According to Gen 1:29-30 and Gen 3:18b, God had given green herbs as mankind's food both before and after the fall.

Before the curse:

Genesis:1.29 And God said, "See, I have given you every herb [that] yields seed which [is] on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food.

After the curse:

Genesis:3.18 Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field.

It was only after the flood in Gen 9:3 that God permitted men to eat animals.

Genesis:9.3 "Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs.

But in Gen 4:2, Abel the third man was already a shepherd.

Genesis:4.2 Then she bore again, this time his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.

QUESTION: Why was Abel a shepherd when animals were not yet permitted to be eaten as food.

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    Sheep provide wool for clothing. – Nigel J Nov 21 '17 at 14:40
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  • Gen 1:24 in NIV translation says And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so., the word for livestock is basically behemoth but why would it be broken out in this way if it weren't to be differentiated? Livestock means "food animals". – pbhj Nov 21 '17 at 22:21
  • To add, only 2 out of the version listed at bible.cc fail to translate it as cattle/livestock; which is perhaps why I've never heard this suggestion before. – pbhj Nov 21 '17 at 22:29
  • I am surprised that no one mentioned Genesis 3:21. – Lucian Nov 22 '17 at 16:26

Sheep provide wool for clothing. And Abel sacrificed to God from his flock, following the example God had set with regard to the provision of a covering of skins for Adam and Eve. There is no reference to Abel eating the sheep.

And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering, Genesis 4:4 [KJV].

We know that what Abel did was right in the sight of God because of Hebrews 11:4 :

By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts : and by it he being dead yet speaketh.

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    What loss is required in sacrifice. The loss involved is equivalent to the value of the animals to the owner. Of what value is the fat mentioned in the passage since the animals are not eaten. Of what value was the wool since the human population was so small. – user20490 Nov 21 '17 at 15:53
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    @user20490 - "Of what value was the wool since the human population was so small." Can you explain the relationship between value of wool and population size? – Don Branson Nov 21 '17 at 16:11
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    No matter how small the population, they still needed clothes. A small population presumably requires LESS wool (or some other suitable material), but not none. By the same reasoning you could say that farming was valueless because the population was small. Even if there's only one person in the world, he still needs to eat and he still needs clothes. – Jay Nov 21 '17 at 17:48
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    We don't know how many people there were in the world by this time. Adam and Eve had other children besides Cain and Abel -- see Genesis 5:4. Cain and Abel were presumably adults at this time, so Adam and Eve had plenty of time to have more children. For all we know some of these children may have been old enough to have children of their own. There could easily have been dozens or hundreds of people in the world. Heck, we're told that people then lived to be hundreds of years old. If several hundred years had passed since creation, there could have been thousands of people in the world. – Jay Nov 21 '17 at 17:52
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    @user20490 Your comment essentially amounts to the question, "Why did Abel need to sacrifice sheep to God?" which sounds like a separate question from the one you originally posted. Why not post another (assuming it's not a dupe)? Not 100% sure it's on topic here, though. Check the rules. – jpmc26 Nov 21 '17 at 20:11

It is my policy not to answer a "why" question regarding the motive of others unless their intentions have been provided, except in a most tentative manner. In other words, since we do not seem to be provided with the "why" of Abel's actions, any answer will at best be speculative. To presume why people do the things they do without them saying why is an example of the "unrighteous judgment" that Jesus warned against:

NASB John 7:24 "Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment."

Righteous judgment requires abilities that most of us lack:

NASB 1 Samuel 16:7 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."

NASB 1 Kings 8:39 then hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and forgive and act and render to each according to all his ways, whose heart You know, for You alone know the hearts of all the sons of men,

So to answer the question I would say that I don't know nor does anyone else. However, we can ruminate and speculate.

Also, the Hebrew does not indicate that the animal(s) he tended were sheep. The word used merely indicates that they were small flock animals which in Moses' time would suggest sheep and/or goats together in one flock. Christians tend to assume that they were sheep because of some mistaken belief that sheep were God's preferred sacrifice. However, I don't believe that sheep were a special animal in that regard in the Torah.

However, while both goats and sheep provide milk (and therefore cheese) only sheep provide wool. It appears that sheep wool has been used in the making of clothing from time immemorial:


So why might he have tended a flock?

First I would mention why some of the other suggestions made here might not be on point:

  • it is unlikely that any animals in the domain were naturally dependent on care from humans, as was suggested. Wild sheep and goats do not need to be sheared or have their hooves trimmed. Hooves wear down from use in the wild. The uncontrolled growth of domesticated sheep is a product of selective breeding.

  • YHVH did not provide an example of shearing sheep to make clothing. Either, as I am inclined to believe, the covering that YHVH provided to Adam and Eve was for the covering of their skin in the form of pubic hair... This would be similar to the provision of hair as a natural covering to woman's head:

NASB 1 Cor 11:15 but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering.

Or, the animal's skin was given as the covering, not the wool. Either way, Abel was not imitating YHVH directly. They would be imitating in making clothing but from wool not from skin unless they skinned the animal, in which case the animal was raised for its hide, not its wool. In that case sheep or goat would not matter.

  • RevelationLad's musings that the gift of the animal to YHVH may have been offered as a living sacrifice makes a lot of sense in the context of Genesis. However, if we consider Hebrews 11:4 the word θυσίαν (sacrifice) is used which from an "NT colored perspective" suggests that the animal was killed. Regardless it is an excellent and well reasoned suggestion and we do have Paul suggesting that a living sacrifice (θυσίαν ζῶσαν) which, unlike Cain's offering (and like Abel's offering) was acceptable to God, suggesting an allusion. So ultimately right or wrong, his answer gets a +1 from me.

  • the idea that he kept animals specifically for sacrifices and not as a livelihood is, I think, not in keeping with the juxtaposition with Cain's livelihood:

NASB Genesis 4:2 Again, she gave birth to his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.

The objection that YHVH forbade drinking animal products assumes that:

  • the announcement that they were given plants for food was tantamount to a prohibition of consuming animal products was not a given (https://youtu.be/ZGZLM0FrcwE?t=50s)
  • the Adam family, strapped by a cursed land, didn't seek out other sources of nourishment than that provided might again not be a given

So if pressed to speculate I would speculate that either:

  • this is an accidental anachronism by the author
  • Abel kept flock animals as his livelihood by exploiting their wool for clothing and possibly also their milk for drinking

Other considerations:

  • cheese making seems anachronistic
  • trade other than division of labor within the family seems anachronistic
  • sacrificing wool and milk are probably not sufficiently better than offering grains to make his sacrifice more dear than Cain's given that food was grown with difficulty under the curse
  • offering an animal that he had raised from birth would be a somber and heart wrenching sacrifice and is likely but is not likely why that was his livelihood. However, releasing the animal into the wild, as on Yom Kippur might have likewise been very difficult with an animal. I have heard that the attachment of shepherds with their animals is very much that of beloved pets.

Again, I don't think we are told so the above are just my ruminations and speculations.

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    Thanks for the realism you brought to this question. There are some questions in the Bible that can only be answered speculatively. – user20490 Nov 21 '17 at 19:30
  • I say this because even the drinking of milk was not permitted. In Gen 1:29 and 3:18, YHVH clearly states that Adam's food was the green herb. The use of the word green means that only plant produce was in the diet and only plant produce was ever desirable. – user20490 Nov 21 '17 at 19:33

"Why was Abel a shepherd when animals were not yet permitted to be eaten as food? The answer is animals, and sheep in particular require on-going care in order to be in good health. Even if all animals were living peaceably among one another with no threat of predators and no disease, sheep should have their coats removed each year.

In a vegetarian world and/or a place without need of wool, tending the flock is a selfless act. While Abel's father and brother are working the fields which will "put food on the table," Abel is engaged in an activity which has no economic benefit to the family.

Where is the sacrifice in this type of activity? In giving your life to the care of another living creature. If the the flock is not cared for, the animals will suffer and may die. Thus the role of a shepherd at this moment in history is simply to care for the LORD's creation with no expectation of a return.

  • What loss is required in sacrifice. The loss involved is equivalent to the value of the animals to the owner. Of what value is the fat mentioned in the passage since the animals are not eaten. Of what value was the wool since the human population was so small. – user20490 Nov 21 '17 at 15:50
  • My point is that there was no serious reason for him to keep animals. Wool for only 2 men?(excluding Adam since he had a coat sewn for him by God). – user20490 Nov 21 '17 at 15:52
  • @user20490 First, regardless of human population the sheep need shearing. The removal of the wool is also a health requirement. Second, what need does the LORD have of anything man has to offer? – Revelation Lad Nov 21 '17 at 16:55
  • @user20490 Regardless of human population, wool is warm and nights are cold. – BunnyKnitter Nov 21 '17 at 16:56
  • @user20490 Cain and Abel were adults by this time. It had been at least decades since God made Adam those first clothes. Nothing in the Bible says they were miraculous and would last for ever. Even if it did, maybe Adam had use for more than one suit. And who says only men wear wool? There were bare minimum 5 people in the world by then: Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, and Cain's wife. As Cain and Abel were adults, Adam and Eve might have had many other children in that time. If Cain and Abel were, say, 30, and Eve had a baby every 2 years, that's 15 more people to clothe. ... – Jay Nov 21 '17 at 17:58

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