Cain and Abel – what was the difference?

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Cain and Abel – perhaps the best-known brothers in history – both brought offerings to God. One was acceptable and the other not. What’s that all about?

I was challenged by a blog post a little while ago that began with the assertion that we often get God wrong, and went on to challenge common understandings of atonement, sacrifice and free forgiveness. It made me think more deeply on some truths that most Christians just accept, sometimes without understanding the implications…

Psalm 51 expresses a deep heart cry for forgiveness and restoration. King David confronts the normal practice of forgiveness enacted through sacrifice and declares it inadequate by writing, “For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering.” Later on in Israel’s history, during a time of sinful rebellion, the Lord declares through the prophet Jeremiah, “When I led your ancestors out of Egypt, it was not burnt offerings and sacrifices I wanted from them.” (Jeremiah 7:22 NLT). They both make it quite clear that sacrificing animals is not at all what God is interested in.

So how and why did sacrifice become such a big part of Old Testament religious practice?

Animal sacrifice is a prominent aspect of Old Testament worship. Jewish people killed a lamb as part of the annual Passover celebration, which dates back to when Moses led the Hebrew people out of Egypt in the Exodus. The Law of Moses contained numerous other blood sacrifices as well. Even before that time, we find the same practice of animal sacrifice occurring at times of worship and covenant promise making, with Abraham, Noah and even right back to Abel after the eviction of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

Cain and Abel – perhaps the best-known brothers in history – are famous for one thing; the first murder ever recorded, as the result of Cain’s jealous rage at his younger brother. The story is found in Genesis chapter 4, immediately after the account of the fall of mankind. It centres on the two brothers bringing offerings to God, Abel’s offering being pleasing to God and Cain’s offering not being accepted.

When they grew up, Abel became a shepherd, while Cain cultivated the ground. When it was time for the harvest, Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the Lord. Abel also brought a gift—the best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock. The Lord accepted Abel and his gift, but he did not accept Cain and his gift. This made Cain very angry, and he looked dejected.

“Why are you so angry?” the Lord asked Cain. “Why do you look so dejected? You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.”

Genesis 4:2-7

Perhaps you are like me and have wondered what was so different about Cain’s and Abel’s offerings? Why did God view them so differently in the first place? The New Testament book of Hebrews offers us some insight about the difference between them.

It was by faith that Abel brought a more acceptable offering to God than Cain did. Abel’s offering gave evidence that he was a righteous man, and God showed his approval of his gifts. Although Abel is long dead, he still speaks to us by his example of faith.

Hebrews 11:4

Abel wasn’t considered righteous or accepted because he was “more good” than Cain. It comes down to faith – Abel was trusting God in a way that Cain wasn’t. Somehow it was reflected in their worship. Abel brought a sacrifice of the firstborn from his flock. At this point in time no one ate meat (that began after the flood, see Genesis 8), so the flocks would only have been kept for milk, or clothing. There was no need for killing. So what gave Abel the idea of making this kind of sacrifice and believing it would please God?

As I pondered this question I realised that this kind of sacrifice was not Abel’s idea. We can go back one step further and discover something I’ve never heard mentioned in any other sermon…

God himself made the first sacrifice.

What!?!  Stay with me…

In the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they felt compelled to hide from Him and cover themselves because they felt ashamed. They had broken trust with Him and felt the loss of intimacy with God. How many of us, when we’ve done something wrong, feel compelled to avoid the ones we’ve hurt or those who might confront us about it? Shame causes us to want to hide. And so they did what all religion does: they tried to fix it by themselves. They cleverly made coverings by stitching leaves together, but no amount of covering their physical forms could take away the shame that was in their hearts. Having severed their heart-link to the Source of Life I imagine they immediately felt death enter their physical system, like a light bulb that is unplugged. God had said, “…if you eat it’s fruit, you are sure to die.”

This is where God steps in. Instead of the coverings they made for themselves, God made new coverings; this time out of animal skins (Gen. 3:21). Why did He use the skin of an animal? Surely God could have used cotton from the fields or wool from the flocks, or even just made some clothing appear out of nothing if He wanted? Then no creature would have to die just to clothe them.

So this is the crunch-time. God chose this option deliberately and it has a specific meaning; it must point to something for us today. The pattern of sacrifice was established here, as God revealed that something – someone – would need to die to restore our relationship with Him. Adam and Eve’s attempt to cover their own shame was as much a failure as any of our own attempts to repair the schism between God and us.

So, getting back to Cain and Abel: Cain brought what later became known as a “Thank offering”, but Abel brought something more – a picture of God’s eternal plan for the covering of our shame and healing our relationship with Him. It was Abel’s offering that reflected the knowledge that only God can provide the way of forgiveness and healing. That is a faith declaration.

Since then, every time a lamb was brought to God as an offering it was a reminder of our need for a life to be given in our place and a reminder of God’s promise of restoration. It is a graphic image of God’s eternal plan that was fulfilled in Jesus. The death we experience by being separated from the Life-Giver some insight passed onto another who would die in our place. Every Passover lamb through history was a reminder of our separation from the Source of Life, and it all points to Jesus as the perfect sacrifice given to cover us in “clothing” made by God.

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

Galatians 3:26-27

In Jesus, we find the fulfilment of God’s first response to sin entering the world. We are clothed in a way that doesn’t just cover up our shame but instead removes it completely. He is the perfect sacrifice; as John the Baptist named him “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1 NLT)

Does God delight in sacrifice? Not at all, just as Jesus took no pleasure in the cross, neither does the Father. The Jesus we find in Gethsemane has no delight in what he is about to endure. He said, “Please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” The perfect, sinless Lamb was about to be executed once and for all, to bring us back to God. Did he want the suffering? No. But he knew it was necessary to go through it anyway, for our sakes. Hebrews 12:2 says, “Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame.”

Jesus did not have joy in the cross, he endured it, despite the suffering and the shame. The joy that awaited him on the other side is YOU.