Updated: Aug 27, 2019
Faith is taking worship seriously and coming before God “inspiritand in truth” believing that He is worthy of our focused attention and best offerings.
“By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.” (Hebrews 11:2, 3)
We might not know the details of what transpired between God and the first family that caused them to understand how God wanted to be worshipped and what cost was attached to maintaining a right relationship with Him. Certainly, Adam and Eve, and their sons, had a prime example of blood sacrifice as a covering for sin from the beginning of their history. Before the boys were born, that first blood sacrifice had been made. Genesis 3:7, 21 describes how that happened. After Adam and Eve disobeyed God several things happened. They were afraid. They knew what they had done. They tried to hide from God—foolish, but panic will cause any of us to do foolish things. The Scriptures tell us that both of them heard God coming and hid from Him because their nakedness made them afraid to meet with God. Why afraid? “Hiding” from God—whatever that represents to us and as futile as it is—is often our response to a desire to avoid facing our sin and the consequences that a holy God might dictate because of those sins. If He can’t find us, He can’t demand an accounting for our actions—or so we hope!
“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”
After God confronted Adam and Eve:
“The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.”
Feelings perhaps of lust and shame now overwhelmed what had once been a sense of innocence and wonder. But how they chose to cover both their sin (hiding) and their shame (leaves) were both inadequate responses. The leaves they chose to cover themselves would eventually turn out to be dismal failures at the task for which they were assigned. So God stepped in to provide a better way which would become a continuous illustration of just how much their sin would cost them.
My suspicion is that the first animal killed as a sacrifice to cover sin—and at the Lord’s hand—was a lamb. With the skin from that lamb He covered His wayward creatures. I think it would be logical for it have been a lamb for the same reason I believe that days and times and seasons were put into place in the beginning as they are to this present day. It would make sense for God to start as He meant to continue.
Throughout the Old and New Testament the lamb appears as part of the “scarlet thread” of salvation that runs through the Bible. We have no idea what the conversation was between God and the first couple as that animal was sacrificed to cover their shame. Other animals would have to be sacrificed to renew their wardrobes and to provide for clothing for their children. There is a huge difference between killing an animal for clothing and killing one as a act of contrition and worship. Somehow the death of one of the flock became, at least for Abel, a re-enactment of what God had done for his parents, a constant reminder of the breach created by disobedience and the price that needed to be paid to repair the damage to the relationship. Did Cain not understand? Or did he refuse to understand?
This thread of salvation began with a promise made to a serpent, THE serpent. What happened in Eden was perhaps a story told many times to Cain and Abel by their parents as they grew up. Perhaps the promise of a deliverer was repeated over and over as well.
Genesis 3:15 is God’s judgment on Satan: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.”
This prophecy finds its fulfillment in Christ’s statement on the cross: “…Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30). There on the cross, because of the ultimate, and final, sacrifice of the perfect Lamb of God slain to cover the sins of a lost and hopelessly damaged creation, Satan was defeated.
But before the cross, what would God do about restoring the relationship between Himself and man and rescuing man from the consequences of his sin? At the same time God pronounced judgment on Satan and foretold the coming of the ultimate solution to the sin problem in the coming of His Son, He put into place a continual re-creation of the consequences of sin as a reminder of the cost attached to the restoration of the relationship between God and man.
This re-creation was the sacrificial system, a system put into place long before Moses appeared on the stage of history. It began with Adam and Eve. It began when God killed an innocent animal to cover the sins of the first couple.
First Nation peoples maintain a high degree of respect for the environment, including the animals that they kill for food. I understand that tradition dictates that when an animal is killed a ritual is performed where the hunter offers prayers of apology for the death of the animal and releases its spirit to the place where it is supposed to be. Recently, in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, hunters killed a rare white moose and the Mi’kmq held a three-day ceremony in its honour. Where does this kind of ritual come from? My personal suspicions are that this has its roots back in Genesis. Do you think God took lightly the killing of an animal to cover the sins of Adam and Eve? I don’t think He did. I think that the sacrifice of that animal was painful for Him, not only for what it represented as far as sin was concerned, but for the needless waste and damage to His creation it also represented. And though we might discount what is practiced by indigenous cultures as pagan ritual, they may be more “righteous” than we are willing to admit. We need to remember the roots of these rituals and learn some lessons from them—i.e. respect for God’s creation and the pain it causes Him to see it needlessly and heedlessly destroyed, all of which is the result of man’s sin.
The psalmist, smart enough to realize that there was no place he could ever go where God wasn’t, rejoiced in that fact because for him repentance wasn’t an option but the only course of action.
O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going our and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord. You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand on me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
Many of us remember the story of the Emperor’s clothes. The king in the story was deceived by those closest to him into thinking that he was wearing magnificent robes when he was, in fact, naked. It was only when he went out to show himself off that the public disabused him of that. Satan’s trick is to deceive us into thinking, as the king thought, that we are fine the way just the way we are. Eventually, in our encounter with God, we discover that we are far from fine, that our sin is exposed, that the “leaves” with which we cover ourselves to disguise our sin are useless, and that we stand without excuse before God.
God’s solution to the sin problem was a better one than the leaves with which Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves—and much more painful and graphic. Something had to die. Blood had to be shed—if not that of the sinner’s then a substitute had to be found.
Genesis 4:1-18 tells us the few details we have about the lives of Abel and his older brother, Cain.
It is hard to imagine Eve, alone except for Adam, and without a doctor, midwife, or anyone who knew anything about delivering babies, bringing Cain into the world. Her closest instruction manual might have been what she observed in the animals that were under the pair’s guardianship. She speaks truth when she says: “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.”There was no one else! Sometime after Cain’s birth, Abel was born.
Perhaps Eve remembered the promise that God had given in the midst of His declaration of punishment for sin, the promise that her offspring would defeat the evil that she and Adam had given life to. She may have thought when she made her statement that Cain was the fulfillment of that promise, that in the pain and blood of birth redemption was won.
It is interesting to note that Abel, from the Hebrew Hebel, means “’breath’ or what passes away without leaving anything significant.”In a world where family was everything, Abel passed into history without leaving heirs behind. And he passes through history so quickly that he leaves very little of his personal story behind. But certainly, the most important part of that story is recorded and remembered. In God’s story—His-story, Abel is added to a list of the people of faith as having left something of great significance behind. Through the worship that he practiced, a precursor to the sacrificial system that God would hand down to His people, we have the living illustration of what, many years later, Jesus would come to finish, die to deliver, and rise again to prove.
Cain became a farmer and Abel looked after the flocks. According to the Genesis account both men knew that they needed to approach God: “In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.”
“In the course of time…” makes me ask when that moment in time came when the boys were considered old enough to bring their own sacrifices to the Lord. In Christian circles we talk about “the age of accountability” or the age when someone understands enough to confess that he is a sinner and wants Jesus to forgive than sin and become His Saviour and Lord. Perhaps that happened for Cain and Abel at whatever age they assumed responsibility for the crops and herds that they were assigned to look after.
We have no knowledge of the timeline here. Does what we have recorded for us in these verses represent the first time the boys appeared with offerings for the Lord? Or has God already communicated instructions as to how He is to be approached and for some reason this is the point where Cain’s offering deviates from the plan? Either way this episode represents a teachable moment—a moment for a course correction for Cain. Verse 4 continues with: “The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was angry, and his face was downcast.”
In a very real way, the story becomes more about Cain than it is about Abel. Cain’s attitudes and actions serve as a contrast to Abel’s. The two sons become for us example of the differences between those who believe and those who don’t, those with faith and those without faith. History has repeated itself over and over again since the time of Cain and Abel. By his worship Abel demonstrated his belief in God and in God’s right to be obeyed. By his worship Cain demonstrated his failure to take God seriously.
Commentators’ notes in the Zondervan Study Bible suggest that Abel’s offering was preferred because he offered what would be considered the best part of the animal and from the firstborn of his flock.The quality of Cain’s offering is not mentioned. That precise detail about the nature of the offering makes it hard to imagine that Abel’s offering was chosen from pure instinct He brought the fat portions of the firstborn. He would not have come up with that all by himself. In this story it seems that we looking at one man following his heart and another following his head, one man listening to God and the other doing things his own way. At some point both brothers would have to decide whether or not to follow the instructions given to them by God.
God does not hold man to account where there is no law.
“…where there is no law there is no transgression…for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a commandment, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.”
As in the case of Adam and Eve God communicated what He required even before the formalities of a written law and specific consequences were laid out related to each law. Death was forever there as an ultimate consequence. Right and wrong were determined and based on the response to that determination, reward and punishment were handed out.
It appears that God was speaking audibly to His people during this time in history. They had no Bible. There were no missionaries. This event in history took place long before the time of Christ. We don’t know what form those God-encounters took but people could understand what He required of them.
I wonder if what happened in Abel’s story might contain an answer to the age-old question of what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel. In Abel’s day there was no “Gospel,” no Bible, no missionaries. Yet God communicated His truth in some form. The first animal sacrifice was a graphic, brutal means of reminding those first humans of the price that had to be paid for wilful disobedience. The history of blood sacrifices, including human sacrifice to appease other gods, appears throughout history and continues in some religions even today. Abel’s story is part of that bloody beginning.
The New Testament adds brief bits of information about the brothers to what we have in Genesis, and the picture is not a pretty one when it comes to Cain.
“Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s righteous.”
“Yet these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error; they have been destroyed in Korah’s rebellion.”
“And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.”
It is obvious that the trouble with Cain started long before this particular episode that swirls around the sacrifices.
“Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s righteous.”
Cain’s actions were evil beforehis killed his brother.
I mentioned earlier that I believe God started as He meant to continue. He is nothing if not consistent. From the first sin came the first substitute that would take the punishment due the sinner. It was not yet time to set up that elaborate sacrificial system with all its rules and regulations that we find later on during the time of Moses but still, the “bare bones” will be put in place. This episode in the lives of Cain and Abel becomes, as it were, the introduction to the chapters that will follow as the Hebrews escape Egypt to claim the land that God would promise to Abraham.
This scarlet thread of salvation runs through the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation, even if the principal players in the scene were unaware of the significance of the parallels between their actions and what was to come many years later.
Much of book of Hebrews is dedicated to this theme of atonement and how it relates to Christ. The focal point of the book is this: “…the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”
For the most part Biblical scholars seem to agree that we shouldn’t assign expiation through blood sacrifice to this incident in early Biblical history. The theme dealt with here in the story of Cain and Abel is considered to be that of worship—the state of the heart as it approaches God. Alexander MacLaren writes: “Character, then, or, more truly, faith, which is the foundation of a righteous character, determines the acceptableness of worship…Plenty of worship nowadays is Cain worship. Many reputable professing Christians bring just such sacrifices. The prayers of such never reach higher than the church ceiling. Of course, the lesson of the story is not that a man must be pure before his sacrifice is accepted. Of course the faintest cry of trust is heard, and a contrite heart, however sinful, is always welcome. But we are taught that our acts of worship must have our hearts in them, and that it is vain to pray and to love evil. Sin has the awful power of blocking our way to God.”
It makes sense that it might not have been the type of sacrifice at all that caused the problem, but the heart attitude with which the sacrifice was offered. Cain is described as evil and his brother as righteous,which is a heart condition. When Moses appears on the scene we know that there were various kinds of offerings, including grain offerings, which were perfectly acceptable to God. But these were not sin offerings.
Abel’s faith journey is brief to the point of being “bare bones.” Look again at the text.
“2…Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. 3In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. 4And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favour on Abel and his offering, 5but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour. So Cain was angry, and his face was downcast. 6Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? 7But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.’”
Cain is faced, not with condemnation because of his offering, but a course correction based on a heart attitude, the attitude that was reflected in the offering that he presented to the Lord.
Hebrews tells us:“By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.”
What did Abel believe when he offered sacrifices pleasing to God and when he approached God with the correct attitude?
If Abel’s actions and the heart from which they came demonstrate what we will see later in the life of Abraham—Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness—we must assume that Abel believed, had faith, that what he was doing and how he was doing it, would be pleasing to God.
The phrase“…by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead” intrigues me. How does Abel continue to speak to us today?
The story of Abel is the first example we have in theScriptures of a blood sacrifice as a sin offering. Abel’s story is only the second recorded incidence of this “scarlet thread” that runs through the Scriptures up to the death of Christ, but it is the first clear picture of that scarlet thread that ends at the cross that we have. Abel approached God as we need to approach Him, as He decrees. The psalmist records: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
David understood that God was not happy with endless dead animals, though until the coming of the Messiah the sacrificial system was a necessary part of coming into His presence. David understood that the correct attitude took precedence over even the correct action.
It was abundantly clear from the story that what Abel did was pleasing to God and what Cain did wasn’t. If the difference was in heart attitude, the lesson is even clearer—no actions can make up for a heart attitude that pleases God. This is where the story of salvation, the story of Jesus, becomes personal—blood must be shed in order to restore the relationship between God and man, and the heart must be engaged in the process.
Abel’s story is a contrast between faith and faithlessness.
The writer to the Hebrews says this in speaking about the dangers of disobedience: “You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven.”
Cain refused to make the course correction. He was confronted by God and warned that adjustments had to be made. “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.’”
Cain made a poor choice. Instead of adjusting both his heart and his behavior, he killed his brother.
“The Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.’”
Abel’s story, and Cain’s, picture the world in which we live today—those who do things God’s way and those who don’t. But Cain had an opportunity to make a better choice than he eventually did.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
When God confronted Cain and issued the warning that a change in heart and behavior was required if he was to be accepted Cain was at a crisis point, the moment of decision, a crossroads in his story. The clear implication is that it was Cain’s choice. Just as his parents were given the choice to obey or not to obey God’s instructions, so Cain must decide. We too are faced with this truth. None of us is helpless when faced with making a decision between right and wrong. I am reminded of Paul’s famous words: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
Cain’s response when God appears to him after the murder (and another reminder that God appeared in some form to the people of that era) is reminiscent of what happened in Eden to Cain’s mother and father. God asks questions to which He already knows the answers, looking for truth and repentance. To Adam and Eve it was, “Where are you?…Who told you…?...Have you eaten…?”To Cain it was, “Where is your brother…What have you done?” Once more He will be disappointed in His creatures.
Cain had failed God in his worship, but God did not reject him for that failure.
God is the God of second chances—and thirds! He confronted Cain with the problem and its solution. He gave Cain a choice. He left it to Cain to decide what he was going to do—try to do things his way, or do things God’s way.
Adam and Eve were gifted with the privilege and obligation of choice. Cain was gifted with the privilege and the obligation of choice. Abel was gifted with the privilege and the obligation of choice.
By “obligation” we mean “an act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound; a duty or commitment.
God spoke to his people in those early days of civilization. Whether or not Cain and Abel understood all the details about blood sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, the basic premise remains: God expects us to approach Him as He instructs us to approach Him not as we decide we want to approach Him. Both the correct action and attitude are required to please God, to demonstrate faith.
When we approach Him our way rather than His way, we are demonstrating a lack of faith—we don’t believe.
We don’t believe He is who He says He is and therefore do not believe that He deserves the respect that the correct actions and attitudes demonstrate. This is faithlessness.
Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4 turned into a discussion on worship. The conversation began with some uncomfortable moments for the woman. She changed the subject and some valuable teaching on worship happened. Samaritans, considered by the Jews to be “half-breeds,” would not have been allowed to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem even if they had wanted to. They found other places closer to home to express their faith. The woman challenged Jesus about correct worship sites. We have His response in John 4:21-24.
“Jesus declared, ‘Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”
CONVERSATIONS AND CONSIDERATIONS
1. Admitting our failures and frailties to our children is not usually high on our “to-do” lists. It probably wasn’t easy for Adam and Eve to tell their children how they had lost Paradise because of their rebellion against God. What have been your struggles as you described to your family some of the challenges of your spiritual journey?
2. Alexander MacLaren wrote: “Character, then, or, more truly, faith, which is the foundation of a righteous character, determines the acceptableness of worship…Plenty of worship nowadays is Cain worship…we are taught that our acts of worship must have our hearts in them, and that it is vain to pray and to love evil. Sin has the awful power of blocking our way to God.” Agree or disagree? Why?
3. How does Abel’s story speak to you today?
4. Jesus told the Samaritan woman that those who worship God must do so “in spirit and in truth.” What does that kind of worship look like?
5. Report on how you are doing in strengthening your relationship with God as a vital part of your faith journey.
The Zondervan NIV Study Bible, General Editor: D.A. Carson, Zondervan Publishers, 2015.
Genesis 4:3, 4
Leviticus 3:16, 17
Romans 4:15; 5:13, 14
1 John 3:12
Matthew 23:35 (Luke 11:51)
1 John 3:12
Hebrews 11:2, 3
Psalm 51:16, 17
Genesis 4:6, 7
1 Corinthians 10:13
Genesis 3:9, 13; 4:9, 10