From the Protevangel to the Flood: The Conflict of Cain and Abel (2)

The late Homer Hoeksema was professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

The Offerings

As to these offerings, we notice, in the first place, that this is the first time that the offering is mentioned in Scripture. But in this connection we remark:

1.The mere fact that this is the first mention does not mean that this was the very first occasion at which offerings were brought to the Lord. In fact, this is most unlikely and inconceivable.

2.Undoubtedly the Lord Himself taught His people to bring offerings, both by the example which He gave in shedding the blood of an animal in order to provide coverings for the nakedness of Adam and Eve at the time of the fall and by direct instruction. Adam and Eve must have been the first to bring such offerings, and their sons must have learned from them.

3.The fact that here the bringing of offerings is first mentioned is only because of the "selective" character of sacred history and because of the fact that in connection with the conflict of Cain and Abel it was necessary to relate this.

The idea of the offering is that of a gift to the Lord. This is according to the original word used. Hence, the offering represents the idea of consecration. Man cannot give anything to the Lord in the sense of offering Him something which He does not possess. God is the Lord, the sovereign proprietor of heaven and earth and all that they contain, including man himself. The cattle on a thousand hills are God's. How then can man give anything to the Lord? But the offering is symbolic of the consecration of one's self in love to God. Any other offerings are an abomination to Him. "The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is his delight" (Prov. 15:8). 

In the sacrifice, therefore, we must see the beginning and the principle of what later constituted the sanctuary. The altar was always an indispensable item in that sanctuary and its service. It was the only way by which communion and fellowship with God were possible. In and through the sacrifice the offerer approached God, consecrating himself in love to God and seeking to enter into and to taste His covenant fellowship. It is only in this light, too, that we must consider the element of atonement and blood in the sacrifice. Consecration to God in love and the fellowship of God are impossible for the sinner, except by way of atonement, the blotting out of the guilt of sin, and reconciliation.

Now Scripture records the following data concerning the offerings of Cain and Abel.

1.They both brought offerings to Jehovah.

2.Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground; Abel brought an offering of the firstlings of the flock.

3.Abel offered by faith (Heb. 11:4), and Cain, in unbelief.

4.Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice than did Cain, which can, in the light of Scripture, only refer to an absolute, not a relative, difference.

5.The Lord had respect unto Abel and his offering, not to Cain and his offering.

It is obvious that there was a fundamental difference between the two offerings. That difference, moreover, was not only a subjective difference, that is, a difference in the offerers and in the attitude in which they brought their offerings. It was also an objective difference, that is, a difference in the offerings themselves.

According to some, the difference between these offerings lay only in the inward attitude of heart in which Cain and Abel sacrificed. Abel's offering had its spiritual root in the love of God and was brought in faith. Cain's offering was not rooted in the love of God and was brought in unbelief. While this is true in itself, and is also of fundamental importance, it is not the whole truth. On this basis, it is only incidental that Abel brought of the firstlings of the flock and Cain of the fruit of the ground, the nature of their offerings being only a natural consequence of the nature of their respective occupations. But this cannot stand the test of the Scriptures, which certainly point to a difference, an objective difference, in the sacrifices themselves. Besides, this objective difference in the nature of the sacrifices stands in close connection with the faith or unbelief in which those sacrifices were brought.

The "more excellent" sacrifice of Abel arose from the spiritual principle of faith and of the love of God in Abel's heart. For this love would lead him to a consciousness of sin, and it would produce in him confession of sin and arouse in him the desire for reconciliation. His sacrifice was a confession before the Lord, "If I am to enter into Thy communion, I must first die!" Such was Abel's sacrifice in distinction from Cain's. It was a bloody sacrifice. It was a confession on his part that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins, and without the remission of sins it is impossible to enter into the covenant fellowship of the righteous and holy God. 

This is not to say that there was value in the blood of an animal as such. This is not true, and it could not have been true before Abel's consciousness. But by faith he in and through his offering clung to the promise of the seed that would overcome the serpent and crush his head in final victory. Thus, in obedience of faith he followed that form of offering clearly taught by God Himself when He made Adam and Eve coats of skins, covering their nakedness through blood.

Cain, as well as Abel, brought an offering to Jehovah. Bear in mind that Cain is not to be compared to the heathen of a later date, who bowed before man and beast and creeping things. No, but he surely is the man who knew God and refused to glorify Him as God. Certainly, Cain did not fear the Lord. He had no faith. He was filled with enmity against God. In that enmity and unbelief he brought his offering to Jehovah. "Without faith it is impossible to please God." 

But this unbelief also became manifest in the nature of his offering. Cain acted as if, on the basis of his own works and gifts, he could be pleasing to God. He knew neither God spiritually nor his own sin. Hence, in unbelief, he offered of the fruit of the ground, claiming for it, as a work on his part, meritorious value and a self-righteousness on the basis of which God the Lord would be obliged to accept him. Cain's offering is that of the self-righteous man of the world, who imagines that God ought to be pleased when he offers unto Him some of his possessions. It was a denial of the need for the remission of sins through shed blood.

There was, therefore, a radical spiritual difference between Cain and Abel, a difference which is to be traced to and which is a manifestation of that which the Lord announced in the protevangel. It is the difference between sin and grace, between light and darkness, between faith and unbelief, between reprobate and elect. This radical spiritual difference comes to its full manifestation in the sequel to these offerings and its climax in Cain's murder of Abel.

The Testimony Which They Received

The narrative of Genesis 4 continues by informing us, in verses 4, 5: "And the Lord had respect unto (literally: looked to, viewed) Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect." The words of Hebrews 11:4, that Abel "obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying with respect to his gifts," form an inspired commentary on the words of Genesis 4.

The Lord was well-pleased with Abel and his offering. We must notice that the text mentions both the offerer and the offering in this connection, with emphasis upon the former: the Lord had respect unto Abel only because of and through his offering.

To Cain and his offering, on the contrary, the Lord did not have respect. The Lord was displeased — and again, not only with the offering but also with the offerer. The offering of Cain was an abomination to the Lord. Thus, the Lord did not receive, but rejected, Cain through his offering.

Not only did the Lord assume a certain attitude toward Abel and Cain respectively, but this was also revealed. Abel received testimony that he was righteous. He was justified. He had the forgiveness of sins. He had the testimony of that eternal righteousness which implies that the sinner, wholly guilty in himself, worthy of condemnation, daily sinning and daily increasing his debt of guilt before God, is declared perfectly innocent, declared worthy of the favor of God, worthy to be received of God, the heir of everlasting life. 

The Lord maintained and fulfilled His promise! For we must remember that this was not a righteousness because of or on the ground of Abel's faith. Nor was it a righteousness on the ground of his offering as such. That offering of Abel typified the blood of Christ, the only ground of genuine righteousness before God. The faith of Abel was a faith which was the means, the God-given means, whereby he clung to that unseen and hoped for blood of Christ as the realization of God's promise. Abel, therefore, was righteous by the power of the promise.

Moreover, he received testimony of this fact, testimony that the Lord had respect unto him and to his offering, testimony that he was righteous, God testifying with respect to his gifts. Not only was Abel objectively righteous, but he also had the assurance of this righteousness. He received that assurance from God Himself.

This also implies that Cain had the very opposite testimony. He had the testimony that the Lord did not have respect unto him and his offering, that his own works were wicked, and that in his wickedness he could not be the object of God's favor, but only the proper object of His wrath.

There have been various conjectures as to how this testimony was conveyed. The text tells us of the fact, but it does not go into detail as to the manner. We do, however, have the statement of Hebrews 11 that God testified of Abel's gifts. Some have suggested that this became manifest in the smoke of Abel's offering ascending and the smoke of Cain's offering descending. Others have suggested that the offering of Abel was consumed, while the offering of Cain was not consumed. 

It is much better to understand, however, that this testimony came from God very objectively and clearly and directly. God spoke. He did so not by some vague sign or symbol, but He actually spoke His Word, testifying to the righteousness of Abel and his acceptance with God and to the unrighteousness of Cain and his rejection by God. This is the regular way of God's dealings: the objective testimony of His Word. Only at that time that Word of God came by direct speech. This is clearly suggested by Hebrews 11, and it is in full harmony with the context in Genesis 4. For immediately following the statement that God had respect unto Abel and his offering, but not to Cain and his offering, there is the statement that the Lord did indeed speak directly to Cain concerning the latter's anger. Why, then, should it be considered unlikely that this testimony concerning their offerings came by the same direct speech of God? On the contrary, this was the most likely manner, especially in that age when there were no Scriptures and when God frequently spoke in this direct fashion. 

Moreover, it was such a direct testimony of God which would also leave absolutely no doubt either with Abel or with Cain as to the status of each before God. Besides, in Cain's case there was added the plain testimony of Abel's believing and godly conversation. For do not forget that there was such a testimony of Abel: he stood for the cause of God and over against the wicked Cain, and he condemned the works of the latter. It was this testimony, in fact, which kindled Cain's murderous anger against his brother. For do not we read in I John 3 that Cain slew his brother because his own works were evil and his brother's were righteous? And does this not clearly imply that Cain apprehended the testimony of Abel and his works?

Thus, in both cases — that of Abel and that of Cain — there was the divine testimony: in Cain's case convicting him of sin, and in Abel's case assuring him of righteousness.

Cain's Murderous Anger

The reaction of Cain was that of anger, in verses 5, 6. He was morose. He was filled with bitterness, as is manifest from his fallen countenance. His anger, however, was wicked: it was not anger with himself, as it should have been. No, instead of being angry because of the wickedness of his own heart, he is filled with bitterness about the Lord's righteous dealings. His heart was hardened. He was angry at the Lord! This was the deepest nature of Cain's anger. It was not first of all anger against his brother Abel, but it was enmity against God.

Over against that anger of Cain the Lord maintains Himself and His justice, and He rebukes Cain. He does so not in His love, but in His wrath, for Cain must be left without excuse. "If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him." 

The thrust of these words is plain. Sin crouches like a wild beast at the door, in order to make thee its prey, Cain. To thee is sin's desire. If thou doest well, thou shalt rule over him and be righteous; but if not, he shall surely swallow thee up. Thus the purpose of this Word of God to Cain is certainly very clear. The Lord says in effect: "Why art thou angry, Cain? Certainly, thou canst not be angry because I, the Lord, am unjust. For he that doeth well is accepted with Me. This is an eternal principle of My justice. Thou oughtest not to be angry with Me, but with thyself. The guilt in this matter is thine, and thine anger is foolishly wicked." 

Or, as the Rev. G.M. Ophoff comments in this connection: "Thy wrath, Cain, is unreasonable, groundless, and uncalled for. For thou art angry with me, but thou shouldest be angry with thyself and praise my wrath. For thou doest not well. Thou tramplest the blood of my sacrifice and despisest the riches of my goodness and forbearance and longsuffering, and thou hatest thy righteous brother. Turn from thy evil way. Repent, and thou shalt be accepted of me. If thou repentest not, thou shalt come to grief, and the responsibility of the doom that awaits thee will be wholly thine. Be admonished. If thou restrain not thy wicked impulses, they will become mighty in thee, and in thy unbridled wrath thou wilt go from bad to worse and be driven by my curse into everlasting desolation. But the responsibility for thy doom shall be wholly thine. For thou shalt remain the subject, the ruler and director of thy vile impulses."

But Cain gave no heed. He went on in his ungodly anger. He was hardened. The same anger with which he was filled toward God also filled him toward his brother Abel, the seed of the woman, whose works in contrast with those of Cain were righteous.

The narrative does not indicate how much later it was when the events of verse 8 took place. It could not have been long: for Cain's anger burned within him. We read that "Cain talked with Abel his brother." It may be assumed that in this conversation Abel revealed himself as a righteous child of God, and Cain's ungodliness came to expression. When Cain's darkness is reproved and made manifest by the light, bitter resentment and thoughts of revenge begin to arise in his soul. God, however, Cain cannot reach, but Abel represents the cause of God. Upon Abel the wicked Cain wreaks his vengeance. He is stronger than Abel as far as brute strength is concerned. Besides, brute strength could be no proper weapon for the righteous Abel against his brother. Thus Cain kills his brother, causing the earth to drink Abel's blood as the first martyr in the cause of God in the midst of the world.

Thus the conflict of the two seeds comes to early and sharp manifestation. For we must remember that the murder of Abel was not mere murder or fratricide. The message of the Word of God does not deal with mere murders.

The Scriptures reveal to us the history of God's kingdom and covenant in the midst of the world. It tells us of the battle of the ages, the battle between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman, the battle of the righteous and of the wicked. In Cain and Abel and their history we have the first battle in that warfare of the centuries.

Outwardly, Cain has the victory in that battle, and Abel goes down to defeat. But by faith Abel is nevertheless the victor. He is the victor because God takes the part of His people. He is their covenant Friend, His blessing is upon His people, the seed of the woman, and His face is against the enemies of His people. Abel is the victor, too, because, though he was slain, he was slain into glory. Here, by the way, begins the history of heaven as far as saved humanity is concerned! Victorious is Abel, in the third place, because his blood cries to God from the ground. That cry is a cry for divine vengeance and justice. It is a cry that is surely heard — heard throughout the ages, and heard finally in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.