Genesis 4:1-15 describes the infamous story of Cain and Abel. In this story, two brothers, Cain (a “tiller of the ground”) and Abel (a “keeper of flocks”), bring a sacrifice before God (see Genesis 4:2-3). Verses three and four tell us that Cain brings “an offering of the fruit of the ground” and Abel brings “the firstlings of his flock and their fat portions”. The end of verse four and beginning of verse five reads: “And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard.”. What was it about Abel’s offering that made it acceptable to God while Cain’s offering was not acceptable? In Hebrews 11:4, we read that Abel “offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain…” (emphasis added). What made his sacrifice better? In this post, I make three observations on how Abel’s sacrifice differs from Cain’s in regard to the type, quality, and attitude of the offerings. I also propose that the primary reason Abel’s sacrifice was accepted and Cain’s was rejected was the attitude with which each sacrifice was brought.
The first observation is that the two sacrifices are of different types. Abel brings “the firstlings of his flock and their fat portions” while Cain brings “the fruit of the ground”. Abel brings an animal sacrifice and Cain brings a sacrifice of produce; each brings an offering corresponding to his occupation. Some have suggested that Abel’s offering was accepted because of its type, namely that is was an animal sacrifice. Passages like Hebrews 9:22 and Leviticus 17:11 describe the significance of blood in a sacrifice and some believe this is what sets Abel’s sacrifice apart. Most people who hold this view, defend it in one of two ways. First, they point to the animal killed to provide Adam and Eve with clothing in Genesis 3:21 as setting the standard for animal sacrifice. Second, they argue that there was likely some direct revelation from God to Cain and Abel describing when and where to offer the sacrifice as well as what to offer. To be honest, I want to agree with this view, but there is nothing in Genesis 4 to support it and I choose to err on the side of the most clear reading of a text.
The second observation from this passage is that the quality of the offerings are different. Notice how Abel’s offering consisted of the “firstlings” (the first child born to an animal) and “their fat portions” (Genesis 4:4). Abel offered the best he has. When it comes to Cain’s sacrifice, described in verse three, it doesn’t appear that he offered anything of exceptional value. Cain does not go out of his way to worship God; he only worships Him as easily and simply as he can.
The third observation is that there is a difference not only in the type and quality of the sacrifice but also in the attitude of the person making the sacrifice. Notice that at the end of Genesis 4:4, it says that God had regard for “Abel and for his offering” (emphasis added). In the same way, God had no regard “for Cain and for his offering” (emphasis added). God regards or rejects both the offering and the one bringing the offering. Hebrews 11:4 is helpful on this point as the author uses Abel (and not Cain) as an example of faith. If we define “faith” as trusting the promises of God, we see from Hebrews that Abel trusts God promises (most likely the promise given in Genesis 3:15) while it appears Cain does not. Both Cain and Abel come with an offering, but the heart behind the two offerings are very different.
Based on these three observations, I propose that God had regard for Abel’s sacrifice rather than Cain’s because Abel came with an attitude of faith and trust that led him to offer God his very best. In other words, I think that the primary difference between the two sacrifices is the heart attitude (which affected the difference in the quality of the two sacrifices). While the type of sacrifice offered is very critical later in the Old Testament, I see no indication in this text that Cain brought an offering of the wrong type. It may be the case that they had some special revelation from God detailing the type of the sacrifice to be brought, but a simple, text-centered approach to this passage does not provide any support for this view. He simply came with the wrong attitude (and therefore an offering of poor quality).