Barry Newman's Blog

July 22, 2011

Science and Genesis 4: 1 – 26 (part III)

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 12:30 am

Cain and Abel and their offerings

The reference to Abel and his offering being “acceptable” to God but Cain and his offering not being “acceptable” is interesting from a number of points of view.  They have different professions and supposedly sacrificially, they each offer from what their labours have achieved.  Abel the shepherd offers from his flocks.  Cain the farmer offers from his produce.  One thing that is striking, however, is that there has been no requirement from God for them to offer anything. Yet it seems we are meant to assume that it was right and proper for them to do so.  Making some sort of an offering to God, particularly if what they offered came as a consequence of their labours, would seem appropriate. They could be acknowledging that God has brought the increase and they are obligated to him.  They would always be obligated to him for whatever “goods” came their way.  Walton suggests that the Hebrew word (minha) translated “offering”, the term used in association with both Abel and Cain, when used with respect to individuals, “refers to a gift to give deference or honor” “and is usually given in a context of celebration”.  (p. 262). Yet the text in itself is absolutely silent on why they made their offerings.

It has been customary to assume that Abel’s offering involved an animal sacrifice (“the firstlings of the flock and their fat portions”) where blood had been shed while Cain took a less costly way by simply offering “the fruit of the ground”.  However the text makes no explicit comment to that effect.  Furthermore, there is no reference to “blood” in the text, the emphasis being on “fat portions” though undoubtedly some animals were slain.  And with respect to minha Walton maintains that although “it often accompanies an animal sacrifice … (it) is usually comprised of grain” (p. 262) with which of course no blood is associated.  The matter of “blood” seems of little account in the text under consideration.

However it could be argued that there are some hints being given that what Cain did was not as acceptable as what Abel did on the basis of Mosaic Law.  While it is true that “fruit offerings” were acceptable whether they were “first fruits” or not, most references to “fruit” (which could be a general reference to grain or the “fruit” of the olive tree or the grape vine), in the context of offerings, are references to “first fruits”.  Leviticus 2: 1 – 11 is one of the exceptions.  Here offerings involving grain and oil are mentioned but not in the context of “first fruits”.  Indeed the Hebrew for “fruit of the ground” in Genesis 4: 3 is essentially the same for “fruits of the ground” in Deuteronomy 26: 2 and 10 where the reference is to the “first” of such fruit being made an offering to God. (These are the only three cases of this phrase [where ground is adamah not erez] in the Pentateuch.) That is, the suggestion is that Genesis 4: 3 might imply that Cain should have been offering “first fruits” but it was only fruit.

On the other hand, while there is no mention of “blood” in Abel’s offering, there is a reference to “fat” being part of that offering and under Mosaic Law it would appear that while no person was permitted to partake of the fat of an animal (see Leviticus 7: 23 – Leviticus 10: 15 is probably not an exception) “fat” was a necessary portion of various offerings such as peace, guilt and sin offerings.  Furthermore his offering involved “firstlings”, as often stipulated in Mosaic Law. That is, the suggestion is that in Genesis 4: 4 Abel’s offering is meant to be seen as more in line with what, under Mosaic Law, would be recognised as acceptable to God.

But what is the relevance of the Mosaic Law?  From within the text it has no relevance.  It has not come into existence. Yet there is this sneaking suspicion that the reader is supposed to be somewhat influenced by what is to be found in that law.

There is yet another possible allusion to why what Cain did was unacceptable. It is in the reference to his being a worker of the “ground” (adamah).  Though in itself adamah has no moral overtones, its occurrence following close on the heels of it being mentioned in Genesis 3: 17 where it is cursed together with the reference to what Cain offered being the fruit of the ground (adamah) may be meant to suggest that Cain is in a sense working with “tainted” material and offering “tainted” goods.  Additionally, although Cain is the firstborn, the description of what each did is given first to Abel and only secondly to Cain, though the priority of “Abel” may be simply a consequence of the birth of Abel having just been mentioned.

Yet again, whatever strength there is in these suggestions, and certainly the writer to the Hebrews has no doubt that “Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did” (Hebrews 11: 5), the text is indeed silent as to why Yahweh looked with favour upon (looked to) Abel and his offering but he did not look with favour upon (look to) Cain and his offering. Of course both offering and the one who offered go together but no principle is given indicating what was “acceptable” in the case of Abel and his offering but not “acceptable” in the case of Cain.  Nor is there any indication as to how this favour or lack of favour was communicated.  Is there a suggestion here that God in his sovereignty has the right to look with favour upon whomsoever and whatsoever he chooses?   There might be background hints that there was something “wrong” about Cain and his offering and there was something “right” about Abel and his offering – but they are only vague hints – shadows only.  The stark truth of the matter is that Cain did what he did and Abel did what he did and God looked to Abel and his offering but did not look to Cain and his offering.  That is the way the account is constructed, unless we think that further light is shed upon the situation in the text that follows.

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