July 20, 2013

Chester V. Clark III: Grace in the story of Cain

— If you’ve ever received directions to a new address, you know that no matter how good the description of the route may be, you still will have a much better understanding of it after having driven it.

And sometimes even accurate directions are misunderstood, especially since descriptors such as “a little ways” or “the big house” are subjectively interpreted.

The challenges only become greater when generational, cultural or language gaps are involved. I remember being lost in the city of Rome, Italy, one dark night. Both times that I stopped and asked a “poliziotto” for directions I was told to keep going “straight ahead,” and both times I came almost immediately afterwards to a “T” intersection where I had to turn either right or left.

Yes, traveling a road has a way of illuminating our understanding of the directions we had earlier received. And this is how it is with the Old and New Testaments as well. Looking back on the Old Testament with the light shining from the New, we can better understand the prophecies that pointed forward to the love, the grace and the amazing salvation of the Redeemer to come.

When Eve had her first child, Cain, she and Adam were hopeful that this offspring might be the “seed” that God in Genesis 3:15 had promised. They couldn’t wait to see an end to the suffering their sin had caused. In fact, some biblical scholars translate her statement in Genesis 4:1 this way: “I have gotten a man — the Lord!” (King James Version, Margin). What shocking disappointment that this child would not be the world’s deliverer, but its first murderer!

After the fall of Adam and Eve, God evidently instructed them to offer sacrifices pointing forward to the Savior. One might conclude that it was from these first offerings that God made the “tunics of skin” to clothe them with (Genesis 3:21). The innocent animal, representing Jesus, had to die to cover their nakedness.

As they offered these sacrifices, Adam and his descendants were to look forward in faith to the coming of the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world (John 1:29). The location of these offerings was evidently to be at the gate of the Garden of Eden, where God had placed two angels as guard (Genesis 3:24).

I’m sure you know the story. Cain and his younger brother Abel each brought offerings to sacrifice to the Lord — Abel following the directions precisely and bringing a spotless lamb, and Cain culturizing God’s instructions and bringing what he thought best, his fruit.

By doing what he thought was better instead of simply obeying God’s word, Cain became the forerunner of many in after generations who would seek to worship God on their own terms instead of in harmony with the Word. And for the sake of those generations to come, God could not allow such covert rebellion to go unchecked. He did not accept Cain’s sacrifice. This infuriated Cain.

God addressed him, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you shall rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6, New King James Version)

The last phrase of God’s statement, as translated above, makes little sense. But there are two keys to help us understand what God was trying to say. First, we discover that the word translated “sin” here is found hundreds of times in the description of the Old Testament sanctuary service, but it is almost always translated “sin offering.” Second, we remember that the location where the offerings were made were by the gate or “door” of the Garden. A much less cumbersome paraphrase of this verse could read, “And if you’re not doing the right thing, there’s a sin offering over there by the gate. It’s intended for you, and you can do what you want with it.”

In other words, God was offering to overlook Cain’s sin and himself provide the offering that Cain had failed to bring! What a picture of grace we see in this story. Even the very best that we can bring to God isn’t good enough — but he has provided a Lamb and offers him to us freely. Even in our rebellion, overt or covert, God offers us a Savior if we will only see our need.

Cain could not be saved by worshiping God on his own terms, or on the merits of what he could bring — but he might have been saved by accepting the sacrifice that God provided freely.

And so may we!


 Chester Clark III is pastor at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Dalton. His column appears on the third Saturday of the month.