Just in case you’re not familiar with the story of Cain and Abel, or the case of the First Murder – the two were sons of Adam and Eve, with Cain being the elder brother. Abel kept flocks while Cain worked the soil. They both took some of their produce/cattle as offering to the Lord, but God only looked with favour on Abel and his offering, not Cain. Cain was angry, and ultimately killed his brother Abel. When confronted by God, Cain tried to hide his sin to no avail, and was cursed as a punishment. This is the story of Cain and Abel in brief, the story of the First Murder as recorded in the Bible – Genesis 4:1-15.
If you’re familiar with this story, were you ever puzzled by it? Have you ever wondered about the oddity of this story? Perhaps it had never seemed odd to you. Maybe it’s just me. But the fact that God looked upon Abel with favour but not Cain always bugged me. Over the years I’ve asked around, but people were either unable to give me an answer, or they have generally been unable to convince me with their arguments. Some people would even inform me about the difference in the type of food sacrifice – vegetables and cattle – and while I’m sure those arguments are valid, I’d rather stay out of them as I’m not expert in the nature of these food. Over time I’ve come to a point whereby I’m no longer perturbed by what once seemed to me as unfairness or bias. I shall share this perspective in hope of helping people who, like me, were troubled by this passage.
Abel kept flocks. Cain worked the soil [Genesis 4:2]. That’s fine. That’s fair. It’s probably also notable that the two of them would know to give offerings to the Lord. After all, in those days the Targum or Moses’ laws had no been set, and there were no records of Adam and Even offering anything. It was likely that they were influenced by Adam, since they were his children – or they simply had the natural understanding that offering to God would please Him. Regardless – let’s look more closely at the description of Cain’s offering.
Genesis 4:3 – Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord – if you read this sentence alone, there is perhaps nothing odd about it. I’ve read this for so many years without thinking twice about it. So Cain had the faith to offer to God, and since he was a farmer, he took his produce as an offering to God. Nothing seems to be wrong with Cain, right? As with many other verses in the Bible, the essence of it can only be picked out by the verse after it.
But – A word we see so often in the Bible, a word that frequently begins verses, much like ‘therefore’, much like ‘thus’, but while the two provides a complementary verse, ‘but’ suggests a counter-argument. More often than not, ‘but’ brings on a contrasting verse. In this case, the word ‘but’ forces us to compare between the two verse, to compare between the two brothers, to compare between the two gestures of offering. Some will go further to compare the types of offerings made, but as mentioned earlier, that’s beyond my scope today.
brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock – this is actually a far more detailed account than that of Cain’s. Let’s analyse this sentence from in reverse. First, we are told that Abel got his offering from his own flock. It may seem like common sense, but note that Cain’s offering, though said to be fruits from the soil, was not clearly pointed out to be his own produce. It was likely his own produce, but it could have as likely have been, well, Adam’s. Secondly, we know that he didn’t just take any cattle – he picked the firstborn of his flock. Now, firstborn in Jewish culture is very important, and the firstborn is traditionally more significant even from a Biblical point of view. I’m not sure of the extent of culture or tradition that would have been established by the time this happened – it seems amazing to me that Abel would pick the firstborn as if he knew the significance of the firstborn – but no matter why he picked the firstborn, he took the effort to, and clearly showed his reverence to God by doing so. In contrast, there was no further details about Cain’s crops. No ‘he took the biggest and the fullest crop’. No ‘he took the first batch of crops’. No ‘he took a set of every crop’. Instead, all we are told is that Cain brought some of the fruits from the soil. The impression I get from this is that Cain didn’t put in half as much effort in his offering as did Abel. Cain simply did not see the offering as significantly as Abel regarded it. Thirdly, Abel didn’t merely take the firstborn. He brought the fat portions from the firstborn that he had picked. I assume ‘fat portions’ would mean that he slaughtered them. If so, it was probably the first recorded blood sacrifice. Many scholars would dive into the act of slaughtering the cattle and the significance of the blood sacrifice, but I’ll sidestep that. It’s one whole complicated concept on it’s own. I just know that Abel took care to sacrifice only the fat portions. He didn’t give anything but the best.
By faith Abel offered a better sacrifice than Cain did [ Hebrews 11:4]. The ‘better’ here did not refer to a more excellent sacrifice – it did not refer to the quality of what was sacrificed. Instead, it was a ‘more’ or a ‘greater’ sacrifice. Cain offered something too – let’s not forget that. And it doesn’t matter whether it was crops or cattle – Abel’s sacrifice was simply greater – in effort, in reverence, in faith. And thus, he was looked on with favour by God.
I’ve found myself most comfortable with this perspective of interpretation, however, I’m sure not everybody will agree with me, and that’s all good and fine. I used to be very puzzled over the fact that Abel’s sacrifice was favored over Cain’s – that had always seemed unfair to me. Why was Cain being punished because of his occupation? Why was Cain’s effort not acknowledged? Perhaps his subsequent murder was justified, for if God had been a bit fairer, or if he would just show a bit of acknowledgement or favour to Cain for his sacrifice, then perhaps Abel wouldn’t be killed. I used to convince myself of doubts by telling myself that in the eyes of men this is certainly unfair, but God has his own way to be fair. God can certainly choose whom he wants to favour and whom he doesn’t want to favour. I still believe this is true, though in the past I had to enforce this thought into my head.
Cain didn’t bother too much. If he truly cared about the offerings, he wouldn’t have killed Abel for it. In the first place, he probably offered only for appearances sake. Maybe because ‘Daddy’ asked him to. Or maybe because he knew he should. Or maybe he did truly have the faith. But in comparison to Abel’s great faith, his appeared weak.
A lot of times, it is very tempting to be half-hearted with our offerings. Oh, no cash on me today? Nevermind then, let’s give double next week instead. Oh, I’m supposed to pick up the cross daily and follow Christ? Sure, but let me build some wheels on the base of the cross so that I won’t have to bear the weight! Oh, I should help out in a church event? Sure! You organise and send me the minutes and I’ll be there on that day. The list goes on. Most of us probably are able to choose the better cattle from our own flocks as a sacrifice. But we don’t bother trying to filter out only the fattest portions for God. We think we do a lot, but we probably can do more, if we would just not always seek to save the best for ourselves.
In reference to the First Murder, in reference to Abel and Cain, let us once again reflect on our offering of money, of time, of gifts and so on. Let us not be like Cain, who, when given a second chance, squandered it by killing the one who did it better.