Are you grappling with a difficult verse in the Bible? And are you looking for a short, easy-to-read answer that really makes sense without explaining away the verse? Visit this page for a daily excerpt from IVP's Hard Saying series.
Does God have favorites? Does he show partiality for one over another--in this case, Abel over Cain? And does God prefer shepherds to farmers? If not, what was the essential difference between these first two sacrifices in the Bible?
The traditional interpretation says that the difference between Cain and Abel is that one offered a bloody sacrifice and the other did not. If this understanding is correct, why are neither we nor they given any specific instructions to that effect? Up to this point, that distinction had not been made. And even if a distinction between the use and absence of blood was in vogue at this early date, why are both sacrifices referred to throughout this whole narrative with the Hebrew term minhah, a "gift" or "meal offering"?
The answers to these questions are not as difficult as they may appear. There is only one point on which there can be legitimate puzzlement: nothing in this episode indicates that this is the inauguration of the sacrificial system. While it does appear that this is the first time anyone ever sacrificed anything, the text does not specifically say so. That will remain, at best, only an inference.
Actually, the supposition that Cain and Abel's father, Adam, originated sacrifices may be closer to the truth, since no command authorizing or requesting sacrifices appears in these first chapters of Genesis. The whole subject of the origins of sacrifice is one that scholars have debated long and hard, but the subject remains a mystery.
Even with this much caution, we must be careful about importing back into the times of Adam and Eve the instructions that Moses was later given on sacrifices. The word used to describe "sacrifice" throughout this episode of Cain and Abel is the word used in the broadest sense, minhah. It covers any type of gift that any person might bring. Consequently, the merit one gift might have over another does not lie in the content or type of gift--including the presence or absence of blood.
Of course, there was a problem with Cain's "gift"--he was the problem. Genesis 4:3 describes how Cain merely brought "some" of the fruits of the field. Nothing can be said about the fact that he, as an agriculturalist, naturally brought what farmers have to give. But when his offering is contrasted with Abel's, a flaw immediately shows up.
Abel gave what cost him dearly, the "fat pieces"--in that culture considered the choicest parts--of "the firstborn" of his flock. Abel could very well have rationalized, as we might have done, that he would wait until some of those firstborn animals had matured and had one, two or three lambs of their own. Certainly at that point it would have been possible to give an even larger gift to God, and Abel would have been further ahead as well. But he gave instead what cost him most, the "firstborn."
The telltale signs that we are dealing here with a contrast between formalistic worship and true worship are the emphasis that the text gives to the men and the verb it uses with both of them. In Genesis 4:4-5 there are four emphatic marks used with reference to the two brothers.
Literally, the Hebrew of verses 4 and 5 says, "And Abel, he brought, indeed, even he, some of the firstlings of his flock and some of the fat portions belonging to him. And the Lord regarded with favor Abel and [then] his offering. But unto Cain and [then] unto his offering, he did not have regard."
Clearly the focus of this passage is on the men. There are four emphatic elements in the text that mark this emphasis: first, the man's name; then the verb for "bringing" with the pronominal suffix; then the emphasizing particle gam; and finally the personal independent pronoun. It is difficult to see how the writer could have made it any more pointed that it was the men, and their hearts' condition, that was the determinative factor in God's deciding whose sacrifice was to be accepted. The text almost stutters: "And Abel, he, he also, he brought."
The verb sha`ah means "to gaze," but when it is used with the preposition 'el ("unto" or "toward"), as it is here, it means "to regard with favor." Ever since Luther, commentators have noticed that God's favor was pointedly directed toward the person first and then, and only then, toward the offering that person brought. Accordingly, this became the determinative factor in all worship: the heart attitude of the individual. If the heart was not found acceptable, the gift was likewise unacceptable.
It is true that an old Greek translation of this text rendered sha`ah in Greek as enepyrisen, "he kindled." Apparently the translator wanted to say that on some occasions God did kindle acceptable sacrifices. But since there is a double object for this verb, namely, Abel and his sacrifice, this translation is unacceptable, for it would set the man on fire as well as the sacrifice!
That Cain's heart and not his offering was the real problem here can be seen from the last part of verse 5: "So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast"--literally, "it burned Cain greatly [or, to the core] and his face dropped."
God's displeasure with Cain revealed the sad state of affairs in Cain's heart. Instead of moving to rectify his attitude, Cain let it harden into murder. For the moment, however, anger hid itself in Cain's eyes--he avoided looking anyone in the eye. Averting his own gaze, he kept others from seeing (through the eye gate) what was in his heart.
Hermann Gunkel--who unwisely called this episode a myth--was truly unjustified in claiming this story taught that God loved shepherds but not farmers. Despite others who have followed Gunkel's lead, there is no proven connection between this narrative and any parallel stories in the ancient Near East of rivalries between shepherds and farmers.
Sacrifice in the Old Testament is not a "preapproved" way of earning divine credit. The principle behind it remains the same as it does for all acts of service and ritual in the Christian faith today: God always inspects the giver and the worshiper before he inspects the gift, service or worship.