“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. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flocks. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor” (Gen 4:2-4 NIV).1
“These men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish” (2 Pet 2:12)
Much has already transpired to set the stage for the drama that unfolds when Cain and Abel “present offerings before the Lord” (Gen 4:3): God’s promise of the Messiah has been communicated to Adam and Eve; Eve has born two sons, and she, on the basis of God’s promise, names her firstborn “even Jehovah”; consequently, Cain’s identity and sense of self has been affected; and, because the hope of a Messiah has been mistakenly placed upon Cain, Abel, as the second child, is regarded as an “afterthought.”
While silent about their youth, Gen 4:3 infers that both had reached maturity when they presented offerings to the Lord. This is indicated by the introductory phrase: “In the course of time” or “At the end of days.”2
Maturity is marked by developmental milestones: sexual maturity associated with marriage; independence, such as leaving home and/or self sufficiency; and moral responsibility (being accountable for one’s actions). There are several indications in Gen 4 that Cain and Abel had reached these developmental milestones.
For example, as farmer and shepherd respectively, Cain and Abel were able to sustain themselves independently of their parents: “Abel kept flocks and Cain worked the soil” (Gen 4:2). Cain had also reached sexual maturity. Gen 4:17 says that, “he lay with his wife and she became pregnant.” Presumably, Cain’s offering to the Lord, the murder of Abel, and his exile all occurred within a relatively short period of time. Thus, Cain may have been already married when he presented his offering,3 or at the very least he was ready to be married, which indicates that he was, at the time of his presentation of an offering to the Lord, sexually mature. There is no indication in the Bible that Abel was married, however supposing Levin’s hypothesis about Cain and Abel being twins is correct, then if Cain had reached sexual maturity, Abel had as well.
Finally, both brothers were capable of exercising the ability to make moral choices and accept responsibility for their actions, as indicated in Gen 4:6. In this first example, the bolded words indicate choice: “The Lord said to Cain, ‘If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” In this second example, the bolded words indicate responsibility: “Then the Lord said to Cain, if you do what is right, will you not be accepted?”
The first example demonstrates that Cain had the ability to make a moral choice, while the second example illustrates Cain’s sole responsibility for that decision. From God’s perspective, neither Adam nor Eve was accountable for their son’s actions, for He says to Cain: “What have you done! … Now you are under a curse and are driven from the ground” (Gen 4:10-11). Likewise, Abel demonstrated he was able to make moral decisions, by the fact that he did “what was right” (Gen 4:6) by offering an acceptable offering to the Lord.
Consequently, the introductory phrase in Gen 4:3, “In the course of time” or “At the end of days” is not merely a narrative convention that Genesis uses to convey the passing of an unspecified period of time, rather it refers to Cain and Abel’s physical and moral maturation. As such, a better interpretation of this introductory phrase might be: “When Cain and Abel had reached maturity….”
God’s dwelling place
From the exile of Adam and Eve to the promises made to Abraham, God’s presence did not dwell in any particular geographical place. That is to say, He was omnipresent, but His name was not attached to a specific location. Prior to Adam and Eve’s transgression, God dwelt with them in the Garden in a way that was clearly discernible, for Gen 3:8 says, “The man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as He was walking in the garden in the cool of the day.”
After their expulsion from the Garden, God’s presence was, for a time, much less tangible. For example, although God spoke to Cain on at least two occasions, there is no indication as to how God spoke to him. Did He communicate with Cain as a voice from heaven, in a dream, or through the mouth of an angel? The answer to this question is found in examining where Cain and Abel presented their offerings.
The obvious but often overlooked place where Cain and Abel presented their offerings before the Lord was at the feet of the cherubim who guarded the entrance to the Garden of Eden. To prevent humans from partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Life, which maintained life-everlasting, God placed4 cherubim at the “eastern”5 entrance of the Garden.
Whenever cherubim have appeared or manifested themselves, men felt as though they were in the presence of God. For example, Ezekiel noted that the noise of their wings was “as the voice of the Almighty” (1:24). The prophet also recognized that his vision of the cherubim represented the “glory of the Lord,” and out of respect for being in His presence, he “fell on his face” (v. 28).
Since the cherubim’s manifestations are God-like, and since there was no other place where God’s name dwelt upon the earth in the days of Cain and Abel, the entrance to the Garden of Eden was surely the place where Adam’s sons “presented their offerings to the Lord” (Gen 4:3).
The first of its kind
“In the course of time, Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flocks (Gen 4:3).
Since there is no reference to either Cain or Abel having presented offerings to the Lord prior to this verse, Gen 4:3 was likely the first time either brother had made such an offering. An obvious question is, why now? Why had both brothers decided at this moment to make an offering to the Lord — especially since there is no indication that God had previously asked either of them to perform this act.
Since there’s no command to make an offering from God, we may safely conclude that Cain and Abel presented their offerings of their own free will. Moreover, Genesis clearly indicates that Cain was first to present his offering, which rules out the possibility that his was done out of competition with Abel or as an afterthought.
While it could be mere coincidence that the timing of their offerings coincided with Cain and Abel having reached maturity, it seems far more likely that their offerings were an attempt by the brothers to forge a new, adult relationship with their Creator.6 They were both self-sufficient, likely both sexually mature (i.e. could father children), and were at the age to understand and recognize moral responsibility. Like baptism, which is done at mature age, so too was the presentation of the offerings; it was a sort of proto-baptismal rite — signifying, to the Lord, that they understood that their nature is mortal; how their actions are related to sin and death; and, importantly, that the shedding of blood is required for the forgiveness of sin. At least that’s how Abel would have approached the offering; Cain’s motivation was very different.
One view as to why Cain’s offering was rejected by God emphasizes the condition in which the offering was made — not the offering itself.
For example, Gen 4:3 says that Cain brought “some” of his harvest, while Abel’s offering is described as being taken from the “fattest portions” of his flocks. The descriptors seem to suggest that “Abel brought the best that he had,” while “Cain brought whatever he had.” (Levin p, 311). In other words, the quality of their offerings was indicative of their attitude. In this particular view, God cared less about the offerings and more about the spirit in which they were offered.
However, regardless of the condition of the harvest that Cain offered, or what his attitude was in presenting them, his offering was always going to be rejected, because plants do not contain blood, which God requires for the forgiveness of sin (Heb 9:22).
The Psalms and Isaiah can be cited to show that God, at a time thousands of years after establishing the Mosaic Law, no longer required/desired sacrifices (Psa 50:9-10, 13-14; Isa 1:11). However, Cain and Abel were but second generation humans and, as such, they were still in their spiritual infancy, requiring “elementary truths” (Heb 5:12). At this early stage in humankind’s spiritual development, God did desire the “blood of bulls and goats,” as indicated by the sacrifice of animals God made on behalf of Adam and Eve in the Garden: “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them” (Gen 3:21). The fig leaves, which Adam and Eve initially covered themselves with, were insufficient in removing sin. And even though their efforts to remove their shame/guilt were likely sincere, the covering of fig leaves was considered insufficient by the Lord. Instead, God clothed them in animal skins, which came as the result of the shedding of blood.
Thus, in spite of the attitude or spirit of the individual, blood is essential. As Harry Whittaker notes in Genesis 1-2-3-4, “The basic reason for rejection of Cain’s offering was that he failed to bring a blood sacrifice” (p. 123).
Two become one
Yet, it is difficult to imagine that God judged Cain’s offering solely on the basis of what was presented without taking into consideration his attitude. This is, however, not a case of either/or, because on closer examination, Genesis accommodates both points of view.
Looking closely at Gen 4:4, the wording is as follows: “The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor.” Notice that the verse does not say that God “looked upon Abel’s offering,” but rather He looked upon Abel and his offering. Similarly, God did not reject “Cain’s offering,” but rather He rejected “Cain and his offering.”
Cain was not conscious of the particulars of God. He knew of God, he even feared Him enough to present Him with an offering, but since his pride blinded him to instruction, he was ignorant of what God desired concerning sacrifice. Ignorant of the fact that an offering must contain blood, and likely believing he could worship God in his own way, Cain offered fruits and vegetables that were in no way symbolic of something greater. As such, God rejected Cain’s offering on the basis that it was not a blood sacrifice.
Unlike his brother, Abel was conscious of the Almighty’s wishes and “desired to do what was right” (Gen 4:7). Thus, he sacrificed the first of his flocks, which represented a blood sacrifice. As such, God accepted Abel because his offering contained blood.
Spirit and attitude
Along with his offering, Cain himself was rejected, because he did not offer in the right spirit. He offered “some” of his harvest, a word indicating that there was nothing special or of importance to him with regard to the gifts he presented. To Cain, the fruit and vegetables were merely a product of his labor. That’s not to say that he held back the best for himself, as some have suggested, but rather one piece of produce was as significant or insignificant to him as the next.
In contrast, Abel offered in the right spirit, which is indicated by the phrases, “fattest portions” and “first of his flocks.” “Fattest portions” is indicative of the health of the animal. In Joseph’s dream (Gen 41), he saw seven cows “sleek and fat,” which was indicative of the seven prosperous years Egypt would have prior to a famine. He also saw seven cows “ugly and gaunt,” which was indicative of the seven years of famine Egypt would suffer following seven years of plenty. This demonstrates that the Bible uses “fat” or “fattest portions” as indicative of “health” or “well-being.”
The “fattest portions” of Abel’s flocks was, therefore, the very best animals. Abel had specially separated the fat from the lean, and gave the healthiest to God, which illustrates the spirit in which he presented his offerings.
Similarly, the phrase, “first of the flocks,” demonstrates Abel’s attention to God’s wishes. He recognized that the first of living creatures are special to God;7 they are His, a fact that is repeatedly demonstrated throughout the Bible.8 Thus, in recognition of this fact, Abel specifically offered the “first” of his flocks to God, knowing that this would please Him.
Therefore, Cain was rejected because he had not honored God by heeding the Lord’s example in the Garden, when He offered a blood sacrifice on behalf of Cain’s parents. Cain’s offering, therefore, did not contain blood, which was required for the forgiveness of sins. His mistake was the result of not learning from God. His ignorance in spiritual wisdom was the result of his “great name” — even Jehovah — which elevated his pride and blinded him to instruction from others — including God. Thus, lacking wisdom, he was unable to discern between right and wrong; between vegetables, which do not contain blood, and animals, which do. Thus, both he and his offering were deemed unacceptable by the Lord, and both were rejected.
A creature of instinct
Cain’s unacceptable offering, presented in the wrong spirit, raises the question: How was it possible that he was ignorant of God’s requirements, but his brother, Abel, was not?
It is difficult to imagine that Adam and Eve had not shared, with their sons, the experience of their transgression in the Garden. Are we to also imagine that the promises made to Adam and Eve regarding their seed wasn’t passed onto their sons? These, of course, concerned the eventual restoration of the earth from their transgressions, and this was the foundation of Eve’s faith, and in turn led to her decision to name her son, “even Jehovah”. In fact, Abel’s offering — presented in the right spirit and containing the life-saving blood — demonstrates that Adam and Eve passed on what spiritual knowledge/wisdom they had learned about God to their sons.
Thus, Cain’s ignorance stems not from a lack of parental instruction, but rather from his own indifference or disregard concerning spiritual matters. The source of this attitude lies with Cain’s mistaken belief concerning his messianic name, “even Jehovah.”
As has been noted, Cain’s “great name” elevated his pride and blinded him to everything else, including spiritual wisdom. Without wisdom, he was like a creature of instinct; an animal. Animals act in their own self-interest, without discernment. As such, Peter calls a person who acts similarly a “brute beast, a creature of instinct” (2Pet 2:12). The Psalmist makes the same correlation between ignorance and animals: “I was so foolish and ignorant; I was like a beast before You [God]” (73:22); as does Isaiah: “They are all ignorant; they are all dumb dogs” (63:16). In contrast, God reveres wisdom: “Choose my instruction instead of silver, knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is more precious than rubies and nothing you desire can compare with her” (Prov 8:11).
Cain’s mistaken belief that his name made him special blinded him to spiritual wisdom, which made him ignorant. In this capacity, he was like an animal; a “brute beast; a creature of instinct,” a “dumb dog.” No wonder, then, that he rejected God’s spiritual instruction (passed onto him from his parents), and made an unacceptable offering. And given what we’ve already learned about Cain, it’s also no wonder God rejected him and his offering.
Cain’s nature as a “brute beast” would also, later, impact his reaction to God’s chastisement — the Lord’s rejection of him and his offering — and result in the “instinctual” or emotionally-driven response he made in the wake of God’s decision. Peter’s description of the “beast” being “brutish” suggests a thoughtless, savagely violent creature; someone or something prone to violence. Is this not the creature that Cain eventually reveals himself to be?
Cherubim, those frightful, mystical creatures
The cherubim may have also been a factor in Cain’s ignorance of, or misconceptions about God.
Because Cain’s pride blinded him to spiritual wisdom, his understanding of God was limited to what he could physically see. At this time, God’s presence was physically manifested as the cherubim: those frightful, mystical creatures that guarded the entranceway to the Garden of Eden with the fiery sword that flashed every which way (Gen 3:24).
The cherubim’s function was to prevent Adam and his family from entering the Garden and eating of the Tree of Life, which would have allowed them to “live forever” (Gen. 3:22).9 By removing them from the Tree of Life and mercifully providing them with the blood of animals, God provided a new way for eternal life. Thus, the Tree of Life became irrelevant. Until it withered and died, as a result of the curse God brought upon the earth (Gen 3:17), or until it was destroyed in the Flood, the Tree of Life had to remain off-limits.
As guardians to the way to the Tree of Life, the cherubim were an enigma to behold, fearsome in appearance, since they were accompanied by, or wielded a flashing or fiery sword. Since this was all Cain saw, he approached the cherubim in fear, not awe.
This is because awe is something that requires respect and wisdom. As the Proverbs notes, “The fear (Heb: “respect”) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (9:10). Cain would not have been able to manifest “awe” since he did not respect God enough to learn from his ways — this resulted in a lack of spiritual wisdom. Thus, the only other emotion Cain would have manifested while in the presence of the cherubim — the Lord — was fear; an emotion motivated solely by what he could see, hear, and feel. For Cain, the “fear” was driven by the fearsome nature of the cherubim and by the fiery sword that flashed every which way.
God: An unfair, angry, vengeful Deity?
As has been shown, Cain’s view of God was limited to what he could see, hear, and feel. This is confirmed by his belief that if he was removed from where God — as manifested as the cherubim — dwelt, he would be hidden from the Lord. For he says: “Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence” (Gen 4:14). As the guardians of the way to the Tree of Life, the cherubim were bound to a specific geographical location. Therefore, in considering his exile, Cain concluded that he would be hidden from the presence of God, because he was being banished from cherubim’s dwelling place. Thus, in Cain’s eyes, the cherubim were God.
As noted, the cherubim had a fearsome appearance. Moreover, their function was to prevent man from access to the Tree of Life. These combined factors may have given Cain — a man who limited himself to what he could only see, hear, and feel — the false impression that God was an unfair, angry, and vengeful deity.
By the time Cain had reached maturity, God’s curse upon the earth was already making life difficult. The curse – affecting the earth – would have particularly impacted Cain, since he was a farmer. Bent over, plucking roots and rocks from the soil, sowing seeds, and tending plants in the hot sun — might Cain, on more than one occasion, stood up and glanced longingly at the Garden of Eden and imagined how much easier life used to be before the fall? Might he have said to himself, “Why should I be punished along with my parents? Why should I be denied access to the Garden; that place where life is easy, and where life everlasting dwells? What have I done to deserve God’s wrath?”
It is likely that these questions surfaced, from time to time, in Cain’s thoughts and it may have produced in him the perception that God was an unfair, angry, and vengeful deity; a perception strengthened by the fearsome nature of the cherubim and the presence of the fiery/flashing sword. If this was indeed Cain’s perception, how might it have affected his decision to present an offering before the Lord?
It is possible — perhaps even probable — that one factor, which may have motivated Cain’s decision to present God/cherubim with an offering, was in the hope of appeasing what he perceived to be an angry deity. Obviously, this line of thinking failed, for his offering, made in ignorance, only made the Lord angry.
Therefore, we can see how pride blinded Cain to spiritual instruction/wisdom, without which he was unable to see beyond what was in front of his face — the cherubim. He therefore approached the cherubim with fear, not awe, perhaps even with the intent of assuaging the cherubim’s anger (their fearsome nature being perceived as such), in the hopes of obtaining an entrance to the Garden of Eden and a life free of the hard toil brought about by his parent’s transgression.
An elementary truth
While Cain was ignorant of spiritual matters, his brother was most certainly not. Abel demonstrated his attentiveness to the spiritual instruction he received from his parents by offering a sacrifice that he knew would please God.
As noted, the only sacrifice mentioned prior to Cain and Abel occurred when God slew animals to make clothes for Adam and Eve (Gen 3:21). It is fair to assume, therefore, that Abel’s offering must have been modeled after the Lord’s sacrifice in the Garden. Sacrifices at this time were not clearly delineated as being either sin offerings or thanksgiving offerings, since no such designation had as yet been prescribed by God. Therefore, while his offering was surely one of thanks, the blood component of his offering signified atonement, and harkened back to the sacrifice, for sin (as a covering), God had made on behalf of Adam and Eve.
Although Genesis does not actually state that Abel slew the firstborn of his flocks (as opposed to merely presenting God with a live animal or offering) he must have, since blood was a key component in God’s sacrifice; it was the difference between the fig leaf coverings Adam and Eve made for themselves, and the animal skins God replaced them with. In doing so, God had taught Adam and Eve an elementary truth: blood was essential for forgiveness, for “without the shedding of blood, there can be no remission for sin” (Heb 9:22). That Abel’s sacrifice included “firstborn” and were taken from among the “fattest portions,” is further evidence that his offering was an atoning sacrifice, since these were key aspects of atoning sacrifices latter codified in the Mosaic Law (Exod 12:3-5; Lev 9:18-24 respectively).
Abel’s offering was made on the basis of spiritual instruction he received from his parents and to which he took to heart. It involved blood, and given how closely it resembled the Mosaic atonement sacrifice, it must have been an atoning sacrifice.
Why Abel offered an atoning sacrifice is a bit of a mystery. Likely, it was made in recognition of sin and death, and the need for forgiveness. It was, as has been previously suggested, a sort of proto-baptismal rite; a way to show to God that he understood his mortal nature, that he recognized how actions lead to sin and death, and that the shedding of blood is required for the forgiveness of sin. This understanding and recognition could only come at a point of maturity. Thus, as has been shown, it coincided with self-sufficiency, sexual maturity, and recognition of moral responsibility.
Matthew Harrison (Ottawa, Quebec)
1. All translations are from the NIV except where indicated.
2. Ellicott 1897:28.
3. Cain’s wife must have been one of his sisters. Since this sister had not committed murder, it is odd that God would also banish her, unless she was already his wife. Although innocent of Abel’s death, she was nevertheless bound to her husband and accompanied him into exile. Thus, Cain was likely already married before he was exiled.
4. How long the cherubim remained at the entrance to the Garden is unknown. The Garden, including the Tree of Life, may have eventually succumbed to the curse — thistles and thorns — that God pronounced upon the earth after Adam’s transgression. In time, the Garden would have become overgrown and choked with weeds, which would have caused it to recede into the surrounding wilderness until it was no more. Another possibility is that the cherubim guarded the Garden until the Flood came, when the ensuing catastrophe destroyed it along with the Tree of Life. In the post-Flood world, the search to find the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life may have been the inspiration for Gilgamesh’s quest (see The Epic of Gilgamesh).
5 Presumably, there was no access to the Garden of Eden from the north, south, or west. This is an important geographical feature for locating the Garden of Eden, which will be discussed later.
6 This was the prime motivation. However, it is also likely that the timing of their offerings coincided with the results of their first labours as independents. Thus, when Cain’s first harvest was gathered in and when Abel’s flocks gave birth to firstlings they decided to use this occasion to present their respective gifts to God as symbols of their maturity. Cain’s harvest was likely gathered in the summer/fall (times of harvest), while Abel’s flocks likely gave birth in the spring (as per usual season for animals to birth). It is therefore possible that they did not present their offerings at the same exact moment. The Genesis account, which presents the story as though they had both presented their offerings at the same time, may have done so in its effort to be economical with regard to its narrative.
7 I have presented a very simplified reason for why the “first” of living-things are significant to God.
8 Deut 12:6, 17; Neh 10:36.
9 God had already given a greater and more powerful means of hope, through the promise of the Messiah, His son, in Gen 3:15. Therefore, two forms of “hope” could not co-exist, i.e. you can’t have a Tree of Life and Christ. Thus, until the former passed away, access to it had to be cut-off.