Cain and Abel – a Deeper Look


“Someone died for this slightly off-base irritating brother. He is Abel offering his blood sacrifice, and love says I count his offering as sufficient.” From the book Grace in Community by Jim McNeely

I wanted to return to the very powerful and fruitful story of Cain and Abel as it pertains to the idea of grace in community. I did not include the following study in the book, but I did want to post some of this background material publicly to support the ideas in the book. I didn’t necessarily think that this stuff was readable and interesting enough to include in the book, but I do think it is important to have worked logically through the relevant scriptures. These ideas really stem initially from my reading of 1 John 3:11-15:

11 For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another; 12 not as Cain, who was of the evil one and slew his brother And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother’s were righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.
1 John 3:11-15

So I want to ask one simple question. Why was Abel making an offering? Why was Cain making an offering? Where did this idea of an offering come from? It was the first instance of the idea of an offering. Was it simply that they were making an offering to God as a thank offering, and Abel happened to be a keeper of the flocks while Cain was a tiller of the ground? I think there are clues that indicate that this isn’t so.

First off, in Genesis 4, there is the idea of “regard”. God has “regard” for Abel’s offering, while he does not have “regard” for Cain’s. It is the Hebrew “sha`ah”, which means to gaze at. It seems to carry the idea of looking upon favorably or even in in amazement. I think we can look at Genesis 3 in that the fig leaves they tried to use to cover themselves were 1. vegetation and 2. of their own devising. The skin that served to cover them was 1. an animal death and 2. of God’s devising. Both the fig leaf and the skin garments were devised to cover shame. This is the chronological context for the story of Cain and Abel. First, shame requires covering, and the covering could be thought of as representing an offering. So I think contextually that this idea of offering in the Cain and Abel story should be seen as a sin offering to cover shame. We also know contextually here that flora offerings are not sufficient, whereas fauna offerings are sufficient. Contextually, sacrificial offerings of either flora or fauna are considered sin offerings, but only faunal offerings are considered effectual.

However, there is a better reason which corroborates this idea. When God talks to Cain about it afterwards, He talks to him about doing well and sin crouching at the door. Doing poorly and sin are part of the mix in understanding these offerings. We might think that the nature of the offerings themselves was the sin, but we could easily speculate that there was sin in the lives of both brothers that led to the need for offerings. We do know that Cain at least was prone to sin besides the sin of doing an offering flora, because when things didn’t go his way he murdered his brother. It doesn’t really make sense to think that Abel was sinless and then made this offering as an outflow of his general sinlessness. We know that through Adam sin and death spread to all men (Romans 5:12), so it makes sense to surmise that Abel was making a sin offering. Neither brother was sinless, and both were, in their sins, making offerings, in the context of God having a concern for sin and the need for doing well.

Furthermore, we know from the direct context in the narrative that tilling the ground to produce fruit was associated with toil and sweat and work. There is no such injunction as concerns keeping flocks. So Cain is working his butt off, toiling and sweating, to produce his offering, while Abel is lazily following his flocks around, merely sacrificing the firstlings. This is what enrages Cain. God has regard for the offering that took no effort but was the offering which God had devised. God did not have regard for Cain’s hard work, and Cain wanted to his efforts to be recognized. He felt that his efforts should prove to be propitiatory, but it is the blood, not the effort, which is propitiatory in God’s eyes.

In effect, Cain knew his own sin and he knew Abel’s sin. Neither of them would be making offerings if it weren’t needful, because these offerings were consistent with their parents’ experience of covering shame. God is talking to Cain about his sin in the context of these offerings; the issue is that Cain’s offering was not efficacious. However, Cain does not think Abel’s offering should have counted when his own offering didn’t count, because he put so much more effort into it. If there were no effort to appease justice, Cain wanted Abel to bear the brunt of justice himself. The hard work he had put into his offering amounted to non-substitutionary atonement; in other words in his mind he had balanced out justice himself through his hard work, which is what his offering represented. He resented Abel’s offering because it represented a substitutionary atonement, and Cain did not believe one could suffer for another to balance out justice.

But, why did Abel’s offering find favor? There is nothing intrinsic or mystic about blood that makes it good. It is that death is the harshest judgment, and when there is any idolatry and any sin at all there must be a sufficient punishment — death. Working hard at gardening is not a harsh enough judgment against sin. It belittles the evil and horror of sin and the weightiness of being forgiven. So Cain is asking God to accept an offering which simply isn’t sufficient for his sin. Abel offered a sufficiently harsh punishment for his sin, but it required an acceptance of the idea of substitution. Cain murdered Abel because he could not accept the idea of substitution. He thought that a less harsh punishment, but a punishment which he himself bore, was superior to a harsher punishment which someone else bore. This difference of opinion is what separates the works salvation proponents from the grace salvation proponents to this day. What we know is this: God will not bend on the harshness of the punishment that is required to balance justice. However, God will accept a substitutionary offering if it is sufficiently harsh.

So if we think that someone must “repent” in terms of making good for their sin, or must show effort and must try harder in their efforts to appease justice for their sin, we are Cain the murderer who hates his brother. We want our sinning brethren to bear the brunt of justice themselves. We are willing to bend the strictness of the law in order to make that possible, but we do not like the idea of a substitute sacrifice. It seems like just letting them get away with it, and we can’t live with that. Wo in wanting our brother to pay for their own sin, to work harder for it, we are of the same exact spirit as Cain.

If we believe there must be an ultimately harsh rebuttal for our sin in order to appease justice, and we believe in the reality of substitutionary atonement, we are Abel. We must clearly expect that the Cains of the world are going to hate us and dispute with us and expect us to work harder to balance justice, but we know it won’t work. God won’t be easily bought off that way. He requires an untimely and violent death to balance justice, because sin is just that bad. Grace allows us to see this: sin is so very very bad that it requires an untimely violent death to balance the injustice of it. You can’t soften the penalty in order to bear it yourself because the softening nullifies the balance. There must be a sufficient penalty, and the kindness God extends is that He has regard for the substitute.

So, you either believe in the power of propitiation and let the substitute punishment for your neighbor’s sins sway your judgment, or you soften justice and expect them to bear the punishment on their own. Since it is impossible to appease justice through working hard enough unless you actually shed blood, you become a murderer. There is only belief in propitiation leading to love and acceptance, or disbelief in propitiation leading to hatred and murder. There is no gray area. Love cannot exist in the absence of justice, and since all sin, we must all have some kind of offering. What you believe about substitution and the degree of harshness required to make atonement determines whether you love or hate. Thsi is why Jesus Christ is the only exclusive way. We must have a substitute to save us from judging, hating, and murdering one another.

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