Reading What’s There – Part 5: Cain and Abel
by Steven Siciliano | 07 November 2018 |
Most people who’ve been exposed to the Western cultural tradition know that Cain killed his brother Abel and that, before the murder, God had rejected Cain’s offering. Fewer individuals take time to consider exactly why Cain’s offering was rejected, or what his gift intended to accomplish in the first place. Even biblically literate Christians may assume that the sole reason Cain’s offering wasn’t approved is because he didn’t bring a blood sacrifice. The New Testament book of Hebrews, however, suggests another factor when it says that Abel brought a “better sacrifice” because he brought it in faith (Hebrews 11:4). Plus, the Hebrew word for offering in Genesis 4 refers to the thank offering rather than a sin offering.
Taking a cue from these two pieces of data, the present installment of “Reading What’s There” will search the text for clues as to why Cain’s offering failed, outline four possible explanations, and conclude with an exhortation. Hopefully, the exercise itself will provoke further research and contemplation.
A Preliminary Observation
The beginning of Genesis 4 presents the Cain and Abel story, but before trying to understand why Cain was repulsed it’s worth noting that offerings had neither been discussed in the Bible to that point nor explained in the passage itself. Presumably, those who first heard the tale were expected to understand the practice and simply follow the storyline, as most readers do today. This lack of explanation is all the more reason to scrutinize the passage carefully and avoid taking for granted things that are not explicitly stated.
So What Was the Problem?
A classic answer to why God rejected Cain and his offering derives from the fact that Cain merely brought “an offering” of his crops while Abel seemingly rendered a choice offering, which the passage describes as “the firstlings of his flock and their fat portions.” This contrast suggests a kind of half-hearted interest on the part of Cain towards God who, presumably, accepts only the best. The wording of the passage does support that lesson but the notion may also portray God somewhat negatively, as one who turns His nose up at expressions of thankfulness from those who fail to surrender all.
A second possible explanation for why God “had no regard” for Cain’s offering appears in verse seven, where God says that Cain would be accepted if he would “do well.” The story doesn’t specify in which way Cain may not have done well, but if God’s assessment was based on a pervasive flaw in Cain’s character then his choice of offering may not have been the main problem at all, but his life as a whole.
This hypothesis is supported by the fact that God warned Cain that sin was “crouching at the door.” Even more dramatically, Cain’s own response exposed the condition of his soul. It says he became very angry…and then killed his brother! Surely, his deficiencies were deeper and more existential than merely his choice in offerings. Cain’s heart was clearly not intact, especially in contrast to Abel, who was approved.
Another, somewhat novel, attempt to explain Cain’s failure derives from the fact that he is the first person in the Bible ever said to bring God an offering. This easily overlooked detail opens a door for the counterintuitive possibility that Cain may actually have been highly devout and thus overly anxious about his standing with God. That idea would align with the comment in Hebrews mentioned earlier (about the importance of faith), and could account for his violent reaction after God rejected him.
In other words, it may be possible to classify Cain as neurotically religious, one of those individuals whose scruples and insecurities make them ill at ease personally and intolerable to live with. Abel would then represent more easygoing folk who accept God’s love as a given and feel secure enough both to live at peace and share their goods generously – not just with God but others.
One other unconventional theory is worth noting because it exemplifies a radical commitment to “reading what’s there” (or, in this case, what’s not there). Since the passage itself doesn’t give a reason for why God rejected Cain’s offering, then maybe there was no reason! God just made His decision, and Cain was supposed to adjust to it.
So what might this incident teach us about God and His response to human devotion? Is God’s approval principally a matter of bringing the right offering? Is it about offerings at all? Or does it have more to do with attitude, as the book of Hebrews suggests?
None of the four hypotheses surveyed here suggest that the brothers’ differing outcomes had to do with their choice in oblations so much as their heart condition. Indeed, verses 4 & 5 say that “the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering; but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” That is, the Lord responded not just to the brothers’ gifts but to their persons.
Understood from this angle, the incident dovetails nicely with the highly ethical nature of biblical religion, and affirms the contrast between ritualized worship and heartfelt dedication. The Old Testament prophets expressly declared that God is not so much interested in sacrifices and offerings as in righteousness. It may be that this passage in Genesis 4 communicates the same principle in story form.
If that is the central lesson embedded in this primordial episode then it must pertain to new covenant adherents as well. The Lord isn’t gullible. Lukewarm Christians assaying to leverage Christ as the “right” offering won’t have any more success fooling Him than Cain did. Though the Bible doesn’t portray God as requiring a spotless record, the genuineness of a person’s faith has got to matter. As Peter says when describing the saving effects of baptism (another liturgical rite), it’s not the bathing that counts but “the answer of a good conscience before God (1 Peter 3:21, KJV).”
Steven Siciliano is pastor of the Jackson Heights, Hartsdale, and New York Filipino Churches in the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and an M.A. in Community Health Education from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.