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Friday, March 4, 2011

Weekly Snippet: The Sacrifices of Cain and Abel

Earlier this week, I talked about the symbolic significance of Adam and Eve's efforts to cover themselves and hide from God in the garden.  I thought I would continue with the theme today, by talking about their oldest two sons, Cain and Abel, and the significance of their offerings to God.

We know that the covenant law, that is, the Law of Moses, had not yet been given to the world.  Given that information, we might ask pretty probing questions about Genesis 4: 2-7: "Was it fair of God to expect something of Cain and Abel that He had not instructed them to do at that time?  Why didn't it count for anything that Cain had brought some of the produce he had worked so hard to grow?"  After all, from a straight reading of the passage, it almost seems that Cain didn't know what would please God when he brought his offering.  In fact, that is how I read it when I was small, before I understood the symbolism in this scripture. 

Here is the passage, for reference:
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.  In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.  And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering,  but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?  But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” 

 It is clear that both men brought an offering to God out of their hard labor, in a gesture that was meant to please God.  Both expected their offerings to be received favorably, but only one got what he wanted.  Was God just being mean to Cain?  Clearly that is how he reacted.  I think more is going on in this passage than immediately meets the eye.  If you want to try to understand God's reaction, you need to delve into what Cain and Abel understood about God at that time, and what they intended by their offerings.

Now, we don't know how long it had been since Adam and Eve had been banished from the Garden of Eden, but I think we can safely assume that Cain and Abel had grown up hearing from their parents about what had gone on before.  They had probably heard about the clothing made of fig leaves, and the animal skins God had given them to clothe them.  They might not have fully understood the symbolism of the act of sacrifice--in fact, it seems no one did until Christ came--but they were aware of three things, to start with: (1) It was a practice God himself had initiated, (2) That God had preferred this over the first garments their parents had made out of leaves, and (3) That God had chosen this action over the violent punishment their parents had been expecting from Him.  In other words, though they might not have fully understood the concept of blood atonement, they comprehended, on some level, that it was an act that pleased God and held back His anger.

So, what did Abel mean by the animal sacrifice that he brought to God?  Was he just being a goody-goody?  I don't think so.  It seems to me that his offering of an animal on his own behalf was a way of admitting to God that he felt he had a part in the sin of rebellion that Adam and Eve had begun.  This was his spontaneous admission of guilt, and a humble acknowledgment of God's sovereignty over him. Abel realized that if he did not humble himself before God, God's wrath would build up against him for his sins.  The fellowship with God his parents had known had already been broken, but he did not want God to completely turn away from him and destroy him.  We cannot suggest, then, that Abel was a righteous man without sin, but rather, that he was righteous in God's sight because he recognized the seriousness of sin, and he willingly repented of his sins.  Though God prefers that we never sin, true repentance and regret for our sin still pleases God, because it acknowledges that His ways are right.

What, then, did Cain mean when he brought his offering of plants to God?  Like I have said, I am convinced that Adam and Eve had shared their experiences with their sons, even though they didn't understand the symbolism of Christ at that time.  That is why it seems to me that Cain was making a rebellious statement with the choice of offering that he brought.  Like his parents, who originally tried to cover their wrong (i.e. justify themselves) with their own efforts, he was suggesting that his hard work ought to be enough to please God.  He had taken his punishment ( Genesis 3: 17-19, 23), and though he was living the curse that had come from rebellion and sin, he was expecting restored fellowship with God without sacrifice.  That hadn't worked for his parents, before, so why did he think it would work now?  It appears that he was symbolically stating that he hadn't done anything serious enough to incur God's wrath; therefore, he didn't need to submit to God.

Despite Cain's continued rejection of God's sovereignty, and his lack of humility, God still had compassion on him two more times in recorded history.  First, when God rejected Cain's offering, He instructed Cain on what was required of him to please God, and He told Cain that he knew what was in his heart concerning Abel (go re-read the last paragraph of my quote from Genesis chapter 4, above).  Cain could have taken this instruction and come back with the proper sacrifice, since God had reinforced to him what was required--but he chose not to do so.  Later, when Cain rebelled again by killing Abel, God cursed him by putting Cain out of His sight (a foreshadowing of Hell), but spared him the immediate death that others would give him.  Clearly Cain regretted the consequences of sin, but he still did not bow his knee to the requirements God had set for restored fellowship.

Though Cain lived on, benefiting from God's mercy, he was living as one slated for destruction in the end.  It might seem that it was better to be like Cain in this story, because he got to live out his years with his wife, children, grandchildren, and so forth, building cities and innovations.  Meanwhile, Abel's repentant act seemed to have brought about his swift end.  Was it really true that Cain got the better end?  I don't think so.  When it comes down to it, Cain had all he wanted, except the one thing he had always both wanted and needed--God's approval and forgiveness.

May we never envy him!

Something to think about this weekend.  Your thoughts and comments are appreciated.  Until then, this is me reminding you to stay savvy--gain mastery over sin so that you can gain acceptance from God!