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Gen 4:3-7 details the account of Cain and Abel's offerings to God. Why did God accept Abel's Sacrifice but not Cain's? I have come up with the following possibilities but not sure which is right.

  1. God cursed the ground and thus sacrifices from it where not acceptable as an offering. (Gen 3:17)
  2. God showed through his sacrifice of an animal for Adam and Eve's covering that only blood would be acceptable for a sin offering. (Gen 3:21)

These first two seem to be supported by the fact that God asks Cain, "If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?," posed as a rhetorical question, making the answer seem obvious. However, if this is true, what had Cain been offering all along, given he was a farmer? Surely this wasn't the first time they were bringing a sin offering?

  1. The text does not say, therefore we do not know.
  • you're right. The sheep also came from the ground. "e named him Noah, 1 saying, “This one will bring us comfort 2 from our labor and from the painful toil of our hands because of the ground that the Lord has cursed.” Noah = "rest" ; Blood is life. Abel offered something pure, in an unclean world. Life is not the product of human hands. – Betho's Dec 17 '19 at 21:06

10 Answers 10

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Jews reject the argument that Cain's sacrifice was insufficient because it did not involve blood, and they have some good arguments. Leviticus clearly spells out various "grain offerings," and there is even one example of a "sin offering" where the poor people were allowed to offer grain instead of an animal sacrifice. (See Lev. 5:11-13.)

The traditional Jewish answer to this question is that Abel offered "the fat portions," I.e., the BEST, of his produce, while Cain gave with a different attitude. While I am not Jewish, I have been persuaded by this answer.

Here is a hypothetical to see which answer is correct: let's keep the attitudes the same and change the sacrifices. If Cain brought an animal sacrifice with a grudging, ungrateful attitude, would he be accepted? I don't think so--sin was crouching at his door. If Abel brought one of the grain offerings listed in Leviticus, with the same righteous heart, would he be accepted? I think so.

Therefore it would seem that Abel was accepted for bringing his best portions with the right heart, and Cain was rejected for his sin, not his choice of sacrifice.

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  • Since levitical laws were not in place at the time, does it fit the argument? If it's true that Abel was accepted for bringing the fat portions, why couldn't Cain present his in grain also? If it was just a heart issue, it'd put the "fat portions" view of the offering out of consideration, nullifying the traditional Jewish view. Also, why would Cain's heart change all of a sudden, unless maybe, in the course of time, he got tired of asking his younger brother for an animal sacrifice, as I doubt this was their first rodeo with regard to giving sin offerings. Thoughts? – user2544542 Mar 1 '15 at 15:14
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The writer of Hebrews analyses why Abel's sacrifice was accepted and Cain's wasn't.

Hebrews 11:4 By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks.

The difference between the two sacrifices was that Abel brought his sacrifice in genuine faith whereas Cain did not.

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Restatement of the Question: Why was Abel's sacrifice considered 'greater', 'more', or 'above' Cain's? Was it because they were different types of sacrifice, or was there something else at work?

Historically, there is a great amount of speculation regarding this passage, but this answer is constrained to Scripture only :


Answer 1: Because Cain was unjustified to doubt God. Following his offering, Cain allowed his hope in God to falter--where Abel trusted. It was not the type of offering that was offered that affected God; but rather, God was affected by the state of Cain's heart--after Cain had made his offering :

Cain's loss of "confidence/hope"--after the offering--was not justified. And, Scripture shows that God pointed this out to Cain :

Genesis 4:6, NASB: Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen?

Even so, God still remained faithful, and proceeded to teach and advocate for Cain, forewarning Cain about the imminent threat of evil, and the necessity to overcome it :

Genesis 4:7, NASB: If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”


The Nature of the Sacrifice was, and is, Irrelevant to God:

There simply are no bases in the text to justify an interpretation that God favors one type of sacrifice more than another--except God does favor sacrifices of the "heart" more-so than any physical sacrifice :

Scripture explicitly contradicts the idea that God favors any form of earthly sacrifice:

NASB Psalms 50: 7-8, & 14: Hear, O My people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you; I am God, your God. I do not reprove you for your sacrifices, And your burnt offerings are continually before Me. ... Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving And pay your vows to the Most High;

Proverbs 21:3, NASB: To do righteousness and justice Is desired by the Lord more than sacrifice.

With Cain's state of mind/heart, he could not possibly be thanking God, offering to God a sacrifice of praise/thanks--which is what God desired; because, "giving thanks" implies acknowledgment and trust that what was given is good, but Cain doubted, having fear, and losing hope :

NASB Gen. 4:5-7: but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard, [lit. God did not see or look upon]. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. 6 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”


Cain's Sacrifice May have actually been Greater:

... if not for his state of heart afterwards.

Cain was wrong to lose hope, and perhaps should have taken comfort in the fact that God did not "look upon him, or his sacrifice"--sometimes, this can actually be a good thing :

This is what Cain did not understand. And, because of this, he erred in losing hope, becoming disheartened, when he could have rather been confident in the mercy and sovereignty of God.

The English Translation of "וַיִּ֣שַׁע" as "more good", "favorable, kindly, mercifully, etc," is not necessarily correct, but rather it may be more correct to interpret the phrase literally as "to look upon", i.e., as "God looked upon Abel's sacrifice, but not Cain's."

In fact, there is Scriptural Basis to believe it is good when God looks away :

Job 7:17-21, NASB: What is man that You magnify him, And that You are concerned about him, That You examine him every morning And try him every moment? Will You never turn Your gaze away from me, Nor let me alone until I swallow my spittle? Have I sinned? What have I done to You, O watcher of men? Why have You set me as Your target, So that I am a burden to myself? Why then do You not pardon my transgression And take away my iniquity? For now I will lie down in the dust; And You will seek me, but I will not be.

Job 14:4-6, NASB: You also open Your eyes on him And bring him into judgment with Yourself. Who can make the clean out of the unclean? No one! Since his days are determined, The number of his months is with You; And his limits You have set so that he cannot pass. Turn Your gaze from him that he may rest, Until he fulfills his day like a hired man.


Answer 2: Because God is Sovereign - NASB Ex. 33:19: And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.”

This second answer is not satisfactory, because it is not "internally consistent" with the rest of Scripture, and doesn't offer much insight. This explanation paints God as an arbitrary dispenser of Justice--but if nothing else, God is always portrayed as acting in wisdom, mercy, and truth--never arbitrary in judgment.

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  • Wow!!! It's insights like these that compelled me to join StackExchange! – Adinkra Jul 8 '16 at 20:22
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The way I’ve read this passage and the question associated with it, is that the emphasis falls on God first looking at the sacrificer and then at the sacrifice. God looked at Abel and after weighing his heart, God had regard for Abel, even before God looks at the sacrifice.

“So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering;” ‭‭GENESIS‬ ‭4:3-4‬

First God checks the heart and then the sacrifice. God does the same with Cain and had his heart been right God would have had regard for Cain also and his sacrifice.

but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell.” ‭‭GENESIS‬ ‭4:5‬ ‭

It’s the heart that counts, the motivation. It’s therefore clear that murder was in Cain’s heart long before Cain’s sacrifice was rejected, the rejection was merely Cain's tipping point.

“But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”” ‭‭1 SAMUEL‬ ‭16:7‬ ‭

It seems that Abel was truly considerate of his sacrifice, it meant something to him

“For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” ‭‭PSALMS‬ ‭51:16-17‬ ‭

And lastly one more reason why Abel’s sacrifice was accepted, it cost him something. Cain didn’t bring the first fruits of the ground, Cain sacrificed fruits of the ground verse3, they could have been the previous year’s fruits, the left overs, we don’t know their condition but we know that Abel sacrificed a firstling, Abel put God first, prioritizing God, nor giving God the left overs or the lame. David said it best.

“However, the king said to Araunah, “No, but I will surely buy it from you for a price, for I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God which cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver.” ‭‭2 SAMUEL‬ ‭24:24

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Realistically, if you placed a bunch of grain or vegetables on an altar overnight next to a slain lamb, which offering do you think would show signs that it had been ‘regarded’ when you returned the next morning?

The question here is not why God accepted Abel’s offering but rejected Cain’s. The question is why Cain assumed rejection by God and favour towards Abel. The Hebrew word שָׁעָ֑ה or shaah means to gaze upon, pay attention to, or to turn one’s eyes (either towards or away from). So there was no hierarchy of value attributed by God towards Abel and his offering. The slain lamb and fat simply received more attention.

God’s response to Cain’s poor attitude is to ask why he was so angry, and then remark: “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?” The word שְׂאֵ֔ת for ‘accepted’ here is seeth which refers to a figurative ‘swelling’ with dignity - it’s an inner cheerfulness and sense of pride that we feel in ourselves, rather than being bestowed on us by an external source.

God is saying: ‘why are you looking for external approval? You don’t need a ‘sign’ from me to prove that you’ve done well.’

God then goes on to say:

וְאִם֙ לֹ֣א תֵיטִ֔יב לַפֶּ֖תַח חַטָּ֣את רֹבֵ֑ץ וְאֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֹ֔ו וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּמְשָׁל־בֹּֽו׃

He’s basically saying, ‘if you mess up, then it’s you who controls the negativity it stirs within.’

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And called his name Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.” Genesis 5:29 English Standard Version (ESV)

Abel means exhalation in Hebrew, he faced God by ceasing to be a husbandman Genesis 3:23 and turning away from the divine design Genesis 3:17f-19. Abel points to the Publican in Luke 18:10-14 and Cain to the Pharisee.

Recognizing that he was not worthy as the firstborn Cain, Abel offered a firstborn, and from his fat, he made incense and smoke that ascended into the heavens, the abode of God, making God feel (noted) the sweet smell of Sacrifice.

Cain was God’s favorite, he saw the face of God constantly Genesis 4:14, but envy dominated him, and in the midst of the darkness that reigned in the cursed field, killed Abel.

Jesus explains about religious misunderstanding in Luke 15:25-32:

Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. Luke 15:25-32 King James Version (KJV)

Cain was a great priest, a law-abiding man, but he had no love.

Abel knew this, did Abel humble himself before Cain?

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Matthew 5:23-25 New International Version (NIV)

And in the same chapter:

Eye for Eye

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Love for Enemies

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Matthew 5:38-47 New International Version (NIV)

And they repaid me evil for good: and hatred for my love. Douay-Rheims Bible Psalm 109:5

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In addition to the Genesis account, there is other relevant scriptures (ESV)

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.

By faith -- faith in what? Faith in God or faith in the word of God. Both brothers demonstrated faith in God in that they offered sacrifices to God. But had God instructed them to bring an animal sacrifice, only Abel had faith in the commandment, whereas Cain substituted his judgment for the word of God.

1Jn 3:10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. 11 For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 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.

John explains the difference between good and evil. If you are good, you will practice righteousness. And what is righteousness, acting in accordance with the will of God -- which we know because he has revealed his will. John identifies the difference in the two brother as simply evil vs. righteous. Had God not revealed what his will was, God would be arbitrary and capricious is accepting one and rejecting the other. Had God revealed his will, it is just for God to judge them accordingly.

God is not the author of confusion. He is a righteous judge. The only logical conclusion is that God revealed his will to both brothers and Abel obeyed but Cain did not.

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Why did God accept Abel's offering but reject Cain's? Genesis 4: 3-7

Genesis 4:3-4 (NASB)

3" So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground. 4 Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering;

We have now seen the fulfillment of the first prophesy in the scriptures (Gen. 3:15). Abel must have learned of it from his parents, and most likely gave it much thought, to this promise of God that someone would be bruised on the heel, and that mankind would be raised to the perfection that his parents enjoyed prior to sinning.

Genesis 3:14-15 (NASB)

14 The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, Cursed are you more than all cattle, And more than every beast of the field; On your belly you will go, And dust you will eat All the days of your life 15 And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall [a]bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.”

Abel did not know how this prophesy would be fulfilled, but obviously his strong faith moves him to offer an animal sacrifice, perhaps he believed that blood should be shed to fulfill the promise.

Whatever Abel may have visualized regarding the future, he had faith based on God’s promise, and God, therefore, accepted his sacrifice.

Hebrews 11:4 (NASB)

4 "By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying [a]about his gifts, and through [b]faith, though he is dead, he still speaks."

Cain

Cain developed hatred for his brother Abel.

Genesis 4:5-7 (NASB)

5 " But for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell.

God knowing the danger this posed for Cain, said to him:

6 “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, [b]will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it."

There was still time for Cain to change his mind, but instead, he resented and rejected the advice which God gave him, with calamitous consequences. Cain’s offering lacked the motivation of faith that made Abel’s sacrifice acceptable. The fact that God did not view Cain’s offering with favor may also have been because his offering was bloodless, whereas Abel’s represented a life poured out.

James 1:14-15 (NASB)

14 "But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. 15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin [a]is accomplished, it brings forth death."

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The text tells us, as others have noted, that whereas Cain brought his offering from the fruit of the soil (מפרי האדמה; LXX ἀπὸ τῶν καρπῶν τῆς γῆς), Abel "went the extra mile", so to speak, and presented the choicest of the firstlings of the firstlings of his flock (lit. the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof; מבכרות צאנו ומחלבהן; LXX ἀπὸ τῶν πρωτοτόκων τῶν προβάτων αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀπὸ τῶν στεάτων αὐτῶν).


In the Talmud, the Genesis Rabbah midrash (3rd to 5th c.) explains here:

And Kayin [Cain] brought from the fruit of the land an offering [mincha] to God - from the leftovers, [similar to] the evil tenant that eats the first fruits and gives to the owner of the field the stunted ones.

Rashi cites other midrashes speculating that Cain's offering was actually flaxseed.


From among early Christian commentators, Ephraim the Syria (4th c., who read and commented on the Scriptures in Syriac, related to Aramaic) wrote:

Abel was very discriminate in his choice of offerings whereas Cain showed no such discrimination. Abel selected and offered the choicest of his first born and of his fat ones, while Cain either offered young grains or [certain] fruits that are found at the same time as the young grains. Even. if his offering had been smaller [or poorer] than that of his brother, it would have been acceptable as the offering of his brother had he not brought it with such negligence. They made their offerings alternately; one offered a lamb of his flock, the other the fruits of the earth. But because Cain had taken such little regard for the first offering that he offered, God refused to accept it in order to teach Cain how he was to make an offering (Commentary on Genesis)

A contemporary Eastern Orthodox commentary on Genesis explains here:

But why did God look favorably on the sacrifice of Abel and not on that of Cain? Is he playing favorites? Even from the little text we have here, we see that Abel offered the best that he had, his "firstborn and fatlings" of the sheep; but Cain offered only some "fruits," not caring to give the best he had. He had the idea of sacrifice, but he had the attitude: "Well, I'll give some of this that I have." He didn't make a particularly important thing of it, whereas Abel was careful to give the best that he had. Cain had it in his nature to offer sacrifice, but he did not add from his own nature the willing thanksgiving of his heart; and Abel did. Therefore, God was pleased with Abel's offering, and not with Cain's (Seraphim Rose, Genesis, Creation, and Early Man: The Orthodox Christian Vision, 2d. ed., p.292)

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Why God rejects Cain and his offering

Gen 4:5a (LEB): to Cain and to his offering he did not look with favor.

I completely agree with your first proposal, with a few additions. God rejects Cain and his offering because the ground is cursed (Gen 3:17), and, since Cain is a farmer and his offering comes from the ground, his offering is cursed too. I also think Cain is rejected because, in choosing to make a living off the ground, he subjects himself to the serpent, who lives on the ground (Gen 3:14). In the NT, John alludes to the serpent's control over Cain:

1 John 3:11–12 (LEB): 11 For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning: that we should love one another, 12 not as Cain, who was of the evil one and violently murdered his brother. And for what reason did he violently murder him? Because his deeds were evil and the deeds of his brother were righteous.

Lastly, here's an interesting passage from the Septuagint which reminds me of Gen 3:15; 4:7 and 1 Pet 5:8 (FlyingDragon offers a compelling interpretation of Gen 3:15 here):

Sirach 21:1–2 (LES): Child, have you sinned? Add to them no more, and petition concerning your former ones. 2 Flee from sin as from the face of a serpent; for if you approach it, it will bite you; its teeth are lion’s teeth, destroying the souls of humans.

Why God accepts Abel and his offering

Gen 4:4b (LEB): Yahweh looked with favor to Abel and to his offering,

I agree with your second proposal, but with a minor difference. In covering Adam and Eve in animal skins, God spares people of the death penalty (Gen 2:17) and something similar enough to us takes our place. In doing so, God evidently determines that the animals are suitable for dying in place of people. I can think of a few reasons why, none of which emphasize blood:

  1. Like people, the animals were made from the ground (Gen 2:19).
  2. Like people, the animals have the breath of life (Gen 7:15).
  3. Like people, the animals live off the fruit of the trees (presumably, since the writer hasn't indicated any other food in the garden).

Hebrews 11:4 (LEB): 4 By faith Abel offered to God a greater sacrifice than Cain, by which he was approved that he was righteous, because God approved him for his gifts, and through it he still speaks, although he is dead.

In offering an animal(s) in his own place, I think Abel acknowledges that God has decided to spare him of the death he deserves. So, in this sense, Abel demonstrates faith in God.

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