The serpent seed - Genesis 4

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 19th October 2008.

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One of the big questions often raised in opposition to the Christian faith is what is referred to as ‘the problem of evil.’ It usually comes in the form of an objection which runs along these lines: why does a good God allow the innocent to suffer? Why does he seem to allow evil to hold sway- the killings in Bosnia, the famine in Somalia, the death camps of Auschwitz and Belsen? But there is another aspect of the problem of evil which many people in the Bible wrestle, and that is: why do the wicked prosper? What is it about God that he doesn’t just wipe some people off the face of the earth in order to save others from undergoing a load of grief at their hands? And you know, that is the kind of question the passage we are looking at this morning raises- Genesis 4 and the story of Cain.

It does come as something of a shock to discover that the first baby to be born into the world was a murderer and the first victim was his brother. That doesn’t seem to bode well for the future of mankind does it? In fact it cuts right across the modern humanist theory that human beings are innately good and all we have to do is coax that goodness out of children by putting them in the right environment with the right amount of stimulation and the right encouragements. But here we see that Cain and Abel both had the same physical father- Adam. Both lived in the same household environment and yet one killed and the other was slain. Why? Well, their spiritual fathers were somewhat different. In his take on this dire episode the apostle John writes in his first letter that Cain ‘belonged to the evil one.’ (3:11). And in some ways the writer of Genesis has already prepared us for this so although we may be shocked we should not be surprised, for back in chapter 3 God had said to the serpent who had deceived the woman, ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring (seed) and hers; he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.’ Here we see this enmity showing itself in the darkest way possible-jealousy and murder. This serpent is to have a dark spiritual line running right through the human race- the seed of the serpent and the first one we see enacting his father’s will is Cain. But as we shall see, God has his seed too, preserving a lineage which will eventually issue in his Saviour- man, born of a woman, the Lord Jesus Christ. But what we have in the story of Cain and Abel is really the story of the cosmic battle between good and evil, Satan and the church and it does not make for pleasant reading, but it is necessary reading if we are going to inject a dose of reality to living as a Christian in God’s fallen world.

Now the first thing you will notice about Cain is that he is a man with religion. ‘Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, "With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man." 2Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.’

There is a little bit of word play in the original on the name Cain and his birth, it is a name which sounds like the way he came into being, so to try and capture it in English you could say, ‘Adam lay with his wife, Eve and her gain was Cain.’ But the thing that is striking about him is not that he is a farmer but that he is a worshipper-v 3’In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD.’ His brother Abel followed suit and offered the firstborn of his flock, which makes sense since he was a shepherd. Now the interesting thing is that we are told Cain made an offering before Abel did. He wasn’t looking over his shoulder at his younger brother copying him. Unsolicited he took the initiative to do what was later commanded of the Israelites to do and offer the first fruit of his crops. So for all intents and purposes Cain is very religious. He is what today you would call a worshipper. And he offers this to Yahweh, the LORD, the one true God and not some pagan deity of his own making. And what is God’s response? We see it in verse 4, ‘The LORD looked with favour on Abel and his offering, 5but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour.’ Now the order in which that judgment of God is made is important. You see, some people say, ‘Well, the reason that God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s is because it involved an animal and the shedding of blood which is what God was looking for.’ But we have no indication at all as to what type of sacrifice God was demanding. Both are acceptable in the Old Testament. No, the order is significant is that God pronounces favour or disfavour on the person before any mention is made of the sacrifice- ‘The Lord looked with favour on Abel and his sacrifice but on Cain and his sacrifice he did not look with favour.’ In other words, God is more concerned with the condition of the worshipper than the worship offering, what is going on in the heart than what is being presented at the altar. And we see what the state of Cain’s heart is by his reaction, ‘So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.’ Literally, Cain was ‘burned up’ and he became depressed. He is angry because God didn’t accept his sacrifice and is down in the dumps about it. That is he thinks God should have accepted his worship. It is the sin of the Garden all over again. Cain thinks that he can call the shots, that God should dance to his tune, when in fact it is God who has the sovereign right to decide what he will and will not accept as worship. Not all worship is acceptable to God although it might be deemed acceptable to us. And even in Christian circles this is a question we sometimes fail to address- the fact that we might enjoy certain rituals or certain songs doesn’t mean that God does- and especially if they are not accompanied with the right attitude. What is behind us wanting to sing, say modern songs or even traditional hymns and chants- is it that we believe this will glorify God, enhance his revelation of himself, or is it that it satisfies our personal taste- highbrow or lowbrow? In other words is it God or ourselves who are at the centre of our thoughts? What did King David say, ‘a humble and contrite spirit you will not despise.’? Is that the spirit we have? If not then we could be walking in Cain’s footsteps, so here is the warning- “Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it."

Now that tells us something very important about the nature of sin. We tend to think of sin as something we choose to do or not do; so we have sins of commission and sins of omission. But the picture we are given here is that sin is more like wild animal ready to pounce. It is a power which is ever present and what we are called to do is to control it or master it. We are not to feed it or play with it but bring it under some sort of regulation, putting it on a leash. That is why to be tempted is not a sin; to have thoughts which come into our mind is not a sin. Where it becomes sin is when we say, ‘yes’ to it, ‘I like this, I am going to go with this.’ And to realize that actually helps unload a lot of false guilt. I do not like the thoughts that sometimes leap into my mind, they disturb me as I am sure yours disturb you- but I am not always responsible for those dreadful thoughts. But I am responsible for what I do with them- as was Cain.

So what did he do? Well, this is where we come to Cain, a man with a grudge, look at verse 8, ‘Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out into the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.’  They very place where this religious man, Cain collected his offerings of worship from is the very place he murdered his brother- a field. You can be religious and at the same time thoroughly godless. Abel  had done nothing to harm Cain, he just did what was right and was killed for it. And nothing much has changed has it? Christians in Nigeria preach the Gospel and are crucified for doing so-literally. William Wilberforce set out to abolish slavery and was pilloried for his efforts with Lord Nelson no less declaring him to be a rogue and worthy to be whipped.

And when God does confront Cain with his despicable deed, he acts like a surly teenager with a ‘whatever attitude’, v9, ‘Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know” he replied, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ Can you believe that? He has just butchered his own brother and he shrugs it off as if it’s nothing. But it is not nothing to God, v10, ‘The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” And so there is Cain, a man with a curse. 

The cries of those suffering injustice are heard- in heaven. Their call for justice does not go unheeded; even if the world does not care there is one who cares and that is God. Cain will suffer in the first instance insecurity. He is a farmer and his yields are not going to come easily, if at all. Maybe there is some poetic justice there, not only is it the ground into which is brother’s spilt blood seeped, it was from that ground he had the gall to offer God’s produce and call it worship. But then there is instability, he is rootless, a wanderer, moving further and further East, away from Eden and so symbolizing his increased alienation from God. Sin has consequences, some of which, as we shall see in a moment last for generations with our children and grandchildren suffering as a result, caught up in the web we started to weave many years before, maybe like Cain in an act of shear jealousy.

And Cain’s response is typical of the man-it is so self-centred v 13, ‘My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence (by the way that is hell); I will be a restless wanderer on the earth and whoever finds me will kill me.” Not a word of remorse over what he has done to his brother. Not a hint of repentance towards God – ‘What have I done? What could have possessed me to do such a thing? God please forgive and help me” No, it’s all about himself, his loss, his burden, his ruined life. Regret is not the same thing as remorse. It is only too possible for a person regretting doing something wrong without expressing any remorse for doing it. The regret is over consequences they now have to shoulder which they dislike, but showing no remorse over the deed itself.

And then we come to the rest of the chapter which really does highlight the problem of evil with which we began as we see Cain a man with a family: 15, ‘But the LORD said to him, "Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over." Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. 16 So Cain went out from the LORD's presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden. 17Cain lay with his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch. 18To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad was the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael was the father of Methushael, and Methushael was the father of Lamech.’

Now doesn’t that just stop you dead in your tracks and ask what kind of God is this? Cain has just wiped out his one and only brother with no thought of how this will break Mum and Dad’s heart, no consideration for God’s commands that this is someone made in God’s image and so to kill Abel is to indirectly attack  and deface God whose image he bore; and what is more not even a hint of repentance. So what does God do? He protects him! Not only that, he blesses him with a wife and children. And if that is not enough he and his descendents seem to prosper which is what-vv17-24 are all about. Cain builds a city to put down roots so he is no longer a wanderer v17; there is the development of agriculture-v 20; music, v21 and, for the want of a better word, technology-v22-bronze and iron tools. In short we have the rise of culture- things which are good within themselves and so fulfilling in part God’s original command to mankind in chapter 1:28 to subdue the earth- bring it under control. But the serpent seed continues to be passed on and on from generation to generation so  that when we get to Lamech, Cain’s great, great grandson you have a degeneration into polygamy and shear viciousness which is boastful, so that he even writes as song to trumpet his barbarism to impress his wives-v23, Lamech said to his wives, "Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. 24If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times."  No ‘eye for an eye’ for Lamech, you so much as slightly bruise him and he will skewer you-that is the idea. The development of culture and technology does not signal a corresponding development in morality and civility- but we tend to think it does. If only we can educate people, or change people’s living conditions and improve the political structure then the hoped for harmony desired will be achieved is the common view. Genesis 4 says, not so- as does history. Here is the Christian writer and speaker Don Carson: ‘One of the significances of the holocaust was that it was done by Germans. Not because Germans are worse, but because before the holocaust just about everybody in the Western world thought of them as the best; they had the best universities, the best technology, were producing some of the best scholarship in the world and were leading the flock in so many ways. Which is another way of saying, that the nation at the philosophical peak of Western Enlightenment values, led us into genocide. We are no better. It is because of the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed.’ And as we look at the technological advances that have more recently been made one can only shudder to think of what Brave New World we are busy making.

So we are back to the more difficult question of not, ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ But ‘Why do good things happen to bad people?’ That is the real problem of evil this passage forces us to grapple with. And the only answer we have is that thankfully, God is a God of grace and mercy. That is he only explanation as to why all of us have not been consigned to oblivion long ago. God bears with evil and wicked men so that his good saving purposes can be fulfilled- for if he were to act swiftly in judgement, then to be fair he would have to judge us all- and then we would be lost. So the human race keeps on going, the tares are mixed in with the wheat and grow together. And why? So in part to give time for people to turn back to him, for the Gospel to go out, until the time comes for the final judgement and final rescue. So we now live in the time of grace and we had better make use of it.

And so we come to a God with a plan- that God has not given up on us because in addition to the serpent’s seed, there is the seed of the woman, the line through which a Saviour- Jesus- would eventually come into the world- v25, ‘Adam lay with his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth, I saying, "God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him." 26 Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh. At that time men began to call on the name of the LORD. 5:1This is the written account of Adam's line.’  God’s mercy is shown to Eve, she is given a child to replace Abel- Seth -who also has a son, Enosh, and the implication is that from him comes a people who engage in public worship of the LORD- Yahweh. In fact to ‘call upon the name of the Lord’ has overtones of seeking salvation- as we have it in the New Testament -‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’  And so on the one hand you have this thriving impressive culture with its cities, art and technology- as well as violence and immorality, and on the other a small worshipping community, which by comparison may not seem all that impressive, all that powerful and all that influential- but which nonetheless knows God and God knows them. And as we look around us this morning we may seem all of that- hardly ‘movers and shakers’ are we by the world’s standards?  But it is salutary to remember that we belong to the only organisation which is going to go on for ever- the Christian community-the church. Civilizations come and go. Fashions are constantly changing. Ideas are in today and gone tomorrow- people are born and- they die- but if you are a Christian believer even death won’t stop you, it just means changing your address from an earthly one to a heavenly one. So isn’t it all worth it? Isn’t it obvious that you make God’s kingdom a priority, investing in something which will last? As recent events have shown, even your savings aren’t safe- but your heavenly savings are- if that is the bank into which you are channelling your thoughts, prayers, relationships, time and money. God is being overwhelmingly generous to us- still-as a church and indeed as a nation- there is still time-just-to come back to him. For some of us here this morning this may mean surrendering our lives to the Lord Jesus for the first time. Why not do that? What’s stopping you? For some of us it is a recognition that maybe our hearts have grown a little cold and our vision of the Christian life a little dim and we need renewing. For some of us it may mean being thankful yet again for being reminded what a wonderful God it is we serve and we cry out, ‘All the glory be given to him.’

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