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The purpose of this question is to examine whether it is possible to know where Abel's understanding of sacrifice came from based on the text we have. The presupposition is that Abel had access to the information contained in Genesis 1-3.

A question concerning why Abel raised sheep was asked in another question but the issue of the sacrifice was not included.

Note: This is related to Jack's question on hermeneutical approaches.

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Just a quick postscript for any attending to this comment thread, and to clarify (should it be needed) my DV explanation: the OP's "presupposition" ("Abel had access to the information contained in Genesis 1-3") is simply unknowable, renders the point of the exercise (with whatever title given for this Q&A) meaningless. This is, of course, "imo", and is only offered in that spirit. This is a community, after all. ;) – Davïd Jan 22 '14 at 17:15
@David For as long as the first people lived, it would seem unreasonable to assume that Dad and Mom never told their Son what happened in the garden, or what God spoke with them about while he walked with them in the garden. – Bob Jones Feb 13 '14 at 13:20
up vote 2 down vote accepted

I can provide a simple answer, which is a partial non-answer.

Abel only knew what his parents told him, but that knowledge was mixed with faith. The Bible does not provide a full primitive history of the priesthood, or of sacrifices. Although it can be argued that God's killing of animals to clothe Adam and Eve does forge the original seed-idea for sacrifice. It also naturally created a 'subconscious' sense of atonement for guilt and shame/nakedness by sacrifice. Pagan religions probably all inherited a corrupted version of this ancient practice. Somehow from God's sacrifice for Adam and Eve, they knew that in approaching God there was no way to do it, but by an atoning sacrifice.

In the case of Abel, his faith seems to 'shine' in his 'attitude'. Abel gave the 'firstborn' of his flock by faith (Heb 11:4). Cain could have done the same with his fruit and God would have accepted that. The idea of the firstborn, or first-fruit is a major theme in the Bible. The first-born represented what 'belonged to God' and signified much more blessing to come after. Just as the first grains signified late end-of-harvest crops. In this way Jesus, who is is the 'firstborn among many brothers' signifies the resurrection of many brothers. (Rom 8:9)

I think the idea is, Abel saw both the need of an atoning sacrifice and the mercy of God extended in giving so much good things to men, that he gave the first fruits of his wealth. He knew his first-fruits should be carried back to its source in thankfulness. His brother, just grabbed any old fruit. Of course Abel's faith wold later be strictly symbolized in the Levitical Priesthood and Temple practices under Moses.

So 'Where did Abel get the idea to sacrifice sheep?' He mixed the words of his parents, and the natural observation of the earths bounty with faith. With such little light his faith is commended.

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Genesis 4 brings us a very simple narrative of Abel bringing an offering. The text doesn't even tell us directly that the offering was sacrificed, although it is generally considered a true assumption that it was.

Genesis 4:3-4a (ESV)
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. […]

There is no suggestion it the text at all as to why they chose the offerings they did. It simply does not tell us what their motivations were, although it is hard not to speculate that their respective professions had something to do with it.

Genesis 4:2b (ESV)
[…] Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground.

If it wasn't for God's response to these offerings we wouldn't even have a clue (at this point in the text) that God might have requested something in specific.

Genesis 4:4b-5a (ESV)
[…] And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. […]

It's really these verses and our presumption that God did not respond arbitrarily by expecting something that the parties involved in could not have known. In fact the account goes on to give us just another touch of a clue that God has something in mind and that both Cain and Abel probably knew what was expected of them.

Genesis 4:5db-7a (ESV)
So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 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. […]”

Enter your question. How did Abel know that a sheep was the right offering to bring? Or did he?

The text simply does not tell us, but there are several more inferences we can make.

  • The first couple chapters of Genesis are pretty clear that God has some very direct interactions with Adam and Eve and we are given no indication that every detail that passed between them was recorded for posterity. In fact it stands to reason that we only have a very small sampling.

  • Given the fact that Genesis 4 has God interacting directly with Cain and Abel, we have every reason to believe that Adam and Eve and their prodigy were not cut off from all interaction with God after being banished from the garden and continued to receive instruction or some kind of communication from him.

  • The incident at the time of the fall were God cloths Adam and Eve in animal skins suggests that animal blood had been shed before, at the very least for the pragmatic reason of covering nakedness and as most doctrinal systems assume, this "sacrifice" had other significance. The degree to which this significance was explained to Adam and Eve is not known, but given the rest of the narrative story it does not seem unreasonable to assume they had at least a minimal understanding of the symbolism involved in animal sacrifice.

  • It is also reasonable to assume they passed on whatever they knew of this matter to their children.

The answer to "How did Abel know it should be a sheep?" is tied up with the more basic question of "How did Cain and Abel get the idea to bring offerings in the first place?" While we are not told the answer to either question directly, it is reasonable to conclude from the Scriptural narrative that they we're instructed to do so by God either directly or through their parents.

How much detail they knew about this process we don't know. It's possible based on the information we have in Genesis 1-4 to conclude that it being a sheep might not have been important at all, as the difference between Cain's "fruit" and Abel's "flock" might have been in the fact that Abel brought "firstborn […] and their fat portions" as opposed to Cain whose offering is not delineated as being first-fruits or an any way special. On the other hand the fact that a previous sacrifice of some sort had been made might suggest that they had more rather than less specific instructions in this regard.

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@Caleb-+1 "It does not seem unreasonable to assume they had at least a minimal understanding of the symbolize involved in animal sacrifice". If we understand "Abel the Just" from Jesus's remarks in Matt. 23:35, he would have been made 'righteous' by the propitiation-though done in faith. Thank you for 'unlocking' this question; there are enough 'clues' from Scripture for a palatible answer! – Tau Jan 23 '14 at 3:22

Why not let the New Testament interpret the story? Does Hebrews 11 not give the reason why Cain and Abel get the idea, If Abel offered a far better sacrifice than Cain by FAITH, then obviously God gave that commandment to them on what he wanted? Then comparing the rest of Chapter 11 with the other examples of people doing what God wants them to do gives us a good idea on on how Cain and Abel came to make offerings.

We read earlier in Genesis that God provided Adam and Eve with a covering of animal skins. In order to provide a coat of skin, an animal must be killed. A picture of Christ providing a covering for sin. This was God's idea, compared Man's cheap covering of the fig leaf apron (Man's works).

We also know that God was talking with Cain and Abel, so God is still in communication when he questions Cain about his offering, and gently corrects Cain.

To say they were taught to do this by their parents doesn't really hold water as we know God is in direct communication with the two brothers.

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It is instructive to evaluate the hermeneutic of Abel based on the presumption that he had access to scriptures containing creation and the fall. Abel, based on his interpretation of the scriptures he had, chose to be a shepherd. He is commended for offering a proper sacrifice, often ignoring the fact that in order to offer the sacrifice, he had to dedicate his life to being a shepherd. His devotion to God was not a single act, but a lifelong commitment.

Meanwhile, Cain, having access to the same information as Abel, dedicated his life to working the earth. What is the difference, based on the scriptures available to them?

Consider the curse (or the consequence):

17 ¶ And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; 18 Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; 19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.


  1. Did the curse apply to all men, or just to Adam?
  2. If it applied to all men, why and how did Abel choose to live outside the curse?
  3. If it only applied to Adam, why did Cain choose to live under the curse?

Consider the gift from God:

21 ¶ Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them.

Observation: Discussions concerning the garments usually specify that a single lamb was slain, though we are told that the plural skins were used, and we are not told the kind of animal.

It is inferred from Abel's sacrifice, that the animals slain for Adam and Eve were sheep. The presumption of the inference is that Abel was attempting to mimic the first sacrifice.

The inference is supported:

Re 13:8 And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

The Greek word for foundation (katabole) has the sense of throwing down in reference to Adam and Eve being thrown out when they were fallen. This suggests that the lamb slain... is a reference to the animal slain at the time that the whole world began to groan, having been thrown down.

Furthermore, the world for said (AMR) is identical for the word for word and lamb. When God created the world, he said... He created by his Word and by the Lamb.

The skins that God provided him were symbolically a covering provided by the death of the Lamb, the creator of the world.

The presumption that God killed an animal to obtain the skins rather than create animal-less skins is warranted, from:

Heb 9:22 And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission.

If there was no shedding of blood, Adam did not receive forgiveness.

What possible reasons would he have for mimicking the first sacrifice? The possibilities might include: 1. He presumed that the gift given to Adam and Eve after the curse was a good gift and he wished to give a good gift. 2. He thought he must somehow he was obligated repay God for the sacrifice made for Adam and Eve.

In the first instance, Abel dedicated his life to raising sheep so that he could give God a good gift in return. In the second, he dedicated his life to raising sheep as an obligation. How we interpret his motivation speaks more of us than of Abel.

Either way, the end result is the same, his hermeneutic led him to an interaction with God based on the gift that God gave, In contrast, Cain chose to live under the curse, and to give a gift reflecting the curse.

We are told that Abel had a hermeneutic where the guiding principle was faith. (Heb 11.4) The implication is that Cain did not share that faith. Since it was a hermeneutic of faith, we can eliminate the possibility that Abel felt obligated to sacrifice.

As a hermeneutic of faith, there are two elements that must be examined:

15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

24 So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

He trusted God would conquer the serpent, and that the road back to Eden was only temporarily blocked by the angels who kept the way open.

Heb 11.6 But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

16 But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.

It is plausibly concluded that Abel believed God, and attempted to enter into a relationship by offering a good gift back to God, choosing to live in the promise rather than the curse.

The hermeneutic of faith trusts God, believes that God desires to give good gifts, and responds by returning the good gifts that have been received.

1Jo 4:19 We love him, because he first loved us.

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@Monica I don't understand the question. Are you proposing that God obtained the skins without killing animals? – Bob Jones May 18 '12 at 5:10
@BobJones I'm still very much struggling with the concept of Abel's hermeneutic and "the scriptures that he had." At this stage of the game, orality would take extreme priority over the concept of a written document. Anything else is irresponsibly anachronistic. There is a good deal of history that we don't know and what was passed on from Adam and Eve to their parents remains unspoken. Presumably, the curse was communicated and would have been up to the parties in question to respond accordingly. – swasheck May 18 '12 at 20:16
Furthermore, I believe that the curse plays a greater role in informing the actions of the brothers than the object. Which animal was sacrificed is left to speculation and is largely irrelevant, unless we want to base an argument for the authority of Scripture on a speculated animal (which I would find to be a flawed foundation). A more intriguing question, to me, is where did Cain and Abel get the idea to sacrifice in the first place? – swasheck May 18 '12 at 20:20
There is no documented sacrifice prior to this. Interestingly, God gives Cain an 'out' ... an opportunity to be accepted. What does "to do well" mean? All of this conversation about the animal and why and how Abel came to this conclusion just seems like it's much ado about nothing and constructing an argument based on information that was not available to the brothers at this time. – swasheck May 18 '12 at 20:26
@BobJones I am familiar with Wiseman - familiar enough to know that his theory is wholly unconvincing and has serious flaws. It seems to be more of a means of supporting a bias than scholarly rigor. Calling it anachronistic is not a conclusion that I have based on tradition, but rather on common sense. You'll note, that I mentioned orality as the means by which such an event would have been transmitted. – swasheck May 19 '12 at 2:28

@clint godfrey 'The idea to sacrifice sheep, was a deviation from God's commands, and therefore must have been implanted by Satan.'

I am inclined to agree with you that the idea to sacrifice an animal came from Satan. But I do not agree that it came from Satan to Abel.

On the contrary I believe that the idea was initiated by Satan in the form of temptation to Eve. And furthermore I don't believe that in this instance it took the form of a sacrifice to God. Genesis simply says that Eve took it and ate it after consulting with Satan only. Therefore the fault (sin) is Eve trusting the word of another and thereby not trusting the word of God.

Genesis 3.6 "And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat."

This would mean that she killed an animal for food something that was obviously taboo. I realise that this suggestion is radical but it would explain a couple of questions.

  1. Why the idea of killing an animal was not new to Abel.
  2. Why Abel's offering was more acceptable to God - I refer to the above quote. Furthermore by offering the kill to God meant that he trusted that this act would make it acceptable to God.
  3. It explains where the skins for clothing for Adam and Eve came from.
  4. Why Cain's offering was considered less acceptable - his food did not require an act of trust in God's acceptance because it was already a food without a taboo.
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If the contents of Genesis 1-3 are factual, then presupposition is not necessary. Of course Abel knew the history that 'Moses' would have later written down under divine inspiration. The consensus in the above comments seems to be that Abel was not told to do this by anyone, but took it upon himself to combine his knowledge of past events, with his own opinion of what God would like, and slaughter some sheep. But this means that Abel thought he had the right to kill animals, which the contents of Genesis 1-3 do not seem to support. God commanded Adam to cultivate the ground, which is what Cain did, but Abel chose something different. The idea to sacrifice sheep, was a deviation from God's commands, and therefore must have been implanted by Satan. I realize this creates problems, since, according to 'Moses', god liked Abel's sacrifice; But that's a whole other discussion.

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