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.