When sin is crouching at your door: the story of Cain and Abel

A dead and withered tree standing alone

In Genesis 4:1–16, the tale of Cain and Abel unfolds, weaving a narrative of jealousy, sin, and divine judgment. This ancient story holds timeless lessons about human nature, the consequences of envy, and the merciful nature of God.

Expectations and the significance of names

It’s important to understand the meanings behind the names of Cain and Abel. Cain, derived from the Hebrew word קָנָה (“qanah”), means to get or to possess. In contrast, Abel’s name, from the Hebrew word הֶבֶל (“hebel”), translates to vapor or breath.

The narrative of Cain and Abel ties back to God’s promise to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15, foretelling of a seed that would crush the head of the serpent. When Eve gives birth to her firstborn, Cain, she exclaims, I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord. This raises an intriguing question: Why did she call her baby a man, with a name meaning acquired or possessed? Could it be that Eve, in her longing for the promised Messiah, believed Cain to be the fulfillment of this prophecy? God promised that the offspring of Adam and Eve would destroy evil and restore their relationship with Yahweh. It’s not unreasonable for them to think this might apply to the very next human to be born.

On the other hand, Abel’s name suggests an afterthought or something fleeting. After all, once Cain had arrived, his parents likely imagined that their time outside of the garden of Eden would be fleeting.

Offerings to the Lord

Cain grew up to be a farmer, and Abel was a herdsman. When it came time to offer sacrifices to God, Cain brought some of the results of his harvest, and Abel brought livestock. Here’s how the text describes their offerings:

In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. 4 And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

Genesis 4:3–5, NIV (emphasis added)

It’s important to understand that animal sacrifices were not the only acceptable offerings. In Exodus 30:34–38, God tells Moses how to mix spices and incense as an offering. Leviticus 2 describes offerings of oil and grain, and Leviticus 23:13 mentions offerings of wine. It was not Cain’s offering itself that displeased the Lord; it was that he wasn’t willing to give God his choicest harvest. His offering was rote and not a decision of his devotion to God.

In contrast, Abel brought the best portions from his best livestock to offer before the Lord. The fat portions were the most desirable parts, and the act of giving them to God demonstrated Abel’s esteem for the Lord. And by sacrificing his firstborn livestock, he exhibited faith that God would continue to provide for him.

God’s rejection of Cain’s substandard offering made Cain very angry. His entitlement caused him to believe that God should accept what he gave, even if there was no love informing his actions.

Malcontent and murder

Then the Lord said to Cain, Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If 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 rule over it.

Genesis 4:6–7, NIV

Seeing Cain’s obvious anger, God intervenes to warn him of the danger of being so near to his sin as it crouches nearby.1 Perhaps Cain’s upbringing amidst the expectation of being a significant figure in God’s plan led to arrogance, contributing to his eventual downfall in the events of chapter 4. After the warning from God, Cain led his brother to a field where he killed him, in deliberate defiance of God. When the Lord confronts Cain about his brother, Cain at first denies any knowledge of his brother’s whereabouts (v. 9). But God tells Cain that his brother’s blood is crying out for judgement.

The Lord said, What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. 11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.

Genesis 4:10–12, NIV

Guilt must be dealt with, so the Lord takes away Cain’s livelihood, requiring him to wander the earth and beg for his sustenance. Sometimes, the consequences of sin are delayed, but here they are immediate and harsh. In fact, God goes a step beyond the curse he laid on Cain’s father, Adam. In the previous chapter, God cursed the ground (3:17) and put an end to the toil-less enjoyment of the fruits of the garden; Adam now has to work the ground to receive its benefits. But Cain’s curse is on himself: he can no longer work the ground effectively, no matter how hard he tries!

Interestingly, Cain accepts more punishment than the Lord gives him. In verse 12, God’s curse declares that Cain will wander the earth and can no longer work the ground effectively. But Cain adds to that curse that he is being driven from the Lord’s presence and that he will be killed by whoever finds him (v. 14). First, Cain introduced violence to the world, and now he suddenly fears it. Second, he essentially chooses to leave the Lord’s presence (v. 16), since we know from other biblical passages that even murderers can be forgiven and once again enjoy a rich relationship with the Lord.

The blood of Abel

To gain a broader perspective on the significance of Cain’s murder of Abel, let’s look at Hebrews 12. The writer of Hebrews begins this passage by constrasting the terrors of Mount Sinai to the joys of Mount Zion—a comparison of the old covenant and the new. This entire passage is interesting, but a familiar name is mentioned in verse 24.

You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Hebrews 12:23b–24, NIV

The author reminds Christians that, in the words of Hebrews scholar George H. Guthrie, they have come to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, whose blood speaks well for them.2 In Genesis 4, Abel’s blood cried out from the ground (v. 10); it cried out to God for judgement against Cain, condemning him. Abel’s blood spoke guilt of Cain. In contrast, Christ’s blood declared innocence for all believers.

Abel’s blood bore witness against Cain, indicating his guilt. Christ’s blood, on the other hand, has won our forgiveness, crying out that people of the new covenant are no longer guilty, having been cleansed completely from sin.3


The interesting thing, to me, about this narrative is how much God interacts with each brother. Abel has no voice in this story; he does not speak, and his only contribution is to provide a favorable offering to God. On the other hand, Cain dominates the story and speaks directly with the Lord a lot. Cain clearly deserves judgement, but even though God does curse him (vv. 11–12), Cain is also marked for protection by the Lord (v. 15), a clear act of mercy.4

As we reflect on the story of Cain and Abel, we should remember God’s warning to Cain in verse 7: But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it. Despite Cain’s willful sin, this short passage echoes the enduring theme of God’s mercy in the face of our imperfections. God did not banish Cain from the divine presence; Cain left. But the Lord, in his mercy, protected Cain with a mysterious mark. God preserved his life, one can hope, for the purpose of Cain’s repentance. After all, Cain surely deserved death (“life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise”5), and so it is a mercy that God not only spared his life but protected him from the very sin that destroyed his brother Abel. We should read this story as a cautionary tale of the dangers of being too comfortable with our own sinful desires.

Genesis 4 ends a few verses later, with sin, violence, and anger now running rampant in the world. But there is hope in the salvation of the Lord. As Andrew E. Steinmann puts it, The chapter begins with murder, but ends with people calling on God, their only refuge in a sin-filled world.6

  1. The language in verse 7 of sin crouching at the door reads like a standard metaphor, especially to Western minds, but as Old Testament scholar John H. Walton identifies, the personification of sin crouching in a doorway points to a Mesopotamian demon called Rabisu that lingers around doorways. This interpretation is further strengthened by the Hebrew word for “is crouching” (robes or rabis). Sin is then being portrayed as a doorway demon waiting for its victim to cross the threshold. (Walton, John H. (2001). The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis. Zondervan.) For a better appreciation of spiritual beings as understood by ancient readers of biblical texts, I recommend Michael S. Heiser’s book The Unseen Realm

  2. Guthrie, George H. (1998). The NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews. Zondervan. 

  3. Guthrie, George H. 

  4. Something I’ve always wondered about this story is about the other people, like those who would kill Cain upon finding him, or even Cain’s wife. Are these other people siblings of Cain and Abel? Are they from other families who were created in similar fashion to Adam and Eve, only later? These questions are outside the scope of this article, but I would love to explore them one day. 

  5. Exodus 21:23–25, NIV 

  6. Steinmann, Andrew E. (2019). Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary. IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press.