A reader named Sue posed this spiritual conundrum:
The Cain and Abel story in the Bible is the first example of murder. I don’t condone murder, but I’ve often found myself feeling sorry for Cain and upset with God over his treatment of Cain. God didn’t treat the brothers equally. God liked Abel’s offerings but did not like Cain’s offerings. Cain presumably worked as hard as Abel to prepare his offerings to God. God shouldn’t have been surprised that His disfavoring Cain would make Cain jealous of Abel and that the two would get into a fight. Why did God not favor Cain as He did Abel? If God had treated the brothers equally, this murder would not have occurred. All Cain wanted was to be equally loved by God. Instead God disfavored him and Cain predictably acted badly as a result thus having to bear lifelong consequences when all he wanted was equal love.
Really, Cain is not much different from many of us. What do you think?
Great one, Sue!
Too many people experience the pain of seeing siblings loved and cherished while they themselves are criticized and punished by their parents. This sort of favoritism causes many deep psychological and spiritual problems for both the disfavored and the favored children.
The story of Cain and Abel has been confronting and confounding people with that theme for thousands of years. And yet, it is an ancient, mythical story that has many more layers of meaning than what appears on the surface. The deeper we look, the more clearly we can understand the mysterious ways of God.
For now, let’s look at it on four levels, as a story in which:
- God acts like a seriously flawed human parent.
- God acts like an intelligent, experienced leader.
- God acts like . . . well . . . God!
- There are deeper meanings about our spiritual journey.
I hope that by the time we’re finished, the Cain and Abel story will be more meaningful to you . . . and less infuriating!
The Cain and Abel story
First, let’s get the story itself, from Genesis 4:1–16. Since the exact words are often important when interpreting Bible stories, here is a fairly literal translation, which also conveys some of the poetic flair of the original Hebrew:
And the man knew his wife Eve. And she conceived and bore Cain, and said, “I have acquired a man with Jehovah.” And in addition she bore his brother, Abel.
And Abel was a shepherd of sheep, and Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in the course of time Cain brought to Jehovah an offering from the fruit of the ground. And Abel, he also brought from the firstborn of his sheep, their fat portions. And Jehovah had regard for Abel and his offering, but he had no regard for Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his face fell.
And Jehovah said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. His desire is for you, and you must rule over him.”
And Cain said to his brother Abel . . . . And it happened, when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.
And Jehovah said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
And he said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
And he said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the land.”
And Cain said to Jehovah, “My sin is greater than I can bear! See, you have driven me out today from the face of the ground, and I will be hidden from your face. And I will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the land, and anyone who finds me will kill me.”
And Jehovah said to him, “Therefore whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And Jehovah put a mark on Cain so that anyone who found him would not kill him. And Cain went out from the presence of Jehovah and lived in the land of Nod [meaning “wandering”], east of Eden.
What if God was one of us?
In the 1995 hit song, “One of Us,” Joan Osborne sang:
What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us?
What if God up in heaven really were just like any ordinary old human being? (Yes, I know, that’s not quite what the song meant, but it’s a thought-provoking song.) What if God really were a flawed but massively powerful superhuman like the ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses? What if God really did get jealous and angry, play favorites, and do all the other ordinary human things people have attributed to God for thousands of years? What if God really were like the God portrayed in the Old Testament?
Of course, that’s not how God really is. It’s just how God appears to us—and the Bible has to talk to us in language that we ordinary, flawed human beings can understand. (See “How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads.”)
But just for a moment, let’s imagine that God actually is an ordinary, not very enlightened slob like one of us. Here’s how the Cain and Abel story would go:
Cain has the brilliant idea of bringing God an offering. Nobody’s ever done that before!
Abel copies Cain’s idea, managing to one-up his brother in God’s eyes.
God likes Abel’s offering better—and says so. In fact, God just plain doesn’t like Cain’s offering.
Abel is beaming. But Cain . . .
If you were Cain, wouldn’t you be angry? Wouldn’t you be jealous of your brother? “Why does God love Abel more than me?!?”
This is how millions of people do, in fact, read the story of Cain and Abel. That’s only natural, since many people have experienced favoritism from their parents. Many still bear the scars of that disturbing childhood experience.
Even the favored children are damaged by parents who play favorites. Instead of having the sense of satisfaction and personal worth in feeling they can make it in life on their own steam, they develop a sense of dependency on external praise and motivation, all the while dealing with the understandable jealousy of siblings and peers, and being whispered about behind their backs.
If Cain and Abel is a story about divine favoritism, it’s an object lesson in how not to parent. And God doesn’t come out of it looking very good. Who could really blame Cain for killing his brother, considering the way God treated him compared to his brother?
Cain and Abel are adults, not children
Okay, here’s a reality check:
Cain and Abel are not children. They’re grown adults. And even if God did play favorites with them, that’s still no excuse for Cain to kill his brother.
Keep in mind that Cain and Abel had parents who raised them: Adam and Eve. By the time this story starts, they’re grown men. Each is engaged in a profession: Cain is a farmer, Abel is a shepherd. God is more in the role of an overseer or boss than a parent.
Now, if you’re on the job site, and your boss points out a fellow employee’s work and says, “I like the way he’s doing it; I don’t like the way you’re doing it,” how would you respond to that?
Sure, you could get mad at the boss and jealous of the coworker. But that would be a childish response. Even if you think your boss is annoying and abrasive, that your boss likes your coworker better, and so on and so forth, the important thing to realize is that your boss is giving you information about how to do your job well. And since you’re working for your boss, she or he has every right to tell you how to do the job.
In fact, the most constructive response is to thank the boss for helping you do your job better, pay attention to how your coworker does it, and do it the same way yourself. This will avoid a lot of nasty workplace conflict and jealousy, not to mention getting you points with the boss for being willing to take direction and do the job the way the company wants it done.
Unfortunately, though Cain was a grown adult, he responded in a childish and irrational way to the direction that he could have received from God if he’d been willing to listen.
If we think of Cain and Abel as thinking, self-responsible adults, and of God as their “boss,” the story starts to make a little more sense even on the literal level.
Let’s look at the story more closely.
Why did God accept Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s?
Since the story of Cain and Abel is so compact, covering only sixteen verses (plus a little more about what Cain did next), it’s important to read it very carefully, and pay attention to every word in order to wring out the maximum meaning.
Of course, it also helps to have some awareness of ancient Middle Eastern cultural and religious practices. Though the story of Cain and Abel is set in pre-literate times, it was, of course, written much later, after written language had been developed. Before that, it would have been passed down as an oral story, changing and adapting to the changing cultures in which it was passed down. And even after being written down, stories go through revisions and adaptations to fit different cultures and circumstances.
For example, Cain was the first person in the Bible story to have offered a sacrifice to God, before any rules had been laid out about proper and improper sacrifices. However, as the characters of Cain and Abel were developed through the oral storytelling process in cultures in which sacrifices were a regular part of life, their actions took on the characteristics of those later practices so that the listeners could understand the deeper, human message that the story had to offer.
With that in mind, let’s look at the differences between Cain’s offering and Abel’s.
The first thing we notice is that Cain, being a farmer, brought a plant offering, while Abel, being a shepherd, brought an animal offering. Later, when we get to the deeper meaning of this story, this difference will become quite significant. But as a literal story, the fact that one brought plants to God and the other brought animals is not grounds for God to reject the one and accept the other. Ancient peoples commonly offered both plants and animals to their gods—and the ancient Hebrews were no different in that regard. Both plant and animal offerings are described in the Bible as pleasing to God.
If it wasn’t that, then what was the critical difference between the two offerings?
This is where it’s important to pay close attention to the exact words. Here are the two offerings:
Cain brought to Jehovah an offering from the fruit of the ground. (Genesis 4:3)
Abel, he also brought from the firstborn of his sheep, their fat portions. (Genesis 4:4)
Do you notice the difference? Cain’s offering sounds rather . . . ordinary. Abel’s offering sounds lavish! That’s especially so when we realize that unlike today’s overfed, fat-conscious Western cultures, in most ancient cultures foods rich in fats and oils were seen as the most sumptuous fare. In the Bible, “fatness” is a synonym for wealth and luxury.
Also, notice that Abel brought from the firstborn of his sheep, whereas there is no parallel in Cain’s offering of bringing the first-fruits of the ground.
In the ancient cultures, people were not supposed to bring just any old ordinary fruits, grains, and animals to their God. For the gift to be acceptable, it had to be the best of what they had to offer. And the first of their harvest, as well as the firstborn of their flocks and herds, was to be offered to God, before people started gathering in what they would use for themselves or sell to others.
Why did God have regard for Abel’s offering, but not for Cain’s?
Abel brought God his best, and put God first. With his offering, Abel richly thanked and honored the God who had given him life, health, wealth, and wellbeing.
Cain just brought whatever ordinary produce he had on hand. Was that any way to thank the One who gave him his very life, and made his crops to grow, flourish, and bear fruit?
In short, God accepted Abel’s offering because it was offered out of a heart full of gratitude. God did not accept Cain’s offering because it smacked of being a half-hearted effort to curry God’s favor.
This becomes even clearer if we think of God as not being “just a slob like one of us,” but as being the all-knowing, infinitely wise God.
What if God’s not one of us?
Consider this statement in 1 Samuel 16:7:
God doesn’t look at things the way humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart.
If we think of God as being . . . well . . . God, who isn’t distracted by outward appearances, but who sees what is in the human heart, the picture of Cain as making a half-hearted and probably self-promoting effort becomes even stronger.
If God really is all-knowing and infinitely wise, then God is not playing favorites like an inept human parent, nor even playing the boss card to get Cain to give the right kind of sacrifice.
Further, God is not hosting a competition between Cain and Abel. God is also all-loving—meaning that God loves everyone equally, saint and sinner alike.
This means that God’s words and actions toward Cain came both from a deep understanding of what was going on in Cain’s mind and heart, and from a deep love for Cain’s eternal soul.
Let’s take another look at the Cain and Abel story with that in mind.
What is pleasing to God?
First of all, God does not need our offerings. God is infinite and eternal, and needs nothing from us. God wasn’t concerned with whether Cain made his offering in the “proper” way.
Micah 6:6–8 explains what God really wants:
With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
For an even stronger version of the same idea, read Amos 5:21–24.
God is much less interested in the quality of the offering than in the quality of the heart from which the offering is given. That’s why God had regard for Abel’s offering, but not for Cain’s.
What was in Cain’s heart and mind?
Here are two different angles on Cain’s state of mind and heart from the Epistles in the New Testament:
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks. (Hebrews 11:4)
We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. (1 John 3:12)
The writer of Hebrews, by contrast with the faith embodied in Abel’s offering, points out that there was a lack of faith in Cain’s offering. John points out that Cain was influenced by evil, which was expressed in evil actions compared to Abel’s righteous actions. In other words, these Epistles point out that it was Cain’s inner state as expressed in his outer actions that were the cause of God having no regard for his offering.
We’ve already looked at how Cain’s offering was nothing special, while Abel gave his best. This is one indication in the text itself that Cain’s offering was not given from the best motives.
If there were any doubt about this, Cain’s reaction to God having no regard for his offering fairly shouts out that Cain was thinking more of himself than of God with his offering. Cain “was very angry, and his face fell.” And when God tried to tell him that he needed to take stock of himself and change his attitudes and his actions, instead of listening to God, Cain “had words” with his brother Abel (as some translations interpret the incomplete sentence that occurs in the Hebrew here), and killed him.
God, who sees into the human heart, knew that Cain had little interest in showing real gratitude to God or in showing love and compassion for his brother. The fact that Cain brushed aside God’s plea to turn his mind and heart around shows that Cain was settled and determined to express the evil in himself rather than the good that God knew was there. And the fact that he went on to murder his brother, who had done nothing at all to harm him, shows that he had self-pity, jealousy, and evil in his heart.
Given Cain’s state of mind and heart, we can see why God had no regard for Cain’s offering. It was an offering for show, which did not come from a loving, thoughtful, and grateful heart.
(For a long, detailed analysis of the Cain and Abel story from the perspective of a Jewish Rabbi who has carefully studied the Hebrew text, see “The World’s First Murder: A Closer Look at Cain and Abel,” by Rabbi David Fohrman. The link is to the final installment. To read the full article from the beginning, scroll to the bottom and follow the links at the end of the article in reverse order.)
The Cain and Abel in us
What does all of this mean for us, in our own spiritual journey?
Of course, the general lessons from the various ways of reading the story that we’ve covered still hold true:
- Favoritism is not a good idea!
- If your boss critiques your work, don’t get mad! Use it as an opportunity to improve your performance.
- The real quality of our actions is determined by the quality of our inner motives and attitudes.
Yet since the Bible is God’s Word, it holds even deeper insights for us. For the final layer of the story that we’ll consider here, let’s look at just a little of the deeper, spiritual meaning it offers us as a light for our own spiritual path.
This is where it becomes very significant that Cain brought a plant offering to God, while Abel brought an animal offering.
The animals offered in the ancient sacrifices are warm-blooded, living beings that move around and do things in response to the instincts and desires they feel.
Plants of the field and garden, on the other hand, do not generate heat of their own. They are rooted in one spot, and do not have any feelings or conscious life.
These differences in their nature should help us to sense that:
- Animals symbolize and express our loves, feelings, and motives.
- Plants symbolize our thoughts, ideas, and understanding of things.
In Biblical, correspondential terms, plants represent faith, while animals represent love.
Of course, God wants us to offer both our hearts and our minds to the service of God. That is why both animal and plant sacrifices are presented in the Bible as pleasing to God. But which does God want most?
Does God want an intellectualized “faith” that we don’t feel in our heart, and therefore don’t act on in our lives?
Or does God want us to offer our heart, which will bring both our head and our hands along with it?
Spiritually, Cain’s lukewarm plant offering represents a belief in God that is only a “head trip,” and does not cause us to actually love our neighbor and live with kindness and compassion.
Abel’s lavish animal offering represents going “all in” for God, from our heart through our heads and into our hands. It is a heart-centered faith that involves actively loving God and serving our neighbor, as Jesus Christ taught us to do:
One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:35–40)
Does God play favorites? No, God loves every one of us equally—and more deeply than we could ever imagine.
But God does have a favorite part of us: God wants our heart first. When we have offered that to God, as Abel did symbolically through his heartfelt offering, then all the rest of us will be a beautiful gift to God as well.
In addition to being a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader, this is one in a series of articles on the theme “The Bible Re-Viewed.” Each article takes a new look at a particular selection or story in the Bible, and explores how it relates to our lives today. For more on this spiritual way of interpreting the Bible, see “Can We Really Believe the Bible? Some Thoughts for Those who Wish they Could.”
Thank you I enjoyed reading your article. Great job with your interpretation
Thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed it!
It was amazing to know the real story of Cain and Abel, till now I had this only in mind that Cain was jealous of his brother and u gave the deeper meaning of this story. Thanks a lot.
Stop rationalizing and face the truth: If there is a god, he she or it does not love everyone equally. Life in this earth is driven either by dumb luck or worse, divine favoritism. I vote for luck–the quantum ping pong balls interacting
Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.
Certainly that is one way to look at the universe. And if all we are is quantum ping pong balls interacting, then there would certainly be no fairness in the universe.
But God is not constrained by quantum physics. The spiritual universe operates by different laws than does the physical universe. And on the eternal timescales of the spiritual world, under God’s providence, I do believe there is fairness even if it may not be apparent while we’re still living here on earth.
For more on this, please see my article, If God is Love, Why all the Pain and Suffering?
God most certainly does play favorites and this is why I no longer serve him. He’s been nothing but a giant disappointment since I became a christian, and I can no longer devote my life to such a biased, partial creator. If he wants to send me to hell, so be it. I won’t be manipulated by god-imposed fear.
It makes sense how atheists don’t believe in a creator. But what is it when you believe in a creator and you believe in his sacrifice, but you just think god sucks and is a hypocrite? What “sovereign” god sits there and lets innocent children starve and perish, then sits there and blames a “fallen world” and “bad people” and “best interests” for his inaction and unwillingness to help those who cannot help themselves? This is a god I can neither respect nor worship.
Best of luck.
Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. I can certainly understand your frustration and disappointment in the Christianity that you have encountered. Please be aware, though, that not all Christians think that way.
For example, the form of Christianity that I believe in rejects the idea that God sends people to hell. Instead, if there is a hell, it’s because the people themselves insist on being there. See my article, Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?
About God’s love vs. all of the terrible evils in the world, please see: If God is Love, Why all the Pain and Suffering?
And for a different view of the Christian God, please see: Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?
Of course, it’s entirely up to you whether or not to believe in God. I would simply suggest that before you reject God altogether, you look for the best views of who and what God is, rather than settling for some of the poorer concepts of God out there.
And if you do in the end choose to become an atheist, from my perspective, even that does not bar you from heaven. See my article, Do Atheists Go to Heaven?
I’m indeed impressed by your way of explaining things in the Bible,glad someone like you is out there to buttress more about God…
Thanks for stopping by, and for your kind words. We wish you godspeed on your spiritual journey!
I am a bit shocked by the original post: yes, I hope most of us are VERY different from Cain. Let’s replace “God” by “Chance” or “Luck”: some people are luckier, it doesn’t give us the right to be jealous and to go murder them, they’re not responsible for our own lack of luck. We would all like to be equally loved by God / Fate / Luck, whatever you want to call it, but we’re not, it doesn’t give us an excuse to go murder the lucky ones.
I very much like Steinbeck’s use of the myth and his interpretation of Timshel (Thou Mayest instead of Thou Shall or Thou Must), it indeed puts the ball into the man’s hands and reminds me of French Existentialism in this particular aspect. I like when people do the right thing not because they must, or because they fear some divine wrath or in hope of some final reward, but because they chose to on their own free will.
According to you, I might not qualify as an atheist because doing good to mankind is my main goal in life and I have been raised as a humanist. However, I do not believe in God as a conscious being handing out laws of morality. I believe in God as the universe: a cold place without feelings, creating and destroying planets, stars and life without any conscience. Neither good nor bad. No hell, no paradise, no survival of the soul if it really exists anyway. I think morality is a human invention, the best one, which separates us from the beast: the power of compassion which no other being has on earth except us. I do good not because I could be rewarded by going to paradise or to avoid a punishment in hell, I do it because it gives me pleasure and it is above all a logical thing to do: otherwise the world cannot exist, it would be a jungle coming quickly to an end (which it unfortunately does feel like sometimes). It also feels so natural to help the one who is crying, and so painful to see somebody suffering. A recent study shows that babies get more satisfaction by giving rather than by receiving. What extraordinary potential to do good, and there is no religious belief in them yet. More amusingly, I like to prepare myself for the worst (hence my dark picture) and I am confident that if after all there was a god, he would forgive my ignorance and my doubts, since in any case, I’m doing all my best to make this world a better place in my own little way. Again, I do not believe in the divinity of Jesus and I have no opinion about him having ever existed or not: I still love his ideas.
I appreciate your open-mindedness and I hope this hasn’t completely bored you!
Thanks for stopping by, and for your expressing your thoughts and beliefs here. Of course, by the modern definition you are an atheist because you don’t believe in God. But from my perspective, no, you’re not an atheist in the sense of being alienated from God because you love darkness and evil—which is what the Bible means by “not believing in God.” For more on this, see my article: “Do Atheists Go to Heaven?” (if you haven’t already).
Of course, as a believer I’d be happy to see you come to a belief in God. But if I had to choose between that and a person living a good and caring life toward his or her fellow human beings, I’d choose the good life, and let the belief in God come later. Unlike the majority of Christians, I think you’ll be fine when you experience the ultimate surprise and wake up in the spiritual world after you die. 🙂
Of all the complicated question of why one gift is better than the other or the heart/ motivation in which the offering is made is; I think there is no right answer, and the devout Christian will use all means to justify that God is right ( as would a MIchael Jackson fan from his fan club). Since there is no evidence ( unlike Michael Jackson’s case) to prove either way, you can say all you like.
The main point is this:-
1. Cain cares enough to be jealous, even if it is jealous for love and that drove him to do something silly.
So the main lesson of Cain and Abel is not about relationship with God, because if God is a poor parent, well there is plenty of that to go around, and that is life. The question is how TO DEAL with similar situations in our lives, whether the object of our jealousy is God or NOT God.
1. Cain has to ask God:- where is it that I lack? Can I perform better next time and how? Then he should deliver his target, and await feedback. Life is like X Factor, Simon Cowell can say whatever he wants because he has the power to give you a record deal, and God is very similar.
2. If he cannot achieve that, then he has to ask: If I have to settle for second best, what can I gain from being second best? Can I cosy up to Abel and get some of the benefits he gets from God/ or whoever? Strategy of mutual benefit, what can I offer Abel to profit from his favour with God?
3. If the above fails and Abel proves to be selfish unwilling to share his success, then Cain has to ask:- How do I operate and function even if I were to be on my own? I do not want to aggress God nor Abel, as they hold the upper hand. What is it that I truly need that I need from these two, are there alternative avenues for obtaining them?
4. If I were unable to achieve 3, can I survive without eliminating the competition, as it would involve dirtying my hands i.e. can I live without it.
Love you see, should not be so much work, and should not involve favouritism at any level. Unfortunately life is life. We have to learn coping strategies to deal with nastiness, even if it is at the whim of someone powerful.
Thanks for stopping by, and for your comments.
Just wondering: Did you actually read the Cain and Abel story, and the above article about it? Some of your scenarios here are already dealt with in the article.
It is true that Cain could have gone through the flow chart you present.
But that’s not what he did.
Instead, he got jealous and killed his brother.
God didn’t foment that. In fact, God tried to get Cain to examine himself to see why his sacrifice was not acceptable. His subsequent actions showed exactly why his offering was not acceptable, as discussed in the article.
To use the “boss” example from the article, put yourself in the position of being a store manager and having two employees:
Is it favoritism to reward the first employee with a promotion and a raise, and put the second employee on notice that if job performance doesn’t improve, the employee will be fired? Good managers work to improve employees, just as God remonstrated with Cain in an attempt to get Cain to fix the problems in his heart that caused his sacrifice not to be acceptable. But in the end, it’s the employee that has to shape up or ship out.
Cain didn’t shape up, so God “fired” him by exiling him from his native land.
In the end, we humans must bear responsibility for our own thoughts, attitudes, and actions.
There is also this talk about atheism here:-
Why not adopt a view of a non-theist:-
1. If God exists, all the same, all the better?
2. If God does not, then I would still be able to act the same.
I do not think anyone is ever able to prove that God exists, so why then force ourselves to believe in it, or to disbelieve it? We can hold a neutral stance.
The Christian answer to that is because the Bible says so and so….. but really, there are so many religious texts, how can you judge that one book is better than the next and on what grounds? So the Bible says so and so….. really carries no more weight than the bible of Scientology.
Both have equally dubious explanation of the genesis and role of human kind and both refuse to admit they are wrong when presented with evidence otherwise. They both then draw inferences on how humans should behave based on these assumption.
Why not jettison all of these assumptions and ask the simple question:-
1. What would I do if I do not know either books or either version of Gods?
2. Can I do so in a morally acceptable way without reference to God, and we know we can, Christianity has existed only well slightly more than 2000 years, many eastern religions have brought harmony and community to humankind well before. If indeed they all went to Hell, then Hell must have a housing problem.
Of course, it’s entirely your own choice whether or not to believe in God.
However, you are making some assumptions about Christianity in particular, and religion in general, that I do not share. Rather than writing a lengthy response, I’ll refer you to a few articles here that address some of your issues and questions, and the overall matrix of reality in which they exist:
There are more articles I could refer you to, but these are the most on-point for the issues you raise in your comment. If, after reading them, you have more questions or would like to engage in further discussion, please feel free to comment again.
I was just having this debate with a fellow Christian friend the other day, and I absolutely love this article. It gave us both some clarity to the story of Cain and Abel. I just love your entire blog on Christianity and spirituality in general!!
Thanks for stopping by, and for your kind words! I’m glad our blog is giving you some good spiritual insights and clarity.
Godspeed on your spiritual journey!
wow….. real thanks for all the words,analysis and debate…. I have really learnt a lot. God bless.
You’re very welcome! Thanks for stopping by. Godspeed on your spiritual journey!
Absolutely great article and interpretation. Really helped me understand the meaning behind this story. I knew there was so much more to it.
Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. I’m glad the article was so helpful to you.
Godspeed on your spiritual journey!
The thing is. There is obviously favourites here. God does favour Abel over Cain. The thing is, you are misrepresenting God just because of your idea of God. In fact God favoured Israel. Just look at this verse
6 For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.
7 The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people:
8 But because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
As the above passage imply, there was no reason as to why God selected Israel except the fact that He love them.
The fact of the matter is. There is favoritism. Just like Abel brought his produce There is no reason as to why God would reject Cain offering. Of course even if Cain’s offering was not superior. The thing is that. If you were a parent of a child. Would you reject the offering just because it is inferior. Or would you tell the child to bring a better offering in the future.
Of course it never mentions whether this mistake was done continuously or not. So most likely it was done once.
If I were Cain, I would be angry too. Because I gave the produce just like Abel did. There was no indication that God mention what kind of produce he wanted.
In fact those were the only words that God gave to cain
7 If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him
The thing is. I would not use those words if I love Cain. I would have told Cain to bring a better offering in the future. If I interpret those words in modern context. Its like saying. Ok. If you did not get promoted this time around, because your work is not good enough. You need to produce better quality work if you want to get promoted. If you do not do well in your work, you may have to face the consequences but I am sure you can do it.
The thing is, if your boss told you this. I am sure you will not feel too happy over this. But if your boss is concern over you, he would have told you what you did wrong and why he is not happy and will promise a second chance for you in the future. You get the gist.That is not how even a parent who really love his kid will do. A parent will give advise and try his best to make sure the kid will not make the same mistake again.
You are portraying God in your own reasoning and that is obviously bad because when people read the same passage and realize that it is totally out, then Christianity loses credibility. I hope next time you write what is portrayed in the Bible instead of what is portrayed in your mind.
Thanks for stopping by, and for presenting your viewpoint on the Cain and Abel story.
I can understand why you think of it the way you do. But I would suggest that you re-read the article, and consider other viewpoints. The Cain and Abel story is like a Rorschach ink blot test. What people see in it, and how they read it, says as much about the way each particular person thinks about God as it does about the story itself. That is why, over the centuries, it has been such a touchstone for debate, and for people to wrestle with their faith and their relationship with God.
I take your point about God loving Israel more than others based on Deuteronomy 7:6–8 and similar passages elsewhere in Deuteronomy and the rest of the Old Testament.
However, those passages do not tell the whole story. We can’t just read a few verses in the Bible, and think we know what the Bible is all about. We have to read the whole Bible, and put particular verses in that wider context. Otherwise we will misunderstand the Bible’s meaning.
We still have to ask the question why the Lord expressed special love for Israel? Was it because God actually loved Israel more than other peoples? Or was it because God had a mission for Israel in accomplishing God’s will on earth, which no other nation would be as suitable for accomplishing?
I would suggest that it is the latter. God loved Israel because God had a mission for Israel in the world. We can see this in God’s original calling of Abraham, alluded to in verse 8 of your quote above:
Ten chapters later, in Genesis 22, God repeats this theme of Abraham and his descendants being a blessing to all the nations of the earth:
God did not love Abraham and his descendants merely for their own sake, but because they were to be “a blessing to the nations.” They were to be “a holy people to the Lord” not because they themselves were especially good and holy. The Old Testament narrative makes it crystal clear that the people of Israel were continually resisting and violating God’s commandments, and were anything but a holy and faithful people. However, because of their particular character, they were able to serve as the means by which God would bring his Word to the rest of the nations. It is through the children of Israel that we have the Bible.
Consider the final words of the prophecy in Isaiah 19:
God did not love only Israel. God loved all the nations. The children of Israel were God’s “chosen people” because God had chosen them to carry out a mission that would be for all people, not just for the Israelites.
We know this also because when the Israelites ceased to be “a blessing in the midst of the earth,” God sent the Romans to take away their Temple and their nation, and to disperse them throughout the nations that they had failed to bless according to God’s purpose for them. Taking place shortly after the events of the Gospels, this was the final act of God in removing the children of Israel from their place as God’s messengers to the nations of earth. It started, however centuries earlier, and happened in waves, beginning with the captivity and deportation of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians, and later of the southern kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians. Read the Old Testament story for yourself, from beginning to end, with these things in mind, and you will see this pattern and God’s purposes, and the changing fortunes of Israel based on whether they did or did obey God’s commandments and carry out God’s purposes for them.
Today, Judaism is a perfectly valid religion for its own people. But it is largely an inward-looking religion. It mostly avoids and turns away potential converts, keeping to itself, its own people, and its own ways, still believing in its own special status as God’s chosen people, and believing that people of other religions and cultures fall short of God’s glory and God’s love because they do not follow the Law of Moses. Though many Jews are good people, contributing to their community and to the world, such an inward-looking and clannish religion cannot serve as “a blessing in the midst of the land” for all the nations of the earth, as God originally intended. That is why Judaism is no longer the leading religion on this earth to express God’s commandments and God’s love to the people.
With this in mind, I invite you to read the above article once again, and see if it doesn’t hold more meaning for you.
Meanwhile, may God’s blessings be upon you and yours.
Hi Lee. I’ve been meditating on both the story of Cain and Abel, as well as the Bible’s whole perspective on sin offerings, for a little while now, and I’ve just come away more and more confused the more I look into it. On one hand, we see elaborate requirements and specifications laid out for animal sacrifices and sin offerings in the Mosaic Law and Leviticus, which are required by God. Yet at countless other points in the Bible, including the Old Testament, God makes clear that He desires mercy, justice and compassion, not sacrifice. Why would there be such a contradiction, especially in the same “theological period” (animal sacrifice laws and God’s desire for mercy are both spoken of often in the Old Testament)?
The whole idea of God requiring animal sacrifice, requiring His innocent “very good” creation to be ritually slaughtered to cover Israel’s sins (at least in Old Testament times), just doesn’t sit well with me at all. For God to declare the Creation very good, to love and care about every sparrow in the sky, only to order that these innocent creatures’ blood be spilled on an altar as a “sin offering”, and then to say He desires mercy, not sacrifice, when He established the procedures for such sacrifices by Israel, calls to mind a contradictory narrative, an unreliable narrator, and practices associated with the bloodthirsty Pagan gods worshipped by the tribes surrounding Israel.
I so far have been unable for the life of me to understand this, and no apologetics site or Christian blog, including yours, I am sorry to admit, has given me an answer that actually makes sense.
This is an excellent question. For some time now I’ve been wanting to write a two-part article on the meaning of sacrifices in the Old Testament, and what is meant in the New Testament by Christ being a sacrifice for our sins. Unfortunately, my current schedule of work for the Swedenborg Foundation, teaching seminary, and being a university student all at the same time has not allowed me the time to write for the blog on a regular basis as I did in years past. Meanwhile, here is the short version on sacrifices in the Old Testament.
Two things are important to understand about the OT sacrifices:
Both of these can be seen in the story of the first “sacrifices,” given by Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. The idea to present an offering to God was Cain’s, not God’s. And the Hebrew word used in this story is the one for “an offering,” not the one for “a burnt offering.” There is no mention of an altar. There is no mention of burning anything. Although it has later been interpreted as a burnt offering, most likely these were simple presentations of some portion of Cain’s crops and Abel’s herds to God, without destroying them, similar to a dedication ceremony. The idea is to recognize that the good things we have are gifts from God.
It is only after the Flood that burnt offerings come in, when Noah offers a burnt offering to God after re-emerging on dry land. And likewise, there was no commandment from God for Noah to do that. He did it on his own initiative.
Abraham, the father and patriarch of the Israelite people, came from polytheistic paganism. The practice of blood sacrifice was already well-established in the culture long before the Israelite religion began. What God really did in all of those rules for sacrifice was to establish that no sacrifice was to be offered to a pagan God, but only to the Lord, the God of the Israelites. If God had told them not to sacrifice, they would have considered it so outlandish that they would have abandoned God altogether.
This is why the Bible can say that God hates sacrifices, and never commanded them, even though there is a detailed law of sacrifice in the Old Testament. Allowing them to continue their blood sacrifices was a concession to a very materialistic people who believed in a very physical and literal God up in the sky, and who could conceive of offering something to God only by burning it so that its smoke would go up into the sky where God dwelt.
All of this was abolished with the advent of Christianity, but the spiritual symbolism of the offerings remained.
One other thing. Sacrifices in the Old Testament were, for the most part, the enactment of a feast with God. Yes, there were some sacrifices in which the entire animal was burnt on the altar. But for most sacrifices, only a representative portion was burnt on the altar. The rest of the animal was divided between the priests officiating at the offering, who would share it with their families, and the people who had brought the offering, who would share their portion with their family and friends. In short, it was a ritualized and literal feast in which God, the priests, and the people each had their portion, and ate together fairly literally.
The idea that sacrifices were some sort of penalty paid to God for sin is a complete misunderstanding of how sacrifices worked in ancient Hebrew and pagan culture. Some modern translations such as the NIV and NRSV translate the Hebrew word for “sin offering” as “penalty for sin,” demonstrating that the translators had no idea of the real meaning of sacrifice in ancient society. This translation is a back-reading of Protestant penal substitutionary atonement theory into an earlier culture that had no such concept in their mind.
In general, sacrifices served to bring people of very physical-minded cultures back into harmony with God’s will in various ways. One was the aforementioned feasting with God, which functioned similarly to people celebrating a treaty or contract with a shared feast. Eating together was (and still is) a sign of people coming together in friendship and agreement. Another was by serving as a ritualized recognition that the people making the offering had broken God’s law, and were signifying by their offering their acknowledgment and repentance from their sin, and their vow not to commit that sin again.
In no case were sacrifices a mere transaction in which people “paid” God an animal in exchange for their sin. Without repentance and reformation from their sin, the sacrifice had no meaning. That is why God rejected Cain’s offering, and that is why, in the Prophets, God rejects the burnt offerings of the people, and demands justice and mercy instead.
I hope this gives you at least some light on this subject. Without an understanding of the real meaning and function of the Old Testament sacrifices, and the sacrificial metaphors of the New Testament, we will read the Bible entirely wrongly—which is exactly what the traditional “Christian” church has done with its unbiblical and false atonement theories centered around God demanding payment for our sins.
God has no interest in payment for our sin. God is the ultimate “guy who has everything.” Why would God need anything from us? No, God is interested in our repenting from our sin, and living a good life instead. If we don’t do that, no sacrifice can cover up our sins, as both the Prophets and the New Testament make abundantly clear.