One of the most well-known of the stories in the Bible is that of Cain and Abel, and how Cain committed the first act of murder by killing his brother in an act of jealous rage. The story is recording for us in the first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis. The story goes that one day the two brothers were each making an offering to the Lord God (something they no doubt learned from their parents), probably an offering of thanks, and how God accepted Abel’s offering but rejected Cain’s. Now Cain, being a farmer, brought some of his crops as an offering, while Abel, being a shepherd, offered one of his sheep. God accepts Abel’s sacrifice but rejects Cain’s sacrifice, but why did God accept one and reject the other? The explanation for this question is most often said to be the fact that Abel’s sacrifice was a blood offering and that it foreshadows Christ’s sacrifice etc. Now that sounds good on the surface but this explanation soon falls apart when one does a little bit of research into Old Testament sacrificial practices.
According to the book of Leviticus, one of the types of acceptable offerings was that of the grain offering. Now the grain offering was not an offering for sin but the book does say that it creates “an aroma pleasing to the Lord” (Lev. 2:2). So if this principle holds true, then God should have accepted Cain’s sacrifice as well. So why did God reject Cain’s sacrifice? The answer lies in the way in which each of the brothers presented his sacrifice.
In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.” – Genesis 4:3-5.
The text explicitly tells us that Abel brought the best of his flock as an offering to the Lord God. The text says no such thing about Cain’s offering, probably because Cain just brought God whatever he had to spare. I want to posit that this is the reason for why God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and rejected Cain’s. Abel’s heart was right from the beginning, because he wanted to give God the best that he had, instead of keeping that nice, tasty mutton for himself. Cain’s heart was not right because he wanted to give God just any old portion of his vegetables or grain (I would have given God collard greens, because I detest them). So it was not so much the offering itself that was rejected, as it was the mindset or heart of Cain that God rejected! But wait, God sees how Cain is bummed out by the whole thing and tries to help him out.
The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.’” – Genesis 4:6-7.
God tells Cain that if he does the right thing (i.e. give with the right attitude and heart), God will gladly accept him just as he has accepted Abel. He also warns Cain about the dangers of his attitude, and he does this by describing sin in a very peculiar manner. This is the only passage (in my memory) where sin is personified as a wild animal ready to pounce on its prey. Sin desires Cain and is lurking at his very door. This reminds me of how St. Peter tells us that the devil goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. God was warning Cain of this danger and essentially giving him the opportunity to repent of his ways. Sadly, Cain did not heed the warning of the Lord God. He would later take his brother out to the field and in a heated moment of passion, strike his brother dead.
Later on, the Lord God asks Cain where his brother is. God, being omniscient, already knows the answer to this question, but he asks to give Cain the chance to admit his sin. Cain responds with an immortal saying, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” I love this saying, and I use it often whenever someone asks me where so and so is. “I don’t know where he is. I’m not his keeper!” Humor aside, it is a very serious philosophical question when you think about it. Are you responsible for your brother, for other people around you? Does God hold you accountable for the well-being of your fellow man? The astute reader will notice that the Lord does not answer Cain’s question here. This is perhaps due to the fact that the entirety of the Bible seems to answer that question: Yes, you are your brother’s keeper.