I recently watched a Bill Moyers panel discussion of Cain and Abel, part of Moyers’ series on Genesis.
Panelists generally treated it as baffling that God rejected Cain’s sacrifice and accepted Abel’s, suggesting that Cain had a legitimate grievance while not condoning his murder. They treat God as terribly cruel in rejecting Cain.
One explanation suggested was that Cain brought the fruit of the ground, not of the tree, therefore not his best stuff. I think this is weak.
Genesis 4:2-4* reads as follows: “And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in the process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering to the LORD. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof.” So just rhythmically, Cain’s a tiller of the ground, and he gives the fruit of the ground, and that seems good. Does “fruit of the ground” really sound like it excludes “fruit of the tree” here? Certainly Abel’s giving his best stuff, the firstlings and moreover the fat thereof, but it isn’t clear that Cain’s giving inferior stuff. I’m sure there’s some linguistic analysis backing that idea up, but as a layman I don’t know about it, and it seems just as likely that those who do are grasping for an explanation as that they really have the right linguistic analysis.
I instead find the explanation in later verses. Gen. 4:6-7: “And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door.” Then, Cain murders Abel. So he succumbs to the sin that was lurking, allowing it to dominate him. The problem is something inside him, relating, I think, to the motives he brings to the sacrifice, which I see as inseparable from those of the murder itself.* Why should he be in competition with his brother for God’s favor? If he sees things that way, were his initial motives likely to have been pure?
Those who see God’s initial rejection of Cain as baffling, or as planting the seed of murder in him, ignore verses 6-7, which in context suggest that the seeds were already there.
Another question which baffled panelists was why God allowed Cain to kill Abel (more broadly, the usual why-do-bad-things-happen-to-good-people); and why God let Cain off lightly and protected him from human vengeance. I’d suggest that God wants redemption and repentance for Cain, and so he must live on to make that moral growth possible. If God had stopped the murder, that moral growth would not have been possible, precisely because there would be no consequences of actions and intentions. Abel is already morally developed, so there is no need for him to continue his journey on earth.
This desire for repentance by Cain explains why God engages him in dialogue, even after the murder, rather than opting for pure vengeance: “And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood.”
* All Biblical references are from the King James version, according to the internet: http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Genesis-Chapter-4/
** These motives need not have manifested itself in an outwardly defective sacrifice.