When they grew up, Abel became a shepherd, while Cain cultivated the ground. When it was time for the harvest, Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the Lord. Abel also brought a gift—the best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock. The Lord accepted Abel and his gift, but he did not accept Cain and his gift. (NLT)
I have always found the offering that Abel brought troubling. It has to my knowledge been assumed the lamb was brought and slain for YHWH. But is it possible the lamb was not slain?
As I read different material, it becomes clear that details are scarce in this part of Scripture. Only the most basic information is given. We don’t know if these are the first offerings brought before YHWH or if they were already a regular part of the life of Israel. It appears that Cain and Abel brought offerings or gifts without being asked by the Father to do so. As far as we know from the text, God may or may not have expressed His will about them.
It also does not expressly say that the offering Abel brings is a burnt offering; the text just says “offering” or “gifts”. Most of what I read in various interpretations and commentaries about the fat portions infer the animal was killed and the fat presented to YHWH. The NIV, in chapter four verse 4, it says “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock”, and the NASB, “the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions”. To me these are rather obscure and not very helpful interpretations. The NLT version presented at the opening says “Abel also brought a gift—the best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock”. The best portions? Perhaps the best living lambs?
I have often wished I understood the Hebrew at this juncture along with the cultural and other historical information, and to know we are using the earliest writings of these passages to interpret them. Also, I question how much of what we interpret the Genesis passage to mean is being filtered through our understanding of later scripture writings about sacrifices when they are made known as a part of the culture of Israel and YHWH does give instructions as to how these are to be done. I wonder how this passage would read had we known nothing of the sacrificial system at the time of interpretation? Is it plausible
- given so little is said about Cain and Abel’s offerings;
- since this could be the first offering made and perhaps voluntary;
- and the offering appears to be brought to YHWH before sacrificial laws were in place or being recorded;
- that the lamb Abel offered was a living offering, not a slain lamb – a choice one (best), the firstborn of his flock and fattened or healthy, not thin or sickly?
Note about Sacrificial laws:
I think it is entirely possible that what starts off as the bringing of gifts to YHWH, like Cain and Abel were doing, becomes progressively corrupted and the Israelite’s begin killing instead thinking they must to appease their God. I can imagine that this killing was pretty brutal and there was a need for YHWH to intervene. Perhaps He finds it necessary to bring kosher practices to a cruel system in order to limit cruelty, make offerings and sacrifices clean, show the Israelites the blood of animals cannot take away sin; to draw them away from the surrounding cultures by making them difficult with their many rules while testing the Israelites dedication and willingness to follow His instructions; to incorporate mercy into sacrifices, while using this system of presenting a being who is precious, innocent, without blemish, to point to Christ whose sacrifice does atone for sin and ends blood sacrifices once for all.
Greg Boyd on the ReKnew.org website has a great article about the sacrificial system, quote:
“The first thing I’d say about animal sacrifices in the Old Testament is that it’s important to know that all Ancient Near Eastern people sacrificed animals as a way of appeasing the gods. In fact, this has been a staple of human religion around the world from the start, as Genesis 4 (with Cain and Able’s sacrifice) illustrates. Interestingly enough, there’s no suggestion in Genesis 4 that God asked Cain and/or Able to sacrifice anything. They just started doing this. I suspect this reflects the fallen human sense that we are estranged from God and that he’s angry about it, so we instinctively want to do something to rectify this.”
God gave humanity two jobs (in addition to procreating) in the beginning: be gardeners and caretakers of the inhabitants of the garden. Cain was a gardener and Abel was a caretaker of animals. Nowhere in the instructions given to humanity in Eden does God say to kill animals.
Picture this: God puts us in charge as stewards to keep and maintain the garden he created (Gen 2:15), including specific instructions how to do so. The parents deviate from those instructions, so the children learn a combination of good and bad behaviors from their parents (the good being those that God instructed and the bad being those learned from the parents’ disobedience to God’s instructions). By offering their gifts to God, Cain gives fruit and Abel gives his best sheep. Think of how children give gifts. Maybe they give a flower they picked or a picture they drew or one of their toys. Abel was a caretaker of animals, so he gave God his very best animal whereas Cain withheld his best from God. There is no reason to posit that Abel killed the animal rather than presenting it healthy and alive (as God instructed). .
For people who claim it was a sacrifice where he killed the animal, several dubious assumptions have to be made. It would mean that the first instance of animal sacrifice mentioned in scripture wouldn’t even mentioned that the animal was killed but instead would leave such to be inferred. Secondly, unlike future blood sacrifices, there was no altar mentioned. So either the first instance of an altar being built was also omitted from the text and thereby would have to be inferred, or the sacrifice did not involve an altar, which is also strange.
Thirdly, despite God hitherto never mentioning anything about animal sacrifices, this interpretation assumes God overlooks the fact that Abel took it upon himself to kill the animal (contrary to God’s instruction to take care of the animals), which is also strange since he did not overlook any of the other deviations from his instructions in Eden. Therefore I find it highly unlikely that the animal was killed. I think such an interpretation makes way too many assumptions about things not mentioned in the text. My reading stays much closer to the text without making any of these assumptions about things not mentioned in the text.
In the beginning, life in Eden was harmonic, non-violent, pronounced very good by YHWH (Genesis 1,2). His loving instructions for food to all flesh was plant based (Genesis 1:29,30). Since Cain and Abel’s offerings take place so close to the beginning after the Fall that man’s ways on earth are likely not yet as corrupt as they are to become in time; given that so much else we read in the First Covenant (Old Testament) Prophetic books tell us YHWH did not want sacrifices; I believe one can posit that the offering Abel brought to the Father was a fattened (healthy) living animal.
Reading the rest of scripture through this lens has profound implications. It sheds light on the sacrificial system as that of a wicked system the Father tries to redeem throughout the scripture narrative. Although it yet points to the sacrifice that Yeshua/Jesus eventually offers through his life and death, it portrays it also as a rescue mission – a mission of self-sacrifice to atone for sin (1 Peter 2:24; Mark 10:45; Acts 20:28; 2 Corinthians 5:19; Romans 5:18; Galatians 4:4; John 10:11), destroy the devil’s work (1 John 3:8), bring an end to the sacrificial system (John 19:30), restore the created order (Colossians 1:20), to provide a way back to the Father and His original intentions (Romans 5:10; Romans 12:1,2; Colossians 1:20-22; Ephesians 2:15-18) – a beautiful marriage between God and humanity (ReKnew.org article), Shalom for the entire creation and all who will choose to place their trust in His Son (Revelation 21; excellent article about the cross and animal redemption, Animals Matter to God).
Words from the Father
“Thou Shalt Not Kill” – Exodus 20:13
“Does YHWH delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of YHWH? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.” – 1 Samuel 15:22
“Sacrifice and meal offerings You have not desired; My ears You have opened; Burnt offering and sin offering You have not required.” – Psalm 40:6
“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; You do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.” – Psalm 51:16
“I guard your steps as you go to the house of YHWH and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil.” – Ecclesiastes 5:1
“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of YHWH rather than burnt offerings.” – Hosea 6:6 and Matthew 9:13, 12:7
“Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beast of the field and the fish of the sea are dying.” – Hosea 4:3
“My covenant was with him [Levi], a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name.” – Malachi 2:5
Read Malachi 2 – the whole chapter is rebuking the priests.
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” – Amos 5:21-24
“Did you present Me with sacrifices and grain offerings in the wilderness for forty years, O house of Israel?” – Amos 5:25
“I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce.” – Jeremiah 2:7
“What do I care about incense from Sheba or sweet calamus from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable; your sacrifices do not please me.” – Jeremiah 6:20
“…do not shed innocent blood in this place…” (who’s blood was being shed at His House?) – Jeremiah 7:5
“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you.” – Jeremiah 7:21-23
“The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?” says YHWH. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. … Your hands are covered with blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed…” – Isaiah 1:11; 15-17
“But he who kills an ox is like one who slays a man; He who sacrifices a lamb is like one who breaks a dog’s neck; He who offers a grain offering i like one who offers swine’s blood; He who burns incense is like the one who blesses and idol. As they have chose their own ways, and their souls delights in their abominations.” – Isaiah 66:3
“What I want is mercy, not sacrifice.” – Matthew 9:13; 12:7
“My house will be called a house of prayer” (see Jeremiah 7) – Matthew 21:13
This is a favorite verse of mine:
“With what shall I come to YHWH? And bow myself before YHWH on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Does YHWH take delight in thousands of rams, in ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does YHWH require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with YHWH [Elohim].”- Micah 6:6-8
Thank you for reading and following our blog! We hope you are blessed by it and will share it with others. ~Kathy
My calling as a Child of the Creator is to take the Gospel, as it relates to the WHOLE creation, to the world; and to remind the Church of its Biblical responsibilities to non-human animals and the earth.
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