Did God Disapprove of Cain’s Offering?

In a recent comment I was asked if I spent much time reading the Bible. I won’t lie, I was a little offended, but it is true that my blog focuses more on biblical studies than on the Bible. Today in my Bible class, we began discussing Genesis 4 and I was surprised how much interest there was in insisting that God must have disapproved of Cain’s offering. So here is the essence of the interpretive options I pursued in class. Who knows, maybe I will try to digest a few more in the coming weeks in an effort to include more interpretive material on my blog. I would appreciate any feedback or comments!

In Genesis 4:1-5, we are introduced to the two sons of the man and his wife Eve, Cain and Abel. Cain tills the ground while Abel herds the sheep.

And it happened in the course of time that Cain brought from the fruit of the soil an offering to the LORD, and Abel too had brought from the choice firstlings of his flock, and the LORD regarded Abel and his offering but He did not regard Cain and his offering (unless otherwise noted, translations come from Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary).

Growing up, I always assumed that there was something about Cain’s offering that God disapproved of. In particular, I thought it significant that Abel was described as bringing the “choice firstlings” (בְּכֹרוֹת) while Cain only brought “from the fruit of the soil,” not the “firstfruits” (רֵאשִׁית ) of the soil. Naturally, this lends itself to a good sermon about bringing our best to God (or, if you are in Churches of Christ, that God doesn’t like instrumental music in worship . . . lol), but just because one particular way of interpreting a passage preaches well does not mean it is a sound interpretation.

It is interesting the fact that the text does not explore why it is that YHWH regards Abel and his offering but not Cain and his offering. If there is a reason, specifically some deficiency in Cain’s offering, the reader will necessarily have to assume this. But why assume that Cain has done something wrong or inferior to Abel? Perhaps this is fueled by our own discomfort with the type of God presented in the Bible and our incessant need to make excuses for him. After all, what would it say about YHWH if he, for no good reason, accepted a sacrifice from Abel but not from Cain?

But then again, maybe that is the point. Maybe Cain’s anger is indicative of the way in which the ancient writers understood people  to respond to the type of God YHWH is. After all, does not God choose Isaac over Ishmael? Jacob over Esau? Joseph over his brothers? And for what reason(s)? Perhaps the Cain and Abel story functions in the text to introduce this aspect of YHWH.

Cain, incensed over YHWH’s disregard, allows his countenance to fall. So YHWH responds to Cain,

Why are you incensed, and why is your face fallen? For whether you offer well, or whether you do not, at the tent flap sin crouches, and for you is its longing, but you will rule over it.

This is a problematic verse to translate, and one that I am not sure Alter has done adequate justice to. English translations following the legacy of the King James (e.g. RSV, NRSV, NIV, NASB, ESV) translate the first clause of verse 7 along these lines: “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” I find this highly interpretive, and highly problematic. It suggests that Cain has not done well, and that as a result, YHWH has not accepted him. All Cain need do is to do well (i.e. offer a good sacrifice) and YHWH will regard him. Alter avoids this interpretation, but he does so by completely omitting the problematic phrase, literally “will not be lifted up?” Or, as the JPS translation says, “Surely, if you do right, There is uplift.” Of course, this is a somewhat awkward way of phrasing the verse. Though I am aware that the rendering I am about to provide is itself interpretive, I believe it is to be favored above other options (cf. HALOT 9032, 1. b.).

If you do well, will your countenance not be lifted?

In response to YHWH’s apparently arbitrary decision to show regard to Abel and his offering and not to Cain and his offering, Cain has allowed his countenance to fall, and he is now vulnerable to the (animal?) instincts of sin. How will Cain respond to this quality of YHWH that he finds so infuriating? He can either respond well and his countenance be lifted, or he can not respond well. In a resolutely Pelagian fashion (which is ironic given that this text occurs immediately following “the fall”–an interpretation to which I do not subscribe), YHWH suggests that Cain can “rule over” sin. Of course, those familiar with the story know he fails to do so, murdering his brother whose life is but a vapor in the narrative (hence the reason his name literally means vapor).

From a biblical theological perspective, I believe it reasonable to see Paul developing this thought extensively in 1 Corinthians 12:13-25. In summary, YHWH does not disapprove of Cain or his offering, he simply does not have regard of Cain and his offering. This introduces the reader to a characteristic about YHWH more fully developed in the larger story told in Genesis.


24 thoughts on “Did God Disapprove of Cain’s Offering?

  1. I can’t help you out with the original story but I’ll point out that the writer of “To the Hebrews” says that it was a faithful act for Abel to offer his prize flock animal, which we are to presume is a heck of a lot more of a sacrifice than is left over zucchini:

    Heb 11:4 By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent [much costlier] sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh.

  2. Yes, the author of the letter to the Hebrews describes Abel as having acted “by faith,” describing Abel’s sacrifice as “πλείονα θυσίαν” than Cains. To suggest that it was costlier is highly interpretive. What the author is saying is that it was comparatively better, but I am not convinced that it was better because of something intrinsic in the offering itself. I think that would undermine the point the author is making, that Abel’s offering, being “by faith,” is better than Cain’s (which he thus implies was not offered “by faith”).

    However, methodologically I find it problematic to use this verse to dictate how the original story must be read. It would be like saying that we must ignore the unstable faith of Abraham so plain in Genesis in light of the fact that Paul says “he did not waver in faith when he considered his own body” (Rom 4:19). We must understand these individuals (Paul and the author of the letter to the Hebrews) as interpreters, but not ones who provide a definitive or final interpretation of the texts they interact with. For more on this, consult Peter Enns’ contribution to Zondervan’s Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. He has been the most influential force in shaping my thinking on this issue.

  3. >>>…However, methodologically I find it problematic to use this verse to dictate how the original story must be read….

    Which is why I said what I said. Please re-read my post.

    1. This qualification was not necessarily intended for you. I just wanted to make clear for any who read the post and comments that I do not believe it methodologically sound to allow a NT interpreter’s interpretation to finalize how we approach the interpretation of an OT text they interact with. Since the subject came up, I wanted to address it.

  4. You are quite right that Genesis 4:6-7 is difficult to understand and translate. And one need only look at the variations in the Hebrew, Greek LXX, and Aramaic targum to see that the confusion goes back some time.

    I think the verb s’eit (“if you do well, s’eit”), which generally means “lift up,” contrasts with nafal (“fall”) in the previous verse: Cain’s “countenance fell.” As always, nuances are difficult to discern, but we know from here and elsewhere that “countenance nafal” is bad.

    I agree that “be accepted” is an unwarranted leap.

    NAB translates, “hold up your head,” which is probably along the right lines.

    Regarding your suggestion, “If you do well, will your countenance not be lifted?” my first question is what you think that means? The first step of translation is to figure out what the ancient text means; only then can a suitable modern translation be found. I don’t know what “countenance be lifted” means in English.

    (While we’re on the topic, Rashi — essentially in keeping with an obscure collection of midrash called agadat shir hashirim — suggests that fire burnt Cain’s offering. Rashi is answering the unasked question, “how did Cain know that God rejected his sacrifice?”)

    1. I intended to convey the contrast between s’eit and nafal by rendering verse 7a as “If you do well, will your countenance not be lifted?” So I very much agree with how you see s’eit functioning. Perhaps, though, you are right that this rendering does not really lend itself to such a meaning today. Proceeding along the lines that the “lifting up” contrasts with the “falling of the face,” how might we convey this contrast suitably in translation?

      “And YHWH said to Cain, ‘Why have you become angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will it not be lifted up?'”

  5. Joseph,
    You are correct concerning the MT text of Gen 4.4 – 7. I would like to point your attention to the LXX of Gen 4.4 – 7. This may be the background for the writer of Hebrews. Twice in the verse 7, the LXX uses the term orthws “rightly” in connection with Cain’s sacrifice.
    Grace and peace

    1. Clint, you are right that the LXX has the key to the interpretation in Hebrews, but I think it is in the use of the verb προσενεγκης, “you bring,” not ορθως, the adverb modifying the verb. Furthermore, why does YHWH in the LXX accuse Cain of not dividing correctly (ὀρθῶς δὲ μὴ διέλῃς)? The author of Hebrews is much more likely to derive his interpretation from the LXX than from the MT!

  6. Certainly plausible, Joseph and does connect well with the older/younger tension throughout the OT. The problem I think with this view is that it disregards the perspective of those who were originally reading this text, an Israelite somewhere between the monarchy to the post-exile… depending on other presuppositions. Taken this into account, I think, gives a substantial answer to why the text doesn’t specificially say God was angry with Cain: because it was obvious. Much in OT narrative, as you know, remains unstated because it was just assumed. Nonetheless, this is a problem that will never be solved.

  7. Based on all of the Hebrew characters on your site, I’m inclined to think that your concern is “unpacking” the Hebrew text, rather than interpreting the LXX or the NT, yes?

    If so, is it possible that the implicit value of the best of one’s flock over a few leftover Zucchini, might be obvious to the reader?

    If I told a story, such as “The Gift of the Magi” about a woman who gave the hair off her head for her husband, would I need an explicit statement that the gift was costly, and thus precious? Likewise, isn’t the value of one’s longest cared-for sheep a given?

  8. My primary concern is with the MT, although I agree with Rob that the LXX is not an irrelevant hermeneutical tool. That being said, the LXX does not settle the case, as Rob recognizes.

    As I have meditated over this story since I first wrote about it, a few other things have come to mind. In particular is the theology that urges us to find a problem with Cain’s sacrifice. While we can safely say in the context of the HB that bad sacrifices secure negative consequences, it is not the case that good sacrifices secure positive consequences. A theology of manipulation should not be read into the text of Genesis. The story is not about the consequences that we face when we act poorly, but rather about our response to otherwise inscrutable divine action. This is the heart of verses 6-7. Doing well and not doing well do not refer to future sacrifices, but the future (re)actions regarding YHWH’s decision. How sound is our theology if we believe this scenario would not take place had Cain brought the firstfruits of the ground? We have missed they very crucial contribution of the Writings if we fail to grasp that such a detail would not necessarily change this story.

    Furthermore, the verb that describes YHWH’s regard for Abel is only used with YHWH as the subject and a human as the object two other times in the Hebrew Bible, Job 7:19; 14:6. In these passages, Job, the object of YHWH’s regard, does not want this regard. It represents that which bring trouble upon the object of YHWH’s regard, just as it does in Genesis. In the context of divine election, the word functions well. This election is both valuable but costly, desired but detestable. Of course, Genesis 4 is less about the elect and more about the non-elect (as opposed to the un-elect).

    I have not yet had the opportunity to thoroughly survey Christian commentaries (there is no Jewish interpretation of this sort, however), but I did check Brueggemann’s Interpretation commentary with rich results:

    “Verses 3-5 set the story and define the plot. The worship of Yahweh is presumed (v.26 notwithstanding). Both brothers do what is appropriate. Both bring there best. Both had reason to anticipate acceptance. There is nothing to indicate that God must discrimitate or prefer one to the other. There is no hint or rivalry or hostility. This is simply a family at worship.

    The trouble comes not from cain, but from Yahweh, the strange God of Israel. Inexplicable, Yahweh chooses–accepts and rejects. Conventional interpretation is too hard on Cain and too easy on Yahweh. It is Yahweh who transforms a normal report into a life/death story for us and about us. Essential to the plot is the capricious freedom of Yawheh. Like the narrator, we must resist every effort to explain it. There is nothing here of Yahweh preferring cowboys to farmers. There is nothing here to disqualify Cain. Calvin and others after him malign Cain and give reason for his rejection, thus introducing moral dimension into the incident. But when Calvin does so, he knows more than the text. The rejection of Cain is not reasoned but is a necessary premise for the story. Life is unfair. God is free.”

    1. On Brueggemann: maybe. But you really didn’t need to cite him because the post in general speaks of Brueggemann without naming him.

      Could you provide a few examples in the OT where a genuine sacrifice does not produce positive results?

      Also, I’m not sure if it’s about a good sacrifice or not—probably a more interesting study is a theology of offering your “first _____.”

      Also, I didn’t mean to limit my suggestion to the LXX as a hermeneutical tool, but also how the earliest Israelites who had access ot Gen 4 would have understood it. Meaning, whoever wrote this thing down from its oral form, would they have assumed a problem with Cain’s sacrifice. To not consider this seems on the extreme of postmodern interpretation. But then again, maybe that’s where you are at hermeneutically. If so, I certainly don’t fault you, but the question then turns to the hermeneutical one.

      Nonetheless, thanks for the post and the follow up comment. On a side note, I read an interesting Feminist perspective on this (Gen 4) in Union Theological Jounral about a year ago… though I don’t remember which year it was published. You might have a look. It’s not where I’m at but it was interesting.

      1. Well, the Brueggemann quote was something I came across after having written the above post. I was not sure who if anyone had articulated what I had written, and I was pleased to see that Brueggemann had indeed shared my suspicions regarding the text.

        No matter what interpretation you adopt, you are assuming something about which details are going to be most hermeneutically operative. I find the attention to detail in Abel’s sacrifice interesting, but ultimately hermeneutically empty. I don’t know that one could argue that same would not be true for an early Israelite encountering the text. This would need to be established, not assumed.

        I will be on the lookout for the article you mention. I assume you are talking about the journal Interpretation?

  9. Perhaps this is, as you say, an amoral story. Perhaps the message is, “YHVH is weird!” Perhaps Cain is offered as the “patron saint” of “murder in response to divine injustice”.

    I think that such a story would be better told with Cain offering the better gift, and *still* being rejected, while the lesser gift was received.

    Does the Hebrew read as a future prediction, or as a gnomic reality when it says:

    “If you do good, will you not be lifted”? Could “lifted” refer to God “receiving” the offering?

    1. I am more persuaded that the lifting is the reversal of the falling mentioned in the text. Again, because “not doing well” seems to be related to something other than a future sacrifice (i.e. killing Abel), I do not believe that doing well should be understood any differently.

  10. Well I will now over simplify this, I’m no theologist nor even well read in the Bible but I am a parent and couldn’t this be as obvious as normal parenting? Just as all of us are God’s children and He is simply doing what any parent does and pleases the youngest sibling first to prevent childish responses. Like any parent he accepts the “baby’s” offering and consoled the eldest by telling him to grow up (rule over it).

    1. There are a couple of issues that I think challenge what you are suggesting. First, “father/son” language is not used of YHWH and Cain and Abel. Rather, Adam is the only father figure insofar as the text is concerned. Second, the book of Genesis is not consistent regarding fatherly favoritism (Abraham favoring Ishmael; Isaac favoring Esau; Joseph favoring Manasseh) or the younger (Jacob favoring Joseph; Jacob favoring Ephraim). God’s “favoritism” (if it is appropriate to call it that) of the younger son is consistent yet mysterious in the book of Genesis, and this contributes to the consistent yet mysterious understanding that YHWH chose Israel over all other nations to be his particular people.

  11. Hmmm. Something about this discussion gave birth to a thought for me: All this discussion of older/younger, i.e. newer older. There might be something to that? New testament/old testament. The householder bringing out of his bag things, some old and some new? The tension between new ideas and old knowledge. And so-on.

    Not that I am trying to make this the central theme of the text, just that, for me there seems to be this nuance, this minor subplot, lurking around in the background.

  12. I may read the Bible like a mystery novel ,looking for clues but this is my theory. I think the hebrews all would have known Cain’s sin. Cain was a traitor. The reason I came to this conclusion is because there was extensive hostility between the nomadic herdsmen and the settled people who farmed. That he also killed his brother Abel was just throwing gasoline on the fire to the story. The reason I said they would view him as a traitor is that he must have left his tribe to join a settlement to have become a farmer. So they would understand that easily. God was first and foremost a god of the Hebrews and and would be more accepptting of their knowledge of a proper sacrifice. You see on numerous occasions altercations over wells for example. You get reminded of this later when Joseph cautions his father Jacob not to call himself a sheppard but to say he’d raised cattle from his youth because the Egyptians hated shepards. They no doubt saw them as raiders. The herdsman needed open ranges and water and their lives were becoming more difficult by the day. Some would have given up and joined settlements and when altercations arose perhaps out of desperation to water their flocks they may well have fought some of there own ex-tribesmen even brother against brother. Later their revenge for Abel came when they conquered Caanan. Keep in mind all these oral traditions were only compiled sometime after Moses and people would tend to view Cain and Abel in their own time frame.

  13. Didn’t God already give a precedent? When Adam and Eve sinned God slaughtered animals to clothe them (cover their sin). So the reason Cain’s sacrifice was not accepted was because it did not follow God’s formula of acceptable sacrifice. You also see throughout the Bible the use of animal sacrifice. Ultimately leading to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as the Lamb of God to cover our sins.

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