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 The Sacrifices of Cain and Abel

Why was one accepted and the other rejected?

John Hoole March 20, 2005


Abel, the second son of Adam and Eve.


He was killed by his brother Cain.

Let's talk briefly about the sacrifices of Cain and Abel.

Genesis 4:1-2 NIV

1 Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, "With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man."
2 Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.

Cain and Abel were the first humans born in the usual way. Their parents, Adam and Eve, were created. Cain was the older of the two. Cain and Abel were born after their parents had been put out of the Garden of Eden. Cain became a worker of the soil, while Abel became a Shepherd. Back then, there were two choices for a career. You either worked with plants (growing and harvesting) or with animals (raising or hunting). Millions of people today continue in these two vital professions - we could not survive without them.

Genesis 4:3-5 NIV

3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD.
4 But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering,
5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

When the day came to make an offering to God, Cain and Abel brought their tribute. Abel brought some of the very finest from his flocks, while Cain brought an offering from his crops. We are told that God accepted Abel's offering with favor,but He rejected Cain's offering. Now let's read Genesis 4:8 NIV

8 Now Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let's go out to the field." And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.


We are not specifically told in the Genesis account. It could be because of jealousy. It could be that Cain was angry with Abel because God showed favor on Abel.

In our ongoing series of lessons on the priesthood of every believer,we have looked at what is and is not an acceptable sacrifice to God. We have seen that sacrifices were a large part of Israel worship before God. We have seen how it still is a part of our worship today, although the sacrifices we offer to God are different.

This brief account of Cain and Abel has influenced our understanding of acceptable worship. The question many ask is this: "Why was one sacrifice accepted and the other rejected?" Was it an arbitrary choice on God's part? Few of us would conclude that God acts in capricious and arbitrary ways.


Some conclude that Cain's sacrifice was rejected because he did not , like his brother, offer a blood sacrifice in an effort to atone for his sins. As I said earlier, Genesis 4 tells us that Abel was a shepherd and Cain was a farmer. These are worthy vocations, the products of which are perfectly acceptable to God. I don't really find any support to the argument that Cain didn't offer a blood sacrifice, therefore, his sacrifice was unacceptable to God.

The Hebrew word translated as "offering" in our English Bibles which both men brought, is used later in Leviticus to describe the proper and right offering one makes to God. There is nothing inherently bad or wrong with the offering. In addition, the offering made is not stipulated as a sin offering. Most likely it was a symbol of submission to God, the great Provider.

While reading Hebrews 11:4 through my accustomed theological glasses, something happened. Something knocked those theologically glasses, tinted with certain biases, and I saw the passage in a different light. Here is what came to me.

Other persons in history have offered blood sacrifices in abundance only to find their worship to be displeasing to God. To a sinful nation of Israel that had forsaken the Lord, we find God crying out through Isaiah, the prophet, "The multitude of your sacrifice - what are they to me? says the Lord; I have more than enough burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats" (Isaiah 1:11).

A similar rejection of Israel's sacrifices was uttered through Jeremiah, in Jeremiah 6:20. Had not God commanded those sacrifices which they offered? Yes, He had, and they were blood offerings.

Since we have a record of God disapproving the very sacrifices He had commanded, we had better find out why that happened. When we understand this, we may have some insight into why Cain's sacrifice was also rejected.

In Micah 1, we find the Lord rejecting the offerings of Israel. Later, in Micah 6:6-8 (NIV), we find these words.

6 With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

God bore witness of their righteousness or wickedness by accepting or rejecting their sacrifices. Rejection of their sacrifices was not because the sacrifice was wrong. It was because they were wrong. Their heart wasn't right before God, and the result was that God rejected what they offered to Him. It is not the details of the offering that were being inspected. It was the heart of the worshiper that was being inspected. This is the way it has always been. It has always been true that "the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is His delight"(Proverbs 15:8).

Proverbs 21:27 adds:

The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination: how much more when he brings it with evil intent.

The person offering the sacrifice was being judge rather than their offerings. And that is exactly the way it is stated in Genesis 4 concerning Cain and Abel. Let's read it again.

Genesis 4:3-5 NIV

3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD.
4 But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering,
5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

Notice that it does not read "the Lord looked with favor on Abel's sacrifice, but on Cain's sacrifice he did not look with favor." The emphasis, rather, is on the man. "The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no favor." Now, let's look at Hebrews 11:4 again.

4 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.

This verse tells us that it was be cause Abel offered his sacrifice in faith that it was approved. But his rejection of Cain and his offering God bore witness, not to an improperly detailed ritual of worship, but to the wickedness of the man. Many centuries later, John the apostle, recognized Cain's evil nature and urges us to "love one another, but 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 were righteous" (1 John 3:10-11 - NIV).

This gives us the answer. Cain was evil in his heart, and, as we read earlier, "the sacrifice of the wicked are an abomination."

John does not say that Cain was evil because he killed his brother. He says that he killed his brother because he was already evil. And if we take the surrounding context of the verses we just read, where we are told to "love one another, but do not be like Cain…" then John is indicating that Cain had no love for his brother. The hatred in his heart that was there prior to bringing an offering is what caused Cain's sacrifice to be looked at with God's disfavor. And that same hatred led him to kill his brother.

Abel did not make an offering to achieve righteousness. He was righteous already because of his faith. And God bore witness to that fact by accepting him and his offering. Cain, on the other hand, sought to achieve righteousness by going through the rituals of worship when he was evil in his heart. That was a problem of the religious people of Jesus' day also. Because of their obstinance, the Jews kept traditions having no basis in the O.T. Law. Then they had the audacity to call what they did "worship." So Jesus rebuked them, saying "You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, when he said, "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine the precepts of men." (Matthew 15:7-9)

Jesus also addresses the worshiper that might be angry or disrespectful of his brother.

Matthew 5:23-24 NKJV

23 Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you,
24 leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

With all this said and done, I must examine myself. How many times have I went through the motions of worship, when my heart was not correct before God? Unfortunately, I have, much too often, followed Cain's philosophy in too many instances, where I have done that things you are supposed to do in worship, but in a ritualistic manner. Instead of our worship being an expression from upright lives, we have made it an effort to please God by going through all the right motions.

Again, although the Genesis account tells what each man offered, it does not indicate that acceptance or rejection was due to what was offered. Each man offered the fruit of his labors. That is in harmony with our responsibility toward our talents. In certain cases, God has identified the specific details of worship, but those offering to God still must have a proper heart toward God.

In short, Cain was just going through the motions. He was playing "church." He was relying on the ritualistic process of worship as a means to attain righteousness. But Cain's heart was not right. He did not have a genuine and proper relationship with God. The Holy Spirit's lesson for you and for me is that we must be genuine and contrite believers if God is going to accept and be pleased with our acts of worship. And that is true whether your worship is prayer, evangelism, giving, parenting, and so on. By "genuine believer", I mean an individual who is born again of the Holy Spirit. By "contrite" I mean a born again individual who is also right in his relationship with God. God's message is clear. You and I must be a born again individual who is broken in spirit over our sins, and Spirit-controlled before you and I offer God our sacrifice of praise.

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