God’s rejection of Cain’s sacrifice and acceptance of Abel’s is a topic of much discussion, with a number of different proposals made for why the distinction was made. Perhaps the most popular opinion is that Abel’s sacrifice was accepted because it involved the shedding of blood, which is necessary for the forgiveness of sins (Heb. 9:22). Some argue that Cain’s offering of produce from the ground was insufficient due to the curse on the earth (Gen. 3:17–18). Still others look to Cain’s offering and note that it is simply an offering of the “fruit of the ground” rather than of the firstfruits and as such was not acceptable to the Lord (see Lev. 2:14 for firstfruits offerings). The common thread among all these views is that the answer to why one offering was rejected and the other accepted has to do with the object of the offering itself. While there are clear texts that deal with the quality and kind of offerings that are acceptable to God (see Lev. 1:3), this does not seem to fit what is happening in Genesis 4. Instead, the most likely reason for God’s acceptance of Abel’s offering and His rejection of Cain’s is not the quality of the offering but the character of the worshiper. Abel approached God in the humility of faith and Cain in the pride of self-righteousness. Their respective characters constitute the distinguishing feature of the two brothers. To illustrate this point, we will work through three areas: first, the kind of sacrifices offered; second, the context of Genesis 4; and third, the brothers’ character.

First, considering the sacrifices, grain and animal offerings are both part of the Old Testament sacrificial system. While animal sacrifices are important, without the grain offerings Israel would not be worshiping the Lord appropriately (Lev. 2), and not all grain offerings were firstfruit offerings. Moreover, both Cain’s and Abel’s offerings are called a minhah in Hebrew, and while this can be a general term for “offering,” it is used in Leviticus 2 in reference to approved grain offerings. In light of these observations, the particular kind of offering that both Cain and Abel brought—grain and animal—were part of the sacrificial system and therefore appropriate to bring before the Lord. The distinguishing feature of each offering, therefore, cannot be in the kind or quality of the sacrifice. The answer must lie elsewhere.

Too often this question of the sacrifices is asked without regard for the broader context of the Genesis narrative. Genesis 2:4–4:26 forms one narrative unit; therefore, we must understand the Cain and Abel narrative within the context of Genesis 2–3. Mankind was created good, with original righteousness and holiness in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27; 2:7, 22), but the fall (Gen. 3:1–7) drastically affected our nature. Rather than being in a state of original righteousness, mankind is now in a state of sin and misery, of confirmed wickedness. But God in His mercy established a covenant of grace in Genesis 3:15, promising to redeem fallen sinners through the “seed of the woman” who would restore them to blessed communion with God. This covenant of grace is also marked by enmity. In the fall, Adam and Eve spiritually associated themselves with Satan. The Lord then graciously promised to sow enmity with Satan and restore a people to fellowship with Him. This enmity in Genesis 3:15 extends to the offspring of the woman such that two spiritually distinct lines descend from this one couple. One line, the seed of the woman, will have the humility of faith; the other line is spiritually associated with the serpent. This conflict of lines in Genesis 3:15 provides an outline for the rest of Genesis and even the entire Bible as it traces the “generations” of the righteous and the wicked, eventually climaxing in the fully righteous One (Christ) who crushed the serpent by being struck. With this context for Genesis 4, we must understand the narrative focus not as two different sacrifices but rather as two spiritually distinct persons—an initial outworking of the conflict from Genesis 3:15 in the first generation after the fall, a conflict that will see the seed of the serpent seeking to kill the seed of the woman.

Genesis 4 calls us to consider our character, and to come to the Lord not in self-righteous pride but in the humility of faith.

The New Testament focuses on the character of the worshipers in its interpretation of Genesis 4, with Cain being “of the evil one” (1 John 3:12) and Abel offering his sacrifice “by faith” (Heb. 11:4). But how is this spiritual distinction revealed in Genesis 4? The character of Cain is on full display with the murder of his brother (Gen. 4:8). But this comes after the sacrifice, and some people may argue that his anger was his response to his rejection rather than the reason for it. If we couple this act with an analysis of names, however, Cain’s murder of his brother is illustrative of a consistent character issue rather than simply a response to circumstances.

Cain is the firstborn son of the first married couple, and his status as firstborn comes with all the pomp and show of his name. Upon his birth, he is named Cain, which Eve interprets, saying “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord” (Gen. 4:1). Translational difficulties abound in this line, which more literally reads: “I have acquired a man, the Lord.” The addition in the ESV “with the help of” is an attempt to smooth out the difficulty. Without getting into all the details, one thing is clear from his name: Cain is associated with the Lord. In light of the Genesis 3:15 context, in all likelihood Eve is identifying Cain as the seed of righteousness, the one promised to come, defeat the serpent, and win salvation for humanity.

Abel’s name could not be more different. In Hebrew, Abel (hebel) means vain, breath, or fleeting. His birth also contrasts him with Cain as he is referred to as “his brother” (Gen. 4:2). In contrast with Cain, Abel is but a breath, one of fleeting existence. Cain is associated with the Lord and His promise, but Abel with the vanity of the fall. Imagine that every time your mother calls your name you hear, “Fleeting!” Or for Cain, every time you hear your name, you hear of your association with God. How might you approach the task of worship in light of your namesake? Cain, in his named association with the Lord, approaches in the merit of his name, but Abel in the demerit of his.

From his birth and considering his namesake, Cain had every reason to believe in his acceptance before the Lord. But Abel came downcast in humility, hoping in salvation from God. The Lord is a God of mercy; a humble and contrite heart He does not despise (Ps. 51:17). This is why the Lord gazed upon—“had regard for” (Gen. 4:4)—Abel’s offering. Coming in the demerit of his name, he approached with his face downcast but hoping in God. And this is why Cain’s offering was rejected, coming in the self-righteousness of his namesake he approached with his face held high, and therefore the Lord did not “gaze upon” Cain’s sacrifice and Cain’s “face fell” (Gen. 4:5).

When considering the sacrificial system, a humble heart of faith was always necessary. The prophets regularly indicted the Israelites for their maltreatment of the sacrifice not simply because they offered improper sacrifices (though they did at times) but especially for their heart condition as they offered them. This is why Hosea says, “I desired steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6; also 1 Sam. 15:22). Sacrifices and burnt offerings were required by God, but without steadfast love and without knowing God—that is, without the humility of faith—they hold no value. The Old Testament sacrificial system was not a sacerdotal one where simply “going through the motions” rendered a proper relation to God. A humble heart of faith was always necessary. When considering Cain and Abel, the narrative teaches us that while the Lord does not despise the humble who come to Him in faith, He is against the proud such that “the haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled” (Isa. 2:11). Genesis 4 calls us to consider our character, and to come to the Lord not in self-righteous pride but in the humility of faith, for “those who humble themselves will be exalted, but those who exalt themselves will be humbled” (Matt. 23:12).

Exegesis without Embarrassment

Prayer 101