By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. (Heb. 11:4)
Few biblical stories are more intriguing and saddening than that of Cain and Abel—the Bible’s first scene of death, martyrdom, and sibling rivalry. The book of Hebrews mentions Abel twice, in Hebrews 11:4 and in Hebrews 12:24. For now, we will focus on the first of these two references, though the second is both profound and edifying. In Hebrews 11:4, we are given the first instance of an Old Testament hero of faith. Abel is the first “witness” to testify to the better things that God promised to the saints of old and has now fulfilled in these “last days” (Heb. 11:3) in Christ. It is important to remember that in the book of Hebrews, God has not simply spoken to the Old Testament saints, He has also spoken through them. Thus, revelation of the better things to come in Christ was something of which the Old Testament believers were not only recipients of, they were also participants in—participants in the drama of redemption that would climax in the person and work of Christ.
The story of Cain and Abel actually begins with the theme of hope. Eve had been promised a child, and even though she would bear that child with pain (Gen. 3:16), by faith she held onto the promise of God that one day she would bear a son who would bring climactic judgment upon the deceptive serpent. This promise of a child is often referred to as the protoevangelium (the first gospel). God promised that the messianic Seed of the woman would accomplish what her husband had failed to do—slay the serpent of old. So, Eve conceived a child and hope began to grow within her womb. The Hebrew language regarding the birth of Cain is clearly filled with more poetry and expectation than that regarding Abel. The light appears to shine on Cain with a sense of wonder as to whether he might be the promised seed of the woman. Abel followed shortly behind, and for a brief moment, all seemed fine with the first family in history and their bouncing baby boys.
The next scene is marked with stage-setting “in the course of time. . . .” It was time for sacrifice. It is important to note that Cain and Abel were not the first in Scripture to offer sacrifice. God had set the example of blood sacrifice in particular when He replaced the fig leaves with which Adam and Eve clothed themselves after their fall into sin with “garments of skin” (3:21). In order for God to clothe Adam and Eve’s nakedness and shame, something had to be put to death. The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), and without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sin (Heb. 9:22). Thus, God had set the pattern of atonement and sacrifice.
Many have attempted to explain why God accepts the sacrifice of Abel and rejects the sacrifice of Cain. The text is not explicit. It simply states what Cain and Abel brought to God and the fact that one was rejected and the other accepted. Though it cannot be proven definitively, it is at least worth considering that perhaps the reason Cain was rejected and Abel accepted is that Abel, by faith, followed the example of what God had already done in Genesis 3:21, while Cain chose to follow the example of Adam by bringing a non-bloody sacrifice that was not in keeping with the pattern set by God and thus not able to provide a suitable covering for sin. Either way, Cain was rejected and Abel accepted.
What happened next was far worse than Cain’s failure to offer to God an acceptable sacrifice. Cain grew angry and jealous, and in a fit of unbridled rage, he murdered righteous Abel. God had already warned Cain that he must either master sinful jealousy or be mastered by it. Cain not only abandoned the counsel God gave, but he proved in a single act that he was anything but the righteous seed of the woman. He was far more in tune with the jealousy-driven, murderous kingdom of Satan than with the kingdom of God. Cain may not have been willing to sacrifice an unblemished animal to God on the altar of true worship, but he was more than willing to sacrifice righteous Abel on the altar of his own jealous rage.
There is little doubt that what unfolds before our eyes on this dramatic stage is the first acting out of what will become the tension of not just two siblings, but of the two seeds of which God spoke in Genesis 3:15. Cain was in line with the seed of the serpent—the kingdom of Satan, which is fueled by jealousy and idolatry. Abel, however, was a faithful son of Eve and a faithful son of God. He was obviously not the Son of God, but Abel nonetheless portrayed what would become a principle to be perfected by Christ: in this world the righteous will suffer, but the just shall live by faith.
Abel’s story is one that appears to end in both irony and tragedy. He was the faithful son of Eve who offered an acceptable sacrifice to God. He was the man of faith. And if the promise of Scripture is that the just shall live by faith, we cannot help but wonder why it is that Abel died instead of Cain. It is here that the whisper of the resurrection was first heard. Abel did indeed die, but his voice was still heard. His blood cried out to the ground for vengeance, and God heard his voice. According to Hebrews 11:4, even though Abel died, he continued to speak. He died as one who has hope in the God who is not the God of the dead but the God of the living. Abel lives because God is a resurrecting God and His kingdom is not constrained by our mortality. Cain may have struck Abel down, but God raised him up, and through Abel God began to dramatically testify to the reality of the better things that will come in Christ.