by Al Maxey

Issue #275 ------- November 16, 2006
Violence does not and
cannot exist by itself, it is
invariably intertwined with the lie.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn {b. 1918}

Offering A Better Sacrifice
Why Did God Accept Abel's Offering,
But Reject the Offering of Cain?

After God drove Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden, "the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, 'I have gotten a man-child with the help of the Lord.' And again, she gave birth to his brother Abel" [Gen. 4:1-2, NASB]. The traditional teaching here is that Cain and Abel were the first two human births; that, at this time, there were only four persons on the entire planet. This view has come under considerable question, however, as more and more biblical scholars examine the evidence more closely. For example, where did Cain's wife come from? We're told he "built a city" for his son, even naming this city after him [Gen. 4:17]. This would certainly seem to imply a good number of people then extant.

Further, when Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden, a part of the punishment of the woman was: "I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth" [Gen. 3:16]. Some have argued, and I believe this to be a valid point, that you can't multiply what was non-existent. If part of the penalty placed upon the woman was increased pain in childbirth, then the implication is that there may well have been prior births that were much less painful. After all, did not God command the newly created couple, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth" [Gen. 1:28]? How long did this pair live in the garden before the fall? It may well have been long enough to have complied considerably with this directive. A growing number of reputable scholars, therefore, perceive the Cain and Abel account as being of value not because it documents the first two births to Adam and Eve (and thus to the human species), but rather because of the stunning events that occurred between these vastly different siblings and the spiritual lessons to be derived therefrom for centuries and millennia to come.

The very first piece of biographical information about these two brothers that is provided to us in the Scriptures, aside from the obvious fact that Cain was the eldest, is: "Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground" [Gen. 4:2, NASB]. "The elder of them was named Cain, which name, when it is interpreted, signifies a possession; the younger was Abel, which signifies sorrow" [Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book 1, chapter 2, section 1]. Some translations declare Abel was a "keeper of sheep" [the KJV and ESV, for example], however most translations are not that specific, simply stating he was "a shepherd" or a "keeper of flocks." The reason for this is that the term employed in the original language "includes goats" [Pulpit Commentary, vol. 1, p. 78]. Thus, "keeper of flocks" is far more accurate, as per Lev. 1:10 -- "But if his offering is from the flock, of the sheep or of the goats, for a burnt offering, he shall offer it a male without defect." Cain, on the other hand, chose to work the land, raising various crops. Both occupations were noble ones, and also very necessary ones.

Some scholars have sought to suggest there was something amiss in the character of Cain because he chose to cultivate the ground. In light of the fact that God cursed the ground as a result of the fall in the garden of Eden [Gen. 3:17], some suggest Cain was defying God by choosing to raise crops on it. This neglects to consider the remainder of the passage, however [vs. 17-19], in which God clearly informs Adam and Eve that they would labor over the land and "eat of it." God fully intended for mankind to cultivate the land; He simply informed them that it would not be easy work. "It is neither justifiable nor necessary to trace a difference of moral character in the different callings which the young men selected, though probably their choices were determined by their talents and their tastes" [Pulpit Commentary, vol. 1, p. 78]. "In the one we seem to see a rough, strong nature, who took to the hard work as he found it, and subdued the ground with muscular energy; in the other we see a nature more refined and thoughtful" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 1, p. 28].

"In the course of time Cain presented some of the land's produce as an offering unto the Lord. And Abel also presented an offering -- some of the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions" [Gen. 4:3-4, Holman Christian Standard Bible]. I think it is important to note that not only were these two sons of Adam and Eve workers, but they were also worshippers. Both of them brought an offering unto the Lord. Yes, their offerings were different in kind for the simple reason that their occupations were different in kind. Each brother brought unto the Lord from out of what he individually possessed. The apostle Paul wrote, "For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have" [2 Cor. 8:12]. What Cain had to offer unto God was the fruit of the land; what Abel had to offer was the fruit of the flock. Both were appropriate and acceptable gifts considering their chosen vocations --- Cain raised grain; Abel kept the stable! In both cases, "the material of the offering was suitable to the offerer's vocation" [Dr. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 283]. Later, during the time of the Mosaic Law, God commanded and accepted both grain offerings and animal offerings.

Nevertheless, we are informed in the Scriptures that "Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain" [Heb. 11:4]. "And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard" [Gen. 4:5]. There has been tremendous speculation and debate as to the nature of this distinction. Why was Abel's offering acceptable unto God, but the offering of his brother Cain was not? In what specific sense was the younger sibling's sacrifice "better" than that offered by his older brother? These questions have challenged biblical scholars for centuries; indeed, they argued the matter even before the time of Christ. Some of the major theories are:

  1. There are some who feel the Greek word pleion ["Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain" -- Heb. 11:4] is the key. It literally means "more; greater." Thus, some feel Abel simply gave God a greater number of sacrificial victims upon the altar than did his brother. The problem with this view is that although pleion can indeed be used with regard to quantity, it can also be used with regard to quality. Thus, although it may mean "greater in number," it may also mean "greater in value." Dr. Nicoll, a noted Greek scholar, points out that this particular word is "frequently used to express 'higher in value' and 'greater in worth'" [The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 4, p. 353]. Dr. F. F. Bruce correctly notes, in my view, the "qualitative rather than quantitative significance of pleion here," with "Abel's offerings being 'more agreeable,' and not 'more' in quantity" [The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 282]. Yet, there are some who disagree. "Abel's sacrifice was pleion, fuller than Cain's; it had more in it" [Pulpit Commentary, vol. 1, p. 78]. Such a theory, however, seems to suggest God's concern was far more for the size of the gift, a view that is very much in conflict with the overall teaching of the inspired Scriptures on how God perceives our giving. It's not quantity of gift, but quality of giver, with which our Lord has always shown the greatest interest [see the account of the widow's two mites and Jesus' assessment of the various givers in the temple that day -- Mark 12:41-44].

  2. The first century Jewish historian Josephus proposed the following theory: "Now Cain brought the fruits of the earth, and of his husbandry; but Abel brought milk, and the first-fruits of his flocks; but God was more delighted with the latter oblation, when He was honored with what grew naturally of its own accord, than He was with what was the invention of a covetous man, and gotten by forcing the ground" [Antiquities of the Jews, book 1, chapter 2, section 1]. This theory views working the land as too human of an effort, with too little reliance upon God. Anyone who has ever labored on the land to raise and harvest a crop knows this is far from true. Most scholars today totally reject this as "no better than a pharisaical notion or tradition" [ibid, editor's footnote]. The Jewish Midrash says, "Cain brought of the fruits of the earth, that is to say, less valuable things" [Gen. Rabba 22].

  3. Those who gravitate toward legalistic patternism are convinced that "God had told Cain and Abel how He wanted their sacrifices prepared, but Cain did not prepare his offering the way God directed" [John T. Willis, Genesis, p. 143]. A few have even suggested, based upon a particular interpretation of the wording in the Septuagint, that perhaps Cain "did not cut in pieces rightly" his offering from the land. Abel "offered just such a sacrifice as the Lord demanded, while Cain made an offering according to his own ideas" [B. W. Johnson, The People's NT with Explanatory Notes, vol. 2, p. 326]. In other words, he was guilty of "innovation" in a "worship service." "The superior excellence of Abel's offering consisted simply in this: that in making it, he acted strictly in compliance with the revealed will of God" [Robert Milligan, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 389]. There is absolutely nothing in the biblical text, however, that even remotely pertains to prior instruction from the Lord God as to what to offer or how to offer it. Thus, such a theory is based entirely upon speculation and assumption. As is too often true, some simply manufacture law, and then assume violation of these assumed laws. When a theory or position or human decree (perceived as divine) is based upon mere assumptions and inferences in the face of absolute silence, discerning disciples will regard it as immediately suspect and little more than a curiosity.

  4. Another popular theory is that Abel gave unto the Lord the very best of his flock, but Cain held back the best and gave unto God an inferior offering. This is based on the fact that Cain is said to have merely "brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground" [Gen. 4:3], whereas Abel "brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions" [vs. 4]. Thus, they contend, "Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain" [Heb. 11:4]. By "better" they mean he gave the best, while Cain just gave whatever was handy.

  5. The Scofield Bible embraces one of the most popular theories, which suggests "Cain's offering was faulted because it was not a blood sacrifice." Abel offered a "living" sacrifice, whereas his older brother Cain offered a "lifeless" one. This, of course, overlooks the fact that the plant kingdom is just as much "alive" as the animal kingdom. It is argued, though, that there can be no atonement for sin apart from the shedding of blood. On the other hand, what indication is there in the text that this was a sin offering? As has been previously noted in this study, God would later on in His dealings with mankind command and accept both animal and grain offerings; bloody and non-bloody. To assume only one of these was demanded of Cain and Abel, and the other forbidden, is to assume more than is warranted by the text. No such rigid restriction or legal limitation is specified in Scripture with respect to these sons of Adam and Eve, or any other person at that time.

Personally, I think all of the above theories have a common failing: they assume the reason for Cain's rejection and Abel's acceptance resides with the gift, rather than with the giver; with the offering, rather than with the one presenting it. It is my conviction that if we allow the OT and NT texts to speak for themselves, they clearly provide the answer. God was focused not on the sacrifice being presented before Him (i.e., it's material composition), but rather was focused on the heart of each brother as he presented the fruit of his own labor. "By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous" [Heb. 11:4]. "Scripture never says there was anything inherently superior in Abel's offering. Abel was right with God and therefore his offering was a demonstration of his faith" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 115]. In the phrase "through which" [Heb. 11:4], the antecedent may be either "sacrifice" or "faith." My belief is that the latter makes the better sense, as the focus of the entire passage, from beginning to end (and indeed the greater context of the chapter as well), is upon faith as that condition which draws the approving nod of our God.

"What made Abel's sacrifice to God pleion, 'more' in the sense of 'superior,' than the sacrifice of Cain? Abel's faith. That is stressed and not the fact that Abel offered a bloody and Cain a vegetable sacrifice, or that Abel offered firstlings and Cain not first fruits, on which some have laid stress by emphasizing these differences. The writer centers everything on Abel's faith in contrast with Cain's lack of faith" [R.C.H. Lenski, Interpretation of Hebrews, p. 383]. "God never looks only at our 'gifts,' He looks at what is back of them in the heart; whether there is faith" [ibid, p. 384]. "Sacrifice is acceptable to God not for its material content, but in so far as it is the outward expression of a devoted and obedient heart" [Dr. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 283]. I must agree with John Calvin (1509-1564), who wrote the following in his classic Commentary on Hebrews, "Abel's sacrifice was preferred to his brother's for no other reason than that it was sanctified by faith; for surely the fat of brute animals did not smell so sweetly, that it could, by its odor, pacify God. The Scripture indeed shows plainly why God accepted his sacrifice, for Moses' words are these: 'God had respect to Abel and to his gifts'. It is hence obviously to be concluded that his sacrifice was accepted because he himself was graciously accepted. But how did he obtain this acceptance, save that his heart was purified by faith?" In other words, the Lord God graciously accepted the gift because He had already accepted the giver. In the words of the Pulpit Commentary -- "The sacrifice was accepted for the man, and not the man for the sacrifice" [vol. 1, p. 78].

Whenever Abel is mentioned in NT Scripture, there is always some reference to his inner nature! Jesus, in Matt. 23:35 by way of example, spoke of "the blood of righteous Abel." And righteous actions flow from righteous attitudes, as good fruit from good trees. The aged apostle John characterized the deeds of Abel as "righteous" [1 John 3:12]. The Hebrew writer said that Abel "obtained the testimony that he was righteous" [Heb. 11:4]. On the other hand, "Cain was of the evil one," and thus his fruit came from a corrupt tree [1 John 3:12]. Sin was crouching at the door of Cain's heart, having a great desire for him, and Cain had failed to master it, thus leading to sinful actions [Gen. 4:7]. Jude, the brother of our Lord, characterizes such a walk in life as "the way of Cain" [Jude 11]. The way of Cain is the way of brotherly hatred, not brotherly love; of anger, envy and self-centeredness; of insufficiency of faith and indifference; of right actions prompted by wrong motives; of murderous intent. It is religion without relationship; a sacrificial show without a sanctified spirit. It is little wonder that later Jewish tradition (as seen in the Targum of Jerusalem) represents these two brothers as ancient types of faith and unbelief. "Cain offered a sacrifice, but in a faithless spirit" [Pulpit Commentary, vol. 22: Jude, p. 26].

"The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is His delight. The way of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but He loves him who pursues righteousness" [Prov. 15:8-9]. Just two verses later we are told -- "Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the Lord, how much more the hearts of men!" [vs. 11]. God saw beyond the offerings of Cain and Abel; seeing into the very hearts of these two men. One was wicked, one was righteous. Therefore, one's offering was accepted; one's was rejected. It was not the offering itself that was the problem, but rather the heart of the one making the offering!

Cain became angry over the rejection of his offering [Gen. 4:5], and so "it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him" [vs. 8]. The word for "killed" in this passage is actually a word, in the original, which "expresses properly the slaughter of a victim" [Dr. B. F. Westcott, The Epistles of St. John: Greek Text with Notes, p. 110]. The book of Revelation employs this same word to speak of the martyrs who have been "slaughtered" for their faith. Indeed, the word means to "butcher or slaughter," as one would a sacrificial animal [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 335]. This has led some to suppose Cain cut the throat of Abel, as he had perhaps seen Abel cut the throat of his animal sacrifices. Right after mentioning the slaughter of Abel by Cain, the apostle John says, "Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him" [1 John 3:15].

"Cain's evil conduct typifies the attitude of the world toward Christians. The wicked envy the good the blessedness of their goodness, and try to destroy what they cannot share. The war between good and evil is one of extermination; but the wicked would destroy the righteous, while the righteous would destroy wickedness by converting the wicked" [Pulpit Commentary, vol. 22: 1st John, p. 73]. "Righteousness draws hatred from the devil and hatred from the children of the devil. Darkness cannot tolerate the light; immorality, morality; hatred, love; or greed, sacrifice" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 335]. Those who sought to destroy Jesus, while claiming to be children of Abraham, were liars! "You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning!" [John 8:44]. The Book of Wisdom, written about a hundred years before Christ, undoubtedly had Cain at least partly in mind when speaking of "the unjust man" who "perished through his fratricidal wrath" [10:3].

Those who follow the way of Cain are those who profess to be in the family, but they are most definitely not of the Father. The devil, who crouches at the door of their heart, has mastered them. Thus, they display the characteristics of their true father -- Satan! They are filled with hatred for their brethren, and thus will do everything in their power to destroy those about them with whom they are enraged. Those who go about the brotherhood seeking to defame and destroy all those with whom they differ, only succeed in visibly displaying the fact that they follow "the way of Cain." Those who love righteousness, and simply seek relationship with their God and fellow brethren, are those who follow the way of Abel, who "through faith, though he is dead, still speaks" [Heb. 11:4]. May we hear the testimony of this godly man's life, and of others like him, and "considering the outcome of their way of life, imitate their faith" [Heb. 13:7].

Reflections on CD
Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce and Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

by Al Maxey
Order Your Copy Today
Readers' Reflections

From a New Reader in Ireland:

Dear Mr. Maxey, I am a Christian from Poland, now living and working in Ireland. I am actively taking part in several Internet Christian discussion forums (Polish ones). On one of the recent discussions with some Catholic brothers on the meaning of Matt. 16:19 & 18:18, I was presented with a problem that I could not solve on my own with my limited knowledge of Koine Greek. I searched the Internet, and of all the materials that I could find on the subject, your work on the issue of "Binding and Loosing" [Reflections #237] was the most detailed, and came the closest to solving the problem for me. Thank you!

From a Reader in California:

Brother Al, I don't know how you are going to do this (and still do all of the other things you do), but there is a great need for testimonies such as the one by the One Cup preacher that you shared in your last issue of Reflections, so that others (like in all self-help environments, such as AA) can "see themselves" and "see others" as all part and parcel of this one huge fellowship that is more intent on finding God, gaining forgiveness of sins, and experiencing eternal glory, than in demolishing others. The road that people "just like us" travel in their search for "spiritual sobriety" is very important to document through such testimonies, as it helps people come out of their bondage. It also gives those still there hope, and enables them to see the darkness that they must move out of.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Al, The testimony from the One-Cup brother is fairly typical. I came out of a Baptist Church where practically no doctrine was preached. I knew nothing of the Bible. When I turned to it and read randomly, it was a big puzzle. My wife introduced me to the Church of Christ. Being a scientist by training, the apparent structured doctrines of the church seemed very logical: Patriarchal, Mosaical and Christian ages; "five steps" to the plan of salvation; five "acts of worship;" etc. I bought it, and for 40 years taught and promoted it. Like the One-Cup brother, I also knew something was intrinsically wrong with the claim that we were the only ones going to Heaven, but, like him, I also couldn't quite put my finger on what that was. I was brain-washed! It was reinforced over and over by sermons, Bible classes, and, of course, usage of the approved commentaries. The censorship of any differing thought, and of any real discussion of these issues, finished the process. I finally woke up, began to question, and to think. It was such an enlightening experience that I wondered why it had taken me so long to recognize it. Today I am blessed to be in a loving fellowship that preaches the gospel in a positive manner and reaches out to the lost in a way far more effective than any legalistic congregation of which I have ever been a member.

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Al, You, more than anyone else I know, exemplify the ability to speak boldly while still being "meek and fearful." You do it week after week in your articles and encourage others to do the same. I can't tell you how much I look forward to each and every one that you write. They have been my spiritual lifeline in this small town where the church is still in the 1950's. I am so thankful to have found your articles to sustain me. Please keep up the good work of enlightening those within our brotherhood who are still willing to read the Truth.

From a Minister in Kentucky:

Al, That was a good piece on boldness in preaching and defending the Word of God. Truly one does not have to be mean-spirited in defending what one believes. Thank you also for including the testimony of the brother who has awakened from the legalism of the One Cup folks. I can identify with this brother in many ways. It has been at least 20 years since I began to have doubts about the Non-Institutional arguments I had long defended. I would try to preach the same sermons I had preached for years, but the more I tried to defend the NI position, the less I was convinced myself! It is alarming and disconcerting enough in itself to think that one has been wrong in his teachings and beliefs for many long years, and the fear of being in isolation from both those with whom one has been in fellowship and from those from whom one has been estranged only adds to the feelings of uncertainty. I am fortunate to be working with a group of Christians who have been patient with me as I have sought out Truth, and who have also been receptive to the teaching I now do. My heart aches for those sincere brethren still snared in the tangle of legalistic thinking, and I pray for them that they would come to know the freedom that is in Christ when one is released from that bondage.

From a Reader in Montana:

Bro. Al, Something came to my mind as I was reading your Reflections. The focus of the legalistic patternists seems to be on establishing a pattern for church services or the "worship service," which I suppose may be okay if that's what these leaders find to be their top priority. The real pattern, as I see revealed by Jesus, is -- love, honor and reverence God and Jesus above all and everything, and love our neighbor, ourselves, and one another, and then take up our cross and follow Him, for by grace we have been saved. As I thought about this I became convinced that "worship service" patternism is absolutely meaningless.

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, I just returned from my Thursday night class at the prison. After reading your article "Speaking the Word Boldly" earlier, I was reminded that how we say things is very important, as is our body language. I tried to be more aware of both as I reached out to the inmates tonight. Thankfully (to the Spirit of God), we have a lot of fun in class and there is a spirit of peace and freedom of expression there. Years ago I got it across to the inmates that there would be no verbal attacks of one another in class, only respect for one another. So far I have never had to call one of them down or call for an officer. As we stand up for Jesus, kindness and thoughtfulness should radiate from us. If this isn't the case, maybe we should examine our hearts again. We can all remember times when we heard some that spoke, preached, or lectured, yet failed to show warmth or compassion toward their audience. Thankfully, your Reflections reflect a heart of compassion. May God bless you.

From a Reader in Colorado:

Bro. Al, I've been out of town and am trying to catch up on your Reflections. Are you interested in knowing about typos? If not, let me know and I'll never do this again! Issue 273 ["Case of the Senseless Census"], at the end of the third paragraph, I think you meant 2 Sam 24:1 not 1 Sam 24:1. You made this same mistake several other places in the next few paragraphs. In any case, I want you to know that I LOVE your Reflections. I worship with a congregation that is more exclusive than I am (I worshiped with the Independent Christian Church folks for 20 plus years), and your weekly grace-centered message is the shot of fresh air I need to keep from suffocating.

If you would like to be removed from or added to this
mailing list, contact me and I will immediately comply.
If you are challenged by these Reflections, then feel
free to send them on to others and encourage them
to write for a free subscription. These articles may all
be purchased on CD. Check the ARCHIVES for
details and past issues of these weekly Reflections: