Our Best Sacrifice
Hebrews 11 is often called the “Hall of Faith,” where Christians read about the role models of faith throughout history. However, there is mention of a person who displays the opposite of great faith—Cain.
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.
In order to discover what Cain teaches us about faith, we must look back at his story in Genesis 4. As we read through Genesis 4:1-16, we will discover that Cain’s offense is his unwillingness to give Yahweh his very best, which leads to further sin. Understanding Cain’s story forces us to ask the question, “Am I giving God my very best? What does that look like by faith?”
The Pattern of Sacrifices
In order to understand the purpose of a sacrifice, it must be studied in the context of the Ancient Near East. Sacrifices were not unique to the worship of the Israelites. In the Ancient Near East, sacrifices were given to the gods in order to ‘feed’ them. The Gilgamesh Epic is an ancient Mesopotamian text that depicts an example of the gods being reliant upon human sacrifice for sustenance. In the Gilgamesh Epic (Tablet 11) Enlil, the storm god, decides to send a flood to destroy mankind, but it is reported that the gods become “parched with thirst.” Like Noah, there is a man in a boat and when he finally comes out, he sacrifices a sheep to the gods. The text says, “The gods smelled the savor, the gods smelled the sweet savor, and collected like flies over a (sheep) sacrifice."
In contrast to other Ancient Near East gods, Yahweh is not dependent upon his created people for food and drink (Psalm 50:13). He does expect various sacrifices (later commanded in the ceremonial law) in the Old Testament, and in this narrative the sacrifice is a response to Yahweh’s faithfulness to provide sustenance for his people (Deut. 26). In Gen. 4:5, Yahweh is said to “gaze at” Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s. In Hebrew, the word “gaze or to look at” in this context means to “look at with approval.” Abel offers “the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions” (Gen 4:4) whereas in verse 3 the text says, “Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground.” The firstborn indicates that Abel knows that Yahweh provided for him, and that He will provide more to sustain his herd/flock. The fat is the best tasting part of the animal, and thus, represents Abel giving the best part of the animal to Yahweh. Able responds to Yahweh’s provision in faith, whereas Cain’s thankfulness and trust is lacking.
Confrontation and Choices
Once Yahweh rejects Cain’s sacrifice, Cain becomes sullen. Yahweh notices that Cain’s “face fell.” (I love that God cares what we are feeling). Yahweh explains to Cain that if he does good, that his sacrifice is best gift, then he will not be unhappy. Yahweh knows that Cain is not receptive and warns him that sin is in his midst. Genesis 4:7 says that sin’s “desire” is for Cain, but Cain must “rule over” it. Cain is being called to “master” sin.
As Victor Hamilton mentions in his commentary, it appears that Cain does have a choice when it comes to sin. He can attempt to not sin. Yahweh encourages him to not give into sin, but Cain doesn’t even try to turn away, instead he ignores God’s voice.
Character and Consequences
Yahweh, in His mercy and grace, wants Cain to try again; he gives Cain a second chance to offer a sacrifice of his best, but Cain refuses. This is the character of our Yahweh. He doesn’t demand sacrifices for his own sustenance, but He desires them in order to foster a relationship with his people.
Yahweh does punish Cain for murdering his brother, by making the ground harder for him to work (lit: the ground will not give Cain its “strength” i.e. the produce of the soil) and making him a fugitive from his home. Yet, Yahweh does not give him what he deserves---the mark placed upon Cain protects him from being killed in his wandering.
So the question is “Why doesn’t God kill Cain?” The reason is simply because grace is a part of God’s character. Yahweh may have also favored Cain’s recognition that he has no power to save his own life. Cain is finally honest with Yahweh and says, “My punishment is more than I can bear.” Cain knows only Yahweh can save him, sin has already mastered him once.
Now that we have seen what Cain has done, what can we learn from him about our own sacrifices to God? The place to start is with the perfect sacrifice: Jesus.
Yahweh did not withhold his best from us, he gave up the life of his Son, in our place. Yahweh knew that we could never offer enough of our best to cover our own sins, so just like Yahweh showed his character of grace by preserving Cain, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was Yahweh’s gift of grace to preserve us. Our faith in Jesus’ sacrifice prompts us to worship God, by giving ‘gifts’ to him in thankfulness.
Though Cain was mastered by sin, Jesus has made a way for us not to be mastered by sin (Romans 6:6), which is the only way that we are ever going to be able to give him our best sacrifice. Jesus gives us His Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33,38) to save us from ourselves, our own sinful desires (1 Cor. 6:19). Jesus put us back into relationship with the Father, and now we must ask, “how is it that we give our best, to Him in thankfulness for His great mercy?” Fat portions are likely not what we offer to God, but we do offer Him our best time (when we are most attentive to him), our best effort in whatever tasks he calls us to do, our best selfless actions, etc.
Our sacrifices are not for atonement of our sins, because Jesus has done that “once for all” (Romans 6:10). But, like the sacrifices offered by Cain and Able they show our thankfulness to God for all the good things he has given us. Our sacrifice of thankfulness is our very lives. Jesus wants all of our actions and thoughts to be dedicated to him. Can we give him our best to the God of grace? By the power of the Holy Spirit, yes we can.