The chapter begins with Cain and Abel bringing offerings to the Lord. There is very little detail here. The text doesn’t say why they brought these offerings, or why God accepted Abel and not Cain. There is no record that the Lord required any offerings.
Abel brought livestock from his herds. The text does not say Abel killed these animals, nor that Abel offered them as blood offerings for his sin. The most obvious way to see this is that Abel was giving these animals to the community to share. It would have been the same with Cain’s offerings, the fruit from his farm. This also would have been shared with others. Later in Israel, offerings were shared in times of fellowship, or with the priest, or with others in need.
We could presume that Abel’s offering was acceptable because it came from gratitude. He was thankful for life and for all it gave him and gave the community, and so he expressed this gratitude by sharing. There was no fear of lack, but a joy in all that nature provided. The animals offered were not eaten. They did not eat meat in those days. The wool would have been used to weave clothing and the people would have used the animals’ milk. But the animals were not killed, and the people did not wear animal skins.
It seems Cain’s offering came from a different motive. We can see this by his anger at the Lord. He wanted the pre-eminence. With Cain’s knowledge of the supposed “divine curses” upon nature, he may have believed that giving God an offering was a kind of bribe, to ensure nature blessed him with bounty in return. It was a motivation from fear. This became a main concept around sacrifice in human culture, stemming from the idea that God was angry and must be pacified. This concept of sacrifice is human thinking that did not come from God. God was not angry at their sin in this sense of wanting compensation for it, but he did want people to restore those who had been harmed.
So if Cain could not have the “divine favour” he hoped to buy, he would kill Abel. With Abel out of the way, Cain could take the land and the blessings for himself. But that wasn’t the way it worked out. Instead, Cain’s fear increased. He thought everyone would hunt him down in revenge for Abel’s blood. So Cain’s life would now be a life on the run. He would flee from his farm and build a shelter to hide. Then he would need food, so he would steal it from others. Adding to his crimes, Cain would have to run even more and so he built a city (a fortress) for his defence. He claimed this was God’s punishment, but it was his own doing.
What was the mark God put upon Cain? I think the comments of Lamech show us. When Lamech killed a person he threatened violence on anyone who would seek to punish him. He even told his two wives to be careful not to betray him. So this protection that Cain and Lamech had was the fear they inspired in the community, that would keep people away from them. The mark could have been their angry countenance. When the Lord says, “I will put a mark upon you,” in this kind of history/ story literature, a comment like this usually refers to something that unfolds as the consequences of the people’s own actions.
This is similar to the Lord saying that anyone who killed Cain would experience a sevenfold vengeance. God didn’t demand this retribution, but this was a comment about the violence Cain had unleashed: the culture of violence would only escalate. Sevenfold vengeance is definitely a human impulse that does not come from God. Lamech’s demand became a central theme of scripture. He threatened vengeance 70 x 7. This refers back to the creation narrative, when in seven days God brought order to chaos. Lamech’s demand reflects the development of the pagan worldview, that claims that order comes through violence and war. Cain began this worldview by asking, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Care of others is the real basis of order and peace.
Later, when Peter asked Jesus, how many times should he forgive his brother, Jesus answered 70 x 7. This is the worldview of sabbath, which opposes violence and the desire for pre-eminence. It shows that peace comes into the world through giving Jubilee, by forgiving and caring for our enemies. Cain rejected God’s way of peace and instead sought his own pre-eminence through his anger, violence, the building of fortresses and preparing for war. So began a culture of war and genocide, which by chapter six had become predominate everywhere.
Genesis four shows us how violence was unleashed into the world, and how human self-righteousness and vengeance multiplied violence to genocidal proportions. Whole villages would be wiped out for a simple offence. This is the reason we saw animal sacrifice and human priesthoods developing. The animals were substituted for human blood and sacrificed because of human anger (claiming it was the divine demand), to stem wider levels of human bloodshed. The priesthood became an institution to officiate at the death of others (mostly animals, but also humans), to appease the wrath of a community. This institution of death was the society’s means of returning to a temporary equilibrium or peace. Christ turned this around: he established a new priesthood, where the priests offer themselves, not others, to make peace.