Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
City of God: Chapter 7
Chapter 7.—Of the Cause of Cains Crime and His Obstinacy, Which Not Even the Word of God Could Subdue.
But though God made use of this very mode of address which we have been endeavoring to explain, and spoke to Cain in that form by which He was wont to accommodate Himself to our first parents and converse with them as a companion, what good influence had it on Cain? Did he not fulfill his wicked intention of killing his brother even after he was warned by Gods voice? For when God had made a distinction between their sacrifices, neglecting Cains, regarding Abels, which was doubtless intimated by some visible sign to that effect; and when God had done so because the works of the one were evil but those of his brother good, Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. For thus it is written: “And the Lord said unto Cain, Why are thou wroth, and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou offerest rightly, but dost not rightly distinguish, hast thou not sinned? Fret not thyself, for unto thee shall be his turning, and thou shalt rule over him.” 785 In this admonition administered by God to Cain, that clause indeed, “If thou offerest rightly, but dost not rightly distinguish, hast thou not sinned?” is obscure, inasmuch as it is not apparent for what reason or purpose it was spoken, and many meanings have been put upon it, as each one who discusses it attempts to interpret it according to the rule of faith. The truth is, that a sacrifice is “rightly offered” when it is offered to the true God, to whom alone we must sacrifice. And it is “not rightly distinguished” when we do not rightly distinguish the places or seasons or materials of the offering, or the person offering, or the person to whom it is presented, or those to whom it is distributed for food after the oblation. Distinguishing 786 is here used for discriminating,—whether when an offering is made in a place where it ought not or of a material which ought to be offered not there but elsewhere; or when an offering is made at a wrong time, or of a material suitable not then but at some other time; or when that is offered which in no place nor any time ought to be offered; or when a man keeps to himself choicer specimens of the same kind than he offers to God; or when he or any other who may not lawfully partake profanely eats of the oblation. In which of these particulars Cain displeased God, it is difficult to determine. But the Apostle John, speaking of these brothers, says, “Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brothers righteous.” 787 He thus gives us to understand that God did not respect his offering because it was not rightly “distinguished” in this, that he gave to God something of his own but kept himself to himself. For this all do who follow not Gods will but their own, who live not with an upright but a crooked heart, and yet offer to God such gifts as they suppose will procure from Him that He aid them not by healing but by gratifying their evil passions. And this is the characteristic of the earthly city, that it worships God or gods who may aid it in reigning victoriously and peacefully on earth not through love of doing good, but through lust of rule. The good use the world that they may enjoy God: the wicked, on the contrary, that they may enjoy the world would fain use God,—those of them, at least, who have attained to the belief that He is and takes an interest in human affairs. For they who have not yet attained even to this belief are still at a much lower level. Cain, then, when he saw that God had respect to his brothers sacrifice, but not to his own, should have humbly chosen his good brother as his example, and not proudly counted him his rival. But he was wroth, and his countenance fell. This angry regret for another persons goodness, even his brothers, was charged upon him by God as a great sin. And He accused him of it in the interrogation, “Why are thou wroth, and why is thy countenance fallen?” For God saw that he envied his brother, and of this He accused him. For to men, from whom the heart of their fellow is hid, it might be doubtful and quite uncertain whether that sadness bewailed his own wickedness by which, as he had learned, he had displeased God, or his brothers goodness, which had pleased God, and won His favorable regard to his sacrifice. But God, in giving the reason why He refused to accept Cains offering and why Cain should rather have been displeased at himself than at his brother, shows him that though he was unjust in “not rightly distinguishing,” that is, not rightly living and being unworthy to have his offering received, he was more unjust by far in hating his just brother without a cause.
Yet He does not dismiss him without counsel, holy, just, and good. “Fret not p. 289 thyself,” He says, “for unto thee shall be his turning, and thou shall rule over him.” Over his brother, does He mean? Most certainly not. Over what, then, but sin? For He had said, “Thou hast sinned,” and then He added, “Fret not thyself, for to thee shall be its turning, and thou shall rule over it.” 788 And the “turning” of sin to the man can be understood of his conviction that the guilt of sin can be laid at no other mans door but his own. For this is the health-giving medicine of penitence, and the fit plea for pardon; so that, when it is said, “To thee its turning,” we must not supply “shall be,” but we must read, “To thee let its turning be,” understanding it as a command, not as a prediction. For then shall a man rule over his sin when he does not prefer it to himself and defend it, but subjects it by repentance; otherwise he that becomes protector of it shall surely become its prisoner. But if we understand this sin to be that carnal concupiscence of which the apostle says, “The flesh lusteth against the spirit,” 789 among the fruits of which lust he names envy, by which assuredly Cain was stung and excited to destroy his brother, then we may properly supply the words “shall be,” and read, “To thee shall be its turning, and thou shalt rule over it.” For when the carnal part which the apostle calls sin, in that place where he says, “It is not I who do it, but sin that dwelleth in me,” 790 that part which the philosophers also call vicious, and which ought not to lead the mind, but which the mind ought to rule and restrain by reason from illicit motions,—when, then, this part has been moved to perpetrate any wickedness, if it be curbed and if it obey the word of the apostle, “Yield not your members instruments of unrighteousness unto sin,” 791 it is turned towards the mind and subdued and conquered by it, so that reason rules over it as a subject. It was this which God enjoined on him who was kindled with the fire of envy against his brother, so that he sought to put out of the way him whom he should have set as an example. “Fret not thyself,” or compose thyself, He says: withhold thy hand from crime; let not sin reign in your mortal body to fulfill it in the lusts thereof, nor yield your members instruments of unrighteousness unto sin. “For to thee shall be its turning,” so long as you do not encourage it by giving it the rein, but bridle it by quenching its fire. “And thou shalt rule over it;” for when it is not allowed any external actings, it yields itself to the rule of the governing mind and righteous will, and ceases from even internal motions. There is something similar said in the same divine book of the woman, when God questioned and judged them after their sin, and pronounced sentence on them all,—the devil in the form of the serpent, the woman and her husband in their own persons. For when He had said to her, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow shall thou bring forth children,” then He added, “and thy turning shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” 792 What is said to Cain about his sin, or about the vicious concupiscence of his flesh, is here said of the woman who had sinned; and we are to understand that the husband is to rule his wife as the soul rules the flesh. And therefore, says the apostle, “He that loveth his wife, loveth himself; for no man ever yet hated his own flesh.” 793 This flesh, then, is to be healed, because it belongs to ourselves: is not to be abandoned to destruction as if it were alien to our nature. But Cain received that counsel of God in the spirit of one who did not wish to amend. In fact, the vice of envy grew stronger in him; and, having entrapped his brother, he slew him. Such was the founder of the earthly city. He was also a figure of the Jews who slew Christ the Shepherd of the flock of men, prefigured by Abel the shepherd of sheep: but as this is an allegorical and prophetical matter, I forbear to explain it now; besides, I remember that I have made some remarks upon it in writing against Faustus the Manichæan. 794
Gen. 4:6, 7.288:786
1 John 3.12.289:788
We alter the pronoun to suit Augustins interpretation.289:789
Eph. 5:28, 29.289:794
C. Faustum. Man. xii. c. 9.
Next: Chapter 8
Like & share St-Takla.org
© Saint Takla Haymanout Website: Coptic Orthodox Church - Alexandria, Egypt / URL: https://st-takla.org / Contact us at