God’s munificent providence has been obscured by a foundational error in traditional western biblical theology. It is a failure to distinguish between disobedient Adam and his psychopathic eldest son. The latter’s relationship with God radically altered AFTER his extraordinary act of defiance and the murder of his brother (vv11-14). Its theological consequences have been eluded, namely a Universal Covenant of Life.
The following verse from Genesis is unquestionably covenantal in form. But most theologians for the last two thousand years have chosen not to regard it as such.
“If thou (Cain) doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him” (Gen4:7King James Version)
The translation of this verse from the Hebrew is problematical. “Will you not be accepted?” (Heb: seeth) could equally be “will your countenance not be lifted?” which is utilised by some versions of the Bible. The KJV quoted above recognises “sin” to be a person (the Sinful One). That makes sense since it or he is lying or crouching (Hebrew: rabats) at the door and “desires” to control Cain.
Sin per se could hardly be “at the door” in Cain’s case. It’s already in Cain’s heart and about to wreak havoc. Cain is described elsewhere as “of the evil one”. That confirms that the Sinful One was indeed at the door wishing to master and control Cain; thereby to own him (1Jn3:12). From the human perspective, that would not have been so if Cain had responded differently to the challenge Yahweh presented to him in Gen4:7. So the verse effectively reflects a Universal Covenant of Life for fallen humanity; for Abel was fallen but he was accepted.
The purpose of the Cain and Abel story
The purpose of the Cain and Abel story is drawn upon in the New Testament. It is not to show how Abel “got saved” but how Cain became reprobate (rejected). That is indicated by the vital yet typically glossed references to “this day” and “now” regarding the elder brother’s fate. The day he killed his brother he was cursed and entirely alienated from God and not before that day. When God told Cain to “do well”, He was not seeking perfection. He wished for Cain to do what he intuitively knew to be right. That was to offer the best of his crop and certainly not to slaughter his innocent brother in col blood.
For no one is born devoid of at least one “talent” (the light of conscience). But some choose to bury it in the ground and they will be condemned (cf. Mt25:14-29; Jn1:9). Cain, an agricultural farmer (4:2) was not expected to steal from his livestock farmer brother Abel in order to sacrifice an animal in offering for his sin, as some would dissemble (e.g. the Youngs Literal translators). Cain and his sacrifice were not accepted because his works were evil whilst his brother’s works were righteous (1Jn3:12). That was because the one exercised faith and the other didn’t. For one was a child of God, the other as confirmed in later scripture was or had become satanic (1Jn3:12). One remained justified within the Universal Covenant of Life, the other defaulted.
Why Abel’s sacrifice was accepted
As third century Irenaeus had expressed the matter precisely in this context. “It is the conscience of the offeror that sanctifies the sacrifice when (the conscience) is pure. Thus God is moved to accept the sacrifice as from a friend”. Abel showed by his works and a good conscience that he had “faith”. He was justified by that faith with reference to his works (offering the best of his flock). It was not by achieving a standard of worked merit (justification by works). Why was perfection not required by either of them? – it was in view of the Sacrifice of atonement effectual throughout human history (Rom3:25 Greek).
Through the faithfulness of Christ (Greek: ek pisteos christou), which more theologians and the more recent bible translators are recognising needs to be distinguished from cognisant faith in Christ (pisteos en Christo), expiation has been provided for the faults arising from human weakness for those who themselves seek to be faithful to God, i.e. to the light He provides to them through their conscience. In Paul’s language they become a law for themselves and do by nature the things contained within the law. Indeed, they fulfil the heart of it which is to exercise compassion towards their fellow man – cf. Rom2:14; Gal5:14.
The understanding that Cain and Abel should anticipate a future Sacrifice for sin by sacrificing an animal is unsustainable. Cultic sacrifices were not clearly established as a religious system until the Law of Moses. Paul, James and the writer to the Hebrews make it quite clear why Abraham was counted as righteous. It was a belief in the God he had encountered evidenced by obedience. In his case that he would be rewarded with a great family (cf. Gen15:1). Abraham, nor indeed anyone in the Old Testament is declared to be justified by means of offering an animal sacrifice.
Old Testament folk were accepted by God through the merits of the Atonement achieved through Christ’s faith/faithfulness. Its benefits are applied to those who fear God in terms of the divine enlightenment they have received (cf. Jn1:9KJV). That is evidenced by their humane behaviour towards their fellow man in need (a.k.a. Christ Mt25:40). Such don’t necessarily go on to “get saved” (i.e. participate in the Life of Christ); they remain in the Universal Covenant of Life, receiving pardon for sin through the merits of Christ’s faithfulness.
[These posts are intended to complement my book by identifying “glosses” in OT narrative which have impacted upon traditional Christian perspectives on divine providence].
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