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What Made Abel’s Sacrifice Better Than Cain’s?

June 15th, 2009 · 15 Comments · Bible, Bible Study, Biblical Interpretation, God, Old Testament, Religion, Theology, Thoughts

In Genesis 4 we get the first recorded act of worship. Cain and Abel bring offerings before the Lord. You know the story…it cuts right to the chase and goes from their birth to their offerings in three short verses. In this story we learn that Cain offered portions of his harvest and Abel offered animals from his herd. Without any recorded command of what God wanted we learn that God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but did not find favor with Cain over his sacrifice. Later in the Torah, God accepted grain and other sacrifices from the harvest. So that is not totally foreign to God, that God might only desire animal sacrifices.

The difference was the quality of their offerings. Cain brought some of his produce. Abel brought the fat portions from some of the firstborn among his animals. It wasn’t that Cain didn’t want to please God. He was very disappointed that his offering didn’t elicit the desired response from his creator. The problem was he didn’t consider giving God his best.

It is possible for us to fill the shoes of Cain…or flip flops or whatever the first family wore. It is possible to give something to God that is in the category of pleasing items but the quality of which is lacking. For it to be a sacrifice it has to be a sacrifice. How can we fall into this category? We do this when we are minimalist Christians and minimalist worshippers of God. You see this in people who come to service, take the Lord’s Supper and leave. You see this in people who figure opening the Bible on Sunday morning is enough for the week. You see this in people who figure out what they are going to give with the collection on Sunday as the trey is coming toward them. In many other places and many other ways this can be lived out today in our lives.

I wonder if God is just as displeased with us as he was with Cain when we share the attitude of offering ourselves to God asking “Will just this much do?” We shouldn’t be surprised if God is disappointed when we do that. Let us have the attitude and disposition of Abel. He saved the best for God. He gave God the choice portions of those animals and not just any animals…the costliest ones to him, the first born. What can we give to God that falls in the category of the choice parts of the firstborn from among our flocks and herds?

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15 Comments so far ↓

  • Holly

    Did you draw all those sheep yourself?

    You got me thinking about what are the equivalent of “firstfruits” in my life. I’m still thinking.

  • Nick Gill

    How do we know from the text that Cain didn’t bring his best?

    How do we know from the text that the firstborn were the costliest? Living on a working sheep & goat ranch, I’ve seen many ewes and does give birth to weakling firstborns. It isn’t common, but it isn’t uncommon either.

    I think your most important comment here is, “Without any recorded command of what God wanted we learn that God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but did not find favor with Cain over his sacrifice.”

    Now, reading this text through the lens of the life and ministry of Jesus, I see something very different from what I’ve usually been taught. I’ve always been taught that, although Moses didn’t record the command, there must have been a command, because how could God fairly approve Abel and deny Cain without a command??? But we know from both Genesis and Jesus that what God prizes with mankind is authentic relationship.

    So watch this — let’s start with vv 1-2 to try and get an idea of this family dynamic.

    Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.” And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. (Genesis 4:1-2 ESV)

    How much text is spent on Cain? How much on Abel? Compared to Cain in this passage, Abel is an afterthought — a little brother, following after Cain. Cain, who is God’s gift! as we snarkily say of people who think a bit too highly of themselves. Eve “conceived” Cain, she “bore” Cain, and she “spoke” of Cain — here he is, THE man from the Lord. By contrast, she merely BORE Abel — nothingness, vapor, vanity.

    So Cain is the firstborn, the favored one, and look at what work he does: he is a worker of the ground — the very job that Adam’s family was given. But he’s heard stories from Mom and Dad, stories about life in the Garden, where there was fruit everywhere, food that was beautiful to behold and to eat.

    Cain doesn’t like laboring under the curse, and he certainly doesn’t like how little brother gets to walk around with livestock while he has to fight the ground. So he decides to try and bribe God.

    Abel, on the other hand, is watching his big brother (because that’s what little brothers do). He wants to be just like Cain, but all he has is livestock. He sees big brother take some stuff and give it to God, and so he does it too. But Abel isn’t trying to bribe his way back into the Garden — he’s trying to be like his big brother.

    Now, look at how the Hebrew writer describes the situation (shedding for the moment the old COC mantra that “by faith” = “according to the commandment”):

    By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. (Hebrews 11:4 ESV)

    Cain’s unsolicited offering, taken from what he has gotten through the sweat of his brow (3:17-19), is contrasted with Abel’s offering, given in loving imitation out of what he has received by grace.

    Also, there is Paul’s commentary:

    For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31 ESV)

    The combination of Jesus’ teaching on the nature of faith, and Paul’s words on who God favors, lead me to be unable to accept the idea that God rejected Cain based upon the relative value of his offering. Maybe I’m a little too sensitive to the Osteenian undertones that can be read into such an interpretation. Rather, I think this is still a story about who God is, not what God expects of us. In this story, God desires relationship rather than bribery (in contrast to the ancient pagan deities who lived on bribes) and He loves the weaker and ignored brother. I think it is another story about grace, and about the conflict within us between living by grace and trying to buy our way into God’s favor.

  • mattdabbs

    How do we know any of that from the text? That is more speculation that I put out there 😉

    We have to be careful to read things through lenses that were not present or intended when the text has traditionally been read and interpreted by the people of God. I am not saying you can’t come up with a valid conclusion by looking to Paul and Jesus…they can certainly shed light on it. But I have a hard time saying that in order to get to the original meaning of this text you have to go to Paul and Jesus. The text stands well on its own without having to read back NT theology into it, IMHO.

    I think the text in clear in the way it describes their offerings…one was choice and the other was not. That is a reflection of what is on the inside, the heart. Abel, clearly, was willing to give God his best. Cain was not. I think that is a point easily made from this text with very little speculation.

    If you want a real fun interpretation of this text see Brueggemann in the Interpretation series. He basically eases off on Cain, says he and Abel gave their best but it is God’s sovereign choice of one over the other. Now there’s a twist!

  • Nick Gill

    What Paul says in 1 Cor 1 is not really revelation of something new, but rather exposition of a theme that runs through Genesis. Abel, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Joseph (and even into Exodus with Moses) — God chooses the lowly and despised over the strong.

    I’m not sold on the idea that these lenses weren’t intended from the beginning. I think we’d agree that this story was written by Moses after the Exodus, so God expects them to read and understand Him as a God of grace. In fact, Jesus’ consistent message to the scribes and Pharisees was precisely that they were missing the intended understanding of Scripture (this idea is succinctly stated in Luke 24:44-49).

    How, without resorting to Jesus and Paul, does the interpreter of Genesis 4 fend off the idea that this God’s favor can be bought?

  • mattdabbs

    You are right about the theme in Genesis of the unexpected rising up, even over the expected (such as the firstborn). That runs through basically all of the patriarchal stories.

    I just don’t see why you have to understand Jesus or Paul to interpret Genesis 4 properly. Is it clear from the text that Abel and Cain were trying to buy off God’s favor? Maybe I am missing something obvious? Just because God showed favor does not mean the intention of the sacrifice was to say, “Here, this should purchase your favor for a season.” My point in the post was that Abel received God’s favor because he gave something costly to himself. It was a matter of the heart and not the intention to buy God’s favor. At least, that’s how it seems to me.

  • nick gill

    Abel received God’s favor because he gave something costly to himself. It was a matter of the heart and not the intention to buy God’s favor. At least, that’s how it seems to me.

    I agree that the reason God had regard for Abel’s offering is that it was a matter of the heart, and that Abel was not trying to buy God’s favor. But that idea would be utterly foreign to the original audience. We can’t read the story outside of the context — Ancient Near East sacrifice was precisely for purchasing a god’s favor. God’s self-revelation is consistently attacking that kind of understanding of Himself. Sacrifice in the ancient world always had an ulterior motive — only YHWH promised and called for a different kind of relationship, where sacrifice was a celebration of trust rather than a bribe, an attempt to manipulate the god in your favor.

    At the heart of what I’m saying is that I don’t think the point of the story is that Cain and Abel were both thankful and Cain just wasn’t thankful enough. I don’t believe Cain was thankful at all — just a few verses earlier, we learn of the kind of life he’s leading as a tiller of the soil. God didn’t give him anything — he worked for it with the sweat of his brow.

    I think Abel’s sacrifice was different — he believed that God gave him the increase in his flocks, and he was thankful. Abel gave “by faith,” that is, according to the kind of loving and trusting relationship God has always desired. Cain did not trust God, just like his parents hadn’t trusted God, and what follows is the result of that difference.

    I think I just realized part of where my communication started out poorly. When I said that Abel imitated Cain, I meant that he imitated his ACTIONS. I definitely did not mean to suggest that Abel imitated Cain’s intent. Anais Nin said, “We don’t see the world as it is, but as we are.” Abel saw Cain giving to God, and out of Abel’s thankful heart, Abel says, “Cain has a wonderful idea! Let me get the best I’ve got and give it to God in thanks for all he has given me!” Cain saw Abel’s gift receive God’s regard, his faithless heart believes that Abel bought off God, and he becomes enraged.

    Does that clear anything up? I definitely do not believe Abel ever dreamed of bribing his Creator.

    • mattdabbs

      That makes perfect sense. I always think it is funny when we basically agree at the core of what we are saying, it just takes us a while to see where the agreement is in the conversation. Thanks for making that clearer to me.

  • Keith Brenton

    This, too, is just a theory, but …

    Isn’t this instance of the word “fruit(s)” the only one in the Old Testament used by itself to describe a sacrifice? It’s modified by “some of.”

    I think all the rest of the instances of a word used to describe sacrifices in the O.T., it’s “firstfruits.”

    Do you think there’s something to that?

  • Chris

    We can read so much into the original text.

    Using the NT as a lens to understand the OT isn’t a bad thing — in fact, it is a very Christian thing to do. But what if we just look at the OT text as it stands?

    My own understanding is that God didn’t disfavor Cain’s sacrifice because Cain was any more or any less worthy to offer it. Both Cain and Abel were children of Adam and Eve.

    And I’m not so sure that God disfavored Cain’s sacrifice simply because of WHAT he offered or HOW (his heart).

    The Genesis text, in and of itself, doesn’t seem to tell us either of those things.

    God, in God’s wisdom … for whatever reason … did not favor Cain’s sacrifice. But God didn’t just ZAP Cain out of existence as a result (unlike poor Nadab and Abihu in Lev. 11). No, God followed up with Cain … In fact, I think God gave Cain a second chance.

    “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? …”

    Why God favored one offering over the other may NOT be the main point of the story. Rather, the main point may be “being obedient to God.” What God says is good is good and what God says is evil is evil. And God, for whatever reason, did not favor Cain’s offering.

    Recall Genesis 3. There was nothing inherently evil or bad about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Indeed, God had created that tree. It was part of what he had created and called good. But he had told Adam and Eve not to eat from it. They chose otherwise. God said “don’t” and they did.

    What if Cain had responded to God by coming back with the sacrifice that was right/good in God’s eyes? Sure, he might have had to barter some of his produce for one of Abel’s animals (and maybe he was too proud to do this). I think the story would have ended much differently.

    But instead, Cain basically says, “So you want blood, God? I’ll give you blood!” And the story ends tragically.

    Likewise, God also sought Adam and Eve out after they had disobeyed. God reached out to them … he actually went to see them (even after they had disobeyed) … and asked them to come clean. But they hid, they tried to cover their own shame (to try to fix things themselves), and they blame shifted. They didn’t even want to acknowledge their disobedience. How would that story have ended if they had simply come clean and asked for forgiveness?

    And yet God is still gracious to Cain … Cain is punished, but his life was preserved, even though he had ended his own brother’s life. And so too was God gracious with Adam and Eve! Yes, they were punished, but they were also preserved.

    Why didn’t God accept Cain’s offering? Because he didn’t. Why did God tell Adam and Eve to not eat from a certain tree? Because he did. It’s not about the offering, per se, and it’s not about the forbidden fruit, per se, it’s about being obedient to God. It’s about recognizing that God is God and we are not.

    I preach on Genesis 4 this Sunday … so if you think I’m being too heretical, please let me know! 😉

    • mattdabbs


      I still think it comes down to the quality of what was offered. We don’t have much to go on here so no matter what we do with it there is some speculation involved. But the fact that Abel’s sacrifice is characterized in the text in such a glowing way with a much richer description than Cain’s is the little we have to go on.

      I think you make some good points and I hope the sermon goes great on Sunday! I am sure you will do a great job. Looks like you have thought and studied hard on this one! Blessings

      • Chris

        Thanks for your comments.

        I don’t disagree that quality may be an issue. Although I think saying the issue WAS quality based on the fact that Cain gave God “some” of the fruits of the soil (and maybe not even the first fruits) while Abel gave the “fat portions” of some of the “firstborn” of his flock is a bit tenuous. That being said, once God made it clear to Cain that his offering wasn’t acceptable and Abel’s was, the right response would have been to bring the right offering!

        Clearly quality becomes an issue in Leviticus — not just any animal, but the unblemished … And clearly the quality of the ultimate sacrifice of Christ is unsurpassed.

        But I still think that the heart of the matter is obedience. Whether God requires a certain quality, or quantity, or a particular sacrifice, the issue still remains the same, “Will we be obedient and give God what God desires?”

    • mattdabbs

      “But I still think that the heart of the matter is obedience. Whether God requires a certain quality, or quantity, or a particular sacrifice, the issue still remains the same, “Will we be obedient and give God what God desires?”

      Any point any of us make in this thing is tenuous because we don’t have all the information. I agree that the heart of the matter is obedience. But on which point? The difficulty here is we don’t know what God asked for. We don’t have his command on the pages in front of us. If we did then we would know on which point God was upset at Cain regarding his offering.

      Clearly there was disobedience on some point. Otherwise you have God getting arbitrarily upset with Cain over something Cain wouldn’t have had a clue about. So there are two options in my mind. 1 – God told Cain to bring an animal sacrifice and Cain brought produce. 2 – Abel had a better heart than Cain and gave sacrificially of the best while Cain just gave something…reflecting not the very best of intentions and gratitude toward God.

      Quality is demanded in Leviticus but couldn’t it be expected elsewhere as God deserves the best and those who give the best show their love and desire to please God even if God didn’t specifically ask for the “fat portions” and those who give just whatever show somewhat of a disdain for showing God their appreciation?

      Just some thoughts.

  • Richard Cobb

    Simple: Able’s offering was his firstfruit, Cain’s was not. This is a matter of first not necessarily best. Matt 6:6 Seek first, with Cain being the firstborn he should have known better already!

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