Cain’s offering

11th century ivory from Salerno cathedral

11th century ivory from Salerno cathedral

How the story of Cain and Abel ends is well-known, but what about how it starts? And, even more importantly, why? Cain murders Abel because he is jealous that God has accepted Abel’s sacrifice and reject his. But, why did God reject Cain’s sacrifice?

The story of Cain and Abel takes up only a few verses in Genesis 4. This is something that people have wrestled with for centuries. Not for the last time the text just doesn’t give us the details that we would really like to know. That means that we’re left wrestling with the text, trying to tease out meaning from hints and half-clues. Which, if you ask me, is half the point…

We’re told that God looked on Abel’s offering with favour, but not on Cain’s (Genesis 4:4-5), but we’re not told how they know that. Come to that, we don’t even know how they “brought an offering”! Was that in worship, or to a particular place? Did they build an altar, or put up a stone pillar? We’re not told. Also, there are no clear or terribly convincing parallels between the story of Cain and Abel and Ancient Near Eastern myths (particularly with regard to the sacrifices). This implies that this contains theology that is unique to the Bible. There is also little direct theological reflection on any of the first 11 chapters of Genesis in the rest of the Old Testament.

Over that time a few main reasons have cropped up as to why:

1. It was the wrong sort of offering. This is usually related to the fact that Abel killed something and Cain didn’t, but there is nothing in the text to indicate that this was the problem. Later in Genesis (35:14) Jacob worships God by pouring a drink offering and oil over a stone pillar that he has set up in worship of God, and there is no indication that this was wrong or rejected.

2. There was something wrong with Cain. God knew that Cain had a wrong attitude and so rejected him, even though there was nothing intrinsically wrong with the offering itself. This could be supported by God’s words to Cain (Genesis 4:6): “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” Equally, this could be seen as an opportunity to rectify whatever is wrong with the offering. Which leads us onto:

3. The quality of offering was wrong. Abel’s offering is described in more detail than Cain’s. Abel’s is “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock”, whereas Cain’s is “some of the fruits of the soil”, which is a bit more nondescript. Did Abel choose the best he had to offer whilst Cain brought what McKeown (Genesis Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary 2008:41) describes as “a nondescript offering of whatever came to his hand”? But, there is another reason that is fairly regularly suggested:

4. It was God’s sovereign choice. God arbitrarily accepted one offering and rejected the other. Brueggmann, in his commentary on Genesis, argues that this is evidence of a capricious God, that there is no reason which is either given or discernible which explains why God accepts Abel’s offering and rejects Cain’s. Less starkly, but with the same fundamental impact, is the theological shrug of the shoulders that Reno (Genesis Brazos Theological commentary 2010:98) gives:

we learn nothing of Abel’s sentiments. This silence is fitting, for the larger scriptural witness traces the distinction between the wicked and the righteous back to the mercy of God and not to a difference between two types of human beings.

Reno (p99) notes that this might be seen as “arbitrary”, but appeals to the Calvinist theological understanding of “election” to argue that God can be capricious. But this goes way beyond what the text says. There is no assertion of God’s right to do this (which, to be fair, there are in other places which Reno lists). Instead, God gives Cain an encouragement to do better and a warning (Genesis 4:7):

sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.

So, Cain’s offering is rejected, but God gives him an encouragement and a warning. An explanation, of sorts, is given, a second chance is offered. We encounter a God who is in conversation with his people. Oh, and one who is frustratingly vague when it comes to important details! One who drives us back to that wrestling and conversation with him rather than giving us the clear and detailed set of instructions that we’d (at least sometimes) prefer!


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