Friday, September 19, 2008

The Sacrifice of Cain

Sacrifice is one of the strangest religious rites in the Bible. Regimented sacrifices were required under God's Law. Later, King David sacrificed countless animals, but supposedly also wrote Psalms saying God doesn't want animal sacrifices. Yet, in most cases where animal sacrifice is said not to be desired, a sacrifice of the will is said to be the goal. Collectively, we see that the theme of a sacrifice is that it should be of significant cost or meaning to the individual to prove its worthiness and sincerity.

On a different subject, one theory of the creation of the Bible is that it is a collection of oral traditions, written stories, historical events, and blends of other religion's myths. If that were the case, we might expect to occasionally find some incongruent storylines. This is the case indeed as we will see today.

The Sacrifice of Cain
As most Christians know, it was Cain that performed the first murder on his brother Abel. The impetus for this deed is succinctly stated in Genesis 4:2-4:

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering He did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. NIV

What is never disclosed with the telling of this story is that at this time mankind and every living thing is on a strictly vegetarian diet. Going back to Genesis 1:29-30:

Then God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food." And it was so. NIV

Man and beast reportedly do not start eating meat until after The Flood of Noah in Genesis 9.

So let's compare the sacrifices made to God. Cain toiled on the soil and offered God fruit of that labor, fruit that he would otherwise have eaten. There was intrinsic value and cost to the sacrifice. Abel was a shepherd and offered the fatty parts of a newborn animal. This fatty flesh had no value to Abel. There was nothing he could do with it. The only thing of value on the animal at that time would be the hide for clothing, which was not sacrificed.

Cain made a sacrifice that is consistent with the intent of a sacrifice. Cain worked the field for months and offered up fruit of his labor, fruit that meant something to him because of the work put into it and the actual value of it as food. So when God rejects the sacrifice, it is easy to understand that Cain would get angry, just as if a father were to reject a homemade gift that a child had worked on for weeks. Not that such rejection justifies murder, just that the anger the rejection caused is understandable.

Abel was a shepherd. But at this time, neither man nor beast ate flesh. So basically, Abel didn't have to protect the flocks. He just kept them together. The goal of such activity at that time could only be to produce hides for clothing. It seems rather ludicrous that Abel would choose to be a shepherd in that case; a big glitch in the cohesion of the Bible's story. For Abel to make a sacrifice of a product, animal fat, that had no value and for God to find favor in that sacrifice defies the theme of a true sacrifice and confounds logic.

On a final note, it is very interesting to consider that in the many animal sacrifices much later on in the Bible, the fat of the animal is most of what gets sacrificed. One could say that Abel's fat sacrifice was a precursor of things to come, but a more likely scenario is that the story of Cain and Abel in its Biblical form came together in a time after fat sacrifices were ordained because fat would have meant nothing to Cain and Abel. I leave you with a quote from God's Law on sacrifice, Leviticus 3:14-16:

From what he offers he is to make this offering to the LORD by fire: all the fat that covers the inner parts or is connected to them, both kidneys with the fat on them near the loins, and the covering of the liver, which he will remove with the kidneys. The priest shall burn them on the altar as food, an offering made by fire, a pleasing aroma. All the fat is the LORD's. NIV


  1. I've wondered about this too. Cain and Abel display such a clear understanding of a sacrificial system. Especially for generation 2. Yet, outside of an angel with a flaming sword we have no recorded knowledge of God's instruction for this manner of worship. True, sacrifices were very common in ancient religious cultures, but that does nothing to support the "uniqueness" of the Bible. Rather, the story of Cain and Abel seems a forced attempt at splitting the human race in two distinct paths (Jew and Gentile?).

  2. Both good points. I hadn't really thought of the creation of the two paths.

  3. TWF:

    On the point of the vegetarian diet presented as practice to the antediluvian people in Genesis, and Abel's sacrifice, it may be possible to rule in animal milk as a source for validity of consumption. Provided the animals were sheep there would also seem be some lasting value in the animal as its wool could be sheered and regrown repeatedly.

    That said, if anything, I think if the cause of rejection rests in what was sacrificed the idea behind why God accepts Abel's sacrifice over Cain has to do with Abel sacrificing from the "firstborn" of his flock while Cain is not explicitly noted as bringing the first-fruit of his flock. If you wanted to stretch the idea further you could probably tie this idea into some concept of faith, such as demonstrating trust that God would see to the fullness of a harvest or continued reproduction of a flock, or perhaps a reverence for God for providing or some such by giving him the first of what is provided rather than having it for themselves.

    May all be well with you,
    Felix Zamora

  4. Hi Felix,

    That is an excellent point about milk, as I don't remember specifically considering that. It was over five years ago, so my memory may not be right. :-) However, I would wager that the firstborns offered were not of milk-producing age. And we should probably consider that milk is considered a "food" (at least by our standards), and so may have encroached on God's earlier commandment that plants were their food.

    The wool did come to mind, but based on that time period, it seemed to me that skins/leather would probably be more the direct fruit of animals, as processing wool takes considerably more know-how and technology. That said, given that Abel only offered the fat of the animal, the skin would be available to use.

    As to the aspects behind the sacrifice you refer to, the trust, faith, and/or reverence, that I can understand, at least at some level. ;-) There is something a little odd in destroying what's been given to you... but, in the sense of honoring the Giver, and given no option of directly sharing it with Him, I suppose destruction of a portion in His honor makes sense on some level.