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. Now the Lord looked with favour on Abel and his offering.
The brothers bring different offerings based upon their respective occupations. Cain brings the fruit of the ground, Abel the firstlings of his flock. One is acceptable the other not. Now from a NT perspective we interpret this in a particular way.
Hebrews 11:4 By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.
1 John 3:12 Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous.
But the writer of Genesis was not aware of the NT, and it just seems to me that this smacks of favouritism on the part of God. Why was one chosen and the other rejected? Was this just an arbitrary decision? What this passage may be challenging us to accept is that God is free to act as he chooses. Cain has no rights over God. No-one has. God, in his sovereign wisdom chose Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s, just as he chose the Hebrews to be his people and not any other nation (Deut 7:7).
God chooses not on the basis of what human beings do, but on the basis of grace. Faith must live with this mystery.
But there may be something else hidden here. Verse 5 indicates that Cain’s anger was passionate and intense. Which may reflect something of the attitude behind his act of worship. The Hebrew indicates that there was something different in the quality of the gifts they offered. Cain, the scriptures say, brought ‘some of the fruits of the soil’. Abel, it says, ‘brought..of the firstborn of his flock’. Abel it seems was a little more discerning in what he brought to worship reflecting, perhaps, a different attitude.
Arguing about the relative merits of fruit versus flesh, is, I think, something of a red herring. The real issue at the heart of this story is the attitude we bring to worship. One brings ‘some’, the other brings ‘the best’. It would be interesting to analyse the debates over worship amongst Christians today.
How often are our disputes about FORM, i.e. the types of music, the instruments used or not used, whether we are liturgical or not. and how many are about SUBSTANCE, about our approach and attitude. The stark lesson from the story of Cain and Abel is that form is not nearly as important as attitude or substance.
I think it’s worth reflecting on whether Cain’s sacrifice would have been acceptable if he, like Abel, had approached God in faith? The woman or man of faith offers only what she or he has, trusting that it will be acceptable to God, and is willing to hear what God has to say. This brings a recognition that sometimes God will say, ‘no that’s not what I want’ but that too can be accepted as a learning moment. By this way we are trained into what God’s will is, as the writer of Hebrews says,
Hebrews 5:14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
What I need to realise, particularly in the debates about worship, is that we will not always get it right. What is important though is that we offer up in faith what we have, and seek to learn from those times when we get it wrong. But where would any of us be if God only accepted us when we got it right.
Abel is not blamed for getting it wrong. He is blamed for his angry reaction to the Lord’s response.
And Cain’s anger against God is transferred onto his brother. I’m no counselor, but I wonder how many broken relationships within churches are due to people’s anger against God? Petty jealousies that God hasn’t blessed my ministry as much a the other one’s; that I’m not as gifted as you? And our resentment against God is transferred into jealousies of our brother and sister. How many ministries falter because of anger against God? Such fears and jealousies are profoundly destructive forces, which can even lead to murderous tendencies. We need to banish the Cain-tendencies in ourselves. To learn to love and accept one another, to rejoice in one another’s successes, heal each other’s pains.
We need to learn to rejoice in another’s gifts, even when we wish they were our own.