In Genesis 4, Adam and Eve had children. Cain became a farmer; Abel a shepherd. Later, when the brothers brought offerings to God, Cain’s offering God refused, but Abel’s offering God accepted.
The obvious difference is that Cain offered vegetable matter, while Abel offered animal matter. But, I’m not convinced this explains God’s reactions. Under the Law of Moses, which would come centuries later, God accepted and even commanded freewill offerings of the produce of the ground (Leviticus 2:1-10, Numbers 18:11-13, Deuteronomy 26:1-11).
Upon closer reading, the difference is that Abel brought an offering “of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions.” Abel offered the best he had. Abel understood the real meaning of an offering—setting apart something of precious value and giving it to God. Cain seems to have offered the leftovers.
In any case, a shocking thing happens next–Cain lured his brother into the lonely field and murdered him!
God confronted Cain and demanded, “What have you done?”
Do we suspect that God didn’t know what Cain had done? Do we think God needed to interview witnesses to figure out the crime? The voice of Abel’s blood was crying from the very ground! God had watched the blows in real time.
God asked the question aloud because He wanted Cain to stop pretending nothing had happened, to confront the enormity of his sin. He wanted Cain to think about how he had gotten from the minor sin of offering lackluster worship to the major sin of committing murder.
“What Have You Done?”
So, what have you done? This same question comes to us every time we commit sin. And it invites us to examine how we intend to handle that sin. To ask ourselves what we will do next.
When we honestly take stock of our sin, we come to a fork in the spiritual road.
We can, like David, say, “my sin is every before me,” and cry out, “wash me and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51). We can admit our mistakes, fix the problem, and rededicate ourselves to God’s service. Forgiveness and mercy are always available. Jesus died for sinners like us (Romans 5:8). “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us” (1 John 1:9). We can appreciate those who had the courage to lovingly point out our shortcomings (James 5:19-20).
Or, we can choose a different way. We can make excuses, harden our hearts, and go farther away from God. This path often starts as embarrassment for having done wrong in God’s sight, but it soon becomes anger. Our minor sins can grow into major sins. It leads to blaming others who point out our faults, like the Galatians calling Paul their enemy (Galatians 4:16). It leads to remorse and depression to a degree that can result in suicide, like Judas hanging himself (Matt. 27:3-5). It leads to lashing out at those who are doing their best to serve God. This outburst may be emotional or verbal, but in some rare cases, it can become physical violence, like Cain killing Abel.
It is not a leap to say that Cain’s shame was the proximate cause of his murderous rage. John provides this inspired commentary on Genesis 4: “and for what reason did [Cain] slay [Abel]? Because [Cain’s] deeds were evil, and his brother’s were righteous” (1 John 3:11-15). When one sins and gets called on the carpet, it can cause him to go on the offensive against those who are doing their best to serve God. Even without the righteous person doing anything to call attention to the differences.
In fact, God had tried to intervene with Cain soon after his unworthy sacrifice. God asked Cain why he was angry, and pointed out that sin is always looking to pounce on a victim. God told Cain how to defend himself and repair his relationship with God. If Cain would only “do well,” he would no longer be angry. God wanted Cain to have delight in his heart! But Cain turned away from God, and hate filled his heart.
Sin is a reality we will all face. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). God is patient with us (Psalm 103:6-14) but doesn’t excuse our sin–He works to help us improve. Like any loving parent, God disciplines us for our good (Hebrews 12:5-11). When God speaks through our conscience, saying “what have you done?” it is our opportunity to find repentance and restoration and “times of refreshing” (Acts 3:19). God intends the question to be the start of the healing process. Let’s be careful that we don’t start down that dark and dangerous road of rebellion against God and resentment toward His children.