In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Genesis 4.3-5.
Two brothers each bring a minchah — a gift of homage or allegiance — to the Lord; but he one gift is accepted and the other not. On the face of it, it all seems very unfair. Each brings something of what they have. Abel is a shepherd so he brings sheep; Cain is a market gardener so he brings fruit and vegetables. What has the Lord got against market gardeners? Or is he just capricious — acting on a mere whim in choosing Abel’s offering?
Some argue, in response, that no, God was not being capricious, but was simply establishing from the very outset the principle that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9.22). Abel (either instictively or through revelation) understood that principle and acted in accordance with it, but Cain did not. He offered the first lamb ever … for his own sin. Later, at the Passover, another lamb will be offered … for a household (Exodus 12). And later still, on the cross, the lamb of God will take away the sins of the world. A lovely thought, but, attractive as it might be, there is no suggestion here that the gifts that Abel and Cain brought to the Lord were ever intended to be sin offerings. They were not sacrifices. A sacrificial offering is a zabach, not a minchah.
So is there another explanation that makes sense of what was going on here? Yes, there is. Cain merely brought “some of the fruits of the soil” whereas Abel brought “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock” (my italics). Abel did not bring just any old sheep, he brought the best of the best; and that, surely, is what made his gift so attractive to the Lord. Abel’s gift showed just how much love and reverence Abel had in his heart for God, whereas Cain’s gift actually revealed the lack of such love and reverence. In 1 John 3.12 it is suggested that all along Abel was a righteous man but all along Cain was evil. God’s attitude towards Cain’s offering didn’t make him bad — he was bad already and the way in which he approached God with his fruit and vegetables simply betrayed that.
It is important to note too, however, that God’s only response to Cain’s offering was that “he did not look with favour upon it”. We sometimes re-tell this story as if God reacted in anger to it — throwing Cain’s carrots and parsnips back in his face; but he did no such thing. Cain was simply denied God’s smile of pleasure and appreciation.
So what of my offerings to the Lord? Do they win God’s smile? I suppose the answer is that sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. But this morning’s reading certainly spurrs me on to give him the best this day … the “fat” of the “firstborn” of my time, my energy, my activities, my thinking … my everything.
Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
take my moments and my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of Thy love;
take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for Thee.
Take my voice, and let me sing always, only, for my King;
take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from Thee.
Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold;
take my intellect, and use every power as Thou shalt choose.
Take my will, and make it Thine; it shall be no longer mine:
take my heart, it is Thine own; it shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love; my Lord,I pour at Thy feet its treasure Store:
take myself, and I will be ever, only, all, for Thee.