Shortly after our first parents decided to walk their own road not taken, their two sons struck out on divergent paths. Both lived in the same household. Both observed their parents. One killed the other. What happened?
The Scriptures give us very little about their motives and the forces that motivated them. Most of what we receive came from oral tradition since those who wrote of them were not their contemporaries. What we do know is telling about both of them. One statement about Abel gives us great insight about his motivations. The author of the letter to the Hebrews states,
By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4).
Abel acted out of faith, and Cain behaved from unbelief. If we follow the author’s argument carefully, we gain valuable information about both. Before entering into observations of the events surrounding the two brothers, we must consider the context of the original circumstances. Afterwards, we can review what other biblical authors write of them. We can make several observations from the above text:
- Abel offered to God
- Abel’s offering arose out of faith
- The offering Abel made was superior to Cain’s
- Witness testified of the superiority of Abel’s sacrifice
- Abel’s offering showed his righteousness
- He left a legacy of faith as its first martyr
Some of these observations are puzzling. First, we do not know what made Abel’s offering “a more excellent sacrifice.” However, we have hints throughout this passage. The first hint, which the author intentionally places, is faith. If we consider the entire context of Hebrews 11, we understand that the author emphasizes faith. The author also sets out to support the main point: faith has as its grounds substance and evidence (Hebrews 11:1). The substance of faith is hope. Its evidence is unseen realities. The dominant unseen reality behind creation is God. The chapter places stress on God as the Creator to emphasize that the visible did not create the visible.The author provides a number of examples to support this primary point. The earliest example is creation itself, a time when no one lived. It takes faith to understand that all that exists comes from God.
He then moves to the offspring of our first parents. Abel was the very first man of whom God gave witness to his righteous standing before Him by faith. Abel was also the first martyr for his faith. Cain took out his fierce anger toward God by murdering his brother whom God accounted as righteous not so much because of the gift he offered God but because of his faith expressed through the gift. Abel’s faith pleased God. We know this truth by what the author subsequently informs us about faith,
But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (11:6).
God is more interested in faith than in material things offered to Him. Cain failed to honor God, and God saw through his gifts to his heart. Cain’s response to God’s rebuke showed that faith did not dwell with him. Rather, Cain became furious toward God rather than showing faith from receiving God’s rebuke. With the nature of the gift placed momentarily aside, we can come to terms with God’s rejection of Cain’s offering. Although his response resulted from God’s rejection of his gift and subsequently confronting his wrath, that wrath toward God already existed. It simply had opportunity to express itself upon God’s rejection of his gift. We can see from his behavior that faith was not in Cain’s gift to God. Because of his unbelief, Cain showed dishonor toward God. God therefore rejected both the gift and the dishonor that arose from unbelief.
Sometimes unbelief and rebellion fester in the heart before it later presents itself. An unbelieving heart is one of rebellion against God, and it fails to please Him (11:6). The conclusion the Hebrews author draws about genuine faith follows immediately from the Cain and Abel episode. Abel’s faith preceded his gift while Cain’s unbelief preceded his. Cain receives no mention in Hebrews 11 because the author intended to give examples of those who pleased God through faith. Cain failed to make the list. Cain’s heart caused him to withhold a pleasing sacrifice to God. That was the first expression of his unbelief. A viewing audience may not perceive anything negative in either gift these two men offered. They both presented gifts from their respective occupations. Consequently, the bystander may be surprised by God’s pronouncements. However, as the story unfolds, the second expression of Cain’s unbelief rushes with violence from his heart. He rages against God and sought an opportunity to murder his own flesh and blood. God sees what individuals cannot.
We can quibble to the end of time about the sacrifices and their meanings each man brought to God. Scholars have done so and will continue to do so. However, one thing seems clear about the Genesis account of Cain and Abel and the Scriptural witness of each of them. Cain voluntarily left God’s presence (Genesis 4:16). He was unrighteous from the outset. His leaving was the ultimate act of unrighteousness. The Hebrews passage makes clear that faith played a dominant role with Abel for God to give witness to him as righteous. Cain’s omission in Hebrews 11 speaks loudly about his unbelief and the results. Jude compares false teachers to the “way of Cain,” warning about their participation in Cain’s sin and unbelief (Jude 11).
In the account of Cain and Abel, we observe the tension between faith and unbelief. That tension continues to exist along with their respective fruits. A life of biblical faith in Christ pleases God. A life of unbelief calls for God’s wrath. The way of Cain is the way of falsehood arising from unbelief. Faith seeks after God and honors Him.
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