“… Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor…” (Genesis 4:2-5).
Many people believe that in this prelude to the story of the first homicide, God did not accept Cain’s offering because it was not a true sacrifice involving the slaying of an animal as we find in the later Mosaic sacrifices. According to this view, God had instructed the first man and woman in how to sacrifice when he made clothing for them from the skins of animals (Genesis 3:21). But however logical this view might seem, it is, of course, speculative in that the Bible does not say this or even mention sacrificial offerings at all before this point.
The sacrifices of Cain and Abel described in Genesis 4 are not depicted in any way as being made to cover sin or to seek atonement. In fact, we should note that the Hebrew word used for the offerings of both individuals is not one of the specific words for animal sacrifices found later in the Old Testament; it is minhah – which is usually translated a “gift” or “offering” of any type.
But although this scripture does not clearly indicate that the difference between the two offerings was one of blood sacrifice and non-blood sacrifice, it does give us important clues to what the problem was with Cain’s offering and the lesson we can learn from it.
First, we should notice that the text tells us that Cain brought “some” of the fruits of the soil as his gift (vs. 3). There is nothing in the Hebrew to suggest anything special about this offering – the word “some” could connote randomly selected items, or even items selected that were of no particular distinction.
This is contrasted with what we are told of Abel’s offering – that it was an offering of “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock” (vs. 4). In Abel’s case we see that the same word “some” is qualified with “of the firstborn of the flock.” Giving of the firstborn was a principle that was later incorporated into the Mosaic sacrifices because even apart from any symbolic aspect, to give the firstborn was a greater sacrifice in the sense that it meant those giving the offering had to wait to obtain the next cycle of animals for themselves.
Additionally, we are told that Abel gave from the “fat portions” of some of these firstborn animals. The meaning is clear – Abel was highly selective – he offered the choicest parts of selected firstborn animals as his gift to God – a description which is very different from the fruits Cain offered which were merely “some” of those available to him. Clearly, Abel’s gift was a generous and appreciatively chosen one, while Cain’s gift was not at all special and possibly even an inferior one.
But we must notice that God’s reaction to Cain and Abel was not primarily toward the gift – which would have been the case if Cain’s offering had been of the wrong type – but toward the givers: “…The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor…” (Genesis 4:4-5). The Hebrew stresses it was primarily with Cain that God was displeased and this is made clear in the following verses:
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:6-7).
Genesis 4 paints a picture then, not of improper sacrificial ritual, but of the very different attitudes exhibited by Cain and Abel – between the generous and sacrificial spirit of Abel and the less generous and unsacrificing attitude of Cain.
The lesson for all of us, as we read this story, goes far beyond any point of sacrificial form to one of sacrificial intent. As always, God looks more closely at the heart of the giver than at the gift.