The biblical narrative of Cain and Abel is well known among students of the Bible and continues to captivate the imagination of those who seek to understand the issues related to the story of these two brothers, a story that involves mystery, murder, and the issue of personal responsibility.
Although the story of Cain and Abel has been the subject of many books, articles, and movies, some of the details in the story have defied explanation and as result, the story has given rise to many popular interpretations that may not reflect a correct understanding of the story.
The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 begins with the narrative detailing the birth of the two brothers. After Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden in Eden, Eve gave birth to two sons.
When Eve conceived Cain, she said: “I have acquired a man with the help of Yahweh” (Gen 4:1 NJB). Cain’s name is derived from the Hebrew word קָנָה (qānâ), a word which means “to acquire,” “to possess.”
Eve named her second child Abel, a name derived from the Hebrew word הֶבֶל(hebel), a word that is generally translated “vanity,” as in the expression in the book of Ecclesiastes: “vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (Eccl 1:2). The word hebel carries the idea of “vapor” and “breath.” It seems that the writer of the book of Genesis was making a connection between Abel’s name and the transitoriness of life. However, it is important to notice that the name Abel appears in Genesis 4 without any explanation, thus making the significance of his name a matter of speculation.
In identifying the occupations of the two brothers, the writer says that “Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground” (Gen 4:2). It is customary for scholars to see in the work of the brothers a rivalry between two ways of life, since Abel was a shepherd and Cain was a farmer. Although this theme is found in the Old Testament, the cultural clash between these two ways of life plays an insignificant role in the narrative.
One of the main issues in the story of Cain and Abel and the main focus of this study is the offering the brothers presented to God:
“In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell” (Gen 4:3-5).
In the study of this text, three questions arise. First, how did Cain and Abel know that they must bring an offering to the Lord? Second, why did God accept Abel’s offering but did not accept the offering Cain brought? Third, how did Cain know that his offering was not accepted?
The answer to the first question is related to the statement, “In the course of time.” This statement presumes that something has already occurred, an event that is not explained in the text. The literal translation of the Hebrew expression is “in the end of days.” Although the expression does not indicate a precise period of time, Wenham (p. 103) presupposes that it refers to the end of the agricultural year, when sacrifices were brought to God. Thus, it is possible that Cain and Abel brought a gift to God as an expression of gratitude for what they had accumulated as a result of their labor.
The offering Cain and Abel brought to God corresponded to their occupation as a farmer and as a shepherd. As a farmer, Cain presented to God “an offering of the fruit of the ground.” On the other had, Abel, as a shepherd, presented an offering to God “of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions.”
The biblical writer reports that God “had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” However, the narrator never explains why God accepted Abel’s offering and why he rejected Cain’s. Notwithstanding the efforts of scholars to explain the reason for God’s decision, the biblical writer does not provide any reason for God’s behavior.
In his commentary on Genesis, Claus Westermann has summarized the many proposals put forth by scholars to explain God’s decision to accept the offering of one brother and reject the offering of the other brother.
One popular way to explain the acceptance and the rejection by God is by saying that Cain’s offering was rejected because it was not a blood-offering. But such an explanation does not take into consideration that grain offering was also acceptable to God (see Lev 2). In fact, the Hebrew word used for sacrifice in Genesis 4 includes any type of offering a person may bring to God, animal offering or grain offering.
Another explanation put forth to explain God’s decision is the difference between the two offerings. This view says that Abel presented an offering from the first born of his flock, while Cain did not present an offering from the firstfruits of his harvest.
Westermann proposes that God’s decision is based on divine election. Westermann wrote: “When it is narrated that God regarded the sacrifice of one brother and not of the other, then it is saying that one experience commendation from God and the other rejection. When such an experience as the brothers had is traced back to a divine action, then this is a sign that it is something immutable. It is fated by God to be so” (p. 296).
Although the Hebrew Bible relates several examples of the younger brother being chosen over the first born, Westermann’s explanation, in my view, does not find support in the text. My view is expressed below.
A view offered by Wenham (p. 104) and others to explain God’s rejection of Cain’s offering is the quality of his gift. While Abel offered a sacrifice from the best he had, Cain was indifferent about the quality of his offering and offered something to God because he had to do so. But this interpretation is not very convincing. An offering from the ground is what a farmer was expected to offer to God and such an offering was acceptable to God.
Another unique proposal was offered by Gary A. Herion in his article “Why God Rejected Cain’s Offering: The Obvious Answer.” Herion said that scholars have missed the answer to this question because they have failed to look at the context of the story of Cain and Abel.
According to Herion, God rejected Cain’s offering because he offered produce from the ground which had been cursed by God (Gen 3:17-18). According to Herion, since the ground was cursed, God could not accept the produce “from the damned ground” (p. 61).
I do not think that the answer as to why God rejected Cain’s offering is as obvious as Herion proposes. One fact that mitigates against Herion’s proposal and the proposal offered by Westermann and other scholars is to be found in God’s words to Cain: “The LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it’” (Gen 4:6-7).
There are two things that should be emphasized in God’s words to Cain. The first thing is the first occurrence of the word “sin” in the Bible. The Hebrew word for “sin” literally means “to miss a mark.” The verb carries the idea of a person’s failure to live up to expectations. In a religious context, the word designates a failure to observe God’s law. Thus, the word seems to indicate that Cain failed to live up to God’s expectation, whatever that expectation might have been.
Second, God told Cain: “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” (Gen 4:7). This means that Cain’s offering would have been accepted if he had done what was right (Hebrew “good”). Thus, contrary to Herion, there is no mention here of the cursed ground. Rather, God mentions Cain’s attitude, that something in his attitude or that something in his conduct was not right. This is the reason his offering was not accepted.
Although Genesis 4:7 is very difficult to translate into English and although the meaning of the Hebrew words is almost incomprehensible, the intent of the words carries a simple message: if Cain does what is right, his face will be lifted up, that is, he will be accepted. This means that unless God accepts a person, he cannot accept the offering that person brings.
Thus, Genesis 4:7 is emphasizing the fact that the determining element in the presentation of a sacrifice is the attitude of the person presenting the sacrifice. If the attitude of the person presenting the sacrifice is wrong, the sacrifice will not be accepted.
As how Cain knew that his sacrifice was not accepted, we may never know. To say that God accepted Abel’s sacrifice by fire but not Cain’s, is an interpretation not based on the text. The Bible does not say how God expressed his favor and his disfavor for the sacrifices. For this reason, we should avoid any speculation on what happened when the two brothers presented their offerings to God.
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Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Herion, Gary A. “Why God Rejected Cain’s Offering: The Obvious Answer.” In Fortunate the Eyes That See: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman in Celebration of His Seventieth Birthday. Edited by Astrid B. Beck et al. Pp. 52-65. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1995.
Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 1-15. Word Bible Commentary. Waco: Word Books, 1987.
Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1-11. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984.