The Holy Bible, which is the standard manual of the Christian faith, clearly indicates that God has the power and prerogative to prefer some people and reject others. This might sound harsh to the human mind. However, according to the bible, God said: I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion (Romans 9:15, King James Version). It is easy for some people to interpret the mentioned scriptural passage as an illustration of Gods selectiveness and unfairness. On the other hand, the verse can also speak of the absolute and far-reaching favour of God. Possibly, Cain and Abel are not victims of violence, hate, sibling struggle, and injustice, but lucky recipients and examples of Gods favour and grace. Abel received favour when he offered a more pleasing sacrifice, while Cain received favour when God chose not to kill him as punishment for his sin of murder.
But according to Hebrews 11:4, Abels offering unto God was a more excellent sacrifice. What then, was the true reason why God accepted Abels gift but rejected that of Cain? Or, in other words, why was Abels gift considered as more excellent? Cain, being a tiller of the ground, gave God the fruit of the ground. Abel, meanwhile, gave animal sacrifices unto God. Apparently, both men gave God the outcome of their labour and the best that their profession has to offer. Obviously, Cain and Abel have the same motive for giving their offerings. They both wanted to please God. For some reason however, one of them was found more acceptable unto Him. This led to jealousy and the ultimate crime of fratricide.
Even though the Bible was laconic regarding the details and underlying themes of the story of Cain and Abel, there are many views as to why God chose Abels sacrifice more than that of his brother. One popular belief was that Abel gave his best, while Cain simply did not. According to Carmy (1996): One traditional approach discovers a deficiency in Cain’s sacrifice: Abel brought the best of his flock; Cain did not choose the best of his vegetables. Therefore Abel’s superiority was deserved, as was the divine rebuke delivered to Cain. (p. 1)
In other words, Abel might have put more thought and quality into his sacrifice, while Cain possibly just picked any random vegetable from his farm and gave it to God in haste. Again, we reiterate that this is just one of the many views and explanations that exist regarding the story of Cain and Abel. But if we study it closely, there is some degree of truth in the view we just mentioned. According to the Bible, Abel gave God the firstfruits of his animals, while there is no mention of Cain giving his firstfruits. When we refer to the word firstfruits, it implies that it is the best pick from a flock or a harvest. Thus when Abel gave God the firstfruits of his flock, he also showed God that He is special and He is the greatest priority in Abels life.
Other bible scholars believe that Cain led a bad, sinful life. Therefore, he cannot please God in any way. Henry (1706) described Cain as someone who was a wicked man, led a bad life, under the reigning power of the world and the flesh; and therefore his sacrifice was an abomination to the Lord God had no respect to Cain himself, and therefore no respect to his offering. But the problem with this view is that it is not mentioned or implied in the biblical text and other sources that refer to the story of Cain and Abel, such as the Koran. In fact, there was no mention of Cain leading a wicked life before he brutally murdered his brother. Even his very crime arose not merely from jealousy, but from a desire to please the Lord a clear indication that he has a great passion and zeal to serve the God of his father. We can say that Cain had pure pious intentions, but he failed to react in the righteous manner. To state that he had always been a wicked man even before the fratricide seems like a weak argument from a biblical standpoint.
There is one view that makes sense and supports other doctrinal issues found in scripture. In Hebrews 9:22, we can find the words: And almost all things are by the law purged with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no remission. There was something special and unique about Abels sacrifice that caught Gods attention, and it is the shedding of blood. Cains offering didnt require the shedding of blood, which is the reason why God had no respect towards it. (There was no mention though, that Cain sinned by not giving the right kind of offering. The bible only stated that God preferred Abel, but unto Cains gift He had no respect. If only Cain emulated the example that his brother set, he could have very well passed Gods standards also).
The incident of sacrifice unto God by means of shedding the blood of animals occurs repeatedly throughout the entire scripture. It all started when Adam and Eve sinned against God. According to biblical doctrine, the original sin separated humanity from the glory of God. But even after Adam and Eve disobeyed God, the Lord showed His grace unto them by giving them clothes to wear. When their awareness was opened and they found out that they were naked, God provided them with animal skins as covering for their shame. To be able to get animal skins, it requires the death of those animals and the shedding of their blood. As Brown (2005) wrote, God clothed Adam and Eve with animal skins. These skins were from the first sacrifice for sins. (p.1)
For a very specific reason that we will cover later, God uses the shedding of blood to atone for the sins of mankind. This is the most likely reason why God favoured Abels sacrifice, because there was shedding of blood in it, and therefore, Abel was able to receive remission of sins. The ultimate partition between God and man is sin, and as found in scripture, only the shedding of blood can break that partition. According to Paulk (2001), The reason for Cain’s offering being rejected would be assumed by the Jewish readers who knew the Law and need not be explained. However, the word minechah (minhah “offering”) is used in this chapter which refers to any type of offering, whether grain or animal. The word zebhach (zebah) would indicate that a blood sacrifice was required. (p.1)
But how important and powerful is the shedding of blood really is? Why is it used to cover and atone for our sins? Why did God choose it as the main aspect of sacrifice? Perhaps we humans dont have a concrete answer to those questions, but we can derive many instances in scripture where blood is used for the remission of sins. These instances will allow us to see the blood at work and how it fits into the overall puzzle of biblical doctrine, and will hopefully shed light upon the controversies that overshadow Cain and Abels story.
Offering a blood sacrifice is necessary to sanctify and remit sins, not only for the one giving the sacrifice, but for his offspring and the future generations as well. This is evident in the book of Job in the Bible. Job, described as a righteous and upright man, presented a blood sacrifice unto the Lord so that he and his sons will be sanctified from their sins.
In other biblical accounts, blood sacrifices are also considered as symbol of mans covenant with God. We see the same pattern occurring in the life of Abraham, who, in Jewish and Christian tradition, is considered the father of many nations. If we read his story in the book of Genesis, there was a time when God tried Abrahams faith by ordering him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham, described as a faithful man, obeyed God without any complaints. But when he was about to plunge his dagger into his innocent son to kill him, God suddenly stopped Abraham and provided a lamb to be used as sacrifice and also as a substitute for Isaac. Abraham then proceeded to kill the lamb, shed its blood and offered it unto the Lord. Gods covenant with Abraham became stronger that very day. Burns (1999) wrote about it this way: The covenant with Abraham is the first of the theocratic covenants which pertain to God’s rule (through covenant) over a chosen people. Because God’s covenant with Abraham would become the model of the subsequent theocratic covenants (which required blood sacrifice), the Lord revealed His master plan by identifying the three covenants by which He would redeem and bless mankind . In other words, blood sacrifices are used to seal covenants between God and man. Under the same principle, God was pleased with Abels sacrifice because he fulfilled the blood requirement.
If we go a little step further in reading the Bible, we will see more blood sacrifices in the time of Moses. In fact, blood sacrifice is a predominant theme in the Mosaic Law. Hebrews 9:18 describes it this way: Whereupon neither the First Testament was dedicated without blood. Offering animals and shedding the blood of bulls, goats and heifers became a regular activity in the Jewish temple. During bible times, every year on the so called Day of Atonement, the high priest is instructed to present a bull and a goat before the altar in the temple of Israel. These offerings acted as atonement for the sins of the entire nation. Comparatively, Abels sacrifice, being the first recorded blood sacrifice in the Bible, served as forerunner for other future blood sacrifices. Abel was able to discover a pattern that God likes. We can say that he unlocked a very important principle which will later dominate the lives of Jews and Christians today. Abels sacrificial offering became an example not only for his offspring, but for later generations as well. That is another probable reason why God chose Abels sacrifice, but ignored that of Cain.
However, some thinkers argue that the blood of bulls and goats does not have the power to make atonement for sins. This view is articulated by Federow (2003): There were other methods used to receive atonement that were superior to the sacrificial system. This is what God truly desires from us, Teshuvah, which means repentance God has clearly shown us that sacrifice is NOT necessary for atonement (p. 5). If this was the case, the blood in Abels offering was not the reason why God chose his sacrifice and rejected Cains. Gods acceptance of Abels offering would have something to do with the condition of Abels heart. Although the Bible was silent about the condition of his heart, or his attitude toward God, we can only presume or make a scholarly guess: Perhaps his heart was humble before God, and he offered animal sacrifices with an attitude of repentance, meekness, and zeal towards Jehovah. That aspect alone could have given Abel a slight edge over his brother Abel.
Ompad (2003) supported the same view just mentioned above: The Old Testament sacrifices cannot take away sin, They merely made a (temporary) atonement, a covering for sin. (p. 188) The blood of the animals didnt have the power to take away sin. They simply presented a temporary symbolic covering for sin. The Bible says in Romans 6:23: For the wages of sin is death, and in Romans 3:23, For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Therefore, if everyone had sinned, then we are all worthy of death! But because of Gods mercy, he gave the Old Testament generation a temporary atonement for sin in the form of blood sacrifices. Unknowingly, Abel instituted the first sacrificial system ever since mankind fell into sin. God presented this pattern when he gave animal skins for Adam and Eve as a covering for their nakedness (a symbol of sin), but Abel was the first man to offer a bloody offering before the Lord.
The best conclusion that we can arrive at after studying biblical doctrine is this: Cain and Abels sacrifice (and other instances in the bible where there was shedding of blood) were merely shadows or symbols of things to come. All the previously mentioned blood sacrifices point to Jesus Christ, the ultimate sacrifice which took away all the sins of the world in the New Testament. The efficacy of atonement does not reside in the blood of bulls and goats, for these are only used as examples, or hints of what Christ would later do on Calvary, where he would shed his blood as atonement for the sins of mankind. This is the central theme of the scriptures. The principles in the Old Testament were simply used as symbols of things to come, but everything actually points to Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah. In the case of Abel and Cain, Abels offering became the symbol of Jesus Christs death on the cross. Cains offering meanwhile became a symbol of human effort in trying to please God. We cannot please God by our works alone, for we can only be saved by grace through faith. The only faith that leads to salvation is trust and belief in the efficacy of Jesus Christs atonement on the cross of Calvary, where he suffered and gave his blood to redeem humanity from transgression.