In Genesis chapter four, Cain and Abel sacrifice to God. Cain’s sacrifice is rejected while Abel’s sacrifice is accepted. This leads to Cain’s anger, and later murder, of his brother Abel. I’ve heard a lot of sermons on this passage. However, the reason why God rejects Cain’s sacrifice isn’t very clear. Depending on how the preacher views God, the reason for rejection will change.
Let’s look at the passage,
“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.” (Genesis 4:3-4)
I’ve heard four possible explanations:
- It was God’s sovereign choice. The first view sees the acceptance of one offering and the rejection of the other as the sovereign choice of God. God merely chose to accept Abel’s offering and reject Cain’s with no explanation given. I call this the God is a jerk and plays favorites explanation.
- It was a non-blood sacrifice. A second view believes that the offering was rejected because Cain did not present a blood sacrifice. Blood sacrifice is the only acceptable offering God would receive. I call this the God is a bloodthirsty God explanation.
- It was a poor quality offering. The third view sees that Abel brought the best of what he had while Cain brought a poor quality offering. Abel brought potions of fat from some of the firstborns (God is understood to have a claim on all firstborn and first fruits), and Cain brought some fruits of the soil. I call this the sorry wrong offering explanation.
- Cain had a bad attitude. The fourth view interprets the rejection as a problem with Cain’s attitude rather than the specific offering that he brought. I call this the Don’t give me that face explanation.
So, which explanation is correct? As a Progressive, I see all of them as correct. It depended on when you were reading it. As the ancient Israelites moved out of the Canaanite religion, they took their beliefs and views of God with them. They shared stories about their religion orally until it was finally written down many centuries later. These stories were told and retold and modified over time. Even after they were written, the text was edited to add new understanding. I would guess that the earliest understanding of God was that he just chose one sacrifice over the other. Canaanite gods were capricious like that. A later understanding could have been that a blood sacrifice was needed. Again, Canaanite gods required blood. The same goes for God’s claim on all firstborns. Canaanite gods had the same claim. As time went by, human sacrifices changed to animal sacrifices, which gave way to heartfelt worship as the ultimate sacrifice. This would correspond to Cain’s bad attitude.
The Jewish people had a long history of debating God, debating scripture and rewriting stories from past generations. Jesus did it too. To consider all the possibilities of this story is a very rabbinical approach to scripture.
One reason I believe that the Bible is truly inspired by God is because of the questions that arise as we read scripture. The Bile doesn’t give us ultimate answers but draws us into a divinely inspired discussion. I am no longer the independent authority because I know the answers; I am the dependent seeker who needs the Holy Spirit and community to seek answers with other people. (Hello humility) For people who need clear cut black and white answers, this is entirely unsatisfactory. For those of us on a journey of exploration, this is inspiring!