2 Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. (Gen 4:2-5)
So, God seems to like animal sacrifice, but not a sacrifice of the harvest. This is one of those texts that once baffled me; it seems too strange. The truth is that it is very interesting, but we need to learn a little Hebrew, first.
Letís prepare. In Genesis, chapters 2 and 3, we met Adam and Eve. The name, Adam, is from the Hebrew word for ground. Gen 3:17, in the narrative of the Fall, says something interesting about Adam and the ground, when God curses Adam for his sin:
17 And to Adam he said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground (adamah) because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Gen 3:17-19)
Adam was called Adam because he was taken from, was made out of the ground, the Adamah, into which the Lord breathed His Life. Here, though, God cursed ďthe ground,Ē that is, He cursed the Adamah, as if Adam himself were to be cursed. God had already called Adam to be a tiller of the ground (Gn 2:15): Adam to be a tiller of Adamah. There is a clear connection between the man Adam and the ground which he is to till, from which he will grow food. But now, that ground is cursed and only with Adamís suffering will it yield food.
Then we come to Cain, a tiller of the ground, the Adamah like his father. Cain tills that cursed ground, so they may have food. Cain is the progeny of Adam, suffering under the curse. His offering to God, the harvest of that cursed ground, was not acceptable to God. It has nothing to do with God disliking the harvest; the story presents us with a deeper meaning: that we under the curse cannot present ourselves an acceptable offering to God. We must transcend the curse; this makes sense when we hear Godís response to Cainís anger:
6 The LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it." (Gen 4:6-7)
This is good advice for those living under sin, for all of us: We must try to ďdo wellĒ to avoid sin; in fact, we must develop mastery over sin. Sadly, Cain did not listen to Godís advice; he succumbed to sin and killed his brother Abel. As we shall see, Cainís progeny were ruled by sin, which led to the Flood.
What then of Abel? Why was his sacrifice pleasing to the Lord? It was the first-born of his flock, presumably a flock of sheep Ė the offering, then, was a sacrifice of a first-born lamb. This sounds familiar; it is reminiscent of Christ, the Lamb of God. Now we can compare with Cain. Cainís sacrifice was symbolic of himself, a cursed sinner, as we just noted. Abelís sacrifice, however, was symbolic of Christís sacrifice, yet to come, which alone would be acceptable to the Father, which alone would free us from the curse. And like the Lamb of God, Abel was murdered by his brother out of jealousy, as Jesus was also murdered by the Temple priests, out of jealousy. In both cases, this was a spiritual jealousy, where the one who is cursed hates the one who is blessed; such hatred only spends itself in murder.
I hope this helps clear things up about the two sacrifices. The essence of the story is anagogical and mystical, as God has no real interest in animal vs harvest sacrifices. Abel was a type of Christ; Cain was a type of all sinners. But the story does not end here. Cain has children and his descendants are noted for their sinfulness. The sixth generation after Cain brought us Lamech, a noteworthy sinner.
19 And Lamech took two wives; the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. 20 Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle. 21 His brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. 22 Zillah bore Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron. The sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah. 23 Lamech said to his wives: "Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, hearken to what I say: I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. 24 If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold." (Gen 4:19-24)
Lamech appears to have invented polygamy, the first attack on Godís matrimonial covenant between a man and a woman. Lamach also murders, as did Cain; although Lamech has no remorse Ė instead he boasts. And we should also note Lamechís son, Tubal-cain, who invented ďinstruments of bronze and iron,Ē i.e., weapons. We see the progeny of Cain are sinners, truly the cursed ones.
Meanwhile, Adam and Eve have another son:
25 And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, "God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, for Cain slew him." 26 To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time men began to call upon the name of the LORD. (Gen 4:25-26)
As Abel was a type of Christ, so we note here that Seth was a substitute for Abel and ďat that time men began to call upon the name of the Lord.Ē This is an idiom for true worship; the idea is that knowing the Lordís name implies one enjoys an intimate family bond with Him, that one shares that same family Name. This is mentioned in the context of Seth and his progeny; we are to understand that the progeny of Seth were Godís children, enjoying the covenant relationship with God; this in contrast with the progeny of Cain, who were the children of the curse. We now see the dichotomy of those who are with God vs. those who are against God. What became of this conflict?
1 When men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they choseÖ 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown. 5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Gen 6:1-5)
The common assumption when reading this text is that there were two groups: men, with their beautiful daughters, and ďthe sons of GodĒ whom most modern commenters claim were angels. This text then becomes a strange Hebrew myth, where angels were sexually attracted to human women, had sexual relations with them, and the resultant children were a kind of human-angel hybrid, the powerful Nephilim. Sounds like Greek mythology. Definitely does not sound like Judaism and, from what we know of angels, sounds wildly wrong.
As this text comes close on the heels of the chapter four, where the two branches of humanity were defined, it is logical that these are the same two groups here again in chapter six. The sons of God are simply the descendants of Seth, the filial phrase being very apt to describe those in a covenant relationship with God. On the other side are the descendants of Cain, their ďdaughters of menĒ being beautiful; the descendants of Seth were taken by their beauty and so married the descendants of Cain. (This certainly makes more sense than angels marrying humans.) And what of the Nephalim, the mighty men of old, of renown? These were the children who were trapped in between the evils of the mothersí culture and the integrity of their fathersí culture. What happens when you combine good and evil in the heart of a human? Verse five makes it clear: the human succumbs to evil. This is the very theme of the Old Testament; the Israelites were told by God to avoid the other cultures, to avoid their depravity. Yet they were constantly tempted to join those other cultures, which they often did; the typical reason had to do with sensual temptation, to join the orgies so common is pagan religious practices. This story of the sons of the God and the daughters of men is the very paradigm of this theme. And it led to The Flood.
This dichotomy between those who are of God and those who are against God is the history of Godís covenant people in the world. We must remember that if we wish to be of Godís people, then we must shun the ways of the other group. We learn from this story that we will be tempted to those ways, but succumbing to those ways will only lead to our downfall and will stray into Cainís camp. We should remember Godís advice to Cain:
If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it." (Gen 4:7)