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Pentecost 20 Devotion on Cain and Abel

Today, on the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, we take our Old Testament Reading from Genesis 4:1–15. In our devotional reading today, Luther speaks on the story of Cain and Abel, understanding God’s reasoning behind His reaction to Cain’s and Abel’s offerings to Him, and offering insight into their relationships with their parents, Adam and Eve.

Scripture Readings

  • Genesis 4:1–15
  • Psalm 5; antiphon: v. 11a
  • 2 Timothy 4:6–8, 16–18
  • Luke 18:9–17

Read the propers for today in Lutheran Service Builder.

Devotional Reading

"And she gave birth again—to his brother Abel."

It is impossible to know for sure whether Cain and Abel were twins or not, although it is rather likely that they were twins. Whatever the case may be, diverse thoughts arose in our first parents after the birth of these two sons, and they believed that their redemption was very close at hand. Moreover, without a doubt, Cain was very highly regarded and considered the favorite; but Abel was not so acceptable, nor was so great a hope attached to him, as the very names show. Cain is called Cain as if he were the one who would restore everything; by contrast, Abel means vanity and something that is worthless or cast aside.

Thus he to whom no hope attached, or only a futile one, is called Abel; but he from whom everything is hoped is called Cain. So the very names reveal clearly enough the thoughts and sentiments of the parents. Since the promise concerned a seed, Adam and Eve thought that it was to be fulfilled through Cain. But they supposed that after his brother had brought his entire undertaking to a happy conclusion, Abel would accomplish nothing; and so they called him “vanity.”

Moreover, this hope was undoubtedly the reason why these brothers were not brought up with the same care and diligence. Abel was given charge of the cattle, but Cain was directed to his father’s tasks in the cultivation of the soil as the better occupation. Abel is the shepherd; Cain, as the first-born son, is king and priest, who was born into the glorious hope of the restoration of all things (Acts 3:21).

But consider at this point God’s wonderful design. From the beginning of the world, primogeniture was a matter of the utmost importance, not only among the people where the right of primogeniture was established by God Himself and was given honor but also among the heathen. And yet, particularly among the holy people, actual experience proves that first-born sons disappointed the hope of their parents and that those who were born later assumed their place, rank, and prestige.

How bitterly Cain, the murderer, thus disappointed the hope of our first parents! Abraham, too, was not the first-born son; Haran was. Esau is the first-born son, but the blessing passes on to his brother Jacob. David was the youngest among his brothers, and yet he is anointed king. So it was also in the case of others. Although by divine right the first-born enjoyed the prerogative of rule and priesthood, nevertheless they lost it, and those who were born later were given preference over them.

How did this abnormal situation arise? It was unquestionably due both to the fault of the parents and to the personal haughtiness of the first-born son. The parents regarded their first-born sons as something distinguished. Then the first-born sons themselves were spoiled in this way by the indulgence of their parents. Relying on their right, they despised and lorded it over their brothers. But God is the God of the humble; He gives grace to the humble and resists the proud (1 Peter 5:5). Because they are proud, the first-born sons are deprived of their right, not because they did not have the right of primogeniture but because they begin to be proud of their gifts and become conceited. This God cannot bear.

This, then, is the reason why God does not spare Cain, the first-born. He did not give primogeniture to Cain that he might become proud because of it and despise God. He had given him this adornment that he might worship and fear God. When Cain does not do this, God casts him aside.

The sin of the parents, too, plays a part; they give their support to this pride, as the names clearly indicate. Adam and Eve place their hope in their first-born son alone; him they call their treasure. But Abel, they feel, is nothing and will never amount to anything. Cain they adorn like a king, for they regard him as the blessed Seed. Therefore they promise themselves grand achievements from him, and he himself on his part acts proudly. Abel they disregard as a worthless person.

But God reverses all of this: Cain He casts aside, and Abel He makes an angel and the first among all the saints. When Abel is slain by his brother, he becomes the first to be freed from sin and from the misfortunes of this world; and throughout the entire later church he shines like a brilliant star through the distinguished testimony concerning righteousness which God and all Scripture gives him. Thus Abel—whom Adam, Eve, and Cain despise as a worthless person—is given a position before God as lord of heaven and earth. After his death, he is in a better state than if he possessed a thousand worlds with all their gods.

This is the end of pride and arrogance over against God. Cain put his trust in his primogeniture; he despised his brother, and he did not believe the promise concerning Christ. Abel, on the contrary, by faith took hold of the promise given to Adam concerning the Seed; and this faith is also the reason why he offered a better sacrifice than Cain, as the Epistle to the Hebrews states (Hebrews 11:4).

Devotional reading is adapted from Luther’s Works, Vol. 1, pages 243–46. Copyright © 1958 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Hymn of the Day

Hymn of the day taken from Luther's Divine Service: A Festival Setting for Large Choirs by Jonathan Kohrs. Copyright © 2017 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved. 

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