When we come to this text in English we miss out on a few features that Hebrew speakers would immediately notice. The most prominent feature of this story would be the fact that the name Cain means “accomplish” or “get” and Abel’s name means “vanity” or “worthless.” I’ll now re-translate this portion of the story again in a way that will help you see the text like a native Hebrew would see it:
Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Accomplish, saying, “I have accomplished getting a man from the LORD.” And again, she bore his brother Worthless. Now Worthless was a keeper of sheep, and Accomplish a worker of the ground. In the course of time Accomplish brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Worthless also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Worthless and his offering, but for Accomplish and his offering he had no regard. So Accomplish was very angry, and his face fell. The LORD said to Accomplish, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Gen 4:1-7)
How does the text sound to you now? Doesn’t it seem like the author is trying to communicate something to by their names? Let’s consider this for a moment.
Adam & Accomplish (Cain) = Gardeners
First, we must look at the father. Adam was to be a worker of the ground, for the Lord commanded him to work the garden and keep it while he was still in the garden (so, prior to the fall). Then, outside of the garden, God cursed Adam’s work as a gardener saying that his duties will be more difficult due to thorns and thistles. We can clearly see that Adam, both before and after the Fall, is a worker of the ground – a gardener.
Accomplish, like his father, is a worker of the ground and thus is following in the footsteps of his father. Having been told that a child of the women will crush the serpent, Adam and Eve may have viewed their firstborn as that promised child (Gen 3:15). The very fact that they named him Accomplish at his birth showed their pride in the firstborn, pride that could have only swelled as their son walked in the steps of his father. We see that Accomplish is the favoured firstborn son.
Worthless (Abel) = The Disfavoured Son
In contrast, Worthless is not a worker of the ground and breaks away from the path of his father. There’d be no long chats about the best way to grow a rutabaga patch and the fine details of how to prune the olive tree would be of no interest to this flock herder of a son. In short, he is Worthless.
The text doesn’t tell us what Adam and Eve called him at his birth, but it’s hard to imagine that as soon as he was born that his parents decided to call him Worthless. Perhaps he was a frail child from the womb and so they’d call him this, but it’s more likely that he was renamed or nicknamed Worthless later on in his life – as happens in other parts of the Bible.
Conclusion Regarding Names
This is a story about the favoured accomplished son of the family who is held in high esteem and the black sheep of the family who is held in contempt. We know from many ancient texts that gardeners were held in high esteem – kings claimed themselves to be great gardeners – and generally shepherds were looked down upon as dirty. Their occupations and their names match up just perfectly. The story of the older and younger brother is a common theme within scripture, where the elder son who is highly loved by the parents is disfavoured by God in favour of the younger (Isaac and Ishmael; Jacob and Esau; Solomon and Absalom; etc.)
We have seen that Moses is contrasting the two characters of this story by their names, but he is using more than just their names to communicate a message to us. We must now look at the sacrifices offered and consider their place in this drama.
Both Sacrifices Are Good
Both of the sacrifices we see in this story are good. The grain offering that Accomplish brings to the Lord is approved of in Leviticus chapter 2 and Worthless’ sacrifices from the flock are approved of in Leviticus 3. So, we see that the particular sacrifices are both good in the sight of God – He doesn’t value sacrifices from the flock more than he values sacrifices from the field.
Further Details… Comparison!
So, since the type of sacrifice isn’t the issue here, we must look closely at the descriptions of the sacrifices that Moses details for us. We see that Accomplish brought of his harvest from the ground… And no more details are given, which stands out quite conspicuously to the compounded details of Worthless’ offering: he didn’t just bring of his flock, but of the firstborn of the flock, and he didn’t just bring of the firstborn, but of their fat portions – essentially, Worthless brought the best of the best. We are meant to compare these two and see that Accomplish merely brings something while Worthless brings the best he possibly can.
Personally, I’m guilty of being like Accomplish. When I was a young lad, 8 years old, and I had to go to the birthday party of someone I didn’t particularly like, I grabbed and wrapped up a toy I didn’t care much for and presented it to them as their present. It must have been pretty obvious to others that I didn’t really like this person based on my present, but I didn’t care. I just had to complete the formality. This is what Accomplish’’s offering was like, a mere formalism – he cares nothing for God and is only interested in getting the ritual out of the way.
Worthless, on the other hand, is a completely different story. Have you ever seen how some business owners take and frame the first dollar their business makes? They hold onto it and cherish it, although it’s only worth a dollar. Worthless takes what is most valuable to him – the first profit he has – the firstborn of his flock – and gives it to God. His actions show where his heart lies; He cherishes God far more than any success in his life and joyfully gives the best of the best to his loving Heavenly Father.
Conclusion Regarding Sacrifices
The outward actions of Worthless and Accomplish demonstrate their inward heart motives and desires, which the New Testament picks up on when it says that Abel offered a better sacrifice because he offered it with a heart of faith. So, we see that the real concern isn’t whether you show up for church or whatever other religious activities you do, but rather where your heart is as you do these things – what is motivating you? Accomplish kept the best for himself and gave second best to God – what do you do?
Let us continue reading the narrative, but I will keep with the name change that we’ve been using thus far:
Accomplish spoke to Worthless his brother. And when they were in the field, Accomplish rose up against his brother Worthless and killed him. Then the LORD said to Accomplish, “Where is Worthless your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Accomplish said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Accomplish, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Accomplish, lest any who found him should attack him. Then Accomplish went away from the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. (Gen 4:8-16)
We see here that the problem of Accomplish’s bad heart motives is further proved by the actions he takes afterward: he kills his brother because he is jealous that Worthless is accepted and he is not. Sadly, Accomplish failed to take God’s warning seriously and is entirely given over to sin.
Dominated by Sin
Worthless’ spilt blood is personified as crying out for justice to God, and God answers by approaching Accomplish and giving him an opportunity to confess his sin. Rather than confessing his sin, Accomplish claims to have no responsibility for the welfare of his brother and denies even knowing what has happened by making the flippant remark “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” We see in him the fullness of the effects of sin: just as his parents denied responsibility and tried to pass the buck, so too does Accomplish deny responsibility and try to remove from himself the fact that as the firstborn it was his job to care for his siblings.
The result of Accomplish giving himself over to rebellion and sin is seen in God’s response. God takes away the blessing of fruitful cultivation from him and he is left without the ability to grow a harvest. Then, just as Adam and Eve were sent to the East after the Fall, so Accomplish is sent further East to wander around aimlessly in what would be literally translated as “the land of wandering.”
In all of this, God is gracious and puts a mark on Accomplish so that his other brothers and sisters do not come and kill him for what he has done. He is allowed to live out the rest of his life in fruitless wandering, living as a demonstration to the rest of his family that abandonment of God is abandonment to a meaningless difficult life.
We should take God’s warning seriously and look at Accomplish’s life as an example of what happens to those who give themselves over to sin rather than to love for God. The blessings he had were lost, and ultimately he was lost. If we have ever been like Accomplish, approaching God with mere formalism, then we ought to be take note of the dangerous road we are so prone to walk.
I’m sure that if we’re all honest with ourselves then we’ll see that we have approached God with formalism and failed to give him our best many times throughout our lives. So then what should we do if this is the case? Just as Worthless’ blood cried out for judgment against Accomplish, so do our actions and the people we’ve harmed along our road of life call out for judgment against us.
The New Testament
The New Testament, in the Book of Hebrews, invites believers to come to the blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24). Abel’s blood cried out judgment, but the blood of Christ calls out for the forgiveness of those who look to him. Just as Worthless, or Abel, had his faith in God rather than in himself and his own accomplishments, so we must look to Christ and put our faith in him and what he has done on the cross.
The dominion of sin will never be broken while we trust in ourselves rather than in God and the blood of Christ. Jesus came and spilled his blood, giving up his life in the place of sinners, so that evil people like you and me can receive acceptance with God. Instead of wandering in Hell, like Accomplish (or Cain) wandered in Nod, we can rejoice in the presence of God.
This story is included in Genesis for a variety of reasons, not the least of them being the fact that it stands as a firm warning against formalism in our relationship with God. What path will we choose to follow?
Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 7th ed. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003). Page 210 for הֶבֶל(Abel), and page 884 and 888 for קַיִנ(Cain).