Catholic Encyclopedia
Church Fathers
Classics Library
Church Documents
Prayer Requests
Ray of Hope
Social Doctrine

A Practical Commentary On Holy Scripture by Frederick Justus Knecht D.D.

[Gen. 4:1–16]

ADAM and Eve had many children; the first two were Cain and Abel. Cain was a husbandman, or tiller of the earth; Abel was a shepherd. Abel was just, but the works of Cain were evil. Now it happened one day that they offered a sacrifice to God in gratitude for the benefits He had bestowed upon them. Abel offered the firstlings of his flock, and Cain, fruits of the earth. The Lord regarded Abel and his gifts with favour, but for Cain and his offerings He had no regard. Seeing this, Cain was exceedingly angry, and his countenance fell.

And the Lord said to Cain: “Why art thou angry, and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou do well, shalt thou not receive? but if ill, shall not sin forthwith be present at the door? But the lust thereof shall be under thee, and thou shalt have dominion over it.” But Cain did not heed the Lord. One day he said to his brother: “Let us go forth abroad.” Abel, suspecting no evil, went out with him; and when they were in the field, Cain rose up against Abel, his brother, and slew him.

Then the Lord said to Cain: “Where is thy brother Abel?” Cain replied in an insolent manner: “I know not; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said to him: “What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth to me from the earth. Now, therefore, cursed shalt thou be upon the earth, which hath opened her mouth and received the blood of thy brother from thy hand. When thou shalt till it, it shall not yield to thee its fruit. A fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be upon the earth.”

And Cain, in despair, said to the Lord: “My iniquity is greater than that I may deserve pardon. Behold! Thou dost cast me out this day from the face of the earth. Everyone, therefore, who findeth me, will kill me.” The Lord said to him: “No, it shall not be so; but whosoever shall kill Cain shall be punished sevenfold.” And He set a mark upon Cain, that whosoever found him should not kill him. And Cain went out from the face of the Lord, and dwelt as a fugitive on the earth.

God is omniscient. God knew the minds of both Cain and Abel. He saw Cain’s envy and bloodthirstiness, and knew what crime he had committed, even though Cain would not acknowledge it.

God is holy. Therefore the offering of the righteous Abel was well pleasing to Him, but He took no pleasure in the offering of the evil-minded Cain.

God is just. In what way did God show His justice in this story? First by the words: “If thou do well, shalt thou not receive?” and those other words: “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me.” Secondly by the fact that He punished the murderer most terribly.

Envy is a capital sin, because, as we have seen in the case of Cain, it leads to many other sins. Cain began by being envious of his brother, and then, because he did not check this feeling, there grew up in his heart a fierce anger against Abel. He did not resist this anger, but rather cherished it, so that it turned into bitter hatred, and kindled in his heart the terrible desire to kill his brother. Then, as he did not resist this thirst for blood, it grew, until at last it led him to commit the horrible crime of fratricide.

Murder. The deadly blow which Cain dealt Abel was intentional and premeditated; and such an action is called murder. Cain was not only a murderer, but also a fratricide, i. e. the murderer of his brother.

The sins which cry to heaven for vengeance. We can see by this story of Cain and Abel, whence comes the expression of sins crying to heaven for vengeance. Wilful murder is counted among them, because of the words of God: “The blood of thy brother crieth &c.”

The forgiveness of sins. Is it true that Cain might have obtained forgiveness if he had done penance? His sin was indeed great, but God’s mercy is infinitely greater; and the murderer would have been forgiven by God if he had but repented and confessed his terrible sin. Our faith teaches us explicitly that all sins can be remitted if only they are confessed with the proper dispositions. It was Cain’s own fault that he did not obtain forgiveness. He would not confess his sin, though God Himself questioned him. We cannot get our sins forgiven unless we confess them. Moreover, Cain had no true contrition, and all hope of pardon depends on that. He, however, had given up hope, and despaired of God’s mercy.

Free-will. There are those who yield to their evil passions, and then say that they could not help it. Is it true that they could not have helped it? Could not Cain have acted differently from what he did? God Himself had said to him: “Keep your lust under.” We are not obliged to follow our evil inclinations, for we have free-will, and can overcome our passions if we choose.

The necessity of grace. Grace is, however, necessary to enable the free-will of man to choose what is right. Cain had received sufficient grace, and if he had corresponded with it, he would have been quite able to overcome his envy and hatred, and would never have become a murderer. Even after his sin he would have been able to obtain pardon, if he had not resisted the grace of God which urged him to repent.

The wonderful working of divine grace for the good of man is shown to us very plainly in this story of Cain. Think how much God did both to keep him from sinning, and to bring him to repentance, after he had sinned, so that his soul might be saved. First, He drew Cain’s attention to his ruling passions of envy and anger, in order to bring him to a knowledge of himself. Then He promised him a reward and blessing if he would correct himself, and threatened him with speedy punishment if he let himself be led on to do an evil deed. Lastly, He stirred him up, and exhorted him not to be led away by his evil desires, but to have dominion over them. Even after the terrible deed was done, Almighty God did not at once reject the murderer, and even while reproaching him for his crime, tried to move his heart. He wished Cain to recognise the horror of his deed, to abhor it, and repent of it. He even asked him where his brother was, in order to make the confession of his guilt easier to him. It was only when Cain proved to be hard-hearted and impenitent that God pronounced judgment on him. Even then, the sentence was not an eternal one; it was only temporal (“cursed be thou on the earth”), and might have led him to repentance and amendment. God protected the life of this wretch by a special mark, in order to give him more time for repentance. How good and merciful is God who, as it were, pursues the sinner so indefatigably, and tries in so many ways to move his heart, so as to save him from eternal damnation!

Resistance of grace. Sins against the Holy Ghost. Man, having free-will, is able to resist grace which, much as it may move him and incline him towards what is good, does not force him, Cain’s terrible example shows us to what resistance of grace can lead. He would not listen to God’s loving exhortation to overcome his envy and anger, but cherished them in his heart, till his anger waxed fiercer and turned to hatred, and, finally, led him to murder his own brother. Once again, after his crime, Cain resisted the promptings of God’s grace. He hardened his heart and sinned directly against God by his lies, defiance and impenitence. It was only after God had pronounced sentence on him, and he already felt its effects, that he acknowledged his guilt. He did not, however, implore for pardon contritely and confidently, but despaired of God’s mercy. Which of the sins against the Holy Ghost did he commit? First, he envied his brother on account of the grace God had given him; secondly, he hardened his heart against God’s admonitions; and, finally, he despaired of God’s mercy.

A right intention is the chief thing. St Paul says (Hebr. 11:4): “By faith Abel offered to God a sacrifice exceeding mat of Cain.” What was wanting in Cain’s sacrifice? His faith in God and in the promised Saviour was not firm and living, and therefore his worship of God was wanting in reverence and thankfulness. He worshipped Him outwardly, but not inwardly. The gifts which he offered were good, but the intention with which he offered them was not good. Let us learn from this that God does not look merely on our outward works and gifts, but that He looks especially to our intention. “The Lord seeth the heart.”

The worship of God by sacrifice. Cain and Abel both brought gifts to God. What did they offer? Fruits and beasts. How did they offer these visible gifts? They burnt them, i. e. destroyed them by fire. They wished to express by this that they kept back nothing of these gifts for themselves, that they desired to offer them wholly to God, from whom all good things come, and to whom all things belong. From whom had Cain and Abel learnt how to offer sacrifice to God? Obviously, from their parents, Adam and Eve. We see, therefore, that men offered sacrifice to God from the very first: that so long as there have been men to worship Him, there have been sacrifices. Sacrifice is the highest and most perfect form of worship, and is essential to religion. The Catholic religion, being the most holy and perfect of all religions, must possess the most holy and perfect of sacrifices. What is this holiest sacrifice, most pleasing to God? It is Jesus Christ Himself, who once sacrificed Himself on the Cross in a bloody manner, and who continually offers Himself for us in the holy Mass in an unbloody manner.

Abel is the second type of Jesus Christ. Abel was just; a shepherd; envied by his brother; slain by him; and his blood cried for vengeance. Jesus Christ is the Most Just, and the Good Shepherd of mankind. Out of envy He was persecuted and slain by His brethren, the Jews. His Blood cries continually for grace and pardon for sinful man.

The homeless, wandering Cain is a type of the Jewish people who resisted God’s grace, and who, since they slew their God, have been homeless and scattered over the whole earth.

Eve, weeping over the body of her beloved son, slain by the hand of his brother, is a type of the sorrowful Mother of God who stood, sorrowing, at the foot of the Cross on which hung her divine Son, slain by His brethren, the Jews.

APPLICATION. Envy is very easily aroused in our hearts. Have you never felt envious when others have been praised or rewarded? Detest envy, and overcome all temptations to it, for it is a hateful sin, and the source of many other sins. “Through the envy of the devil death came into the world, and they follow him who are of his side” (Wisd. 2:24). If you let envy get possession of you, you are imitating the devil, and are his child. Do you wish to be a child of the devil? If not, be not envious and jealous of others, but rather rejoice when good befalls them. Drive away envy, for from envy came the first murder.

The divine admonition to overcome the desire to sin applies to everybody. If God required of Cain that he should master his evil desires, how much more does He require it of us Christians, to whom so many graces have been given? Examine yourself and see what sin you are most inclined to, whether it be lying, or greediness, or laziness, or disobedience, or anger, or sinful curiosity, and resolve never to give way to it, but to overcome it at once. Resist the beginnings of sin. If Cain had stifled his envy in the beginning, he would not have become a fratricide! God warns you through your conscience, in the same way that He warned Cain. Do not resist these warnings, or you will grow up hard-hearted.

If you have sinned through thoughtlessness or weakness, go at once and confess your sin to the priest, who is the representative of God, and God will forgive you. He who does not make a good confession, is hard-hearted, like Cain.

Copyright ©1999-2018 e-Catholic2000.com