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For a few weeks now we have been on a journey through Genesis. I have to admit that for a book I think I am so familiar with, there have been quite a few new insights. I hope you have experienced the same.
We then explored how we lost paradise desiring to become gods. On another post on chapter two we studied how God handled the rebellion of our first parents and how God gave us the first gospel, the first promise of the Messiah and victory over sin in Genesis 3:15.
Today we will pick up the story with Genesis 4 and see what we can learn from the story of two brothers.
Before we get to Genesis 4, let’s go back and read how chapter 3 ends.
Adam calls his wife Eve which literally means life or living. I refer to this as a prophecy because there is no record of her giving birth to anyone at this point. I believe Adam chooses that name because of the promise made by God about Eve’s seed killing the serpent. Adam believes God and trusting in God’s promises calls his wife Eve.
Also, earlier on Genesis 3, on verse 7, Adam and Eve make themselves coverings out of fig leaves. We noticed that this didn't work because they still hid from God. Now on Genesis 3:21 we have God clothing Adam and Eve with tunics of skin. This mention of clothing of skin aludes to the death of an animal. An innocent animal had to die so that the nakedness of Adam and Eve could be covered. God covered Adam and Eve. It was God who did the covering, but an inocent animal had to die. Keep this tucked away in the back of your mind.
Finally Adam and Eve are driven out of the garden of Eden, and they no longer had access to the tree of life. Notice that Adam and Eve did not have immortality in and of themselves. Their immortality was dependent on their access to the tree of life.
With this in mind, we are ready for chapter 4.
Genesis 4 is really a continuation of Genesis 3.
We pick up the story with Adam knowing his wife. A careful choice of words to highlight the intimacy of the act. Genesis 4:1 is not an easy passage to translate(the first of several challenging passages found in this chapter). Eve gave birth, for the first time. This is her child, her male child, her seed. It could be she is so amazed by this miracle of life that she is saying God must have been involved with the process. Therefore, many translations will say “with the help of the LORD.”
Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.” (English Standard Version)
The idea of God intervening with the birth of a child is found throughout the Bible.
- We have Sarah, the wife of Abraham who could not have children, but with the help of the LORD she gave birth to Isaac. Genesis 18:1-15, Genesis 21:1-7
- We have Manoah’s wife, who was barren, but the the help pf the LORD gave birth to Samson who would deliver Israel. Judges 13
- We have the story of Hannah, who prayed, and with the help of the LORD gave birth to a boy and named him Samuel. 1 Samuel 1
The more traditional approach to this text, the one most of us are familiar with, is found in many popular translations, among the the King James Version that so many hold dear.
And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD. (King James Bible)
The way Eve speaks in this translation brings to mind the experience that Mary experienced. Mary literally had a man from the LORD. (Matthew 1:18-24) This translation indicates a more direct involvement from God, He was not just helping from a distance, but rather the child came form Him. The idea that this is a miracle from God! And for those of us who have witnessed a birth, it does feel like we are witnessing a miracle of God, and I believe this translation of Genesis 4:1 is also valid.
One way of translating this text that I had not come across until I was at the seminary, has become one of my favorite ways of interpreting this text.
Later, Adam had sexual relations with his wife Eve. She became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, "I have given birth to a male child—the LORD." (International Standard Version)
Eve makes her proclamation with Genesis 3:15 in mind and the promise of the Seed, the Savior, the Messiah, the One who would kill the serpent. I believe it is very likely that Eve believed her firstborn was the son of the promise. In Genesis 3:15 the seed is referred to in the masculine singular, a male child would fit the description.
GOD’S WORD translation does a great job highlighting this in its translation of Genesis 4:1.
Adam made love to his wife Eve. She became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, "I have gotten the man that the LORD promised." (GOD'S WORD® Translation)
The next verse Eve gives birth again, to Cain’s brother Abel. But there is no proclamation from his mother regarding his birth or name. The first born was named Cain which means “acquire.” The second born was named Abel, which means “breath” or “nothing.”
Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain, Cain was a tiller of the ground. Cain was like his dad, he worked the field, he worked with his hands, tilling the ground. He was not like his brother who just had to watch animals. Cain tilled the ground, watered, puled weeds, harvested, etc.
Cain is the second Adam, he is the son of the promise. The story highlights Cain, Adam and Eve seem to prefer Cain. All the times I have read and heard the story of Cain and Abel I had never realized the heavy emphasis on Cain. Abel is passive throughout the story. He never speaks a word. Keep this in the back of your minds because we will come back to it.
And time for worship came. This is clear because both Cain and Abel offered their sacrifices giving us the idea of an established time for worship.
According to Genesis 4:3 Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the LORD. According to verse 4 Abel brought an offering and also of the first born of his flock and of their fat. This is another passage that is tricky to translate.
and Abel, he hath brought, he also, from the female firstlings of his flock, even from their fat ones; and Jehovah looketh unto Abel and unto his present, (Young's Literal Translation)
This may surprise many of you but the NIV actually has a pretty accurate translation of the original in this verse.
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, (New International Version)
Don’t you find it puzzling how many translate "Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock" when Cain did not bring of the firstborn of his flock? How could Abel also do something, when the something he is also doing was not done by his brother?
The Hebrew indicates both that Abel also brought an offering, there is a similarity, but there is a difference, Abel brought of the fat of the firstborn of his flock. It is possible that Abel had also brought an offering of the fruit of the ground, but he also added to that the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. The language used mentioning the "fat" specifically would remind the Jewish reader of the directions regarding sacrifices found in Leviticus. (Lev. 3:16) The Bible also mentions offering of fruit of the ground or grains (Numbers 18:12) so it would not be wrong to offer grains, it was all part of worship. Even thought Numbers mentions bringing the "finest" and the "firstfruits" while Cain brought only "an offering of the fruit of the ground," the words "finest" and "firstfruits" are missing in the description of Cain's offering, even though the words "firstborn" and "fat" are mentioned in connection with Abel's offering.
Now, pop quiz!
According to the text, what does God respect and what does God not respect?
I grew up believing that God rejected Cain’s offering because he brought the wrong things. I would imagine Cain slitting the throat of a watermelon on the alter and it just didn't seem right. I was sure that the problem was Cain's failure to follow directions properly. If he had paid attention to what God required of him God would have accepted his offering. Cain did not bring the lamb, He did not bring the best or the firstfruits, that was his problem, or so I thought most of my life.
Following the same rationale, I always believed Abel was better at following directions and that is why God accepted his sacrifice. Abel is the hero, Abel is obedient, and God loves obedient people and accepts their correct offerings.
However, this is not the whole truth.
It is actually backwards.
It is so difficult to read a text and read what it says when you already think you know what it says. My whole life I have focused on their offerings and how one followed directions and one did not. The text, however, is not explicit when it comes to why God accepted one and rejected the other. But there is enough information on the text to teach us what the key issues are.
Notice that the text tells us that the LORD respected Abel and his offering.
Abel, then his offering.
Abel was accepted first, before there is any mention of his offering. I had never noticed this before, I had never paid attention to this even thought it is right there on the text!
Also, even though Cain is mentioned first as bringing an offering, the story mentions first God accepting Abel, and his offering, before mentioning God not respecting Cain.
Grace and acceptance come first.
Even though Abel is a vapor or vanity, just the brother, the second child. Even though Abel never gets to say a word in the story, He is accepted. Cain, the one believed to be the deliverer of humanity, the one who seems to be the second Adam, a tiller of the soil, Cain is not respected. Cain is mentioned second, after God accepts his brother and his offering.
Before discussing the differences in their offerings we ought to focus on Cain and Abel, since they are mentioned first.
The reason God accepted Abel’s offering but rejected Cain’s is not explicitly indicated on the biblical text. But the text has several clues that point to possible reasons.
The first clue is that God pays attention first to the person who is making the offering. According to the text, God’s rejection and acceptance of the offering has more to do with the spiritual condition of the person than the content of the offering itself.
The prophet Micah testifies to this.
On the first chapter of Isaiah, we read a message from God to the people of Judah and Jerusalem through the prophet. The problem is not that they are making incorrect sacrifices, but rather that their hearts are far away from God. Look at what God has to say regarding their "correct" offerings
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. (Isaiah 1:11 English Standard Version)
God spends a lot of time explaining to His followers how to properly worship and what to sacrifice, we can read all about that in especially in Leviticus and Numbers. But we make the mistake of thinking that that is all that God cares about. God does not care about the sacrifice when the heart is rebellious. It does not matter how correct the sacrifice is, if the heart is not humbly seeking God, the sacrifice is rejected.
Here is something else I had never noticed before. Let me know if you see it this way as well.
Cain brings an offering of the fruit of the ground to the LORD. Abel on the other hand brings an offering (the phrase "to the LORD" is missing) and also of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. What does this mean? It could indicate several things.
- Cain brings his offerings as a gift to God. Abel seems to focus on his attention on the meaning of the sacrifice itself, that is, God’s gift to him. Perhaps that is why Abel adds to his sacrifice the firstborn of his flock.
- Cain focuses on what his hard work produced form the ground, his offering to God. Abel focuses on what God will do for him, the sacrifice of His first born for him.
- Cain views religion as an upward movement to God, based on what he can offer God. Cain focuses on his actions. Abel experiences worship as a downward movement from God. God saving him.
- Cain comes to worship to show what he has to offer. Abel comes to receive from God what he could never attain on his own.
- Cain brought fruit of the ground, that had been cursed by God because of Adam and Eve’s sin (Genesis 3:17-19). According to the curse, in the sweat of his face, out of his hard work he would eat bread. Out of his hard work he brought offerings to God. The focus is on human strength and the perspective of death ("For dust you are, and to dust you shall return." Genesis 3:19).
- Abel brought of the firstborn of his flock, the most precious portion of his flock. The animal offering also points to Genesis 3:21, where God clothed Adam and Eve with tunics of skin. Associated with divine protection and the perspective of life.
- Cain’s offering was the expression of human efforts towards God, whereas Abel’s offering was the expression of humanity’s need for God’s salvation.
In case you’re still not sure, Abel’s offering was related to the messianic promise of Genesis 3:15 of someOne (the Lamb of God) who would die to save the world.
Cain’s offering was an empty ritual, similar to the human attempt to clothe themselves with fig leaves (fruit of the ground) and solve the sin problem by their own hard work (Genesis 3:7). The fig leaves were not enough to cover the nakedness that sin brought about. Adam and Eve needed God to cover them with garments made of animal skin, and for that to take place an innocent animal had to die.
We never were, and never will be able to save ourselves by our own efforts. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
We could also speculate that Cain did not want to ask his brother Abel for help. This is speculation but seems to go along with the evidence the text gives regarding the heart of Cain.
The story of Cain and Abel is clearly about more than just two brothers. It is the story of two brothers, but it is also so much more. Like everything else in Genesis, it is a story about God. About a God who cares more about the person then about what they bring Him. It is a story about a God who is interested in saving and redeeming.
Notice how Abel never says a word. On my next post we will see how Abel is killed for being faithful to God and never utters a word. (Reminds you of someOne? Isaiah 53:7, 1 Peter 2:23) We will see how God has conversations with Cain, the sinful one, the murderer.
Why would God talk to the sinner, the murderer, instead of the good one?
Should not Abel be the hero of the story?
Should he not have been the favorite?
Should not God have spent more time talking to him?
Didn’t Abel deserve a better name?
More attention from his mom?
More “screen time” in this story?
Cain seems to get all the attention. The sinful son, the murderer, the one who everyone expected to do great things! The one who disappointed his parents, killed his own brother. Why is he the focus of the story?
Could this story be a story about God’s desire to rescue sinners, as opposed to a story about obeying all the rules? (more on this on my next post)
Sure, obedience is important. I am not denying the importance of obedience. But the story found in Genesis 4 focuses instead on the heart of the worshiper, and how their worship reflects their theology, their view of God and their relationship with God. The story also focuses on God's attempt to redeem the sinful sibling.
Maybe you're not convinced
I understand. I spent a lot of time wrestling with this. If this is really the message of the text, there should be support for this in other places of the Bible. On this post, we already mentioned Isaiah 1 and Micah 6. There is also the story of the widow's offering found in Luke 21:1-4 where Jesus claims a poor widow's two very small copper coins (the smallest Jewish coins then in use) she offered at the temple were of more worth than all the other offerings.
I believe the best example of the principle regarding what God looks for in worship is found in a parable Jesus told (Luke 18:9-14) where a Pharisee and a tax collector go up to the temple to pray. The tax collector humbly begs God for mercy and receives it, while the Pharisee trusted in himself and his correct living and considered himself superior to others failed to have his prayers answered.
Finally, according to Paul, it was Abel's faith that made all the difference.
Which offering was accepted and which offering was rejected depended on the heart of the worshiper.