All Posts, Misunderstood Bible Characters

Misunderstood Bible Character: Cain the Gardener

With the start of a new year, I decided to revisit Genesis in my devotions. And as I read Genesis 4 for the zillionth time, I realized that Cain gets thrown under the bus a lot and is misunderstood.

Most of us may already know Cain, and don’t think of him past Genesis 4, as the one who’s offering to the Lord wasn’t good enough. But I think this shortchanges him, especially when we consider the context.

Cain’s parents, Adam and Eve, sinned by disobeying God (Gen. 3). They were expelled from paradise (Eden). The ground that once easily gave them ripe harvest to eat now required the sweat of their brow, toil, and hardship (Gen. 3:19).

Because of this newly required effort, Cain and Abel (Cain’s brother) had to divvy up work tasks in order to provide food for their family. Abel, the younger, was a shepherd. Cain, the eldest, “cultivated the ground” (Gen. 4:2). Both jobs would have required work. Of course, tending to animals is not easy, and carrying around an animal carcass would have required much muscle. But we also already know from Gen. 3:19 that ground work had been made particularly arduous. Anyone who gardens would agree that growing tomatoes, cucumbers, or carrots requires constant watch, pruning, tilling the soil, weeding the gardens, and protection from other creatures who wish to eat them. Cultivating the ground is a task that is both mental and physical, and sometimes with very little yield.

What’s key though, is the difference in Cain’s and Abel’s gifts to the Lord in Genesis 4:3–5:
”When it was time for the harvest, Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the Lord. Abel also brought a gift—the best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock. The Lord accepted Abel and his gift, but he did not accept Cain and his gift. This made Cain very angry, and he looked dejected.”

Some of us may relate to Cain—sometimes despite working hard, it feels as if what we give is not enough. Somewhere, we’re always coming up short.

But that’s just it. What God wants from us is not simply hard work. It’s not about our human effort to reach the godly goal in order to “please” our Creator. If we focus on our own efforts, nothing we do could ever be enough for an almighty, perfect God. And when it isn’t, we will be not unlike Cain—angry, disappointed, and bitter. Bitter enough to want to tear down those who are accepted.

God accepted Abel’s gift because he gave away the best of what he had. The Hebrew actually uses “firstborn”, which are the animals typically used for growing a flock, which is important in a culture which equates livestock with wealth, prosperity, and life. This means that Abel trusted in God to provide more than himself or his own possessions. In doing so, he recognized that God is the ultimate Giver of all things.

On the flip side, God rejected Cain’s gift because though he gave some of his crop, it was not the best of it. This reveals Cain’s lack of trust in God to truly provide. It is here where we learn that giving one’s best does not mean physical effort. Cain put in much physical effort to yield those crops, I’m sure. But this effort wasn’t for God’s glory, it was ultimately for his own. If it was to glorify God, Cain would have had no issue with offering up the best, but instead, Cain kept them for himself.

Before you say jump in to say that this isn’t you, let’s reflect for a moment. When you prepare for church Sunday morning in your “Sunday best”, what does that mean to you? Does that mean being on time and dressing in nice clothes? Or, does that mean prayer and consistent encounters with Jesus throughout the week through scripture, so that you can strengthen the church? So that you can be a light in other people’s lives? What exactly do you prioritize?

When you’re met with an additional deadline, do you panic or do you pray? Let me rephrase this. When someone asks you to upheave your schedule—that is, your time, one of the many gifts God has given you—do you defend it or give it? Do you keep the firstfruits of your time for yourself, or give them up? Are you wanting to expand your kingdom, or God’s?

God knows that Cain knows his priorities are wrong. But as a loving father would, he gently rebukes him, saying to do what is right, which would imply that Cain already knows. He pleads with Cain to rule over the sin that’s wanting to rule him. It is Cain’s failure to do so that resulted in Abel’s death.

Even still, long after most people would throw in the towel, God loves us despite our faults. He fiercely put a hedge of protection around Cain in 4:15: “‘I will give a sevenfold punishment to anyone who kills you.’ Then the Lord put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who might try to kill him.” And when Jesus died on the cross for our sin, he put that same mark on us, even if we don’t deserve it. None of us deserve it.

Cain knew he wasn’t worthy of such protection. He left the Lord’s presence right after this mark, not out of rudeness, but likely because he was again placing his value on his own efforts, rather than God’s. I just pray that we don’t do the same.

We aren’t worthy because of what we do (or don’t do), but because of who God is. And that is a truth worth preaching, friends.

What are your thoughts? Please leave a comment below!

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