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.”