Why Did God Prefer Abel to Cain? [Questions That Haunt]

David tweeted a question into the series asking a question about one of the most troubling passages of the Bible:

Leave your answer below and I’ll proffer an answer on Friday.

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  • Because that’s the way the story was written. (Is this really a question that haunts?)

    • I think it’s a question that haunts for those who have a certain view of Scripture and of “God.”

      • Hmm. I’m curious to see how the discussion develops, particularly on the theological front. I’ve had plenty of discussions on the Cain and Abel myth as it reflects on matters of ethics and human spirituality, but I’ve never encountered (at least not that I can remember) a theological angle on this story. Interesting.

        • I, personally, think a deity that requires any kind of “sacrifice” is just plain silly.

          • Yes! That is exactly why this is a question that “haunts”. (By the way, I didn’t pose this Q to Tony with the blog in mind, but connected to a more general thought about God having preferences.)

          • Craig

            David: neat question; Rob: neat way to focus it. Morality and worthwhile endeavors both require sacrifice, but not, seemingly, in the sense that the gods are traditionally thought to require sacrifices. So what is it exactly that seems so silly, strange, or repulsive about God (or the gods) requiring sacrifice?

            Maybe there’s something repugnant about God requiring sacrifices on his own behalf. It brings associations with egotism, servility, and feudal or monarchical systems. It contrasts with attractive ideals we associate with parenting, of our greatest public leaders being the greatest public servants.

          • Someone once said, if you don’t understand what a sacrifice is, go find a serious student. They are at the library on Saturday night, they get up early and eat a cold breakfast, they give up years of their life for something uncertain in the future.

          • Ahh, now I understand. The perceived preference of Abel over Cain as regards to the sacrifices both gave. Got it. Don’t know why I didn’t catch that yesterday.

            I agree, Rob. The notion of a deity requiring a sacrifice is indeed silly.

            In the Bible we’re confronted with a deity who values a sacrifice based on the disposition of the giver. In may of the books of the prophets, and even in the Psalms, we see a deity who rejects lawfully performed sacrifices because the people’s inner disposition (i.e., their “hearts”) was corrupt (see Psalm 40:6; Psalm 51:16-17; Isaiah 1:11-17; Isaiah 66:2-3; Jeremiah 6:19-20; Hosea 8:11-13; Amos 5:21-24).

            We know in Genesis that God considered Abraham’s inner disposition the true value, rather than the actual sacrifice of Isaac. In that case, the blood of the sacrifice wasn’t crucial, but the heart of the giver was (see Genesis 22). This is a consistent theme seen throughout the Hebrew scriptures.

            And so perhaps that helps explain why the Bible story indicates God rejected Cain, because his inner disposition had already divorced him from God.

    • Brent

      More precisely, it’s because the ground was just cursed (Genesis 3:16) and Cain’s offering is the fruit of that very ground (Genesis 4:2-3). That’s not an especially theologically-satisfying answer, but it seems like a sensible narrative answer.

  • Hm. A story that takes place in a nomadic tribal herdsman society, that finds itself constantly embroiled in conflict with settled agrarian societies surrounding it. In the story, God prefers the herdsman to the agrarian farmer.

    Why would they tell such a story?

    More seriously, it does begin a trend that is of theological significance: God preferring younger siblings over elder siblings, which I take as indicative of God’s preferential option for those who are, if not oppressed, at least down a peg in society.

    • Dan Ra

      This sounds like Daniel Quinn’s explanation for why God preferred Abel’s offering in his book, Ishmael. Quinn states that God favored hunter-gatherer/nomadic life (Abel) over agrarian life (Cain) because agrarianism/farming creates an ultimately unsustainable system. It does not allow for the natural order of life.

      I found it an interesting interpretation.

      • Craig

        So this suggests that stone age hunters did not wipe out the American megafauna. And grazing herds, overhunting, and overfishing wouldn’t have lead to sustainability concerns. And the Amish need to take another big step backwards.

    • Stephen

      Scott, brilliant insights. I think Brad (comment below) is correct in pointing out the wording of the story that seems to hint at Cain bringing just some average stuff whereas Abel brings God his first and best.
      BUT, I think you are spot on in pointing out that it is a story, written by the “good guys” that God loved as compared to their evil neighbors. I was talking about this story with my students recently and had to chuckle at the silence when I asked about why in this story are people bringing God sacrifices way before there was a sacrificial system or Law given prescribing it.
      Seems several things are going on and I surely don’t know what they all are. 1. Pointing out that God has chosen them, not others. 2. Story motif to down the line show God’s favor of the younger (possibly legitimizing Solomon’s ascension to the throne rather than David’s older sons). 3. Bunches of other reasons that create conversation and “Instruction” (Torah) as we discuss them.

    • This is the explanation I vaguely remember as well from my Bible study days — the ancient b’nei Israel preferred herding and the fruits of the herd to farming and the fruits of the ground, so of course God’s preferences were similar.

  • Brad

    The way the text reads, you get the impression that Cain’s gift was basically an after-thought. It was a throw away. “In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil…” You can almost hear that it was him doing nothing but performing a rote motion. He was looking around and, “Oh, it’s time to do the sacrifice thing, I guess I’ll take this.” There doesn’t seem to be any desire for an actual relationship with the Creator, just ritual.

    Abel, on the other hand, brought the best parts of the firstborn animals, meaning that his gift to God was first and foremost in his mind. It shows that he had an actual connection with God, thus out of love he gives God the best of the best.

    A gift is only a truly meaningful gift if the one giving it is connected to you in a meaningful way. If I said to my wife, “Here, I happened to just find this shit at the dollar store and I knew it was time for your brithday, so here,” she probably isn’t going to accept that gift.

    Intent is everything.

  • Part of the problem is in how the question is formed. It assumes that the story is about an arbitrary decision that God made regarding two real people. The first thing we have to recognize is that this is a story used to illustrate a point about who God is and what his relationship to us is like–not a history of two real people named Cain and Abel. It is NOT about preferential treatment of younger siblings, etc. It’s about normativity for what is acceptable to God, that we should give the best of ourselves to him.

    The text makes it a point to emphasize that Abel’s offering was the best that he had to give, while Cain’s offering was probably not pleasing because it didn’t meet the requirements of what God was looking for. God rejects his offering, but he certainly does not reject Cain. Verses 6 and 7 contain the theological pin on which the whole story hangs:

    “6 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 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.”

    God is pointing out to Cain the fact that he has a decision to make here: He can accept the fact that his offering wasn’t what God wanted, OR he can give in to his anger, frustration, and jealousy. We know from the very next verses that Cain chooses the latter. These two verses don’t seem to suggest that God prefers the person Abel over the person Cain–just that Abel’s offering was pleasing and God’s wasn’t. This is about normativity in religious practice, which really isn’t all that controversial even for us today, but especially for the original readers of this text.

    • *Cain’s wasn’t.

    • Stephen

      Great points Joel!

    • What would it actually look like to “give the best of ourselves to God”?

      • Admittedly, that was maybe too vague. I had in mind what some of the others have written about post-exilic Israel and their understanding of a pleasing sacrifice–which is not really fully analogous to any practical use of the word sacrifice that we have today. (At least it probably shouldn’t be.)

    • Actually, the passage says God approved not only of Abel’s sacrifice, but also of Abel:

      “The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering.” — Genesis 4:4-5

      • Fair, but it is still because of the offering, not because of something that is determiniately good or evil in each of them. God doesn’t tell Cain, “I always knew you were no good, and looks like you’ve really done it now; I guess you’ll be cut off from me forever.” He tells him that if he keeps His commands, Cain will find favor.

        • Just to add one more thing, this distinction is vital to the heart of the question. It’s a question that haunts only if we read this as God making a arbitrarily determinate claim about Cain’s character that would absolutely be harsh and unfair–if that were what is happening here. But, as so many others have already said, that isn’t what’s going on. God’s statements regarding the acceptability of the sacrifice are inextricably linked to the post-exilic understanding of sacrifice.

      • That is something I’ve noticed in rereading it as well, which doesn’t exactly make me feel better about this story.

    • sailor1031

      “Cain’s wasn’t.”

      The question was “why wasn’t it?”. Need to focus here!

  • Craig

    Cain was maybe a little effeminate, with the offering of fruits and flowers and such. God wanted a son he could grill a steak with, and then watch a little football. So it has always been.

    • Stephen

      Is that an excerpt from a Driscoll sermon?

  • I guess my take would be to let the Jewish scholars come up with their endless speculations – which many times yields some pretty interesting dialogue – and see Jesus as pointing toward the end of all “sacrificing for God” (and that the “god” that many on this blog I’m sure will posit as “real” isn’t and never was more than a human interpretation).

    For me, this means I should not worship “God” (or Jesus), if worship means somehow limiting any degree of my full embrace of my own and others’ humanity.

  • The thing that puzzles me is that they were offering sacrifices at all, and why God would care about this bit of ceremony. There is no mention of Adam or Eve offering sacrifice.

    By the way, the question suggests that God liked Abel better than Cain but I was only referring to God’s preference between the sacrifices. Again, the restraints of twitter.

    There are so many interesting theories (agrarian bs nomadic, best vs just the same old) and maybe the genius of this story is that we can find so many varied truths based on our situation. But I’m not settled there. There is still something mysterious that hasn’t been explained away yet.

    • David; Are you really troubled by the non-mention of sacrifices before this story? That assumes that the Bible stories are actually assembled as history, that characters should be properly introduced and themes developed in an orderly manner. There was an existing culture with traditions in place that the stories came out of. The tellers assumed that the listeners knew that. If we forget that or ignore that, we can’t possibly know their intentions.

    • David, I think you’re trying read contemporary context too much into this. Asking a question like “Why would God care about ceremony?” is a question that wouldn’t have even made a bit of sense until perhaps late 18th century Protestantism. And it sounds even more like the product of contemporary church culture, i.e. “Hey, come as you are! God loves you no matter what!” — Not saying that in a derogatory way at all; I think that the New Testament illustrates well that God accepts people and meets them where they are. Otherwise Jesus’ words would mean very little. But that is still a fairly recent understanding of the NT.

      So the question simply doesn’t make sense in this context. God cares about ceremony because that is what religion IS in the ancient near east. It really is that simple. None of the original readers would have thought twice about it, much in the same way that many Christians today would never think twice about God accepting everyone as he or she is (even though in our very own context there are Christians who would disagree with that statement completely or argue about who “everyone” is, etc.)

    • It is likely the writers had an affinity for ceremony, and asserted that affinity onto the deity character in their story.

  • Craig

    “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?”

    Fathers: you’ll probably receive a less-than-perfect gift from your kid this Christmas. Look it over carefully and then toss into the garbage with a dismissive flair. When the kid starts to cry, take God’s answers to Cain as the model for what you should then say. If your wife and relatives don’t applaud your behavior, just contact Joel and Brad to come to your defense.

    • Cain and Abel = A story about being faced with a decision of whether or not to let sin enter the door when you have been called out for having the wrong motivations for pleasing God. Cain’s jealous demonstrates that he was not bringing the fruit with the right intentions in the first place.

      “Pleasing God” is a significant in ancient literature for a number of reasons, perhaps most implicitly, since we’re in Genesis, knowing which god is the one you’re supposed to be pleasing. Israel’s God, YHWH, the actual living God, didn’t want fruit–maybe because other people in the region brought fruit to their gods (I don’t know that for sure; I’m just going based upon the nature of Genesis in general, which is that its a text written to tell the Israelites who their God is and how to make sure they’re worshipping YHWH and not a different god, since there were quite a few running around back then.) But that’s maybe a minor point anyway, since, as I say above (and as many have said) Cain’s attitude is all wrong.

      Cain and Abel ≠ A story about a dad who throws his kid’s gift in the trash.

      You need to make your analogies a little more carefully. I don’t think the ancient Israelites would have had a conception of God in that way. Not everything the bible says can be imported in 1:1 correspondence to our contemporary lives, nor should it be. You’re not letting the text speak for itself.

    • The gospel according to Bill Cosby:

      Child: Here Mom, I took a piece of wood and put a nick it. I made this for you.
      Mom: (crying) That’s the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

  • The text is, as ever, open to interpretation. But it seems to me that Cain’s murderous anger is indicative of a gift given in desire for recognition, not out of love and devotion. In that way, it is reminscent of the (also rather horrible) story of Ananias and Saphira, and reminds me of many “generous” donors today, who give to receive thanks and honor rather than from an outpouring of love. (This, by the way, is an answer from a Baptist. I don’t think it has anything to do with God preferring meat over veggies.)

  • A bit more clarification: As a pastor in a (baptist) church that has been working through Genesis, for many this short story sets a precedent for how God views sacrifice.

    Craig’s response above is exactly what troubles me. It seems that when the God character gave his holy thumbs down from the judges table that he was making more trouble for himself than it was worth.

  • AJG

    I always read the story with the idea that (a) God could already see the evil in Cain’s heart and (b) that Cain brought less than his best to offer to God. I never saw this as a foreshadowing of penal substitutionary atonement. People ready whatever they want into the Bible.

    OTOH, I do very much like Scott’s point about reading the story from the perspective of a hunter gatherer society.

    • AJG

      I meant tribal herdsman not hunter gatherer.

  • Justin Spurlock

    The reality is that the Cain and Abel story is allegory. Abel as a shepherd represents the mountain and wilderness lifestyle of Judah; whereas, the northern tribes have a geography that is oriented around fertile fields and farming. As a J/E story, blood is preferable to grain.

    This changes with the various “Mosaic code” accounts as they tend to come from P & D sources that is more integrated of the two people groups. In these sources, both types of offerings, blood and grain, are acceptable to God.

    • Craig

      Though I could see a literalist interpretation helping out with the problem of evil. God behaves towards Cain in a way that is, to all appearance at the time and for millennia, cruel and somewhat arbitrary. But it is all to prefigure the lesson that the blood (unmerited favor through another’s sacrifice), not the grain (the fruits of one’s labor), is what makes one acceptable to God (isn’t this a popular Christian reading?). So stick with the faith, you poor devils: your temporarily confused and painful lives are likewise all just useful props in God’s grand play. IMHO, Cain should still be a pissed at the resurrection.

  • Rob

    I have wondered if the preference for Abel over Cain was not just about the sacrifice, but about the lifestyle it implied. One of the things i precieve from scripture is that God’s preference is on a people that continue to move, not setting up shop in one spot. They continue to move about being God’s representatives on the earth. Hunting fits that lifestyle, while farming is setting down roots and remaining in one spot. I think the Babel story might imply that as well. I believe this is evidenced in how the new testament community of followers lived out their faith as well. Just thoughts I have

  • Luke Allison

    I prefer to read Genesis as a post-exilic story about Israel written for post-exilic Israel.
    Pete Enns uses this as his controlling assumption for studying the text we’re talking about. He draws a parallel to Proverbs 1 and the way of wisdom, specifically the warning in 1:8-19 about murder. This is a warning for the people of Israel that following the path of wisdom and obedience leads to life, while rejecting it leads to death, both socially and personally.

    That said, the sacrifice portion is confusing, but only if we are trying to read this as authentic prehistory. If we were ancient Israelites, we would remember that God had asked for the firstborn of the flocks (Exodus 13:12) and the first fruit of produce (Leviticus 23:10). Cain didn’t offer the first fruits, he merely offered “an offering of fruit” (Genesis 4:3). I think the point has more to do with teaching exiled Israelites to pay attention to Torah in order to somehow escape God’s judgment (as they saw it).

    This is an interpretation that makes some sense. Now, of course, the question asked might be more “How can this story be made palatable to me” than “Why do you think this was written this way.” In that case, I have nothing to say. And ultimately, is that really the point of studying these things?

    • Nailed it.

    • Steve Pinkham

      Where’s the upvote button when you need one?

      Basically everyone else missed out on the most basic question: Who is writing this, and for whom? This passage has the fingerprints of the Yahwist source all over it. That (probably) places it in the exilic or post-excilic period, when the Jews were trying to make sense of why their tribal God didn’t protect them from their distress. The answer? They didn’t do the rituals right, and they worshiped other Gods.

      We can attempt to re-appropriate the tales for our own time, but why? The question that should *really* haunt is: What do we think differentiates the writers of the J source from us? Is there anything more to it than the appeal to antiquity fallacy?

    • Craig

      I think this is a good debunking explanation, and it’s conducive with Scott Paeth’s point–as well as the idea that writers of Genesis were in tight with the post-exilic priestly class, for whom animal sacrifices meant personal profit. These kinds of explanations should make Christian who believe them less dismissive of the Book of Mormon and other completely fabricated religious myths. Maybe there’s just as much spiritual insight and guidance to be found in them.

      • Luke Allison

        Ah, but that’s where we’ll differ.
        It’s not debunking if this interpretation was what it was meant for in the first place. I think this type of interpretation is more like rediscovery.

        The Book of Mormon is a very recent book which claims to be directly dictated by an angel. This is very different than the Hebrew Scriptures’ notion of inspiration.

        • Craig

          I don’t see the relevance of angel involvement. We could, I suppose, also assume that God originally intended the Book of Mormon myths to be interpreted as mere fictions, albeit spiritually instructive ones. So I’m not seeing the difference.

          • Luke Allison

            The difference is in the complexity. There is no official doctrine or theory of inspiration for the Hebrew Scriptures. They are a somewhat mysterious and impossible-to-master collection of genres that have been debated about and pondered over for thousands of years.

            The New Testament is somewhat mysterious as well….we don’t really know as much as we think we know about its authors, its composition, etc.

            The Book of Mormon is a self-contained book purportedly dictated by an angel to one man produced relatively recently. There is a difference.

            Not sure I’m getting your question, though.

  • T.S.Gay

    “I think the Babel story might imply that as well”.
    It’s funny that the Babel story gets interpreted as a people desirous of reaching heaven on their own. Rob is closer to the truth in the Cain and Abel story and Babel. God said go, be fruitful, multiply. They were a bunch of good old boys, hunkered down, with the pressure that is evidenced in any USA 7th grade culture to be like me and act like me. Precisely similar to many a Christian church. Trending toward some homogenous understanding of literalistic reading of scripture, a lack of interest in nature, personality cults, a standardized soteriological system. And to push the point further, I honestly believe that go, be fruitful, and multiply has been seriously misinterpreted also. Trying brevity(please give me a break, better people than me jump in)- Go(is short for being comfortable in individual and corporate plurality), be fruitful( is short for character development), multiply( is short for being redemptive).

  • I am drawn to both Dan Ra and Daniel Quinn’s interpretation that this is a critique of settled agriculture’s belief that the earth can be owned. I find little textual support for assuming that what Cain brought was less than his best. I assume that he brought the first fruits, and the best produce from his farm. There was no selfishness in Cain’s offering, but there was pride. He owned the land, he grew the crop, he was proud of the offering he brought. He brought HIS best, and expected praise from God for his accomplishment. Cain fails to understand grace, that the earth belongs to God and it’s fruit is given to us as an act of grace. The issue is ownership. What was required was not simply sacrifice (both brought a sacrifice), but an open acknowledgment that God is the source, not ourselves.

  • Moulder

    It’s a story and therefore there’s no way of validating if the story actually factual or not.
    Given that the rest of Genesis is myth I’m leaning toward it not really being an issue.
    I think it’s there to scare people into thinking that God is there to keep everyone in line.

  • robert

    From the faith group I use to belong to it was because Abel’s sacrifice was offered in faith and Cain’s was not so his sacrifice was not rejected by God. When I stepped back and actually read the text with out any presuppositions it appeared random and arbitrary. It was like a carrot and stick game to keep followers of God on the hook and in terror. Now that is not a very comforting view and I tend to lean to the allegorical reading of Genesis, which would get me the left foot of fellowship from my old faith group. An aside but when the Dec. 26, 2004 there was a great deal of talk about the wrath of God, some bloggers and podcast folks said it was God’s wrath and basically all those people had it coming. Actually we all have it coming and more, it was not arbitrary but God knew who would be drown and who would not and it was all in God’s perfect will.

    Then this story struck me about a young girl who had learned about Tsunami’s in school and she recognized the signs and everyone around her on the beach was saved. In the surrounding beaches most of the people were lost. I hope its ok to post links but I found it rather strange.


  • robert

    Sorry not strange but I meant to say it really made me think. I know this is poorly worded but I hope people understand my point.

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