Genesis 4:4-5: God regarded Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s?

John Calvin
Genesis 4:4
4.And the Lord had respect unto Abel, etc. God is said to have respect unto the man to whom he vouchsafes his favor. We must, however, notice the order here observed by Moses; for he does not simply state that the worship which Abel had paid was pleasing to God, but he begins with the person of the offerer; by which he signifies, that God will regard no works with favor except those the doer of which is already previously accepted and approved by him. And no wonder; for man sees things which are apparent, but God looks into the heart, (1Sa_16:7;) therefore, he estimates works no otherwise than as they proceed from the fountain of the heart. Whence also it happens, that he not only rejects but abhors the sacrifices of the wicked, however splendid they may appear in the eyes of men. For if he, who is polluted in his soul, by his mere touch contaminates, with his own impurities, things otherwise pure and clean, how can that but be impure which proceeds from himself? When God repudiates the feigned righteousness in which the Jews were glorying, he objects, through his Prophet, that their hands were “full of blood,” (Isa_1:15.) For the same reason Haggai contends against the hypocrites. The external appearance, therefore, of works, which may delude our too carnal eyes, vanishes in the presence of God. Nor were even the heathens ignorant of this; whose poets, when they speak with a sober and well-regulated mind of the worship of God, require both a clean heart and pure hands. Hence, even among all nations, is to be traced the solemn rite of washing before sacrifices. Now seeing that in another place, the Spirit testifies, by the mouth of Peter, that ‘hearts are purified by faith,’ (Act_15:9;) and seeing that the purity of the holy patriarchs was of the very same kind, the apostle does not in vain infer, that the offering of Abel was, by faith, more excellent than that of Cain. Therefore, in the first place, we must hold, that all works done before faith, whatever splendor of righteousness may appear in them, were nothing but mere sins, being defiled from their roots, and were offensive to the Lord, whom nothing can please without inward purity of heart. I wish they who imagine that men, by their own motion of freewill, are rendered meet to receive the grace of God, would reflect on this. Certainly, no controversy would then remain on the question, whether God justifies men gratuitously, and that by faith? For this must be received as a settled point, that, in the judgment of God, no respect is had to works until man is received into favor.

Another point appears equally certain; since the whole human race is hateful to God, there is no other way of reconciliation to divine favor than through faith. Moreover, since faith is a gratuitous gift of God, and a special illumination of the Spirit, then it is easy to infer, that we are prevented by his mere grace, just as if he had raised us from the dead. In which sense also Peter says, that it is God who purifies the hearts by faith. For there would be no agreement of the fact with the statement, unless God had so formed faith in the hearts of men that it might be truly deemed his gift. It may now be seen in what way purity is the effect of faith. It is a vapid and trifling philosophy, to adduce this as the cause of purity, that men are not induced to seek God as their rewarder except by faith. They who speak thus entirely bury the grace of God, which his Spirit chiefly commends. Others also speak coldly, who teach that we are purified by faiths only on account of the gift of regenerations in order that we may be accepted of God. For not only do they omit half the truth, but build without a foundation; since, on account of the curse on the human race, it became necessary that gratuitous reconciliation should precede. Again, since God never so regenerates his people in this world, that they can worship him perfectly; no work of man can possibly be acceptable without expiation. And to this point the ceremony of legal washing belongs, in order that men may learn, that as often as they wish to draw near unto God, purity must be sought elsewhere. Wherefore God will then at length have respect to our obedience, when he looks upon us in Christ.

Adam Clarke
Genesis 4:4
Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock – Dr. Kennicott contends that the words he also brought, הביא גם הוא hebi gam hu, should be translated, Abel brought it also, i.e. a minchah or gratitude offering; and beside this he brought of the first-born (מבכרות mibbechoroth) of his flock, and it was by this alone that he acknowledged himself a sinner, and professed faith in the promised Messiah. To this circumstance the apostle seems evidently to allude, Heb_11:4 : By Faith Abel offered πλειονα θυσιαν, a More or Greater sacrifice; not a more excellent, (for this is no meaning of the word πλειων), which leads us to infer, according to Dr. Kennicott, that Abel, besides his minchah or gratitude offering, brought also θυσια, a victim, to be slain for his sins; and this he chose out of the first-born of his flock, which, in the order of God, was a representation of the Lamb of God that was to take away the sin of the world; and what confirms this exposition more is the observation of the apostle: God testifying τοις δωροις, of his Gifts, which certainly shows he brought more than one. According to this interpretation, Cain, the father of Deism, not acknowledging the necessity of a vicarious sacrifice, nor feeling his need of an atonement, according to the dictates of his natural religion, brought a minchah or eucharistic offering to the God of the universe. Abel, not less grateful for the produce of his fields and the increase of his flocks, brought a similar offering, and by adding a sacrifice to it paid a proper regard to the will of God as far as it had then been revealed, acknowledged himself a sinner, and thus, deprecating the Divine displeasure, showed forth the death of Christ till he came. Thus his offerings were accepted, while those of Cain were rejected; for this, as the apostle says, was done by Faith, and therefore he obtained witness that he was righteous, or a justified person, God testifying with his gifts, the thank-offering and the sin-offering, by accepting them, that faith in the promised seed was the only way in which he could accept the services and offerings of mankind. Dr. Magee, in his Discourses on the Atonement, criticises the opinion of Dr. Kennicott, and contends that there is no ground for the distinction made by the latter on the words he also brought; and shows that though the minchah in general signifies an unbloody offering, yet it is also used to express both kinds, and that the minchah in question is to be understood of the sacrifice then offered by Abel. I do not see that we gain much by this counter-criticism. See Gen_4:7.

Jonathan Edwards
Gen. 4:3, 4. Cain’s and Abel’s sacrifice. Abel when he comes before God is sensible of his own unworthiness and sinfulness, like the publican, and so is sensible of his need of an atonement, and therefore comes with bloody sacrifices, hereby testifying his faith in the promised great sacrifices. Cain comes with his own righteousness, like the Pharisee, who put God in mind that he paid tithes of all that he possessed. He comes without any propitiation, with the fruit of his ground, and produce of his own labours, as though he could add something to the Most High, by gifts of his own substance; and therefore he was interested in no atonement, for he was not sensible of his need of any, nor did he trust in any; and so being a sinner, and not having perfectly kept God’s commandments, sin lay at his door unremoved, and so his offering could not be accepted, for guilt remained to hinder. This reason God intimates, why his offering was not accepted, in what way he says to him, verse Gen_4:7, “If thou doest well – if thou keepest my commandments, thou and thine offerings shall be accepted; but seeing thou doest not well, as thine own conscience witnesses that in many things thou hast offended, the guilt of sin remains to hinder thy being accepted without an atonement, thy righteousness cannot be accepted, whatever offering thou mayest bring to me.” See Bp. Sherlock’s Use and Intent of Prophecy, p. 74, 75, and Owen on Heb_11:4, p. 18.

Keil & Delitzsch
Gen 4:4
Cain brought of the fruit of the ground a gift (מִנְחָה) to the Lord; and Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock, and indeed (vav in an explanatory sense, vid., Ges. §155, 1) of their fat,” i.e., the fattest of the firstlings, and not merely the first good one that came to hand. חֲלָבִים are not the fat portions of the animals, as in the Levitical law of sacrifice. This is evident from the fact, that the sacrifice was not connected with a sacrificial meal, and animal food was not eaten at this time. That the usage of the Mosaic law cannot determine the meaning of this passage, is evident from the word minchah, which is applied in Leviticus to bloodless sacrifices only, whereas it is used here in connection with Abel’s sacrifice.

“And Jehovah looked upon Abel and his gift; and upon Cain and his gift He did not look.” The look of Jehovah was in any case a visible sign of satisfaction. It is a common and ancient opinion that fire consumed Abel’s sacrifice, and thus showed that it was graciously accepted. Theodotion explains the words by καὶ ἐνεπύρισεν ὁ Θεός. But whilst this explanation has the analogy of Lev_9:24 and Jdg_6:21 in its favour, it does not suit the words, “upon Abel and his gift.” The reason for the different reception of the two offerings was the state of mind towards God with which they were brought, and which manifested itself in the selection of the gifts. Not, indeed, in the fact that Abel brought a bleeding sacrifice and Cain a bloodless one; for this difference arose from the difference in their callings, and each necessarily took his gift from the produce of his own occupation. It was rather in the fact that Abel offered the fattest firstlings of his flock, the best that he could bring; whilst Cain only brought a portion of the fruit of the ground, but not the first-fruits. By this choice Abel brought πλείονα θυσίαν παρὰ Κάΐν, and manifested that disposition which is designated faith (πίστις) in Heb_11:4. The nature of this disposition, however, can only be determined from the meaning of the offering itself.

The sacrifices offered by Adam’s sons, and that not in consequence of a divine command, but from the free impulse of their nature as determined by God, were the first sacrifices of the human race. The origin of sacrifice, therefore, is neither to be traced to a positive command, nor to be regarded as a human invention. To form an accurate conception of the idea which lies at the foundation of all sacrificial worship, we must bear in mind that the first sacrifices were offered after the fall, and therefore presupposed the spiritual separation of man from God, and were designed to satisfy the need of the heart for fellowship with God. This need existed in the case of Cain, as well as in that of Abel; otherwise he would have offered no sacrifice at all, since there was no command to render it compulsory. Yet it was not the wish for forgiveness of sin which led Adam’s sons to offer sacrifice; for there is no mention of expiation, and the notion that Abel, by slaughtering the animal, confessed that he deserved death on account of sin, is transferred to this passage from the expiatory sacrifices of the Mosaic law. The offerings were expressive of gratitude to God, to whom they owed all that they had; and were associated also with the desire to secure the divine favour and blessing, so that they are to be regarded not merely as thank-offerings, but as supplicatory sacrifices, and as propitiatory also, in the wider sense of the word. In this the two offerings are alike.

The reason why they were not equally acceptable to God is not to be sought, as Hoffmann thinks, in the fact that Cain merely offered thanks “for the preservation of this present life,” whereas Abel offered thanks “for the forgiveness of sins,” or “for the sin-forgiving clothing received by man from the hand of God.” To take the nourishment of the body literally and the clothing symbolically in this manner, is an arbitrary procedure, by which the Scriptures might be made to mean anything we chose. The reason is to be found rather in the fact, that Abel’s thanks came from the depth of his heart, whilst Cain merely offered his to keep on good terms with God-a difference that was manifested in the choice of the gifts, which each one brought from the produce of his occupation. This choice shows clearly “that it was the pious feeling, through which the worshiper put his heart as it were into the gift, which made the offering acceptable to God” (Oehler); that the essence of the sacrifice was not the presentation of a gift to God, but that the offering was intended to shadow forth the dedication of the heart to God. At the same time, the desire of the worshipper, by the dedication of the best of his possessions to secure afresh the favour of God, contained the germ of that substitutionary meaning of sacrifice, which was afterwards expanded in connection with the deepening and heightening of the feeling of sin into a desire for forgiveness, and led to the development of the idea of expiatory sacrifice.

John P. Lange
3. Gen_4:3-8. The first offerings. The difference between the offering pleasing to God, and that to which he has not respect. The envy of a brother, the divine warning, and the brother’s murder. The fratricide in its connection with the offering, a type of all religious wars. The expression מקץ ימים denotes the passing of a definite and considerable time (Knobel: after the beginning of their respective occupations), and indicates also a harvest-season; yet to take it for the end of the year, as is done by De Wette, Van Bohlen, and others, is giving it too definite a sense.—It came to pass that Cain brought of the fruits of the ground, מִנְחָה (from מנח; Arabic: to make a present, “the most general name of the offering, as also קָרְבָּן.” Delitzsch). Fruits belonged to the oldest offerings. Though no altar is mentioned, as also in Gen_8:20, it is nevertheless to be supposed. In the offering of Abel it is prominently stated that he brought of the firstborn of his herds (בְּכוֹרוֹת), but it is not said of Cain that his offerings were first fruits—בִּכּוּרִים. There is added, moreover, in respect to Abel, the word: וּמֵחֶלְבֵּהֶן (and of the fat thereof). Knobel explains this as meaning, from their fat; Keil, on the contrary, understands it of the fat pieces, that is, of the fattest of the firstlings. The ground taken by some, that it was because no sacrificial feasts had been instituted, or because men had not yet eaten of flesh, is pure hypothesis. It shows rather that we must not think here of the animal offerings of Leviticus. Here arise two questions:

1. By what was it made known that God looked to the offering of Abel,—that is, with gracious complacency? Many commentators say that Jehovah set on fire the offering of Abel by fire from heaven, according to Lev_9:24; Jdg_6:21 (Theodotion, Hieronymus, &c.). Delitzsch: the look of Jehovah was a fire-glance that set on fire the offering. Keil, however, reminds us how it is said, that to Abel himself, as well as to his offering, the look of Jehovah was directed. Knobel assumes, with Schumann, that it suits better to think of a personal appearance of Jehovah at the time of the offering, with which, too, corresponds better the dealing with Cain that follows. The safest way is to stand by the fact simply, that God graciously accepted the offering of Abel; but as in later times the acceptance was outwardly actualized by the miraculous sacrificial flame, so here, it suits best to think on some such mode of acceptance, though not on the “fiery glance” alone.

2. Wherein lay the ground of this distinction? Knobel: “The gift of Abel was of more value than the small offering of Cain. In all sacrificial laws the offerings of animals have the chief place.” So also the Emperor Julian, according to Cyril of Alexandria (Delitzsch, p. 200). According to Hofmann (“Scripture Proof,” i. p. 584), Cain, when he brought his offering of the fruits of his agriculture, thanked God only “for the prolongation of this present life, for the support of which he had been so laboriously striving: whereas Abel in offering the best animals of his herd, thanked God for the forgiveness of his sins, of which the continued sign was the clothing that had been given of God.” For this too advanced symbolic of the clothing skins, there is no Scripture ground, and rightly says Delitzsch: the thought of expiation connects itself not with the skins, but with the blood (see also Keil’s Polemic,—against Hofmann, p. 66). Yet Delitzsch contradicts himself when he says, with Gregory the Great: omne quod datur Deo ex dantis mente pensatur, and then adds: “the unbloody offering of Cain, as such, was only the expression of a grateful present, or, taken in its deepest significance, a consecrated offering of self; but man needs, before all things, the expiation of his death-deserving sins, and for this the blood obtained through the slaying of the victims serves as a symbol.” It is, however, just as much anticipating to identify the blood-offering with the specific expiation offering, as it is to give directly to the living faith in God’s pure promise the identical character of faith in the specific mode of atonement.

The Epistle to the Hebrews lays the whole weight of the satisfaction expressed in Abel’s offering upon his faith (Gen_11:4). Abel appears here as the proper mediator of the institution of the faith-offering for the world. As the doctrine of creation is introduced to the world through the faith of the primitive humanity, so in a similar manner did Abel bring into the world the belief in the symbolical propitiatory offering in its universal form; as after him Enoch was the occasion of introducing the belief of the immortal life, and so on. Keil, too, contends against the view that through the slaying of an animal Abel already made known the avowal that his sins deserved death. And yet it is a fact that a difference in the state of heart of the two brothers is indicated in the appearance of their offerings. Keil finds, as a sign of this difference, that Abel’s thanks come from the depths of his heart, whilst Cain’s offering is only to make terms with God in the choice of his gifts. Delitzsch regards it as emphatic that Abel offered the firstlings of his herds, and, moreover, the fattest parts of them, whilst Cain’s offering was no offering of first fruits. This difference appears to be indicated, in fact, as a difference in relation to the earliness, the joyfulness, and freshness of the offerings. After the course of some time, it means, Cain offered something from the fruits of the ground. But immediately afterwards it is said expressly: Abel had offered (הֵבֵיא, preterite, גַס־הוּא); and farther it is made prominent that he brought of the firstlings, the fattest and best. These outward differences in regard to the time of the offerings, and the offerings themselves, have indeed no significance in themselves considered, but only as expressing the difference between a free and joyful faith in the offering, and a legal, reluctant state of heart. It has too the look as though Cain had brought his offering in a self-willed way, and for himself alone,—that is, he brought it to his own altar, separated, in an unbrotherly spirit, from that of Abel.

John Weley
Genesis 4:4
And the Lord God had respect to Abel and to his offering, and shewed his acceptance of it, probably by fire from heaven but to Cain and to his offering he had not respect. We are sure there was a good reason for this difference: that Governor of the world, though an absolute sovereign, doth not act arbitrarily in dispensing his smiles and frowns. There was a difference in the characters of the persons offering: Cain was a wicked man, but Abel was a righteous man, Mat_23:35. There was a difference in the offerings they brought. Abel’s was a more excellent sacrifice than Cain’s; Cain’s was only a sacrifice of acknowledgment offered to the Creator; the meat – offerings of the fruit of the ground were no more: but Abel brought a sacrifice of atonement, the blood whereof was shed in order to remission, thereby owning himself a sinner, deprecating God’s wrath, and imploring his favour in a Mediator. But the great difference was, Abel offered in faith, and Cain did not. Abel offered with an eye to God’s will as his rule, and in dependence upon the promise of a Redeemer. But Cain did not offer in faith, and so it turned into sin to him.

Albert Barnes
Gen_4:4-5
And Habel brought. – Habel’s offering differs from that of his brother in outward form. It consists of the firstlings of his flock. These were slain; for their fat is offered. Blood was therefore shed, and life taken away. To us who are accustomed to partake of animal food, there may appear nothing strange here. We may suppose that each brother offered what came to hand out of the produce of his own industry. But let us ascend to that primeval time when the fruit tree and the herb bearing seed were alone assigned to man for food, and we must feel that there is something new here. Still let us wait for the result.

And the Lord had respect unto Habel and his offering, – but not unto Cain. We have now the simple facts before us. Let us hear the inspired comment: “Πίστελ pistei, ‘by faith’ Abel offered unto God πλείονα Θυσίαν pleiona thusian, ‘a more excellent sacrifice’ than Cain” Heb_11:4. There was, then, clearly an internal moral distinction in the intention or disposition of the offerers. Habel had faith – that confiding in God which is not bare and cold, but is accompanied with confession of sin, and a sense of gratitude for his mercy, and followed by obedience to his will. Cain had not this faith. He may have had a faith in the existence, power, and bounty of God; but it wanted that penitent returning to God, that humble acceptance of his mercy, and submission to his will, which constitute true faith. It must be admitted the faith of the offerer is essential to the acceptableness of the offering, even though other things were equal.

However, in this case, there is a difference in the things offered. The one is a vegetable offering, the other an animal; the one a presentation of things without life, the other a sacrifice of life. Hence, the latter is called πλείων θυσία pleiōn thusia; there is “more in it” than in the former. The two offerings are therefore expressive of the different kinds of faith in the offerers. They are the excogitation and exhibition in outward symbol of the faith of each. The fruit of the soil offered to God is an acknowledgment that the means of this earthly life are due to him. This expresses the barren faith of Cain, but not the living faith of Habel. The latter has entered deeply into the thought that life itself is forfeited to God by transgression, and that only by an act of mercy can the Author of life restore it to the penitent, trusting, submissive, loving heart. He has pondered on the intimations of relenting mercy and love that have come from the Lord to the fallen race, and cast himself upon them without reserve. He slays the animal of which he is the lawful owner, as a victim, thereby acknowledging that his life is due for sin; he offers the life of the animal, not as though it were of equal value with his own, but in token that another life, equivalent to his own, is due to justice if he is to go free by the as yet inscrutable mercy of God.

Such a thought as this is fairly deducible from the facts on the surface of our record. It seems necessary in order to account for the first slaying of an animal under an economy where vegetable diet was alone permitted. We may go further. It is hard to suppose the slaying of an animal acceptable, if not previously allowed. The coats of skin seem to involve a practical allowance of the killing of animals for certain purposes. Thus, we arrive at the conclusion that there was more in the animal than in the vegetable offering, and that more essential to the full expression of a right faith in the mercy of God, without borrowing the light of future revelation. Hence, the nature of Habel’s sacrifice was the index of the genuineness of his faith. And the Lord had respect unto him and his offering; thereby intimating that his heart was right, and his offering suitable to the expression of his feelings. This finding is also in keeping with the manner of Scripture, which takes the outward act as the simple and spontaneous exponent of the inward feeling. The mode of testifying his respect to Habel was by consuming his offering with fire, or some other way equally open to observation.

Cambridge Bible Ryle
Gen 4:5. but unto Cain] In what way the Divine displeasure was conveyed is not recorded. The suggestion that fire from heaven consumed the offering of Abel, but left that of Cain untouched, is a pure conjecture based upon the group of passages in the O.T., in which the fire from God attested the approval of the sacrifice, Lev. 9:24; Judg. 6:21, 13:19, 20; 1 Kings 18:38; 1 Chr. 21:26; 2 Chr. 7:1; 1 Macc. 2:10, 11.

It is a serious omission, also, that we are left to conjecture the reason for the favour shewn to Abel and withheld from Cain. We can hardly doubt, that in the original form of the story the reason was stated; and, if so, that the reason represented in the folk-lore of Israel would not have been in harmony with the religious teaching of the book.

Taking, therefore, the omission of the reason in conjunction with the language of vv. 6, 7, and with the general religious purport of the context, we should probably be right in interring that the passage, as it stands, intends to ascribe the difference in the acceptability of the two offerings to the difference in the spirit with which they had been made. Jehovah looked at the heart (cf. 1 Sam. 16:7). Thus the first mention of worship in Holy Scripture seems to emphasize the fundamental truth that the worth of worship lies in the spirit of the worshipper, cf. John 4:24, “God is spirit; and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” This is the thought of Heb. 11:4, “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain.… God bearing witness in respect of his gifts.”

The following conjectures have at different times been put forward to explain the preference of Jehovah:

(a) It has been suggested that Abel’s offering was preferred, because it consisted of flesh, and that Cain’s was rejected, because it consisted of vegetable produce. Each man offered of the fruits of his work and calling. Did the original story contain a condemnation of the agricultural as compared with the pastoral calling? But Adam was commanded to till the ground (2:15, 3:19).

(b) The old Jewish explanation was that Cain had failed to perform the proper ritual of his offering, and therefore incurred the Divine displeasure: see note on the LXX of v. 7. But, again, if so, it has to be assumed that Divine directions upon the ritual of service had previously been communicated to man.

(c) The common Christian explanation that Cain’s sacrifice, being “without shedding of blood” (Heb. 9:22. cf. Lev. 17:11), could not find acceptance, equally assumes that the right kind of sacrifice had previously been Divinely instituted, and that Cain’s rejection was, therefore, due to the wilful violation of a positive command as well as to the infringement of sacrificial rule.

In the silence of the narrative respecting the origin of the institution of sacrifice, these conjectures are merely guess-work, and must be considered more or less fanciful.
his countenance fell] A picture true to nature and more familiar than easy to express in any other words.

The passage illustrates the progress of sin in Cain’s heart. Firstly, disappointment and wounded pride, aggravated by envy of his brother, lead to anger; secondly, anger unrestrained, and brooding sullenly over an imaginary wrong, rouses the spirit of revenge; thirdly, revenge seeks an outlet in passion, and vents itself in violence and murder.

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