“And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Gen. 4:4b-5).
Why does God accept the sacrifice of Abel but reject the sacrifice of Cain?
Exegetes have come to differing conclusions throughout the years. Both Luther and Calvin, for instance, thought it was simply a case of God’s preferring Abel over Cain, and thus preferring Abel’s offering.
The question has even drawn the interest of self-help psychologists like Jordan Peterson, who views the text as ambiguous:
Abel’s offerings please God, but Cain’s do not. Abel is rewarded, many times over, but Cain is not. It’s not precisely clear why (although the text strongly hints that Cain’s heart is just not in it). Maybe the quality of what Cain put forward was low. Maybe his spirit was begrudging. Or maybe God was vexed, for some secret reasons of his own.
But is the biblical text actually all that ambiguous? Scripture says that Cain resented Abel, not because God arbitrarily predestined the one and punished the other, but “because [Cain’s] own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12). Hebrews likewise views the difference as this: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he received approval as righteous, God bearing witness by accepting his gifts” (Heb. 11:4).
So it wasn’t God’s “secret reasons,” or his arbitrary preference for Abel over Cain, but because Abel offered a “more acceptable sacrifice” in faith. And what makes Abel’s sacrifice better? “Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions” (Gen. 4:4a). That is, he offered the first-borns, the very best of what he has. But Cain doesn’t offer God the first fruits of his harvest. Instead, he simply gives him “an offering of the fruit of the ground” (Gen. 4:3). If Abel is giving God the equivalent of filet mignon, Cain is giving him ground beef. This is a difference in both faith and works. By faith, Abel gives God everything. Cain phones it in.
The early Christians understood this. St. John Chrysostom observed that Abel’s piety is demonstrated by “the fact that he did not casually offer any one of his sheep but ‘one of the firstborn,’ that is, from the valuable and special ones,” whereas in Cain's case, “nothing of the kind is suggested”; Genesis 4:3’s description of Cain bringing “an offering of the fruit of the ground” suggests a lack of zeal or care.
Didymus the Blind's exegesis is virtually identical: Abel's sincerity is demonstrated by his choice of the firstborn, and “Cain should have done so as well by offering some of the first-fruits,” since what is due to God ought to “be apportioned before everything else.” Instead, Cain procrastinates, bringing his offering “in the course of time” (Gen. 4:3), “as if remembering God only on second thoughts.”
We see something similar in the New Testament with Ananias and Sapphira, who “sold a piece of property, and . . . kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet,” pretending that it was the entire value of the sale (Acts 5:1-2). The issue isn’t that they offer God nothing but that they offer him less than everything. For their deception, and for their holding back from God, they’re struck dead (Acts 5:5, 10).
To Ananias and Sapphira, as to Cain, the message is the same as Christ’s message to Laodicea: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15-16).
It’s worth remembering that, just as in the trials of the Israelites in the desert, “these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). For we are each faced with the same choice: do we want to give God everything or try to settle for less?
In a world encouraging us to settle for being “basically good people,” Christ repeatedly warns us that isn’t good enough. He says anyone who “does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27). Immediately after this, he compares discipleship to building a tower or going to war. Undertaking either of these endeavors halfheartedly is a surefire way to lose a battle or build half a tower (Luke 14:28-32). And so “whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
Scripture tells us not just to give God whatever fruit we have left over and lying around. Instead, “the first of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God” (Exod. 23:19, 34:26).In other words, don’t wait until you’re comfortable to tithe, don’t wait until you feel like you have the time to start making time for prayer. Give to God immediately, give from your necessity, give to him (in time, in money, in trust, and so on) when it seems like you can’t.
This is why Christ praises the widow who put two mites into the treasury as having given more than the others, because “they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living” (Mark 12:44). She doesn’t just give one coin out of her poverty but two. Be generous with God in your poverty, and he’ll be generous with you in his limitless abundance. “Honor the Lord with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine” (Prov. 3:9-10).
The world encourages us to be Cain, “good enough” moralistic Christians who pay lip service to God. Christ calls us instead to be Abel.
Image: Didier Descouens via Wikimedia Commons