CAIN AND HIS OFFERING
BRUCE K. WALTKE
Partially because of the laconic style in which the Cain and Abel
story1 is told and partially because of prejudgments, scholars are
divided in their opinions why God rejected Cain's offering. This
essay aims to answer that question.2
Prejudging that our story reflects the development of Israelite
religion, Skinner proposed that the story represents an early stage
of Israelite religion in which animal sacrifice alone was acceptable
to Yahweh. He explained: "It is quite conceivable that in the early
days of the
the Israelites that the animal offerings of their nomadic religion were
superior to the vegetable offerings made to the Canaanite Baals."3
Disregarding the unity of Genesis and ignoring God's mandate that
Adam, the representative man, till the ground (2:5; 3:23), Gunkel
claimed: "This myth indicates that God loves the shepherd and the
offering of flesh, but as far as the farmer and the fruits of the field
are concerned, He will have none of them."4 Cassuto, by contrast,
perceptively compared this story with the Creation story and the
Garden of Eden story.
There is a kind of parallel here to what was stated in the previous chapters:
the raising of sheep corresponds to the dominion over the living creatures
referred to in the story of Creation (i 26, 28), and the tilling of the ground
1 For an excellent commentary on the Cain and Abel story see "Cain and
Abel" in The New Media Bible Times 1/3 (published by the Genesis Project,
2 For the function of offerings see Claus Westermann, Genesis (BKAT 1; 3
vols.; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1974-82) 1.401f.
3 John Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis (ICC; Edin-
burgh: T. & T. Clark, 1910) 106.
4 Hermann Gunkel,
and erklart (
Ruprecht, 1922) 43.
is analogous to what we are told at the beginning and the end of the story
of the Garden of Eden (ii 5, iii 23).5
Some orthodox commentators, coming to the text with the pre-
judgment that fallen man may approach offended God only through
blood, think that God rejected Cain's sacrifice because it was blood-
less. Candlish, for example, wrote: "To appear before God, with
whatever gifts, without atoning blood, as Cain did--was infidelity.6
This writer comes to the text with the prejudgments that the
storyteller drops clues in his text demanding the audience's close
attention to details in the text, Gen 4:1-16. Leupold underscored
that in the lapidary style of Scripture "significant individual instances
are made to display graphically what course was being pursued.7
The second presupposition entails that the interpreter also listen to
the rest of Scripture in order to determine the text's meaning and/
or to validate his interpretation of the narrative.8 Although the Cain
and Abel story probably enjoyed preliterary independence, it must
now be read as part of the Pentateuch. Skinner9 rightly noted that
the exegete must pay attention to the audience to whom a story is
addressed. Unfortunately, he reconstructed the wrong audience!
Shackled by his presuppositions of source criticism and lacking the
modern tools of literary criticism (sometimes called "rhetorical crit-
icism"), he interpreted the story in the light of hypothetical "first
hearers" instead of the readers of the Pentateuch to whom the text
in hand was addressed. (Prior to and/or apart from the modern
emphasis to hear a text wholistically, studies by William Henry
Green,10 H. Segal,11 and D. J. A. Clines,12 each in his own way, put
the unity of the Pentateuch beyond doubt.)
5 U. Cassuto,
A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (
Press, 1961)1.203. Victor
Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch
3 and 4.
6 Robert S. Candlish,
Studies in Genesis (
H. C. Leupold, Exposition
of Genesis (
House, 1965; orig. 1942) 1.187.
8 Bruce K. Waltke, "Is It Right to Read the New Testament into the Old?"
Christianity Today 27/13 (September 2, 1983) 77.
9 Skinner, Genesis, 105. For this common error see also S. R. Driver, The
Book of Genesis (London: Methuen & Co., 1904) 64.
10 William Henry Green, The Higher Criticism of the Pentateuch (1896; re-
printed, Baker Book House, 1978).
11 M. H. Segal, The Pentateuch (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967).
12 D. J. A. Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch (JSOT Supp. 10;
CAIN AND HIS OFFERING 365
We commence our study with the observation that the text syn-
tactically distinguishes between the offerer and his offering: "The
LORD looked with favor on [el] Abel and on [el] his offering, but
on [e1] Cain and on [el] his offering he did not look with favor"
I. Cain's Offering
1. Offerings in the Pentateuch.
The Torah, especially the priestly legislation (the so-called "P
document"), has a rich and precise vocabulary to represent the sac-
raments offered to the LORD on an altar; each term denotes a physical
object representing a spiritual truth upon which the worshipper could
feed spiritually in his approach to and communion with God.13
The most inclusive term for presentations to God on the altar is
qorban, "offering," from a root signifying "to bring near." This term
is not used in the Cain and Abel story.
Offerings can be analyzed broadly into two classes: voluntary and
involuntary. Involuntary offerings include the "sin offering" (hatta't)
and the "guilt offering" ('asam ).14 These sacrifices make "atonement"
(kpr)15 and involved shedding blood for removal of sin. Were Cain
presenting an involuntary offering, he would have been rejected for
failure to offer blood. In fact, however, in the Cain and Abel story,
a part of the Books of Moses, neither "sin offering" nor "guilt
offering" is used.
13 G. Lloyd Carr, "mnh" in Theological Word Book of the Old Testament (ed. R.
Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke; Chicago: Moody Press,
1980) 1.515; C. Brown, "Sacrifice," in The New International Dictionary of New
Publishing House, 1979) 3.437f.; Aaron Rothkoff, "Sacrifice," in EncJud
14 Jacob Milgrom, Cult and Conscience: The Asham and the Priestly Doctrine of
Repentance (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1976). Other involuntary presentations include
the substitute animal for the first born (Exod 34:19-20), the ritual for cleans-
ing from leprosy (Leviticus 14), and defilement by contact with a carcass
15 Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (
Publishing Co., 1965).
The voluntary offerings included the "burnt offering" (ola), "meal
offering" (minha), and "fellowship offering" (selem), including "ac-
knowledgement offering" (toda), "votive offering" (neder), and "free-
will offering" (nedaba). These dedicatory offerings could be either
animal, as in the case of the burnt-offering (Leviticus 1), or grain,
as in the case of the "meal offering" (Leviticus 2). The fellowship
offering could be either (Leviticus 3). A libation offering (nesek) ac-
companied burnt and fellowship offerings. The priest's portion of
the fellowship offering was symbolically "waved" before the LORD
as his portion and called the "wave offering" (Tenupa). Certain por-
tions of it (namely, one of the cakes and the right thigh) were given
as a "contribution" from the offerer to the priests, the so-called
"heave offering" (teruma).
The term "sacrifice" (zebah) may be a generic term for presenta-
tions on the altar (mizbeah) or a more technical term for representing
rituals in making a covenant. The slaughtering of an animal in the
latter case symbolized a self-curse (that is, the one making covenant
would say words to the effect, "may it happen to me as it is happening
to this animal I am killing") and effected a sacrifice.16 We need not
pursue the word further because it is not used in Genesis 4.
Our narrator designates three times (vv 3, 4, 5) the brothers'
offerings by minha, a grain offering, it will be recalled, in the so-
called "P document." The unusual element in the story from a lexical
viewpoint is not that Cain's offering is bloodless but that Abel's is
bloody! In any case, by using minha, Moses virtually excludes the
possibility that God did not look on Cain's offering because it was
bloodless. Rothkoff said:
The terminology used with regard to the patriarchal age is that of the
Torah as a whole; it is unlikely that the same words in Genesis mean
something different in the other Books of Moses. Thus, Cain and Abel
each brought a "gift" (minhah; Gen. 4:4f.), which was usually of a cereal
nature as brought by Cain (Lev. 2, et al.) but could also refer to an animal
offering (I Sam. 2:17; 26:19). Noah offered up a burnt offering (olah; Gen.
8:20ff.) and the pleasing odor of the sacrifice is stressed.17
He could have added that Noah in conformity with the later priestly
and deuteronomistic legislation distinguished between "clean and
16 M. Weinfeld, "The Covenant of Grant in the Old Testament and in the
Ancient Near East," JAOS 90 (1970) 197f.
17 Rothkoff, "Sacrifice," 605.
CAIN AND HIS OFFERING 367
unclean" animals (Gen 7:2, the so-called J document"! cf. Leviticus
11 and Deuteronomy 14).
2. The Meaning of minha outside the Pentateuch
Most scholars trace minha back to an Arabic root meaning "to lend
someone something" for a period of time so that the borrower can
have free use of the loan. In Hebrew, however, the idea of loaning
is lost, and it comes to mean "gift," "tribute."
In nontheological texts it designates a "gift" from an inferior to
a superior person, particularly from a subject to a king, to convey
the idea of homage. The Israelites, for example, who despised Saul
"brought him no present" (minha) (1 Sam 10:27), that is, as Carr
explained: "did not acknowledge the new king."18 The kings sub-
missive to Solomon brought "tribute" (minha) (1 Kgs 4:21 [Heb.
5:1]; cf. Jdg 3:15-18; 2 Sam 8:2, 6). "Gifts" to Solomon included
articles of silver and gold, robes, weapons and spices, and horses
and mules (1 Kgs 10:25).
A person brought a gift appropriate to his social standing and
vocation (cf. Gen 32:13ff. [Heb. vv 14ff] ). Appropriately, Abel, a
shepherd, brought some of his flock (that is, from the fruit of the
womb of sheep and/or goats), and Cain, a farmer, brought from
the fruit of the ground. Furthermore, would God reject the eldest
son's tribute because it came from the ground that he himself had
commanded Adam to work? If minha were translated by either "gift"
or "tribute" in Gen 4:3-5, it would be clearer that the absence of
blood from Cain's presentation on his altar did not disqualify him
(cf. Deut 26:1-11).
The theological uses of minha comport with its nontheological uses
(cf. Num 16:15; Jdg 6:18; 1 Sam 2:17; Ps 96:8; Zeph 3:10). Snaith
said that minha could loosely be used in the sense of "gift" or "trib-
ute" even in specific cultic contexts. Carr likewise observed: "Of
particular interest in this connection is the distinction between zebah
and minha in 1 Sam 2:29; 3:14; and Isa 19:21; between ola and minha
in Jer 14:12 and Ps 20:3 [H 4]; and between shelem and minha in
Our lexical study for the term designating Cain's offering gives
no basis for thinking it was rejected because it was bloodless. In fact,
18 Carr, "mnh," 514.
of the many expressions for presentations to God which were avail-
able to Moses, he could not have used a more misleading term if
this were his intended meaning.
3. Descriptions of the Offerings within the Text
The storyteller intends to contrast Abel's offering with Cain's by
paralleling "Cain brought some" with "Abel brought some," by
adding with Abel, "even he" (gam hu') (v 4), and by juxtaposing in
a chiastic construction the LORD's acceptance of Abel and his gift
with his rejection of Cain and his gift (vv 4b-5a).
He characterizes Abel's offerings from the flocks as "from the
firstborn" and "from their fat." By offering the firstborn Abel sig-
nified that he recognized God as the Author and Owner of Life. In
common with the rest of the ancient Near East, the Hebrews believed
that the deity, as lord of the manor, was entitled to the first share of
all produce. The firstfruits of plant and the firstborn of animals and
man were his. The LORD demonstrated
that he gave
and owned it by taking its
involved those that open the womb (Exod 13:2, 12; 34:19) and
gifts from the ground had to be the "firstfruits" (bikkurim)
Abel's offering conformed with this theology; Cain's did not. In
such a laconic story the interpreter may not ignore that whereas
Abel's gift is qualified by "firstborn," the parallel "firstfruits" does
not modify Cain's. Skinner cavalierly rewrote the story and misin-
terpreted the data thus: "Cain's offering is thus analogous to the
first-fruits (bikkurim Ex 23:16, 19; 34:22, 26; Nu 13:20 etc.) of Heb
ritual; and it is arbitrary to suppose that his fault lay in not selecting
the best of what he had for God."21
Abel also offered the "fat," which in the so-called "P" material
belonged to the LORD and was burned symbolically by the priests.
This tastiest and best burning part of the offering represented the
best. Abel's sacrifice, the interlocutor aims to say, passed that test
with flying colors. Cain's sacrifice, however, lacks a parallel to "fat."
20 Sometimes the principle of redemption by substitution came into play
here. In the case of children, the LORD provided a substitute animal (cf. Gen
22:1-19; Exod 13:1-13; Dent 15:19), and the Levitical family was consecrated
to God in place of the firstborn (Num 3:1-4; cf. Num 18:15-16).
21 Skinner, Genesis, 104; Gunkel, Genesis, 42 held the same view.
CAIN AND HIS OFFERING 369
In this light Plaut's comment, "God's rejection of Cain's offering is
inexplicable in human terms,"22 appears obtuse.
Finally, is it not strange that if the narrator intended that Cain's
sacrifice was disqualified for lack of blood that he does not mention
blood with Abel's gift. Admittedly it is a negative clue, but when
combined with the two positive clues, the mention of "firstborn"
and "fat," it shouts out against Von Rad's baseless claim: "The only
clue one can find in the narrative is that the sacrifice of blood was
more pleasing to Yahweh."23
Rabbinic exegesis also picked up these clues ("two expressions to
emphasize that the oblation was the best of its kind ..."24 without
mentioning "blood") and then exaggerated them, maintaining that
Cain brought produce of the poorest quality. We cannot agree with
Westermann who negates these clues and draws the conclusion in-
stead that the text merely speaks of God's immutability. He said:
Gott hat das Opfer des einen angesehen, das des anderen nicht. Das Gott
das Opfer Kains nicht ansah, ist also weder auf seine Gesinnung noch auf
ein falsches Opfer noch auf eine falsche Art des Opferns zuruckzufuhren.
Es ist vielmehr das Unabanderliche damit ausgesagt, dass so etwas
Westermann's view represents God as capricious. Rather, Abel's
sacrifice represents acceptable, heartfelt worship; Cain's represents
4. Witness of the NT
The writer of Hebrews says that by faith Abel offered a better
sacrifice than Cain did (Heb 11:4), a statement that tends to support
the rabbinic interpretation. No text in the NT faults Cain for a
bloodless sacrifice. To be sure Hebrews mentions "the blood of
Abel," but he has in mind Abel's blood, not that of his sacrifice (Heb
12:24). Jesus' cleansing blood, he says, is better than Abel's blood
because Abel's cried for vengeance, whereas the blood of Christ,
22 W Gunther
Plaut, The Torah: A Modern
American Hebrew Congregations, 1974) 1.46.
29 Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis: A
Press, 1972) 104.
24 Cassuto, Genesis 1.205.
25 Westermann, Genesis, 403.
typified in God's sacrifice to clothe the nakedness of Adam and Eve
(Gen 3:21), cried out for forgiveness and provided salvation.
III. The Characterization of Cain
1. The Character of the Priest in the Pentateuch
The unity of the Pentateuch also enables us to discover, interpret,
and validate clues regarding the brothers as priests. Leviticus 8-9,
26 teaches that the priest's character qualified him or disqualified
him from the altar. An encroacher, be he Israelite or non-Israelite,
must be put to death.26 In this light, the statement in vv 4-5 that
the LORD accepted one priest, Abel, and rejected the other, Cain,
takes on new significance. Whereas the text explicitly characterizes
Abel's offering, and more or less infers Cain's, it dwells on Cain's
character, and more or less infers Abel's.
2. Cain's Characterization in the Text
Robert Alter27 refined our interpretation of narrative by analyzing
and classifying the following techniques used by a story-teller for
communicating his meaning: statements by the narrator himself, by
God, by heroes or heroines; by verbal clues; by juxtaposition of
material; by characterization; and by consequences of actions. We
employed the techniques of verbal clues and juxtaposition of material
to discover the blemish in Cain's gift. The other techniques expose
the deformity in his character.
The LORD said he is unacceptable: "If you [Cain] do what is right,
will you not be accepted?" (v 7). To this he added: "Sin is crouching
at your door." After sin so dominated Cain that he killed Abel, the
LORD cursed Cain even as he had earlier cursed his spiritual father,
the Serpent: "You are under a curse" (v. 11; cf. 3:14).
Note too how the narrator characterizes the sulking Cain as a sinner
unworthy to worship. Cain's visible behavior confirms the LORD's
privileged assessment of his heart. Cain's anger against God is written
26 J. Milgrom,
Studies in Levitical
Terrninology, vol. 1 (
27 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981)
CAIN AND HIS OFFERING 371
large on his face (vv 5-6; contrast Hab 2:4), and he progresses in
sin from deficient worship to fractricide (v 8).
Cain's speech, disclosing his unregenerate heart, condemns him. His
sarcastic question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" betrays both his
callousness against God and his hate of his brother made in God's
image (v 9). He calls into question God's wisdom, justice, and love
and attempts to justify himself, claiming: "My punishment is more
that I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will
be hidden from your presence" (vv 13-14). Even after God mitigates
his sentence (v 15), he fails to respond to God's grace (v 16).
As a consequence of his action Cain became a man without a place,
an outcast from God's presence, from the ground, and from his
fellow-man (vv 14-16).
3. Witness of the NT
The NT validates our conclusions drawn from the text. Jesus char-
acterized Abel as righteous (Matt 23:35), and Hebrews added that
Abel, in contrast to Cain, offered his gift in faith: "By faith Abel
offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was com-
mended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings"
(Heb 11:4). According to John, Cain belonged to the evil one and
was himself evil: "Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one
and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because
his own actions were evil and his brother's were righteous" (1 John
3:12). According to Jude, Cain spoke abusively and thought like an
unreasoning animal: "Yet these men speak abusively against what-
ever they do not understand; ... like unreasoning animals ... woe
to them! They have taken the way of Cain" (Jude 11f.).
Although the narrative by repeating the preposition 'el with both
the proper names, Abel and Cain, and with minha syntactically dis-
tinguishes the brothers and their offerings, yet theologically, as sug-
gested above, the two are inseparable. Elsewhere Yahweh rejected
the gifts of Korah (Num 16:15), Saul's men (1 Sam 26:19), and
offering, but because of their deformed characters. Cain's flawed
character led to his feigned worship. Had his mind been enlightened
to understand his dependence upon the Creator, who fructified the
ground, and the Redeemer, who atoned man's sin through Christ's
blood, providing a basis for man's reconciliation to God, he would
have offered not a token gift, but one from the heart, and along with
Abel both he and his gift would have been pleasing to God.
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