Cain the elder becomes a farmer and Abel the younger becomes a shepherd (Gen 4:2). Each brings an offering: Cain brings to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground (Gen 4:3); and Abel brings the firstlings of his flock (Gen 4:4). But God accepts Abel’s offering. Accordingly, Cain is troubled (Gen 4:5-7), and kills his brother Abel (Gen 4:8). The story ends with God’s punishment of Cain (Gen 4:9-15). Why did God reject Cain’s sacrifice? Does God love a meat sarifice rather than a vegetable offering?
The text does not tell us the reason why God prefers to Abel’s offering. Thus, there have been several inferential attempts to answer the question:
- Both Luther and Calvin explained that Cain did not present his gift by faith. Their interpretation was based on Heb 11:4 (cf. 1 John 3:12; Matt 23:35). C. Westermann suggests that the opinion of New Testament writers is based on the Rabbinic traditions of late Judaism: “Abel is ‘the just one’ his sacrifice is offered ;out of faith” (Westermann, 319).
- The offering itself was insufficient, either becuase Cain was stingy or becuase he violated some implicit liturgical regulation (Skinner, 105).
- There is a cultural conflict between farmers and shepherds. R. de Vaux argues that Cain’s story affirms pastoralism of the patriarchs (de Vaux, 13-14).
- The story reflects that YHWH prefers a younger to an older sibling (Goldin, 32).
The first suggestion seems to be totally out of context since the text never metions the word “faith”; thus, this is an interpretation of the story. The second suggestion is plausible. The text says that Abel’s sacrifice was accepted becuase he offered “the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions” (Gen 4:4), while Cain brought “fruit of the ground.” Cain is being condemned for failing to bring first fruits (Deut 26:1-11). But it is also a conjecture. The third suggestion needs to be reconsidered in light of recent studies of nomadisim and its relationship to settled zones in the ancient Near East. It scarcely seems so. The fourth suggestion is restated by Joel S. Kaminsky who suggests that it is about divine favoritism and the exclusivism which repeats in the cases of Ishmael and Isacc, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his ten older brothers (Kaminsky, 23). He argues that “the Genesis narratives are well-suited as an introduction to biblical election theology.” He focuses on the divine favoritisim rather than the issue of offering:
Cain’s failure is not in relation to the offering he brought, but in his reaction to God’s mysterious favoritism of Abel. He allows his jealousy to get out of control, even after God has warned him of this danger. Rather than accept God’s choice of Abel, he tries to overcome Abel’s election by killing him (25).
But I’m convinced by F. A. Spina’s suggestion (“The Ground for Cain’s Rejection [Gen 4]: יadāmāh in the Context of Genesis 1-11″ ZAW 104/3 ) that we need to consider the issue of the text in the larger context of Genesis 1-11. Cain’s offering has to do with its source: the ground which had been coursed by God (Gen 3:17-19) so that Cain’s offering is unacceptable. Indeed, the term “ground” is the key word in Genesis 1-11. Cain was a farmer who followed in the footsteps of his father Adam, the first farmer (Gen 2:5, 15). Spina further argues that human beings continued to to sin even after the flood that is the main theme of Genesis 1-11. But the cursed “ground” became the source of blessing and and a suitable offering to God (Deut 7:12-16).
De Vaux, R. Ancient Israel: Social Institutions I. 1965.
Goldin, J. “The Youngest Son or Where Does Genesis 38 Belong,” JBL 96/1 (1977).
Kaminsky, Joel S. Yet I Loved Jacob: Reclaiming the Biblical Concept of Election. Nashville: Abingdom Press, 2007.
Skinner, J. Genesis. ICC. 2nd. 1930.
Spina, F. A. “The Ground for Cain’s Rejection (Gen 4): יadāmāh in the Context of Genesis 1-11″ ZAW 104/3 (1992): 319-32.
Westermann, C. Genesis 1-11. Trans. John J. Sculion S. J. Minneapolis: Augusburg Publishing House, 1984.
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