I’m revisiting a familiar passage from Genesis this afternoon – the history of Cain and Abel, and a situation that has cause me some confusion as I’ve tried to understand it – and has I have heard and read many opinions that I really cannot agree with.
Scripture (Genesis 4) records these two sons of Adam, Cain and Abel, making an “offering” to the LORD. Abel brought “of the firstlings of his flock, including the fat”, while Cain brought an offering “of the fruit of the ground”. The passage goes on to say that God had no regard for Cain’s offering (rejected), while God “had regard” for what Abel offered. We know the rest of the story – and the anger and jealousy (theoretically) led Cain to murder his brother Abel. But the question that begs: Why was one accepted, the other rejected?”
The answer to this might be far simpler than most popular explanations given, and can be understood from the very best source of interpreting Scripture: Scripture!
So lets begin:
What’s The Difference?
One common theory as to why Abel’s offering was accepted, while Cain’s rejected is based on WHAT was given: Abel gave oof the firstlings and the fat of his flock implying death and the shedding of blood. While Cain’s offering was “of the fruit of the ground”. If we were to retroactively try to apply the Mosaic law (given many generations later), we might could make a case for the lack of blood in Cain’s sacrifice to be a reason for God’s rejection. But that would be eisegesis, or forcing our opinion on the text. We actually have no record of what had been taught or commanded of these brothers. In fact, outside of God killing animals as a covering for Adam and Eve, we don’t even have any other examples of killing until this point. But of even more interest is that the term translated here as “offering” (מנחה- or minchâh) means just that – offering or gift. It is nowhere translated as a “sacrifice”. But even if we were to use that terminology – the Mosaic law refers to grain offerings as well – so this is not likely to explain the difference.
Another theory revolves around the perceived quality of the offering. After all, Abel gave of the FIRSTlings of his flock with the fat – this would have been the most valuable (even in those earliest of days), and truly meaningful to the one giving them. And it so nicely foreshadows the giving of “firstfruits” to the LORD. At the same time, Cain’s offering was “of the fruit of the ground”. Again, the law later includes sacrifices given of grain (fruit of the ground), but was this just “some of what he had”? The problem we have, is that we still have no recorded instructions for what was “appropriate” to be given to the LORD in that context. Yes, our New Testament mindset ought to be that we desire to give of our very best – that is our view imposed on that historical event with nothing more than speculation. BUT…
A Symptom of the Bigger Problem?
The very best tool for interpreting Scripture will always be: Scripture! And sure enough, the New Testament gives us a great deal of help, beginning with explaining WHY Abel’s gift (now interestingly identified as a sacrifice) was accepted:
By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he was approved as being righteous—God approving his gifts—and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks.Hebrews 11:4
The writer of Hebrews identifies Abel’s offering (now also called a sacrifice, interestingly enough) as “better”. Why? “BY FAITH”. Abel’s offering to the LORD was given because of and with FAITH that it would be accepted. In fact, the “approval” in this verse might just as easily be understood as “demonstrated by”. The offering, made in faith, demonstrated that faith or “proved” it. This aligns well with James and what he penned regarding showing faith BY works. Works of/from genuine faith – which is what is expected (even without a single command given).
John recorded a bit that gives the contrast to Abel’s righteousness/faith –
For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another; not as Cain, who was of the evil one and slew his brother. And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother’s were righteous.1 John 3:11-12
Cain harbored hate in his heart. His jealousy and rage over Abel’s offering being accepted by God was just another symptom of this heart corruption. Indeed, John here identifies Cain as literally “of the evil one” – aka Satan! So in reality, it didn’t matter what Cain brought as an offering to the LORD, it would not have been acceptable because it was not out of righteous faith. It was not with the right motives, and indeed – this is exactly what has always been the case. God knows the inner thoughts and motives of the heart. He knows why we do what we do. His murdering of brother Abel was just the logical escalation of his wicked and reprobate heart.
What does that mean for me?
But this should then bring us to a very serious position. What are you offering the LORD? Certainly it ought to be “of our very best”. Indeed, we are commanded in Romans 12:1 to offer ourselves as a living, holy and acceptable sacrifice unto the LORD. We are further commanded to do all things (that is – our work, our play, our speech, our walk) “as unto the LORD” (Colossians 3:23). If you genuinely love the LORD, if you truly desire to live a life that is pleasing to Him – then you are not encumbered by worry what others have given or do. You are not trying to figure out how to “get by with the minimum”. You will give generously to the LORD’s work (this isn’t just a financial comment, but of your time, your efforts, and your very heart). And you will give in and through faith, without an expectation of some kind of reward or accolade, or as some kind of “seed so God can bless you back 10-fold”. No – we simply are to give our best because He already gave His very best in the Perfect Lamb, Jesus Christ, who died as the complete payment in our place, to redeem us from our unplayable debt of sin. But if your giving is for the sake of getting – what kind of motive is that?