We were discussing Cain’s sacrifice in Genesis 4 in class recently, and some suggested that Cain’s “vegetable” offering was what God wanted, but Cain just did not give his “best.” My answer was that he and Abel should have offered the same thing (i.e., an animal sacrifice); however, I cannot prove that to be so.
Though there is no explicit explanation in the Genesis narrative as to why God rejected Cain’s offering, it seems to me that the cumulative evidence in this case argues that Cain’s transgression consisted of more than just offering an inferior gift. Here are my reasons:
Abel’s Gift: “More Excellent”
While the adjective pleion (rendered “more excellent”) basically means greater, either in quantity or quality, it can also denote that which is superior by reason of inward worth. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that life is more than food; an intrinsic factor is in view.
There may be, therefore, a suggestion here that involves the nature of the gift offered (see below). As in any case, however, the context of Hebrews 11:4 will have to determine the meaning of the word in that setting.
Abel’s Gift: “By Faith”
When the expression “by faith” is employed in Hebrews 11:4ff with reference to the great characters of the Old Testament, it connotes the concept of obedience time and time again.
Verse eight explicitly says what the other passages imply, “By faith Abraham . . . obeyed.” This principle becomes even more vivid when one compares the examples of Hebrews 11 with their Old Testament background.
For instance, “By faith Noah . . . prepared an ark” (v. 7), which, as Moses shows in the Genesis narrative, means he was strictly obedient to the divine instructions (Genesis 6:22). To offer by faith was to offer in harmony with sacred revelation (cf. Romans 10:17), rather than the exercise of human “will-worship” (Colossians 2:23).
The fact that these brothers apparently brought their offerings at the same time may suggest that a heavenly instruction had been given. In view of the surrounding context, therefore, it appears that Cain’s sin was one of outright disobedience, not merely a weakness in giving that which was inferior.
Abel’s Gift: Pleased God
The narrative in Genesis 4 leaves the impression that the type of offering made was the determining factor that brought God’s favor upon Abel, but not upon Cain. If the offering made was on account of sin (and the text does not explicitly say), then it would be reasonable to assume that a blood offering had been required (cf. Hebrews 9:22). This could account for the Lord’s displeasure.
The comments of Professor Ralph Earle, in my judgment, are helpful here. He notes one idea regarding this matter:
Cain brought a bloodless offering, and thus offended Deity by posing as righteous and not in need of any sacrifice for sin. This theory has strong theological appeal. It assumes previous divine instruction as to what type of offering must be brought for making atonement for sin. There is indication that such a revelation had been given by the use of the verb form in Gen. 4:3 that can mean customary action (2003, 284).
And so, while it may be the case that Abel’s offering was of a better quality than his brother’s, it seems likely that there was a greater intensity of disobedience on Cain’s part than possibly selfishness (offering a less valuable gift).
When Jude places Cain in a catalog of vile rebels, he seems to confirm our view of the character of Adam’s first child (Jude 11).
See also: Why Was Cain’s Sacrifice Rejected?