designed to impress on him the terrible nature of his sin, and at the same time to furnish the ground for the sentence which would be passed upon Cain. Cain, the wicked, whose offering was an abomination to Jehovah, had killed the righteous! The seed of the serpent had slain the seed of the woman! The darkness had risen up and quenched the light!

That the question is indeed one of accusation is plain from the fact that the Lord calls the earth to witness to the truth of the accusation: “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.” The earth had received Abel’s blood when Cain slew him in the field; and now from the earth that blood cries to the Lord for just vengeance. Moreover, there is a connection here with the nature of the sentence which is passed upon Cain, as is plain from verse 11: “And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand.” The sentence is in harmony with the circumstances of the sin: the earth had received Abel’s blood, the blood of the righteous; and from that earth Cain, the wicked, would be cursed.

It is evident that we have to do here with a figure of speech. In the literal sense of the word, lifeless blood does not cry, nor does the earth, or the ground, bear witness. There is the figure of personification here. Yet this figure of speech has profound significance; it must not be passed over as being merely an emphatic or poetic form of expression. The meaning is that the earth is included in God’s covenant with His people, according to the ordinance of God. Even as the creation was brought under the curse through man’s sin, so the whole creation is also included in God’s covenant of friendship with His people in Christ Jesus and shall be redeemed and glorified with the church in the day of the Lord Jesus Christ. That earth is there for the sake of the righteous. It must serve for the blessing of the righteous and the curse of the wicked. When the wicked persecute and slay the righteous, then the whole creation cries for vengeance. This is but one aspect of the groaning of the creation of which we read in Romans 8:19-22: “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.”

If, in the light of the Scriptures, we would give content to this cry, this voice of blood, from the earth “which opened her mouth to receive” Abel’s blood, that content is the same as the cry of the souls under the altar, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” Thus it must be understood that the ground cried unto the Lord with an accusing voice concerning Abel’s blood and concerning Cain’s blood-guiltiness. The earth, as included in God’s covenant with His people, is the Lord’s ordained witness. It bears testimony, substantiating the accusation and judgment of the Lord that are implied in His question. The Lord says to Cain, as it were: “The earth is my ordained witness. That earth has opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood; and from the ground the voice of his blood cries to me. Thou hast slain the righteous. Thou art guilty!”

The Sentence

Sentence is therefore pronounced upon Cain. He is “cursed from the earth which hath opened her mouth to receive” his brother’s blood. Notice, in the first place, that Cain is cursed not by, but from the ground. Secondly, notice that this is explained in the words of verse 12: “When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.”

This is a specific curse pronounced upon Cain, quite in harmony with the nature of his sin. The ground itself was also cursed after the Fall; yet for Christ’s sake and for the sake of the elect in Him, it was also kept and in principle blessed. But now Cain is cursed from the ground. The earth itself is made to assume an attitude of cursing toward Cain. When Cain tills the ground, it will not yield its strength to him. This does not mean that Cain will dwell in the desert. But it implies that wherever Cain shall turn, he will be cursed from the earth. His presence, as it were, will cause the earth to recoil in horror, so that it will scarcely feed him, and so that only with great difficulty will he be able to derive from the soil the means of his support.

In that same sense he will be a fugitive and a vagabond. The very earth will cast him out and forsake him, so that he will have no rest. Especially, it seems, in the light of Cain’s retort and in the light of the fact that he goes forth from the land of Eden, this included two elements:

1.That he no longer had any place in the land of Eden, where Jehovah revealed His face and spoke to His people;

2.That he would be driven always by the impulse of fear that everyone finding him would want to slay him. As unrelentingly chased by this dread, he would have no settled resting place in the earth. A vain, fugitive, accursed life shall Cain lead in the earth. The very earth will spew him out, wherever he turns.

Bear in mind, too, that behind all this is the Word of God’s curse, the almighty Word of God’s wrath upon Cain, and that, too, in specific judgment of his sin of murdering the righteous. The covenant God takes the part of His people and takes vengeance upon their enemies.

The Execution of the Sentence

Cain’s attitude over against this sentence is not at all one of repentance. He retorts, “My punishment is greater than I can bear,” or, according to another rendering, “Mine iniquity is greater than can be forgiven.” Even the latter rendering, though questionable in itself, cannot be explained as a complaint of repentance, or even of remorse — not in the light of what follows. He looks at the heavy punishment imposed on him, rather than looking with sorrow at his sin. This is always characteristic of the impenitent.

But even with respect to that punishment, his attitude is one of rebellion and defiance. He retorts that his punishment is greater than he can bear. He is driven out from the presence of the Lord in Eden. He is become an accused outcast. But his punishment, such is his defiance, shall never be executed, for everyone that finds him will kill him. The sense of Cain’s retort, therefore, is that his punishment will fail of execution because it will soon be ended by death at the hand of someone who will kill him. (The objection of higher criticism that this is an impossible piece of history is foolish. The critics like to point out that the author forgets that there were no other people at this time. It should not be overlooked, however: 1) that 130 years of history could well have yielded 3 or 4 generations at this time, and a few thousand people. 2) That this word of Cain also looks to the future.)

But the Lord will work out His purpose with Cain. Cain himself must be a sign, a sign of the truth that the righteous shall inherit the earth, while the wicked shall be disinherited. He must serve as a sign and concrete illustration of the everlasting punishment of the wicked, who shall go on forever existing, yet absolutely disinherited. Thus in Cain is realized a theme which occurs often in the Psalms, e.g., Psalms 59, 69, 109.

Hence, the Lord appoints a mark, a sign, upon Cain. There is no profit in joining the speculations which have been made as to the nature of that sign — whether Cain was a leper, or had a horn, or was afflicted with trembling, etc. The simple fact is that the Bible does not tell us about this, and we do not have to know. The point is that it was a mark which served to prevent Cain’s being killed by warning and threatening everyone of a sevenfold vengeance upon the man who might lay hands on this God-appointed vagabond. Nor must we mistake the purpose and motive of this sign. There was no expression of grace and longsuffering in it. This is impossible: grace and the curse do not go hand in hand. In fact, this sign had the very opposite motive: it insured the execution of God’s sentence upon Cain.

Thus, in the first place, Cain must serve as a living testimony of the fact that the Lord takes His people’s part in the conflict between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. Here is a revelation that God and all things are for His people, and against the wicked; that God’s people can suffer and be hurt for a little while, but that their enemies must soon perish, while the righteous have the victory.

In the second place, the Lord’s justice upon Cain is so executed upon Cain that:

1.He is kept alive and becomes the progenitor of an ungodly generation.

2.He and his generation are given a separate place, away from the presence of the Lord in Eden, where they can develop in ungodliness and where the sin of Cain can ripen and bear its full fruit.

In the third place, the very form of the curse pronounced upon Cain becomes, under the providence of God, the occasion for Cain and his generations becoming civilization-builders. It must not be considered mere coincidence that when Cain goes out from the presence of the Lord, he goes about building a city. This should be viewed as a consequence of his wrestling against the curse pronounced upon him. But even this must serve ultimately the divine purpose of the defeat of the seed of the serpent. For as the line of Cain becomes great in its worldly achievements, so it also progresses in wickedness, finally filling the measure of iniquity and becoming ripe for the destruction of the Flood.