The stories of the first act of worship in human history and the first murder are recorded in Genesis chapter 4. The act of worship—Cain’s and Abel’s offerings—follows the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, their disobedience to God, and the entrance of sin into the human race. Death, the judgment pronounced upon them by God, soon made its entrance in the first family.
Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, “in the course of time” brought offerings to the Lord (Genesis 4:3). Without doubt, they were doing this because God had revealed to them the necessity of a sacrifice. Some wonder how Cain and Abel were supposed to know what to sacrifice. The answer is that God must have instructed them concerning the details of acceptable worship, although those instructions are not included in the Genesis narrative.
Abel was a shepherd, and his offering to the Lord was “the best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock” (Genesis 4:4, NLT). Cain was a farmer, and his offering was “some of his crops” (Genesis 4:4, NLT). The most evident difference between the two sacrifices is that Abel’s offering was an animal (blood) sacrifice, and Cain’s was a vegetable (bloodless) sacrifice. There may be an additional implication that, while Abel brought “the best portions,” Cain simply brought some of his ordinary crops. Scripture does not give an indication, however, that either of these differences factored into God’s acceptance of Abel and rejection of Cain.
What we know for sure is that “the LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor” (Genesis 4:4–5). We also know that God looks on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). There was something in Cain’s motivation and heart attitude, and possibly something in his performance, that made his offering unacceptable to God. It was obviously something that he was aware of and could remedy, since God tells him after the fact, “You will be accepted if you do what is right” (Genesis 4:7, NLT).
Abel, on the other hand, had the proper motivation, the proper procedure, and the proper relationship with God. That relationship was based on faith: “By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did” (Hebrews 11:4). Ever since the beginning, people must come to God in faith. “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6), and faith is evidently what Cain lacked.
In Jude 1:11, we read, “They have taken the way of Cain,” a description that refers to lawless men. This may mean that they, like Cain, disobediently devised their own ways of worship, and they did not come to God by faith. Cain’s offering, while acceptable in his own eyes, was not acceptable to the Lord. In some way, Cain had perverted God’s prescribed form of worship, and his heart was not right. He grew jealous of Abel, and he selfishly nursed his wounded pride. Rather than repent at God’s rebuke, Cain became angry, and later, in the field, he killed Abel and brought judgment upon himself (Genesis 4:8).
The apostle John gives us more insight into Cain’s heart: “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). Those who belong to the evil one will have evil actions, and those with evil actions will naturally hate those with righteous actions. The evil in Cain’s heart was further revealed when the Lord asked him, “Where is your brother Abel?” to which Cain replied, “I don’t know. . . . Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). In this response Cain tells a stone-cold lie and shows an amazing level of insolence.
When Jesus Christ died upon the cross, He became the substitutionary atonement for our sins. The blood of Christ “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24). Both Abel and Christ were slain by wicked men. But, as the theologian Erasmus commented, “The blood of Abel cried for vengeance; that of Christ for remission.”