More often than not, the explanation for this particular enigmatic passage of Scripture always seems to focus on a distinction between the quality of the two offerings that the brothers gave. Most of the preaching that I have heard on this subject boils down to the idea that Abel gave of the “firstlings” and “fat” of his flock (v. 4), while Cain simply gave “an offering” unto the Lord. The interpretation is that Abel gave his best and Cain gave what was left over. The lesson inferred, of course, is that we must be careful to give our offerings (that is, money) of our “firstlings and fat” (that is, lots of money) to God (that is, to the specific ministry of the preacher giving the message).
While such an interpretation might be conducive to filling collection plates, I honestly do not see that the text lends itself to such an analysis. Certainly there are no adjectives given when Cain’s offering is mentioned; the words “juiciest”, “choicest”, and “ripest” do not appear in the narrative. But the words, “And Abel, he also brought…” are included. The context would seem to indicate a parity between the quality of the two. I personally do not believe that it was the writer’s intention to suggest that Cain was guilty of “cherry-picking” the best fruits for himself. The deficiency with Cain’s offering wasn’t that he was giving God shriveled grapes and freckled bananas, the problem went much deeper.
They Knew What God Expected
The first, and perhaps most crucial, thing that we should understand is that the two brothers were not acting on their own initiative when they brought their offerings to the Lord. They weren’t just bringing a “gift” to God simply because they loved Him. God was not acting like a partial parent who plays favorites with their kids. “In the process of time” they brought their offerings. Process of what time? The time appointed by God to bring their offerings. God had given them specific instructions on how this was to be carried out. The writer to the Hebrews says that Abel acted out of faith when he brought a more excellent sacrifice (Heb. 11:4) to God. Faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17), you cannot act in faith based on something that you have never been told! Even though we do not have it in the text, God must have given the brothers instructions and consequently held them accountable for obeying what He had told them.
The Problem Was With Cain Himself
We can find the first clue to why Cain and his offering were rejected if we look carefully at the very first verse that mentions him:
“And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD.” (Gen. 4:1)
God had said that from the woman would come a “seed” that would crush the devil underfoot (Gen. 3:15). Therefore, when Cain was born, she exclaimed, “I have that seed, here he is!” The name Cain itself means, “Possession.” Her thought was that she had been given the promised seed in her firstborn son. Can you imagine the doting that must have gone on in that house? I am not saying that Eve was to blame for Cain’s behavior, but I am certain that she didn’t help matters. She was so fond of Cain and so adoring of him that she named her second son Abel, meaning a “vapor” or “breath.” She really considered him to be a nobody. Cain grew up to be a man filled with pride, he saw no need for salvation himself, he thought that he was the savior!
It is interesting to note that Abel was a shepherd in a time before people had begun to eat meat (Gen. 9:3). His only purposes for keeping the sheep was for sacrifice and the wool that they provided. It is very likely that God had instructed both men to bring a sheep from Abel’s flock (it is certainly reasonable to assume that Abel ate of the fruit that Cain gathered, as well) for a burnt offering. Yet Cain brought the works of his own hands to God. He was relying on who he thought he was and his own works to make him acceptable to the Lord. God has never accepted anyone on this basis, and He still doesn’t today.