close up of fruits hanging on tree
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Say the names “Cain and Abel,” and everyone knows what you’re talking about. It’s the origin story for murder and transgression in the Bible, the first act of sin after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. It’s fraticide. It’s jealous rage made manifest. You can find Cain and Abel in thousands of years of fiction, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather Saga. Who doesn’t want to see justice done to the killer of a righteous and innocent man? Who could believe that a man would kill his own brother?

I think, however, there’s something else to ponder about the narrative. Something that always struck me as peculiar was the original motive behind the killing.

It’s said in Genesis that both brothers made sacrifices of their handiwork to God. Abel offered the meat from “one of the best firstlings of his flock,” while Cain made an offering “from the fruit of the soil.” We have a shepherd and a farmer, respectively. Both were honorable professions. And yet, God favors Abel’s offerings over Cain’s. The latter resents the love shown to the former, and yet, the Lord himself addresses Cain’s woe.

So the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you so resentful and crestfallen? If you do well, you can hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon lurking at your door: his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master” (Genesis 4:6-7).

What’s the Lord saying here, I wonder? If Cain was not giving his all in his offerings, then perhaps he overesteemed his labor compared to Abel. That pride, that vanity, could be the “demon lurking” that God warns him about in the text. And if that’s the case, then why wasn’t Cain giving his very best to the Lord? Some scholars and Biblical authorities believe that Cain did not provide the best of his work in his sacrifices, while Abel clearly gives up the prime cuts of meat to God.

It’s a good an interpretation as any. That view is a warning against pride that seems to match the Parable of the Talents, and how the one servant buried his money instead of doing more with it for his master. But I have a different idea about the nature of those sacrifices.

Let’s suppose, for a moment, that Cain believes he offered his best work to God. Suppose he really did spend all his time working hard in the fields and getting the best fruits, but every time, he can’t help but notice the way Abel gets more favor in his sacrifices. Of course Cain would resent his brother. He’s working hard, he’s doing everything he can, but he’s not getting the obvious praise and favor that he feels entitled to. And all he hears from God in return is, “Are you sure you’re giving Me your best work?”

I think that there’s a lesson about resentment and different needs here. Suppose the real lesson God was trying to give wasn’t about currying favor and watching out for demons. Perhaps the very act of making an offering to God is, in and of itself, the real blessing. To have a relationship with the Almighty. God never once stops speaking to Cain, even when He shows His favor to Abel time and time again.

And for all we know, Abel might need God’s mercy more than Cain does. Abel has to cull from his own flock and offer the meat to the Lord. Does he enjoy it? Does he feel guilty about that? Could he need, perhaps, some reassurance that this is an acceptable offering to make?

I bring this up because resentment is an omnipresent feeling in our world, as much today as it was hundreds of thousands of years ago. Some people work hard all their lives, and they resent that some people are poor and get welfare. Some men do what they think is pleasing to others, and they resent that some women won’t go out with them. Even some Christians follow all the commandments, attend church on Sundays, and preach the Good News where they can, but they might resent that some people seem to get more respect and enjoy more blessings than they do. Even I’ve been resentful at times about people who’ve made success in fields like writing or blogging, where I’ve looked at my own work and thought, “Well, why can’t make it big then?”

It’s that feeling of outrage that we see in the older brother from the Parable of the Prodigal Son. He says quite clearly, “All these years I served you and not once did you I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends” (Luke 15:29). But just as the father tells him that, “Everything I have is yours,” God tells Cain (and, by extension, us) that, “If you do well, you can hold up your head.”

Anger and envy aren’t just feelings, but akin to evil spirits that tempt us to do harm. We might act on them because we feel our efforts aren’t being appreciated, but all we’re doing is adding to the woe and misery of the world. And in doing so, we’re marked like Cain was. If he had given to God without any thought of a reward, without trying to prove that he was better, he could still have a brother and a family to call his own.