The book of Jude is one of the shortest in the Bible, containing just 19 sentences, and a little over 600 words. It is the length of an average blog post, yet this epistle is brimming with descriptive allusions and hard-hitting admonitions. The book's purpose appears in Jude 3-4, where it states that Jude is writing to exhort his readers to fight for "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints," because of "certain men," as the apostle calls them, who had slipped in among the brethren, and were using the grace of God as license for evil.
As short as this letter is, it contains so much that we will limit our focus to a single warning, found in Jude 11: "Woe to them! For they have gone in the way of Cain, have run greedily in the error of Balaam for profit, and perished in the rebellion of Korah." Jude refers to three well-known Old Testament characters, and these quick allusions add even more color to the overall tapestry that Jude is weaving. By examining the main themes in the stories of Cain, Balaam, and Korah, we can better understand Jude's warning to the church.
His first reference is to Cain: "they have gone in the way of Cain," or it could be translated as "they have traveled down Cain's path." Cain holds the distinction of being the world's first murderer, but his killing of his brother came quite a way down the path. In order to understand "the way of Cain," we have to go back to the head of the trail:
And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the LORD. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the LORD respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. So the LORD said to Cain, "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 should rule over it." Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him. (Genesis 4:3-8)
A couple of other scriptures touch on this incident. Hebrews 11:4 teaches us, "By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous." In I John 3:12, the aged apostle states that Cain murdered his brother "[b]ecause his works were evil and his brother's righteous." "Evil" may seem like a strong word to describe an offering made to God—his only recorded "work" prior to the murder—but that is how John classifies it!
Several Greek words can be translated as "evil," but the one John uses focuses on the effect or the influence of an act, more than the act itself. In other words, it was good that Cain brought an offering and that he made it "in the process of time," or "at the appointed [or designated] time." Even so, it was evil in its effects because of what was missing, as we will see.
The fact that Abel made an offering "by faith" means that God had already taught them about sacrifices, and Abel obeyed. As Paul writes in Romans 10:17, "[F]aith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." The sacrifices, then, were not something Cain and Abel dreamed up. They were being held to a definite standard, which is why God was pleased with one and not the other. The brothers were not in doubt over what God required of them. On the contrary, one was faithful in his response, and the other believed he could worship God on his own terms.
To understand what happened, we have to refer to the instructions for the sacrifices found in Leviticus. In particular, a grain offering could not be offered without a whole burnt offering, and neither one of those could be offered until a sin offering had first been made. God is specific in His instructions because of what the various offerings represent. Notice, though, that Cain's offering was of "the fruit of the ground," which indicates a grain offering without the offerings which were supposed to precede it. Abel, on the other hand, brought an offering from the firstborn of his flock, a description that reveals that Abel's offering was either a whole burnt offering or a sin offering. Given that this took place "in the process of time" (which could also be translated as "at an appointed time"), this may have even been the Passover sacrifice, prefiguring Jesus Christ's sacrifice for their sins.
Whatever the case, Cain at the very least ignored God's instructions regarding an appropriate sacrifice, and thus his offering did not please God. But when we consider what the various offerings represent, his carelessness becomes quite grievous. In short, the Passover and the sin offering both represent the sinless life of the Savior, given to pay a life-debt so that man might continue living. The whole burnt offering represents a man's wholehearted devotion to God. The grain offering represents a man's devotion to his fellow man.
Putting this together, Cain's offering suggests that he was devoted to his fellow man, but his offering leaves out any thought of devotion to God, let alone atonement and reconciliation with Him. Cain, we might say, was the original humanist—he was focused on the human aspect over the divine, whereas the true path consists of love toward God and fellow man (Matthew 22:37-40). In a twist of terrible irony, when God rejected Cain's offering, he lashed out and killed the fellow man to which he had symbolically claimed devotion! On top of that, he was cursed with being a fugitive and a vagabond, always living apart from his fellow man (Genesis 4:12).
In summary, the "way of Cain" includes religion and worship on one's own terms, with more faith in one's own righteousness than in God's. It also contains a humanistic bent that believes that we can have good relationships with others even without first being reconciled with God and wholly devoted to Him. It can involve works that may appear good on the surface, but end up being evil in their effect or influence. The way of Cain is about shortcuts for the sake of expediency, rather than submitting to the pattern that God has set forth.
Next time, we will consider the example of Balaam, the second character in Jude's warning.
- David C. Grabbe
If you would like to subscribe to the C.G.G. Weekly newsletter, please visit our Email Subscriptions page.