In Genesis 4:1-5 it says:
Adam was intimate with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain. She said, “I have had a male child with the Lord’s help.” Then she also gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel became a shepherd of flocks, but Cain worked the ground. In the course of time Cain presented some of the land’s produce as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also presented an offering — some of the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions. The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but He did not have regard for Cain and his offering. Cain was furious, and he looked despondent.
Have you ever stopped to wonder why Abel’s sacrifice to the Lord was accepted while Cain’s wasn’t? Was it because Abel offered something more acceptable to he Lord than his brother?
Since the narrative passage describing the series of events in Genesis is remarkably short, it does look as though God didn’t tell Cain and Abel in exacting detail what type of offering to bring, and so instead of telling them beforehand what was acceptable, he used the occasion of their sacrifice to make his will known.
In this light, God looks capricious and unstable, but is this so?
A common question when one looks at Genesis 4 in isolation, is how could Cain have offered a more pleasing sacrifice? Typical responses include that perhaps he could have traded with his brother for an animal to sacrifice, or he could have offered the best of his crops instead of just some of his crops.
While the “obvious” answer from the text in Genesis is that God likes animal sacrifices and dislikes plant offerings, is that really the answer?
To find out what was really going on here, we need to use something called the “analogy of faith.” Simply put, the analogy of faith means to let scripture interpret scripture.
Let’s start by first by looking at the Bible and determining whether or not God dislikes plant offerings.
In Leviticus 23:10-11 God, speaking to Moses said:
Speak to the Israelites and tell them: When you enter the land I am giving you and reap its harvest, you are to bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest. He will wave the sheaf before the Lord so that you may be accepted; the priest is to wave it on the day after the Sabbath.
From this passage we see that God doesn’t automatically dislike plant offerings, so that’s not it.
Thankfully, Genesis 4 isn’t the only place that Scripture speaks about Abel. In Hebrews 11:4 it says:
By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was approved as a righteous man, because God approved his gifts, and even though he is dead, he still speaks through his faith.
The verse in Hebrews explains that Abel’s sacrifice was more pleasing to God because of his faith. It wasn’t because his sacrifice was in any way better than the one offered by Cain, instead it was because he offered it in faith, and because of his faith that he was counted as righteous.
The question of whether Cain could have traded some of his produce for some of Abel’s livestock and then made an acceptable offering of them is moot since it wasn’t the content of Abel’s offering to God that was important, instead it was his condition of faith. To put it more directly, even if Cain had offered exactly the same sacrifice as Abel, it still would have been rejected because he was without faith. It wasn’t Cain’s actions that damned him, it was his lack of faith.
In Jesus’s day there were many, called Pharisees, who strived to fulfill the very letter of God’s law. That they were deemed to be without grace was not because their works failed to measure up but because they, like Cain, lacked faith, and clung to their good works as their righteousness.
Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable to God because he clung to the Gospel of Jesus Christ for his righteousness, even though he knew far less of it than you or I.
There are no works that we can add to make ourselves more worthy. As dead sinners our only hope of righteous in the sight of God is to cling to the finished work of Jesus Christ.