Difficult Bible Passages: Genesis 4:2-5

This passage has to do with the two different offerings brought to God – one by Abel and one by Cain. We are told that one of the offerings was accepted by God and one was not. Just why is that? Before attempting an explanation, let me first offer the actual text:

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. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

A common explanation for the difference is that Abel brought a blood offering, and this was somehow superior. Since the shedding of blood is so important later on in the sacrificial system of ancient Israel, and in the death of Christ, it is supposed that this explains the superiority of Abel’s offering.

Yet the passage does not actually tell us this. Indeed, a close look at the text, along with other biblical passages about it, make it clear that there is more going on here than just the actual offering. A major element of this is the fact that God cares as much about the giver as the gift.

It is not always a question of how acceptable a particular gift or offering may be, but what sort of person the giver or offerer is. We are given a clear clue about this in the New Testament. In Hebrews 11:4 we read: “By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.”

So the issue of faith is part of all this. Whatever the reason for his superior offering (and Genesis 4 does not tell us explicitly), Abel did have faith to go with his. Let’s look at this more closely. Cain is a farmer and Abel is a shepherd, so what they each brought should not surprise us. And there certainly is a place for grain offerings (see for example Leviticus 2 and 6:14-23).

But Abel is seen as offering an acceptable gift, because he is a more acceptable person – Cain did not and was not. Most commentators of recent times make these sorts of distinctions. Many note the phrasing used in the passage. Says Tremper Longman:

The NIV nicely captures the nuance of the Hebrew when it describes Cain’s sacrifice as “some of the fruits of the soil.” Abel’s sacrifice comes from “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” In a word, Cain offered the ordinary and Abel the best, and of course the quality of their offering reflects the condition of their hearts. Abel is enthusiastic in his worship, while Cain is basically disinterested.

R. Kent Hughes concurs:

Cain evidently was indifferent about his offering, but Abel was careful about his. The rabbinic commentators note that “fat” and “firstborn” mean that Abel gave God the pick of the flock. The difference was that of heart attitude. Cain came to God on Cain’s own self-prescribed terms, but Abel came to God on God’s terms. Cain’s spirit was arrogant, as the subsequent story will reveal.

And Kenneth Mathews puts it this way:

God’s response toward Cain and Abel, therefore, was not due to the nature of the gift per se, whether it was grain or animal, but the integrity of the giver. The narrative ties together the worshiper and his offering as God considers the merit of their individual worship…. Both giver and gift were under the scrutiny of God. Cain’s offering did not measure up because he retained the best of his produce for himself…. Unlike a human observer, God sees the condition of the human heart and weighs the motive of the worshiper (e.g., 1 Sam 16:7). Elsewhere Scripture shows that the Lord requires of the giver an obedient and upright heart (e.g., 1 Sam 15:14; Hos 6:6; Matt 5:24).

More could be said on all this. But as I mentioned above, we are not specifically told in Gen. 4 why the one offer is preferred by God to the other. So the above thoughts may be of some help to get some insight here, but we are still left with mystery to an extent.

The passage I quoted from in Hebrews helps us somewhat here. Two other New Testament texts – both dealing with Cain – give us a bit more understanding of Cain. Recall that later in Gen. 4 we read about how Cain killed Abel. So he was a bad dude all along it seems. Here are the two NT texts:

1 John 3:12 Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous.

Jude 1:11 Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error; they have been destroyed in Korah’s rebellion.

So the offering of Cain, standing alone, may not give us much of a clue as to why God rejected it. But the whole of Cain – his heart, his motivations, and so on, which were all known to God – do give us some reasons as to why God rejected him and his offering.

As Mathews said, and is worth repeating, “Unlike a human observer, God sees the condition of the human heart and weighs the motive of the worshiper (e.g., 1 Sam 16:7).” So we must believe that God had a sound reason to favour the offering of Abel over Cain.

God knew what was in his heart, and God cares about the person as much as about what the person does. As Chesterton once put it, “The gift without the giver is bare.” And the lessons for Christians today should be clear enough. What we do outwardly is not all that matters.

The Pharisees and hypocrites did things to please men. As Jesus said in Matthew 6:1: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” We too can go through all the right religious motions and do all the right things (eg., go to church, lift our hands in worship, put money in the offering plate, and so on), but this is not all that God looks at.

He looks at the heart. If we have all these outward acts that look good in religious circles, but on the inside our soul is displeasing to God, we will get nowhere fast. We can fool men but we cannot fool God. So let the lesson sink in concerning Cain and Abel and their offerings to God.

At the end of the day, Cain’s heart was not right with God, even though outwardly we would not know this, at least in terms of his offering. Every heart will one day be exposed. Best to let Christ deal with our inward man now. We sure won’t want him to deal with us at the last judgment.

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9 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: Genesis 4:2-5”

  1. Not disagreeing with the gist of your page but I think that God had given more detailed descriptions of what was required in a sacrifice than what we read. Obviously not all of God’s instructions are recorded but the very fact that they sacrificed at all before we read any instruction seems to indicate the following of unrecorded instruction. But I wanted to share a ‘thought bubble’ I had recently. Not sure if it’s mine or based on something someone else said but I have been thinking about vegetarianism for some time having to change eating habits for health reasons (just getting old) and reconsidering diet etc.

    We know God instructed Noah and family to begin eating meat after getting off the ark. Death is horrible, even animal death really but in it, we are provided for. Our lack (need) is covered over. I have been thinking that vegetarianism is actually a rejection of God’s provision (in some form. I don’t think a vegetarian is necessarily rejecting God). The ‘Life is in the blood’ and ‘without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin’ so in this form killing and eating animals is a recognition and reminder of the fall and the shedding of blood to provide life to us. Rejecting meat could be seen as rejecting this provision of God and the sin (consequences of) that separates us and what is required to restore us. (more on this in the next comment).

    Now recently I saw several types of this in early Genesis.
    Initially God sacrificed animals to cover man’s sin (to provide skins to cover their nakedness). Very little is recorded of this event but I don’t think it’s too far to stretch it based on everything God revealed since, that man was here instructed in sacrifice for sin.
    This is why I think that Cain outwardly showed his heart condition by rejecting God’s instruction for blood sacrifice as being the only recompense for sin. He did not exercise faith because he did not follow instruction but chose his own way to make himself righteous and of course, no blood spilt, no restoration. So this confirms everything you say about Cain’s heart.
    I’m not sure I remember my third example correctly but I think it’s David’s adultery where God took the life of his child, a foreshadow of the Son of God paying the price of our sin. Doesn’t seem to fit as well so maybe I’m forgetting an earlier example that fit this series better. (except of course the shedding of blood, or loss of life).

    Some additional notes/questions.
    The fact that Abel produced portions that God later specified in recorded law (fat portions, firstborn) seem to hint that maybe he was following specific instruction. OR did God just adopt this practise for his purposes later? I think the former.
    Cain/Abel it uses the word offering, not sacrifice. Not being a scholar I don’t know the difference. As Abel’s was a blood offering it would seem to be a sacrifice?

  2. Bill, to share thoughts with you further on the blood sacrifice, killing of animals and eating meat.

    We are both members on a political page with a very broad selection of members from devout (and polite) believers to atheist, somewhat racist anti any immigration foreigners etc. At the previous islamic eid (spelling?) there were pictures and video of a city flowing in blood with the wholesale slaughter of animals in the streets and there was decries of ‘barbarians’ ‘animals’ and other derogatory words denigrating the practise.

    But then I recognised that this was something of our faith in it’s OT form. The wash of blood was horrific and the cutting the throats and bleeding out of cattle, camels, sheep and goats, thriving in pain as they lost consciousness. How would early israel have differed from this practise without Disney to humanise animals? Children would have come to watch, to participate and to learn of the sacrifice to our God Yahweh to pay restitution.
    It made me reflect that the horrific nature of the suffering, blood letting and death was a great teaching lesson in how serious is our sin in separating us from God. I wondered if it was supposed to be a terrible day, if mothers were supposed to be distressed at all the blood, that their children were watching. Whereas many muslims participate with glee celebrating the massacre in morbid enjoyment, often intentionally drawing out the animals suffering and other deliberately cruel acts, I wondered whether it would have been different in ancient Israel?

    Death was the enemy, not something wonderful. This was to illustrate a terrible thing. Our sin.

    Thanks always for your posts Bill. They are much appreciated.

  3. Those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Word of God made flesh that dwelt among us to teach us the way, the truth and the life, believe that, at the harvesting of souls, we will all be weighed on the divine scales of justice and judged according to our works. Therefore it is important to verify the value of our offering to God as one would assay gold, as in the parable of the widow’s mite; she only gave a tiny amount but it cost her dear to give it.
    In our post-truth age of deception, discernment is all we have to determine truth. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus spoke of signs of the end time tribulation, saying: when you see the abomination of desolation standing in the holy place there will be a great tribulation such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no and never will be (Matt 24:21). We need to know what this is.

  4. Could it not be a case of the different attitudes that were demonstrated to all in their outworkings in an improper vs proper offering? I wrote about this as well in my Genesis commentary:

    … we see that Cain was the patron saint of liberal religious ecumenism. This is the belief that all ways lead to God; that man can choose his own path. But in reality, man must come to God on His terms. Nowadays, this is only through conscious belief in the substitutionary death and resurrection of Jesus (John 14:6, Acts 4:12, 1 Corinthians 15:1–4). Cain decided that a bloodless offering would be good enough for God—and just some ordinary produce from the ground, not even the ‘first fruits’ or best produce. No wonder Jude 11 denounces practitioners of false religion as having “walked in the way of Cain.”

    But it does seem from the text that the sacrifice itself was at least part of the issue: “the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering.” This is also supported in the NT, which affirms this event as real history. Hebrews 11 lists Abel as the first in the ‘Faith Hall of Fame’, and affirms that the right kind of sacrifice was the important manifestation of the right heart:

    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, emphasis added)

    Fruchtenbaum [in his Genesis commentary] discusses these passages and further explains why blood was the issue:

    Although God later did accept grain offerings, even the grain offerings of the Mosaic Law always came into contact with blood. … The mention of the fat shows that the issue was the sacrifice of blood. Popular relational theology tries to claim that the whole thing was an issue of attitude, that Cain had the wrong attitude and Abel had the right attitude. However, there is simply no indication of that in the text, and the thrust of Scripture is that the problem was a lack of blood, as shown in Hebrews, “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain” (Heb. 11:4 [ASV]) … . The clear emphasis here is on blood, not merely attitude. Both Cain and Abel were sinners; both were born after the Fall and outside the Garden of Eden; both had the same parents, the same upbringing, and the same knowledge. However, Cain’s offering was not of faith, while Abel’s offering was an act of faith in response to revelation and knowledge.

    That is, Abel’s saving faith was demonstrated outwardly by his bringing the right sort of offering: blood to cover sins. Conversely, Cain did not have the proper faith or belief, which manifested itself in the improper offering. So God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s plant offering.

  5. Cain’s name is a reflection of his character: He was all about “acquisition”. Consumerist religion is always about “What’s in it for me?”. Helmut Thielicke’s How the World Began (Fortress Press, 1961) calls his 13th chapter “The Cain Within Us”.

    Thielicke writes:
    …Cain grew up with the suggestion that first rights in everything were his due. The will to power and the egotistical self-assertion which were in his blood and ours too – for we are all children of Cain! – appear to him to be perfectly legitimate. … For him Abel is neither a partner nor even a brother, but simply exists to be used… (Thielicke, loc.cit., p. 191)

    Isaiah 1:10-17 and Malachi 2:13-16 also deal with sacrifices which the LORD rejected…

  6. This is another huge topic but perhaps your readers can learn from my foolishness. Before I understood that we are meant to study to show ourselves approved I did a very foolish thing. I had a particular fruit tree that I simply could not get to bear properly until one year when I got a really good crop. I was so happy I grabbed the best fruit and burnt it in the barbecue in thanks to God without thinking. Very quickly God made it known to me that what I had done was insulting to Jesus’ sacrifice. In retrospect this is more evidence that when we listen to the Spirit we are not just listening to “voices in our head” or whatever and from this incident I learned to study and not be so much of an air-headed Christian. It also lead me to understand why God has destroyed the Jewish Temple and why a third, man made Jewish Temple cannot be the Holy Place of prophecy. I did, however, fairly quickly after the fact, understand what I had done was so very wrong and I have since found scriptures such as :-

    Isa 66:3 He who kills an ox is is as if he killed a man; he who sacrifices a lamb is as if he broke a dog’s neck; he who offers an offering is as if he offered swine’s blood; he who burns incense is as if he blessed an idol. Yea, they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations.

    Jer 14:12 When they fast, I will not hear their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and a grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, and by the famine, and by the plague.


    We live in an age where any sacrifice is an insult to what Jesus has done but there are scriptures that refer to us bringing offerings in the new creation but, of course, none of these offerings will be a blood offering because death will be done away with. Had Cain understood this and simply been patient and understood that Able’s offering was in line with God’s plan at that time, he would have eventually been able to come into his own. As it was he became angry and took things into his own hands.

    Gen 4:6 And Jehovah said to Cain, Why have you angrily glowed? And why did your face fall?
    Gen 4:7 If you do well, shall you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin crouches at the door; and its desire is for you, and you shall rule over it.

  7. We are told that Cain was “angry and his face downcast” – ie he sulked. That tells us a lot about his character. It’s hard to work with people who get moody when they don’t get their way.

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