Relevant Verses: Genesis 4
Theme: A Violent World
Leading Question: Does God favor some over others?
Eve bears two sons, Cain and Abel. The brothers grow to become a shepherd and a farmer, taking up the creational commands to have dominion over the animals and to cultivate the earth (1:28). To cultivate the earth was reiterated by God in Gen 3:23, which was explicitly met by Cain in his line of work. The brothers bring offerings without any command to do so from the yield of their labors; and, Cain is the first to do this worshipful act.
Question: Was Cain’s offering truly not good enough?
John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College (Illinois) writes in in his blog titled, “Hebrew Corner” about Cain’s sacrifice:
In popular circles the tradition that Cain’s offering was unacceptable because it was not a blood sacrifice is still very common, despite the fact that no major evangelical commentary on Genesis in the last several decades endorses it. The offerings that Cain and Abel bring are described in the text by the term minhâ. In Leviticus, the minhâ is discussed in ch. 2, where NIV translates it as “grain offering.” Its purpose is simply to give a gift to honor deity, and is usually given in a context of celebration. It often accompanies an animal sacrifice, but usually is comprised of grain. Outside of ritual contexts, the term can be used in personal or political senses. In political contexts it refers to tribute paid from a vassal or subordinate state to the overlord (2 Kings 17:3-4). When individual persons are involved the term refers to a gift to give deference or honor (Gen 32:18; 43:11; 2 Kings 8:9). These usages are duplicated in cognates across the Semitic languages.
Consequently, it is clear that the problem with Cain’s sacrifice did not have anything to do with the absence of blood. Fruit and vegetable offerings would have been just as appropriate for a minhâ as animal offerings would have been. Additionally it should be noted that even Abel’s offering is described in terms of “fat portions” with no reference to blood. Finally, blood is usually used in the sacrificial system to accomplish kpr (NIV: “atonement”—see next week’s blog). Genesis 4 neither mentions a need for kpr nor the procurement of it for Abel. We must look elsewhere to identify the fault in Cain’s offering.
Question: Where do we get the idea about Can’s sacrifice as a faulty offering?
Read: Hebrews 11:4
When reading this verse about Cain and Abel’s offerings in the New Testament, it is important to recognize that Hebrews refers to the story of Genesis 4 based on the Greek translation of the Bible in the Septuagint (LXX). It was this ancient version, not the Hebrew Bible, which was used by the majority of Gentile Christians in the early church, and not the Hebrew Scriptures. The differences between the Hebrew text and the LXX are noticeable in the story of Genesis 4, and seem to be directly related to the question: what was wrong with Cain’s sacrifice?
The Hebrew Bible does not distinguish between the offerings brought by Cain and Abel: both are described in Gen 4:3–5 as minhâ, a term explained well by John Walton in the section above. The Septuagint, however, clearly distinguished between the offerings of the brothers. Cain’s offering of fruits of the earth is designated as thysia, a general word meaning “sacrifice,” while Abel’s animal sacrifice is called dōra, “gifts” (Gen 4:4). Scholars argue that this difference in translation influenced the rendering of Abel’s offering as a “better” sacrifice in Hebrews 11:4. In addition to that, Hebrews makes a strong argument about faith as Abel’s testimony and legacy.
Question: So, what did Cain do wrong?
There is a verse in Genesis 4 that does not make sense at all. It starts with Cain who resents the fact that Abel’s offering is accepted while his is not. God senses his rising anger and warns him to control it, but Cain isn’t listening. Then comes the fateful verse. Literally translated from the Hebrew it says,
“Cain said to his brother Abel,
and while they were in the field,
Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him”
This does not make sense and neither does the syntax of the sentence. “Cain said,” but then we don’t get to read what Cain said. Only the translations of the Hebrew text into Greek and other languages (Septuagint, Samaritan Pentateuch, Vulgate, and Syriac versions) add a phrase telling that Cain said, “Let’s go into the field.” This phrase appears in some of our English Bibles in Gen 4:8 (NIV, NET, RSV, NRSV, GNT).
But the original Hebrew says what it does for a reason. It says, “Cain said to his brother Abel,” and then lapses into silence before telling us that Cain attacked his brother. The fractured syntax conveys more powerfully than any well-formed sentence could, that conversation between the brothers broke down. They stopped speaking. Words failed. Cain was too angry to verbalise his feelings. The next phrase tells us the result. When words fail, violence begins. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, 2011)
Question: “Where is Abel, your brother?” How does one live in a violent world?
Interestingly, Cain does not deny his murder. He does not say, “It was not me,” or “It was not my fault.” But he denied his moral responsibility. In response to God’s question, “Where is Abel, your brother?” he asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9). In effect, he asked why he should be concerned with the welfare of anyone but himself. Why should he be responsible for another? Why should we not, do what we want if we have the freedom and power to do it?
Yes, God gave us freedom, but with freedom comes responsibility. As Christians we understand this principle. The responsible life is a life that responds to the world around us, to the people next to us, to the “other.” It is notable that the Hebrew word for responsibility (achrayut) comes from the word acher, which means “other.”