What Was Wrong with Cain’s Sacrifice?
Before we get to the title question, let us pause for a moment to recognize that the conflict which leads to Cain murdering Abel manifests in worship. This is like the last chapter of Grapes of Wrath (read it), which gives us a tragic but honest view of a world gone wrong. Worship is not supposed to be the place where our hatred is played out, our resentment vented, and our differences made into conflict. Yet, it happens far too often. This is why Gen. 4 indicts us.
As to the question, there has been a protracted tradition of trying to find out why Cain’s sacrifice was materially or procedurally inferior to Abel’s. Perhaps God doesn’t like vegetables. Maybe Cain did not close his prayer with the right words or he used the wrong type of lighter for his sacrifice. This type of speculation fascinates us because we will feel confident if we can be certain of the correct worship procedure that pacifies God. Sadly, it is a failed expedition that will be no more successful than young parents’ attempts to put their babies on a schedule.
Even in the age of “New Testament worship” we are still drawn to reductionist patterns of worship that will ensure accuracy. I have witnessed hours of study and leadership meetings to determine what the proper recipe is for unleavened communion bread and “fruit of the vine.” I have felt the awkwardness of reversing a “baptism touchdown” because someone called a foul on improper immersion. Even those who would quickly shun legalism may still be motivated to get worship “right” in the name of quality control.
There’s enough Scripture before us to make it clear that Cain’s sacrifice is not materially or procedurally inadequate. Of course there is Heb. 4:11 that proclaims Abel’s sacrifice was better because of faith. But what about Jesus’s teaching on murder and anger in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21-24)? Jesus sets forth antitheses that illustrate a righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and scribes. After calling on his disciples to manage anger rather than find assurance in the fact that they haven’t killed anybody, Jesus presents a scenario about going to worship. If you should happen to be at the temple with your sacrifice offering and you remember that you need to make amends for some wrong that you visited on your brother or sister, Jesus says to make the amends before offering the sacrifice. Why did Jesus choose such a specific scenario? I suggest that he is channeling the story of Cain and Abel here. Anger is a particularly virulent strain of sin that will consume us and others unless we take measures immediately.
So let’s assume that Cain’s offering was unacceptable because of the anger and resentment in his heart. Have you ever wondered how God expected him to “rule over” the sin crouching at his door? (See Gen. 4:7.) What if Jesus has given us the answer in the Sermon on the Mount? Cain is that fellow with a basket full of harvest going to worship, and he harbors hatred and contempt for Abel. God alerts Cain to the fact that if Cain will do what is right then he will be accepted. Jesus’s teaching suggests that doing what is right looks like dropping the basket and reconciling with Abel before sin wrecks everything.