I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Thursday, June 7, 2012

What's the Story with Cain and Abel?


A. Geographical and temporal setting

            1. The geographical setting is “east of the garden of Eden” (Gen 3:24),[1] wherever Eden might have been.[2]  The first couple is in exile, resulting from their fall into rebellion and sin.  Cain’s sin and fratricide drive him further eastward, indicating judgment and the increased pervasiveness of sin with its consequent—a greater chasm between fallen man and the face-Presence of YHWH (4:14).  Because of the historical context, the antediluvian period, fixing a precise geographic location of Eden and the garden is inscrutable.  
            2. The temporal setting is obviously in the early dawn in humanity’s history[3].  After man’s creation, fall into rebellion, and expulsion from Eden, the next temporal marker is the birth of the brothers, Cain and Abel (4:1).  Within the context of 4:1—7 we find a typical, organic progression of life: the brothers are conceived and born (4:1—2a); they grow into their respective vocations, both of which were likely Adam’s too (v 2b), and they come-of-age, being responsible for the nurture of their own relationship to YHWH, “in the course of time” (vv 3—7). 
B. Canonical-theological setting
            Although the birth of the brothers indicates a significant movement in the Genesis narrative, it cannot be divorced from either that which came before it or that which follows it, the whole of the pentateuchal plotline.  The narrative of Cain reveals fundamental parallels to the fall narrative of Genesis 3: (1) sin is geographically described (Gen 3:5—7; 4:6—7); (2) the sinner undergoes divine interrogation (Gen 3:3—13; 4:9—12); (3) the ultimate divine question is one of personal location (“Where are you?”) and social location (“Where is your brother?”; Gen 3:9; 4:9); (4) the sinner is cursed (Gen 3:14, 17; 4:11—12); and (5) the clothing of Adam and Eve and the marking of Cain are similar, as is their banishment to the east (Gen 3:21, 24; 4:15—16).  Cain, therefore, is a geographic instance of Adam’s sin as well as a demonstration of the impact of the fall.[4]  So, we must read Gen 4 retrospectively, with an eye on the past.
We must also read Gen 4 proleptically, with an eye on the future.  “The larger narrative pattern of Israel is also forecast (in Gen 4).”[5]  As a result of Cain choosing to harden his heart, he becomes the archetypal exile for the immediate audience of Genesis, the post-exodus Israelites.  Just as Cain, having sealed his sinful disposition toward YHWH and his brother, the righteous, was exiled from the land and the Presence of YHWH, so too Israel, when she will have sealed her stiff-necked, hard-heartedness toward God and fellow, will be cast from the good land and the Tabernacle Presence of YHWH, and sent into exile, constantly fearing the threat of death at the hands of others (4:14 // Deut 28:15ff).  Therefore, theologically, the Cain-Abel story looks back to Gen 3 and also the yet-future, warning its readers to not walk “in the way of Cain” (Jude 11) and suffer banishment from land and God.[6] 

            Like the book that bears it, Genesis 4 is a chapter of firsts: the first sexual union, the first birth(s), the first (recorded) acts of worship, the first shedding of human blood, et cetera.  As Genesis 3 leaves the reader hanging in great suspense, wondering about the hoped-for, head-stomping seed of the woman, who would ultimately defeat humanity’s subtle foe, the serpent (v 15), chapter 4 opens with great anticipation that that seed has arrived.  Eve exuberantly announces this much in v 1b, lest the reader missed it in v 1a.  As important as this event is, it is quickly eclipsed by the occasion of the first worship in the Genesis narrative (vv 3f). 

A. “Offering” (minha), is an occasion of repetition, occurring three times in the considered narrative (vv 3, 4, 5), and boasts a total of 211 uses in the Old Testament (OT).  Twice YHWH insists in Exodus, “None shall appear before Me empty-handed” (23:15 // 34:20).  Interestingly, the first reference, 23:15, concerns the prescriptions for the feasts of Unleavened Bread, Harvest, and Ingathering, and includes “the first fruits of your labors from what you sow in the field…the fruit of your labors from the field…You shall bring the choice first fruits of your soil” (italics added).  These are the produce of the “tiller of the ground” (Gen 4:2b).  The latter reference, Ex 34:20, is likewise in the context of the festivals, but focuses on the “firstborn” (bekôr)[7] theme, which is of great consequence for “a keeper of the flocks” (Gen 4:2c).  Both contexts also share the command that “Three times a year all your males are to appear before the Lord GOD, the God of Israel” (Ex 23:17 // 34:23). 
Leviticus 2 provides the most exhaustive qualifications for minha.  These worship statutes will help present Moses’ readers with a theology of “offering,” which will go a long way in developing an understanding of the offerings of the brothers in the laconic narrative of Gen 4:1—7. 
“The Torah, especially the priestly legislation...has a rich and precise vocabulary to represent the sacraments offered to the LORD on an altar; each term denotes a physical object representing a spiritual truth upon which the worshipper could feed spiritually in his approach to and communion with God.”[8]  Examples of this rich vocabulary of offering include the following.  The most inclusive term for presentations to God on the altar is qorban, "offering," from a root signifying "to bring near." This term is not used in the Cain and Abel story.[9] Others include "burnt offering" (‘ola), "fellowship offering" (selem), "acknowledgement offering" (toda), "votive offering" (neder), "free-will offering" (nedaba), "sin offering" (hatta't), and "guilt offering" ('asam ).  Waltke makes the crucial observation, regarding the last two examples—“sin offering” and “guilt offering”—thatThese sacrifices make ‘atonement’ (kpr) and involved shedding blood for removal of sin. Were Cain presenting an involuntary offering, he would have been rejected for failure to offer blood. In fact, however, in the Cain and Abel story, a part of the Books of Moses, neither ‘sin offering’ nor ‘guilt offering’ is used.”[10]  We must conclude, therefore, that Cain was not rejected for failing to offer a blood sacrifice. 
B. “Firstlings” (bekôrâh) and “fat portions” (chêleb) are other key terms. 
1. Bekôrâh (“firstlings”) is used only 15 times in the Hebrew OT.  It is sometimes used for “birthright” (e.g., Gen 25:31-34; 27:36; 43:33).  It can also mean “firstborn” (Deut 21:17).  In Deut 12:6 it is mentioned in the cultic context of various other offerings, sacrifices, and tithes, which are to be brought to the place of worship chosen and prescribed by YHWH, being called “the firstborn of your herd and of your flock” (ESV).  This is relevant, as Abel brought “the firstborn of his flock” (Gen 4:4a; also see Deut 12:6, 14; 14:23; Neh 10:37), thus conforming his offering to the prescribed quality of regulative Torah worship. 
2. Chêleb (“fat portions”) enjoys a more generous usage than bekôrâh, occurring 92 times throughout the OT.  The KJV translates the term simply “fat” 79 of those 92 times; it also translates it “best” (5x), “fatness” (4x), “finest” (2x), “grease” once, and “marrow” once. 
Two prepositional phrases are used to qualify the kind of sacrifice that Abel brought.  These also could be interpreted as a hendiadys: “from the fattest of the firstborn of the flock.” Another option is to understand the second prepositional phrase as referring to the fat portions of the sacrificial sheep. In this case one may translate, “some of the firstborn of his flock, even some of their fat portions” (cf. NEB, NIV, NRSV).[11] 
C. “Sin” (chaṭṭâ'âh) is a term scattered like seed through the OT and is nearly always translated simply “sin.”  This term’s meaning is clear; there is little explanation needed to understand how the author defines it.  One observation does provide some insight into Moses’ rhetorical purpose with this use of the term, however.  This is the first occurrence of 294 in the OT of the word chaṭṭâ'âh, and Moses cloaks it in a daunting zoomorphism, wherein sin is portrayed as being a wild beast ready to pounce its prey.  Sin is the subject of the verb “desire.”  Sin, in principle, is not literally a thing that can be postured, much less is it a person or animal with volition and desires; sin is a function of relationship, whether with God or man. 
The figure of the crouching sin, however, must press us further.  Walton picks up on the peculiar shift in gender between the feminine noun “sin” and subsequent parts of speech in 4:7.  “The word translated ‘sin’ is a feminine form, yet the participle robes (‘is crouching’) is clearly masculine singular as are the pronominal suffixes connected to ‘desire’ and ‘rule.’”[12]  Typically, Walton wishes to interpret these grammatical nuances in terms of ancient Near Eastern background materials.[13]  It is probably best, however, to understand these grammatically incompatibles as alluding to the serpent of Gen 3. 



A. The first sexual union, the ‘twain became one flesh.’ Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, (4:1a)

B. The brothers are born. And she conceived (4:1a)

1. The birth of Cain. and gave birth to Cain, (4:1b)

2. Eve’s evaluation of the first birth. and she said, “I have gotten a manchild with the help of the LORD”  (4:1c)

3. The birth of Abel. Again, she gave birth to his brother Abel. (4:2a)


            A. The vocation of Abel. Abel was a keeper of the flocks, (4:2b)

            B. The vocation of Cain. But Cain was a tiller of the ground. (4:2c)


            A. The occasion of the worship. And it came about in the course of time (4:3a)

            B. The worship of Cain. that Cain brought an offering (4:3b)

                        1. The object of Cain’s worship. to the LORD (4:3b)

                        2. The content of Cain’s offering. of the fruit of the ground (4:3b)

            C. The worship of Abel. Abel, on his part brought (4:4a)

                        1. The object of Abel’s worship. [to the LORD (assumed by ellipsis)]

                        2. The content of Abel’s offering. (4:4a)

                                    a. The best parts of his substance. of the firstlings of his flock (4:4a)

                                    b. The best portions of the best parts. and of their fat portions. (4:4a)


            A. The acceptable offering of Abel (4:4b)

1. The LORD’s acceptance of Abel’s person. And the LORD had regard for Abel (4:4b)

2. The LORD’s acceptance of Abel’s portions. and for his offering; (4:4b)

            B. The rejected offering of Cain (4:5a)

                        1. The LORD’s rejection of Cain’s person. but for Cain (4:5a)

2. The LORD’s rejection of Cain’s portions. and for his offering He had no regard (4:5a)

V. CAIN’S DILEMMA (4:5b—7)

            A. Cain’s reaction to his rejection. (4:5b)

                        1. The root of Cain’s reaction. So Cain became very angry (4:5b)

                        2. The fruit of Cain’s reaction. and his countenance fell. (4:5b)

            B. The divine response, regarding Cain’s reaction. (4:6)

                        1. The divine interrogation. Then the LORD said to Cain, (4:6a)

                        2. The LORD inquires about Cain’s heart. “Why are you angry? (4:6b)

3. The LORD inquires about Cain’s actions. And why has your countenance fallen?” (4:6c)

            C. The divine response, regarding Cain’s solutions. (4:7)

1. The LORD’s solution for Cain’s actions. “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? (4:7a)

2. The LORD’s warning for Cain’s heart. And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; (4:7b)

            a. Sin’s relation to Cain. and its desire is for you, (4:7c)
b. Cain’s prescribed relation to sin. but you must master it.” (4:7c)


            The notion that this passage has a singular purpose is somewhat myopic.  There are many levels of purpose.  First, the narrative gives the reader a brief but straightforward report of many firsts.[15]  Therefore, one basic purpose for the passage is to inform humanity of its beginnings, and thus providing necessary presuppositions for a comprehensively biblical worldview.  Second, the passage plays an important role in revealing to Israel—and the rest of the redeemed—their historical and redemptive heritage.  Not only does the passage look back, providing a geographic and personal instance of the Adamic nature, resulting from the fall, it also looks forward to Israel’s election (per Abel), sin, and exile (per Cain).  Third, it provides the archetypes for the two-families, the family of God and the family of the serpent, the two seeds (cf. 1 Jn 3, esp. vv 12f). 
Above all, however, is a fourth purpose, an illustration of faith-filled and faith-driven obedience.  As we have seen, the original readers were prescribed a theology of sacrifice and worship in later Torah.  Abel’s faith and works, his offering, was in perfect conformity to this theology, whereas Cain’s was not.  Whether it was the offering from the flocks and herds (Abel) or an offering from the fruit of the ground (Cain), it had to be the “firstlings” of the flock (Ex 13:2, 12; 34:19) and the “firstfruits” of the ground (Deut 26:1—11).  Abel’s was; Cain’s was not.  The former received YHWH’s approving gaze and regard; the latter received judgment and exile.
The storyteller wants Israel then and Israel now (i.e., the Church) to read this passage as the choice that is always before both the individual and the corporate community; it is one of blessing and cursing, life and death.  To them then and us today, Moses cries out, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them"  (Deut 30:19—20).  The passage of Gen 4:1—7 is part of Moses’ presentation of what life and death look like.[16] 


A. Why was Abel’s sacrifice accepted by God while Cain’s was not?
            As Waltke wisely begins, “We commence our study with the observation that the text syntaxically distinguishes between the offerer and his offering: ‘The LORD looked with favor on [‘el] Abel and on [‘el] his offering, but on [‘el] Cain and on [‘el] his offering he did not look with favor’ (Gen 4:4b—5a).”[17]  This, then, should lead us to recognize that YHWH’s evaluation was not merely binary, only appraising the two offerings; rather it was four-fold.  Although the worshipper and his offering cannot be completely separated, the text makes clear that YHWH’s assessment did not depend on the offering alone, but also on the person of the worshipper and his heart’s condition. 
            As the foregoing has suggested, the popular but misguided notion that Cain’s offering was rejected on the grounds of being bloodless cannot be maintained.  A “lexical study of the terms designating Cain’s offering gives no basis for thinking it was rejected because it was bloodless.”[18]  The term “offering” is equally applicable to meat and grain offerings prescribed throughout Torah.  The descriptive qualifiers of Abel’s offering as “firstlings” and “fat portions” and the lack of such qualifications for Cain’s cannot be overlooked, however. 
As far as praxis goes, in terms of the Torah’s prescriptions respecting offerings, Abel appeared to be offering according to regulative worship, whereas Cain did not.  So, the offerings must not be skirted lightly, but neither should we miss the delineation between the worshippers and their respective offerings.  The contrast between both brothers and their offerings is highlighted by way of a chiastic form.
            A. “So it came about in the course of time that…” (v 3a)
               B. Cain and his grain offering come before YHWH (v 3b)
                  X. Abel and his ‘fattest firstlings’ offering come before YHWH (v 4a)
                  X. YHWH had regard for Abel and his offering (v 4b)
               B. But” YHWH had no regard for Cain and his offering (v 5a)
            A. “So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell” (v 5b)
The episode is framed by the occasion’s setting (A), the “course of time” (likely harvest, an important festal time according to Israel’s cultic calendar) and the occasion’s conclusion (A)
B an B present Cain and his offering and YHWH’s rejection of both, emphasized by the conjunction “but” in v 5a.  The chis, X and X, underscore the quality and conformity to Torah regulative worship by Abel and his offering.  Therefore, the author to the Hebrews conclusion that “Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain” (11:4a) was not merely a level-headed theological conclusion but reflects a right reading of Moses’ careful literary genius. 
            If we allow the New Testament (NT) authors to influence our interpretation of this point, and we must, then we may make some reliable inferences.  The apostle John tells us that “Cain was of the evil one” (1 Jn 3:12a).  Cain was “of” (ek / ex) the evil one, the devil.  In Johannine literature, being “of” either God (Jn 1:13) or the devil (8:44) is to indicate one’s spiritual father or Father.  Therefore, if “the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD” (Prov 15:8; 21:27), and Cain was wicked, being of his father the evil one, then the rejection of his offering swings primarily on his personal relation to YHWH, which is one of tyranny and separation.  Moreover, granting the theme of election in the narrative of Genesis, especially regarding Jacob and Esau, which has many parallels to the considered narrative of Cain and Abel, the reason Cain was of the evil one and Abel was righteous (Heb 11:4) is rooted in the eternal decree of God. 

B. What significance is there to ‘firstlings?’  Can this reference be used to promote the principle of first fruits for Christians?
             The concept of “firstlings” was fleshed out above.[19]  Using Gen 4 to promote the principle of first fruits for Christians is not impossible, but it is unnecessary and is a poor application of Gen 4:1—7.  It would be mere proof-texting, which is always dangerous. 
            In light of what God has wrought in redemptive history in the Person of his Son, Jesus (Rom 1 – 11), we are “therefore” to be living sacrifices (12:1—3).  The NT refers to Christians as douloi, “slaves.”  Slaves do not own personal property.  All that they might enjoy belongs to their proprietors, their masters.  Christians, therefore, once they have learned the arrangement of God’s economy in Christ, have nothing to offer their Master but the increases of what is already his that he has brought about through his own grace and providence.  In this light, “first fruits” as a principle would be a bit of a moot point.  “You were bought (from the slave market of bondage to sin, the flesh, and the devil) with a price; you are not your own…” (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23).  Entire consecration of all we are and all we have is the Christian principle of first fruits.  If that is so, then what might be gained to support the idea from Abel’s offering?

C. What is your decision concerning the conundrum of ‘sin lieth at the door’?
            Granting the observations above,[20] the clause “sin lieth at the door” is a zoomorphism, which alludes back to the serpent (nâchâsh) of Gen 3, which is a masculine noun.  Literalistic and spatial interpretations can be precluded out of hand. 

D. Is this passage connected with Levitical tithing?
            No; this passage is not directly connected with Levitical tithing.  The various Hebrew terms for “tithe” (ma‛ăśêr / ma‛ăśar / ma‛aśrâh) in Torah are not used in this passage.  Furthermore, tithes and the offering of firstlings are carefully delineated elsewhere in Torah (see e.g., Deut 12:6; comp. Lev 27:30—32).  

E. How did Cain and Abel know to bring an offering before God? 
            Any answer on this point will be purely conjectural.  Nevertheless, the Westminster Standards offer a reasonable framework for speculation. 
The light of nature sheweth there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all; is good, and doeth good unto all; and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might.  But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other was not prescribed in the holy Scripture.[21]

One thing is clear from our passage: YHWH had not ceased communicating with people after exile from Eden.  Had YHWH prescribed the worship we read of in Gen 4?  It is speculative, but not unlikely.  Were Cain and Abel merely responding to the “light of nature” and spontaneously offering from their substance?  That too is possible.  That Moses did not spell out how the brothers knew or how they were to conduct their worship is perhaps the most telling feature. 
Is it a fluke that Abel’s worship conforms to the regulative worship of Torah and Cain’s does not?  Unlikely.  It is as if Moses says something loud and clear by not saying anything in Gen 4.  “Israel, Abel offered according to all these commands, statutes, and ordinances I am delivering to you this day…go do likewise, and live!”  Moses, in other words, intends the details regarding the offerings and worship of Gen 4 to be taken from later Torah and read back into the passage.  Why try to plumb the source of Cain’s and Abel’s knowledge about how to worship?  We have it prescribe throughout the rest of Scripture.  Will we do what is right, according to what we know? (Gen 4:7).  That seems to be the question before us in the passage of Gen 4:1—7. 


Alexander, T. Desmond, David W. Baker editors, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch.  Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press (2003)

Barker, Kenneth L., John R. Kohlenberger III editors, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Abridged Version, Old Testament.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan (1994)

Lewis, Jack P., “The Offering of Abel (Gen 4:4): A history of Interpretation,” pp. 481—96 in Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 37/4 (December 1994)

Ryken, Leland, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III editors, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery.  IVP Academic: Downers Grove, Illinois (1998)

Waltke, Bruce K., “Cain and his Offering,” pp. 363—72 in Westminster Theological Journal 48 (1986)

Walton, John H., Genesis in NIVAC.  Terry Muck editor. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan (2001)

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture is taken from the Updated New American Standard Version.  La Habra, California: The Lockman Foundation (1995). 

[2] Granted, “At this point in the narrative [i.e., Gen 3:24], ‘east’ only signifies ‘outside the garden’ (but cf. 11:2; 13:11).” John H. Sailhamer, “Genesis,” pp. 1—63 in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Abridged Version, Old Testament.  Kenneth L. Barker, John R. Kohlenberger III editors.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan (1994), p. 12. 

[3] In fact, the pluperfect tense of “conceived” (Gen 4:1) may indicate that the brothers were conceived before Adam’s and Eve’s expulsion from the garden.  
[4] S. McKnight, “Cain,” pp. 107—110 in, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch.  Alexander, T. Desmond, David W. Baker editors. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press (2003), p. 107, op cit.

[5] Leland Ryken, et al., “Cain,” pp. 131—32 in, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery.  Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III editors.  IVP Academic: Downers Grove, Illinois (1998), p. 131, parenthesis added for clarity.

[6] In fact, the position of these two section, the Cain-Abel story and the Deuteronomy exile warnings, could serve a literary function as an inclusio for the Torah, assuming, of course, a strong unity of the five books.  A detail look at this, however, is well beyond to scope of the present paper. 
[7] It is important to note that bekôrâh (“firstlings”; Gen 4:4b) is a close cognate of bekôr (“firstborn”; Ex 34:20). 
[8] Bruce K. Waltke, “Cain and his Offering,” pp. 363—72 in Westminster Theological Journal 48 (1986), p. 365.

[9] Ibid., op cit.

[10] Ibid.
[11] NET Bible, translator’s notes on v 4, fn. 12, op cit.  Kindle Edition (October 30, 2009), ad loc.
[12] John H. Walton, Genesis in NIVAC.  Terry Muck editor. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan (2001), p. 264. 

[13] See p. 264 for Walton’s understanding of “sin” as reflected in ancient Babylonian literature. 

[15] See II. OCCASION OF THE NARRATIVE above, pp. 3—4.
[16] For a near exhaustive historical survey on the purpose of this passage, including early Jewish writers, the New Testament, early Christian writers, Jewish interpretation, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and the modern period, see Jack P. Lewis, “The Offering of Abel (Gen 4:4): A history of Interpretation,” pp. 481—96 in Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 37/4 (December 1994).

[17] “Cain and his offering,” p. 365.

[18] Ibid., 367.
[19] See III. B. 1 above, pp. 5—6.

[20] See III. C, pp. 6—7.
[21] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXI. I. 

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