In Genesis 4:2-5 we read about the the sacrifices of Cain and Abel: “Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering,  but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” What was it that made Cain’s sacrifice unacceptable? It seems that we see grain offerings and first fruit offerings pleasing to God in the Bible so what caused God to disregard Cain’s offering?

I think the answer is found in the way the translators of the English Standard Version handle verse 2. Abel was a “keeper” of sheep. I believe he recognized that the sheep were not his but were something that God had given him. He might feed them and care for them but  only God can produce them. As Abel saw them, they were resources entrusted in his care by God. On the other hand, Cain was a “worker”of the ground. You only get from the ground what you sow into it. It was hard work because the ground had been cursed in the previous chapter requiring the labor of sweat to produce its yield. As Cain saw them, they were the wages of his own hard work with which he expected to earn God’s favor. The problem with Cain’s approach is that he thought he could earn or deserve God’s favor by making a sacrifice from the works of his own hands. But according to Isaiah 64:6 all of our “righteous deeds are as filthy rags” to God. I expect Cain’s spirit was a proud and boastful one and thus when his sacrifice was not regarded as highly as Abel’s  he became angry. It is clear in Ephesians 2:8-9 that we are saved “by grace alone and not by works” so that no one has any reason to boast. Abel simply gave back to God what God had given him. Cain brought the crops which he saw as the product of his own labor.

I often feel that if I give God something I can earn favor with God. But once again I see that it’s not about what I do for God or give to Him. It’s all about what He did and what He gave to me.  When Abraham was ready to offer His own son as a sacrifice God stopped him. God did not want Abraham to believe He had to give something to God but rather God Himself provided the sacrifice by way of the sheep caught in the bushes near by. It was this lamb that Abraham offered on the Altar at Mount Moriah. And as John the Baptist made perfectly clear Jesus was “the lamb of God that would take away the sins of the world.” It was this lamb that was offered as our sacrifice on Mt. Moriah years later.  With new meaning I sing, “nothing in my hand I bring, solely to the cross I cling.”