Why Was Cain's Offering Not Accepted?

An Early Tragedy

The story of Cain and Abel is one of the very first tragedies to befall humankind – the kind of story that playwrights and novelists can only emulate. The murder of one’s own brother is such an onerous idea that the story is well remembered as a showcase of where unrestrained jealousy leads. But the original cause of jealousy is, according to the Bible text, wrapped up in God’s regard for Abel’s offering and God’s disregard for Cain’s. What exactly was wrong with Cain’s offering to God?

A “Classic” Interpretation

The “classical” interpretation of this passage (as found in many commentaries and materials) teaches that Cain’s offering was inferior because of its material – specifically that it was not of blood. This interpretation is largely backed by the Biblical affirmation concerning sin sacrifices needing to be offered by blood (cf. Exo. 29:14ff; Lev. 4:1ff; Heb. 9:13, 14; 10:4; et al). That Abel, as a keeper of flocks, would have made a blood sacrifice of his flock is added as extra evidence to support this viewpoint. However, this interpretation has two important flaws:

Assuming a sin offering

The interpreter is making an assumption that the sacrifice in question is indeed a sin offering. An examination of the text does not require this to be the case. The text only states that “in the course of time…Cain brought *an offering*” and the same for Abel (Gen. 4:3, 4, NASU, emph. added).

A question over the “material”

The material offered by both Cain and Abel were natural given their own particular tradecrafts. Abel was a keeper of flocks and so his offering would naturally come from those flocks. Cain was a tiller of the ground (Gen. 4:2) and would naturally make an offering from that ground. Is it reasonable to assume that God would require an offering from Cain which would be of a different material than his own labor?

It is important to not focus upon the material in this context but instead upon the material’s quality. The text states that Abel offered the “fat portions” and the “firstlings of his flock” (i.e. the very best) to God (Gen. 4:3). No such description exists for Cain’s offering which may imply that it was lacking in quality. If this is true, than the reason for God’s rejection of Cain’s offering was not because it was not “of blood,” but instead because Cain held back the very best for himself.

The Bottom Line

With either interpretation (“of blood” or “of the best”), the text still teaches us an important truth: One must be very careful what they choose to offer God. Be sure that was you offer God is not only what He has asked for, but also the very best.

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