WORSHIP THROUGH THE AGES – Cain and Abel

It is said that man is incurably religious. Is is because man was built that way by God? Or is it because we know deep down inside that we are separated from God and consequently not what we were meant to be? Whatever the reason, from the earliest days of human existence he has sought to worship God – or to worship his conception of a god.

The earliest mention in the Bible of anything that might have been described as worship is found in Genesis 4:3-5

In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.”

There is no record of God having commanded the offering of sacrifices. Some suppose Adam learned from God when he clothed them with animal skins that the death of an animal in some way “covered” his sin and so continued the practice of animal sacrifice. Some suppose that God had given specific instructions as to what to offer and how to offer it, but there is no indication of that other than that God was displeased with Cain’s sacrifice.

The reason for the different reception of the two offerings was the state of mind towards God with which they were brought, and which manifested itself in the selection of the gifts. Not, indeed, in the fact that Abel brought a bleeding sacrifice and Cain a bloodless one; for this difference arose from the difference in their callings, and each necessarily took his gift from the produce of his own occupation. It was rather in the fact that Abel offered the fattest firstlings of his flock, the best that he could bring; whilst Cain only brought a portion of the fruit of the ground, but not the first-fruits. (Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh).

There was, then, clearly an internal moral distinction in the intention or disposition of the offerers. Habel had faith – that confiding in God which is not bare and cold, but is accompanied with confession of sin, and a sense of gratitude for his mercy, and followed by obedience to his will. Cain had not this faith. He may have had a faith in the existence, power, and bounty of God; but it wanted that penitent returning to God, that humble acceptance of his mercy, and submission to his will, which constitute true faith. It must be admitted the faith of the offerer is essential to the acceptableness of the offering, even though other things were equal. (Barnes’ Notes on the Bible).

Jewish sources concur with this view. “The Rabbis tell us that Cain brought inferior produce, while Abel brought from his best … The main part of a sacrifice is the intent on the part of the man and not the content of the sacrifice … we show our intent by choosing the best offerings. ” (Internet article: Cain and Abel).

Was his displeasure over what Cain offered? Most who comment on this seem to think so. Preachers have long used this to “prove” that to act by faith means that we must do exactly what God commands and not like Cain who offered what God had not commanded. While I do not disagree with this in principle, yet nowhere are we told what God had commanded them.

Such a supposition is based on the prior assumption that God had given specific instructions as to what was to be offered, that is, animal sacrifices. That very well may have been the case, but there are indications there may be more to this incident than that. The assumption of the nature of the sacrifice is based on the statement in Heb. 11:4

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.

On this verse Barnes comments…

“It [Cain’s rejection, mr] could not have been because an offering of the fruits of the ground was not pleasing to God, for such an offering was commanded under the Jewish Law, and was not in itself improper. Both the brothers selected what was to them most obvious; which they had reared with their own hands; which they regarded as most valuable.” (Barnes’ Notes on the Bible).

“We are not told the reason of this preference. Among the conjectures on the subject one that has found most favor among commentators is that which is incorporated in the Septuagint version of the words of God to Cain in verse vii: “If thou didst offer well but divide badly, hast thou not committed sin?” This implies that Cain committed the fault of presenting to God imperfect gifts, reserving to himself the better part of the produce of the land.” (New Advent).

Others suppose Cain’s sin was that he just thoughtlessly, carelessly made an offering without giving any thought as to whether it was the best he had to offer. The lack of comment in the text as opposed to the careful notice that Abel offered the first of the flock and the best (the fat) of the sacrifices lend to this interpretation.

There is other evidence to be considered in the matter, however. Going back to the account in Gen. 4, think about how a rational person would have acted upon finding that for some reason God had rejected his or her offering. What would you have done? Would you have become angry as Cain did? Wouldn’t you have wanted to find out what you did wrong so you could correct your mistake? If you think about it, Cain’s anger tells us much about his character.

Here is another tip-off as to the character of Cain;

We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.” (1 John 3:12).

Did Cain become evil only after God rejected his offering? Had he always loved his brother? Why did he blame Abel for his own failure? Why did he not face up his own responsibility for his mistake? Was it his evil predisposition that contributed to his sacrifice being rejected? Probably the incident of the offering was the last straw as far as Cain was concerned, but it hardly seems reasonable that he would have such a hatred of his brother over this one thing – and that even after God had warned him to control the sin that was crouching at the door and was about to consume him.

The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6-7).

“Knowing Cain’s heart, God warns him not to submit to the murderous temptation of the devil” (Reformation Study Bible). John’s warning to Christians to not be like Cain was prefaced by this refrain which John repeats over and over …

For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” (1 John 3:11).

God cares about the attitude people have toward one another – especially when they come before him to worship. Jesus’ teaching was that if one were offering his gift at the altar and there remember that his brother had something against him he should leave his offering, go and be reconciled to his brother and then come and offer his gift (Matthew 5:23-25). Cain killed his brother, not because he had just come to hate him, but because he did not love him before the offering.

Cains life was characterized by a certain “way” that is common to certain kinds of people. Jude, in speaking of people who had “crept in” among the brethren who would “pervert the grace of God” and lead people astray.

Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion.” (Jude 1:11).

That puts Cain in some pretty bad company. Jude certainly doesn’t paint these nor their spiritual heirs in a very becoming light. Of the latter Jude says; “they are grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires; they are loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage.” (Jude 1:16).

So, what are we to learn from Cain and Abel? I think there are several – probably more than I have though of.

  1. Certainly the first thing should be that we be certain we approach God in faith – not just believing in his existence, but in a way that seeks above all else to have a relationship with him – a relationship in which we look upon him as our loving Father – a relationship in which we seek to please him in all we do.
  2. Then we should give ourselves to God. When we have given him the best we have to offer – all of self – then there will be no problem giving him anything else – money, time, abilities. When we do this it means that God truly comes first in our lives.
  3. We should give him the best of the best. That means that if we are going to do something in his service that we not do it halfheartedly. That means when we give something or do something to aid others in his name that we do it sacrificially, not selfishly begrudgingly give when we have no need of it.
  4. Certainly it means that we should perform the worship we know is pleasing to God – that which is “in spirit and truth,” or that we truly worship him spiritually (John 4:24).
  5. It means that we dare not go before God with something between ourselves and another brother or sister. We should seek to be on the best of terms with everyone we are associated with – especially those of our family – earthly or heavenly.
  6. It means that we must love those of our families. If we don’t love, respect and honor them our prayers will be hindered – our worship unacceptable. (1 Pet 3:7).
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