Immediately after the fall of humanity recorded in Genesis 3, the story moves to the next generation of the human race. It’s the story of Cain and Abel. Yet in this chapter, there is no mention of a deceptive serpent. Humans have been so infected with the poison of sin that they are now perfectly capable of deceiving themselves. Deception now resides in the heart.
The conflict between Cain and Abel is the first manifestation of the struggle foretold in Genesis 3:15. These brothers embody the controversy between good and evil that will take up the biblical story till the end. In Genesis 4, the focus lies in how humans choose to relate to God. But this is not a story about believers and unbelievers. Both Abel and Cain acknowledge that God merits their worship; both bring an offering and both approach the altar. Here we have two professed worshipers—very different worshipers.
The text tells us that “Abel brought of the firstborn of his flock” (Genesis 4:4). He offered to God his best. This was an act of faith. By giving God his firstborn, he was also consecrating to God his second, third, etc. It was an expression that God deserves the best we have and that He comes first in our priorities. Our decision regarding that which is most valuable to us is what reveals our relation to God.
When it comes to Cain, the text doesn’t say that he brought the first fruits of his crops. That omission is telling. We are only vaguely informed that “in the process of time” Cain gathered enough to bring God an offering. I get the impression that he made sure he had enough for himself before taking God’s offering into consideration. So he approached the altar on his own terms and expected God to be happy with whatever he felt like bringing. God was pleased with Abel’s offering, but had no regard for Cain’s.
…he approached the altar on his own terms and expected God to be happy with whatever he felt like bringing.
The issue of offerings in this story reveals important things about the heart. It demonstrates how an individual thinks of God and the place God holds in a person’s life. This point will continually surface throughout the Old Testament narrative. In Malachi 1 we find God still dealing with this. In response to the pathetic leftover offerings that the religious leaders are bringing to Him, the Lord says: “Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” (Malachi 1:8).
Those are strong words. They are a wakeup call because in everyone of our hearts there is Cain and Abel going to battle. How important is God to us? What place does He hold in our lives? Our offerings come in a wide range of ways. Regarding our time, are we merely bringing to God our leftovers? What about our energy, attention, money, etc. What do our offerings say about our God?
For many generations later, Abel’s legacy was that “he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4). May we shun the Cain in all of us that puts God secondary, and may we follow in the way of Abel in enthroning God in our hearts and exalting Him by the quality of what we bring to His altar.
From where do we gather the motivation and the commitment for such a life? As Paul put it, “For the love of Christ compels us… He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again” (2 Corinthians 5:14, 15). God Himself is the ultimate giver. In the person of Jesus Christ, God emptied the treasures of heaven and gave the ultimate offering.