Hebrews 11:4 says that by faith Abel was approved as a righteous man on account of the sacrifice that he gave to God, and that his sacrifice was better than Cain’s.
People have an easy time understanding why Cain was punished after he murdered his brother. But why was Abel’s sacrifice pleasing to God to begin with, but not Cain’s? That is the question that this page will set out to answer.
The passage in Genesis chapter 4
In Genesis 4:2-5, we have the scriptural account that outlines the fact that God found Abel’s sacrifice pleasing, but not Cain’s:
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. 3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. 4 But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
Abel took care of sheep. Cain worked the ground. 3 After some time, Cain gathered some of the things he had grown. He brought them as an offering to the Lord. 4 But Abel brought the fattest parts of some of the lambs from his flock. They were the male animals that were born first to their mothers. The Lord was pleased with Abel and his offering. 5 But he wasn’t pleased with Cain and his offering. So Cain became very angry. His face was sad.
Because we know that God is completely Just, we know that He cannot show favoritism simply because He likes offerings of livestock better than offerings of crops (cf. Deuteronomy 10:17; Job 34:19; Romans 2:11; Acts 10:34-35; etc.). Nor do I personally believe we have ground to stand on to say that this event had much of anything to do with raising livestock being inherently more godly than farming crops. On what basis? That’s nonsense.
The thing that makes the interpretation of this passage somewhat difficult is that the text itself does not explain much; it does not have a clear description of why God favored Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s, at least not directly.
One possibility is that the only difference between the two was heart state
Let me use an analogy. Let us say that two men both make about the same amount of money, and both contribute about the same amount to support their Bible teacher financially, as is appropriate (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:1-18).
To an outside observer, their actions might appear quite similar. But let us say that the first man gives willingly and joyfully, thankful to be given the honor of directly supporting the teaching of the Word, while the second man only gives because his wife nags him to do so to keep up appearances, so that their neighbors will not view them as miserly.
Do you think that God would be unjust in having a positive attitude towards the first and a negative attitude towards the second?
Mapping this onto our passage, Abel would be like the first man, and Cain like the second.
The symbolism of blood sacrifice
I think it would be acceptable to leave things even at just that. That is, I do not think it is necessary to spill more ink in order to explain how God’s actions in context could be completely Just. Different heart states, in other words, is a perfectly reasonable explanation for why God might treat Abel and Cain differently, even though their sacrifices might seem similar on the surface.
However, I will make one additional point. From the Protoevangelium in Genesis 3 all the way through the temple sacrifices in the Mosaic Law, blood sacrifice was always highly symbolic, pointing to the eventual sacrifice of Christ upon the cross, shedding His blood1 in order that we might have life, even eternal life.
Hebrews 11:4 emphasizes Abel’s faith. Quite simply, if the matter of sacrifices in Genesis 4 had just been something along the lines of “giving the first fruits of one’s labor to the Lord,” then there is little logical basis for why Abel’s sacrifice would be marked out as a sign of special faith. It would be the right thing to do, sure, but would that alone make him “Hebrews-11-worthy” (so to speak), alongside the other heroes of the faith?
Both the Genesis passage itself and reference to Abel’s faith in Hebrews 11:4 make a great deal more sense if this sacrificing business was really all about acknowledging the fact that it is impossible for us to work our way into God’s favor—if Abel’s blood sacrifice here was acknowledgment on His part of God’s Grace and Mercy. Abel was willing to submit himself to God, looking by faith towards God’s eventual sacrifice for sin once for all, while Cain only focused on bragging to God about what he had done himself on his own effort.
Personally, this is how I take the passage in Genesis 4, although I do acknowledge it is somewhat of an inference. This is also the position that Ichthys takes:
“Works” are things “we do for God”. That whole mentality is sinful because God doesn’t need anything from us (contrary to what pagan religion assumes: Acts 17:25). God doesn’t need us – we need God. This principle is seen clearly in the example of Cain and Abel. Cain offered God some vegetables: “Look at what I did! And now I’m giving you some!” This whole attitude is abhorrent to the Lord because 1) He needs nothing from us so to assume He’ll reward us for doing something He neither needs nor wants nor asked for is arrogant in the extreme; 2) To think that we can actually “reward God” so that He then “owes us something” (cf. Rom.4:4) is downright blasphemous; and 3) anything we could ever “do” in this life is only possible because God has given us the means to do it (cf. Deut.8:18; 1Chron.29:16).
Faith, on the other hand, is the opposite of work. Faith is being willing to receive a gift. Faith is the completely non-meritorious function of our will. Faith is free-will exercised without effort or sweat. Faith is accepting God’s authority, and, in the case of salvation, accepting God’s free gift. The difference is profound. If we exert effort for salvation, we are earning it (if it could be earned, which it cannot); we deserve it – in that hypothetical, impossible case. But in fact there is nothing we could do in a thousand lifetimes if we devoted all of our waking efforts to the problem to remove the guilt of the smallest sin we have ever committed. Salvation cannot be earned. It cannot be worked for (efficaciously, at any rate). And trying to work for salvation is the most egregious insult to God the Father who judged all of our sins in His beloved Son so that we might not have to face such an impossible situation, and to God the Son who has born the guilt of all of our sins so that we might be saved in the only way it was possible to be saved: through non-meritorious faith, accepting Him as our Substitute. Abel understood and accepted what Cain would not have. His “offering” was a symbolic representation of what Christ would do – die for all sin to open the way for mankind’s salvation. Abel’s offering was not “work”; Abel’s offering was “worship”. When Christians “do” anything in a spiritual vein it is “good” because God has planned it and empowered it. Legitimate Christian “good works” follow salvation rather than preceding it and are done in the power of the Holy Spirit not in the power of the sinful flesh.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.