The story of brothers Cain and Abel centers on an offering. In another sense, we could think of the story as centering on giving. Cain and Abel knew that to approach God, to enter into relationship with their Creator, they had to make sacrifices—give—to the Lord. Moreover, their approach reveals that there was a blueprint for how one was to approach God.
First, Cain and Abel brought their offerings “to the Lord,” indicating that there was a particular place where gifts were to be presented. Second, they went to the place of offering together, indicating that giving was not just an individual practice but something done in community. The nature of the offerings also indicated that God expected giving from the brothers to come in a certain form—they should not come with empty hands. And the quality of what they brought was also set by God they should not offer simply what they fancied to give. But the looming question remains: Why was Abel’s offering accepted while Cain’s was rejected?
Abel Accepted, Cain Rejected
In grappling with this question, we must notice an important point: both Cain and Abel brought to God an offering that represented the fruit of their work. “Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground” (Gen 4:2b). Part of God’s command to humanity was that every person work—to care for and steward the earth over which he had given man dominion. This is simply God’s order. When we work, we honor that order; when we refuse to work, we reject God’s order. The brothers’ offerings were evidence that they had been doing their appointed work and understood that the fruit of their labor belonged to God.
The interesting lesson here is that in God’s order, there is an intimate connection between work and worship. Because God’s provision for man comes through man’s work, we trust the Lord for the fruit of our labor. That outward expression of trust takes the form of giving. When we give the production of our hands to the Lord, we honor him and keep his order.
The meaning behind this portion of the story is twofold. First, we see that God does care about what we give to him through worship. Abel was obedient and honored God by giving him the first and the best. Abel’s offering cost him something. Cain merely brought an offering. Second, we learn that there is a heart-level dimension to our giving. By God’s design, worship is a combination of the external and the internal. God accepted Abel’s offering because Abel manifested trust in God’s order. Cain, on the other hand, approached God with a gift of his labors, but one without the qualities of “first and best.” His common fruit offering revealed the true condition of his ungrateful heart. When God rejected his offering, “Cain was very angry, and his face fell” (Gen 4:5b). Instead of looking up to God in obedience, trust, thanksgiving, dependence, and worship, Cain looked away from the Lord and harbored anger in his heart. Cain’s act is symbolic of the broken relationship between God and man—a rift that even animal sacrifices cannot permanently remedy.
Giving expresses our walk with the Lord. It is a way for us to gauge the deepest desires of our hearts, either in alignment with God’s ways or with our own. Hebrews 11:14 comments on Abel’s sacrifice as follows: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.” Cain and Abel gave in very different ways, externally and internally, and those differences revealed the contrast between a man of faith and a man of unbelief.
Lessons for Today
- Have you passed the tests of giving that God has placed on your path?
- Does God expect us to approach him in worship and giving according to his terms, or ours? What are his terms?
- How do you respond to opportunities to give? Like Abel or like Cain? Does the thought of costly sacrifices make your cringe?