We probably don’t always think of the story of the sacrifices of Cain and Abel as a story about worship––but in fact it is. As Ellen White points out, these were not sacrifices to atone for sin: instead, “these [were] offerings ... to express faith in the Savior whom the offerings typified, and at the same time to acknowledge their total dependence on Him .... Besides this, the first fruits of the earth were to be presented before the Lord as a thank offering.” [Patriarchs and Prophets, 7]
Abel and Cain, the first generation to live their whole lives outside the earthly paradise, had gathered the first fruits of the tainted earth, having been obliged to gather food by the sweat of their brow, as the Lord foretold in Genesis 3:19. Both seem to have realized that they had enjoyed divine blessing; and so they responded to that blessing. They did so with acts recognizing and acknowledging God’s blessing and giving thanks for it. These, then, were the first recorded acts of worship in human history.
In Genesis 4:2-5 we read that Cain and Abel each brought an offering to present to the Lord but the offerings were very different. Abel, a shepherd, brought a lamb, whereas Cain, a gardener, brought an offering from the fruit of his land. There is a relationship between their work and their offering; both men brought the best of the result of their labors. We know this because Hebrews 11:4 tells us that each man’s offering was excellent. So Cain brought an excellent offering—but Abel’s was more excellent. The superiority of Abel’s offering, moreover, was not in terms of the quality or quantity of what was being placed on the altar––rather it was in terms of what was in his heart. So, too, our response to God in worship must be wholehearted and sincere, and focused on God, not on us––worship is about exalting not human achievements but divine blessing.
And while what the two brothers had to offer to God was the best of what they had, Genesis tells us that, whereas God accepted Abel’s offering, Cain’s was not accepted. God later told the Israelites (i.e. Ex 22:29, 23:19, Numbers 18:12) that first fruits of the harvest were to be brought to God as thank offerings and since we believe that much of the law written down at the time of Moses had been constant since creation, at first it might seem as if God was being unfair in His response to Cain. It is, therefore, critical to look closely at how God communicated to Cain after rejecting his offering.
God asks (4:6): Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?
God’s response here is a poignant revelation of His longing for continued relationship with Cain, in spite of Cain’s prideful and unacceptable offering. Note well, God clearly is looking at Cain’s face––not at his offering. God cares about the misery that Cain was experiencing––about his bitter chagrin that his brother’s offering had been favored, but not his own––and God cares, even though it was Cain’s choice that had precipitated the situation. God knows the emotions that Cain is feeling—anger and embarrassment—yet God gently asks him to describe in his own words what he feels. God invites Cain into dialogue, for in conversation there would be the opportunity to clarify why the type of offering mattered. An act of worship, then, for God (if not for Cain), was partly one act in building a relationship.
God next asks (4:7): If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?
God gives Cain the chance to bring a new and acceptable offering. God knows that Cain needs to offer a different type of offering, in order to redirect his worship to a higher reason for loving God. Even if the fruit were the absolute best from Cain’s garden, even if it provided reasons to thank God for sustaining physical life, it did not symbolize the ultimate reason for worship of God—His offering of spiritual life.
God knows that humans cannot rise higher than the level of their offerings. We become what we present to Him in worship. God wanted Cain to experience much more than simply the affirmation of divine blessing on his stewardship of the land. Farming skills would have their limits in times of inclement weather. God wanted Cain to bring the best offering: the one that reminded him that God would empty Himself to the point of death for Cain. Blood was a prophetic symbol. It witnessed to death and it witnessed to life. God would accept the consequences of our deserved fate so that we could experience the transfusion needed to live new lives. He asked that worship be first of all a representation of His offering to us.
God concludes (4:7): If you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.
God sees the bigger picture of what is at stake in Cain’s life at this moment, and He does not fail to warn Cain. Again, there is the indisputable evidence how much God longed for Cain to be in harmonious relationship with his creator. God had seen the father and mother separate themselves from Him––he doesn’t want their son to start down the same path. Cain is God’s spiritual child, as well as Adam and Eve’s genetic son. This is a critical moment. Like any parent not wanting to lose a child, God is pleading with Cain to make the right choice.
Unhappily, as we know, the story goes on to show the tragic outcome of Cain’s refusal to bring another offering. It is a sad irony that Cain would not kill a lamb but ended up killing his brother. Yet, even after that horrific act, God revealed his mercy for the sinner by sparing Cain’s life, granting him an opportunity for repentance. Even now, Cain’s direction in life could have been reversed! Sadly, Scripture strongly indicates that Cain’s choice of offering, his flawed act of worship, was indicative of how he lived the rest of his life (cf. I John 3:12; Jude 11). He never rose above the level of offering he made on that fateful day.
Cain and Abel can stand for all who have worshipped God down through the ages. In their story we find ourselves barely hidden from view behind their descriptions. The reality of our human natures is that we are likely always to be a mix of these two worshipers. We combine genuine praise for God along with pride in our works. We can describe His blessings, but frequently focus on those things in which we are accomplished and which deserve attention. We come to worship, therefore, as both Cain and Abel, as both the Pharisee and the tax-collector of Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:9-14), a parable in which it is the sinner, not the supposed saint, who worships God truly, because worship, as Jesus tells his disciples, is about humbling ourselves and exalting God.
The story of Cain and Abel suggests that, when we worship God, one of the most critical issues is not what we bring to worship, but what we leave with. Do we leave behind the irreverent offerings of our prideful acts? Do we grasp more fully that God was willing to empty Himself of life that we in turn might draw in that first breath of eternal life? Do we take away the transformative awareness that His property is always to have mercy?
God is honored by acts of worship that reflect His character and He is merciful for our acts of worship that do not represent Him. He sees and cares about what we offer to Him but even more He observes our faces and understands what our expressions are hiding. Because He separates the sin from the sinner, He is more concerned about what is in our heart, than what comes from our hands––about what is in our minds, more than what is in our mouths. In our prayer and reflections, He invites us into dialogue with Him and a relationship with Him, and He seeks to convict us of changes needed in our lives. He reminds us that we are in grave danger of taking the wrong direction in our lives, of starting down a possibly irreversible course, if we choose continually to ignore His appeals to our conscience and His desire to be in conversation with us.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3242