“So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard” (Genesis 4: 3-5).
Cain and Abel were Adam and Eve’s first two children after the fall. “Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground” (Verse 2). Both brought offerings to the Lord of what they had toiled for. They were the first people who had to toil for their sustenance. Their parents before them didn’t have to do that: their food was provided by God. While they were in the Garden of Eden, they could eat freely “from any tree” (Genesis 2:16) except one ‒ “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. They had to cultivate and keep the garden, but not to work in toil and sweat for their bread and they didn’t have or need to bring offerings to the Lord. Cain and Abel did. Why? There is no record of God commanding them to do that, so obviously they willed it themselves.
There had been no birth or death in the Garden of Eden. Now Cain (under God’s instruction or additionally acquired knowledge from practice) had planted plants in the ground, had waited for them to grow and give fruit and had decided to offer some of it to God. Abel had seen how some of his cattle had become pregnant and given birth to baby cattle, had watched them grow and had also decided to offer some of them to God. So the two brothers had seen something that their parents hadn’t seen: the birth and growth of some of God’s creation. But Adam and Eve had seen one thing which their sons hadn’t seen yet: the killing and death of the animal whose skin God used to clothe their nakedness (Gen. 3:21). Adam and Eve had the fruits of the creation which God had prepared for them for an existence without curse and death which they were to accept (or reject) while exercising their free will by obeying (or disobeying) God’s order to not eat “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” which God had chosen to visibly demonstrate by making them naked (He could have created them clothed or with no need to be clothed, couldn’t He?)!
I don’t know what it cost God to create the world and us, but looking at it all I believe it must have been quite an effort, and Cain and Abel had come to realize some of that effort in order to feel urged to take some of what they had produced and give it to the Lord in recognition of His contribution and as an expression of their thankfulness and future dependence on Him. For if God had not created the Earth and the mechanism of reproduction and growth of all living things, there would have existed nothing at all. This is true for all of us: We all use what’s God’s and produce something with it ‒ materially or spiritually or both. This is the only way in which we function: bringing offerings to God. The big question is what we do and how we acknowledge and honor God’s contribution to all this. Both Cain and Abel gave offerings to God, but their offerings were not the same. Cain gave “of the fruit of the ground” and Abel gave of the firstborns of his flock. Now, “the ground” is one of the two things which the Lord God had cursed after the fall (the serpent being the other):
“Cursed is the ground because of you [Adam];
In toil you will eat of it
All the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you;
And you will eat the plants of the field;
By the sweat of your face
You will eat bread,
Till you return to the ground,
Because from it you were taken;
For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:17b-19).
Cain chose to devote his life’s efforts to toiling the cursed ground and he offered to God some of its produce. Did he know that he would displease God? Did he do that deliberately or out of ignorance? Now, if I knew that something is cursed, I would say, “I don’t want to do anything with it”. But if, for some reason, I have to do with it, I would not want to use its cursed product or give it as a present to anyone I love. In a way we all have to deal with the cursed ground; we can’t escape from that, living on it. The question is: Do we devote all our efforts to that or do we sometimes lift up our eyes and look at and do something which is not part of the cursed ground? Abel did that. He chose to engage in cattle breeding and bring God an offering from that. Did he know he would please God and did he want to please Him? Abel had the same parents and the same family upbringing as Cain. He could have chosen to do the same thing as his brother, but he chose differently and I believe he did that because he wanted to please God and because he liked it that way.
The fruit of the ground can only feed another living being, whereas an animal can provide for many more needs including covering nakedness. Abel’s offering showed that he had learned a lot about God. He had listened well to what his parents had told him about their life with the Lord in the Garden of Eden: its meaning, its beauty, its bountifulness; the way his father gave names to all the animals; the way his mother came into being; the choice between the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; the results of their disobeying God’s preventive command; the way God dealt with the problem of his parents’ nakedness… He knew how their life had changed since then and he could make a comparison… Maybe he chose to breed animals because he hoped he could raise something that God would use to solve the newly arisen problems…
I have never raised an animal; I have only grown plants. I love doing this and I don’t like doing the other thing. Do you know why? Because breeding animals is a lot harder than growing plants. Animals are like babies. They never grow and never stop being dependent on you. When my first child was born, I almost didn’t sleep the first night; I couldn’t stop gazing at the new being that had come into the world in such a wonderful way. My daughter is a grown woman now and I can’t imagine a day in my life without her. I guess Abel felt the same way about the first animal he bred, and then about all the other firsts “after their kind”. It is very hard to lose something or somebody you have and love, but Abel decided to give to God what he loved the most: the firstborns of his animals when they had grown enough to have “fat portions”. By doing this he acknowledged: The right of God as a Creator and Sustainer to have the best portion of His creations’ labors; his appreciation of the effort God had put into the making of the whole world; his desire to please God; his dependence on God. He knew that the animals had to die, but he also knew the effect of that death: a shame taken away. Maybe at that moment he didn’t know that very soon he would also die and become an offering as a “firstling” of God’s flock, pointing to the Firstling Jesus Christ whose “skin” covers the shame of sin of all of us… He did what he thought was right and pleasing to God. And God accepted his offering.