Vegetables in Basket

The original question was:
Why was Cain’s vegetable offering not accepted by God?  We know that offerings of grain and other plant products were allowed under the Law of Moses, so wasn’t Cain’s attitude the problem, rather than the type of offering?

Answer by John Mackay

The account of Adam’s two sons Cain and Abel, bringing offerings to the Lord is found in Genesis 4 where we read:

“Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” Genesis 4:2-5

We know from the rest of the story that Cain was an angry and violent man, who resisted God’s counsel, so his attitude was certainly a problem. However, there was more to it than that.  How would Abel and Cain have known about offerings and sacrifices? Their parents, witnessed the first sacrifice ever made and observed what God Himself regarded as acceptable.

Remember that Adam had been told if he disobeyed God he would die. Yet Adam did disobey and God had every right to kill him and Eve.  Adam and Eve realised their disobedience had spoiled their relationship with God, because even before God challenged them, they tried to cover themselves with leaves, i.e. parts of a plant.  However, this covering was not accepted by God.  Instead, God killed an animal, and shed its blood, in order to provide coverings of skin for Adam and Eve to replace the unacceptable fig leaf coverings.

As there is no evidence that God spoke to man after Adam’s sin, nor was there any direct communion between God and Cain or Abel, Adam and Eve were the only source of information about sacrifice. So don’t be surprised that Abel brought an animal sacrifice as his offering, and it was accepted. Note also that mankind did not even begin to call upon the Lord’s name until the days of Adam’s Grandson Enosh. Cain’s vegetable offering was rejected, because it did not involve the death of a sacrifice and the shedding of blood.

This knowledge of correct sacrifice was passed on to further generations, and we read about Noah and the patriarchs making animal sacrifices, which were accepted by God. Eventually God taught the Israelites about the shedding of blood for forgiveness of sin, when He instructed them to put blood on the door-frames of their houses to prevent them from being punished in the same way God punished the Egyptians.  He later gave them clear and detailed instructions in the Law of Moses, which were to be implemented throughout the rest of the Old Testament times in anticipation of the one true sacrifice who was to come, i.e. the Saviour Jesus Christ who shed His blood and died for the sin of mankind.

So don’t be surprised that the New Testament is also strong in its teaching that the forgiveness of sin requires the shedding of blood. We read in the letter to the Hebrews: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Hebrews 9:22)

But the question asked refers to the plant sacrifice allowed under the Law of Moses. When the Law was given, God clearly stated what were appropriate offerings. These varied according to the reason for the offering, and the status of the person making the offering. Offerings made for forgiveness of sin always involved the shedding of blood.  Suitable sacrifices were clean animals or birds.  Sometimes these were accompanied by plant products such as grain and oil.  Plant produce was also appropriate for offerings given at harvest time, and as thank offerings and fellowship offerings any time.

But there was one situation where God did accept a plant product in the context of repentance for sin. In Leviticus 5, we read that if someone was so poor that they, or a member of their family, could not provide the minimum blood sacrifice of two pigeons they could bring an offering of one tenth of an ephah of fine flour. This is about two litres – not a large amount, but as people in those days ground their own grain for flour each day, it would have involved some labour to obtain.  For someone in the Israelite community to be so poor or disabled as not be able to obtain two pigeons, they must have suffered some catastrophe to themselves or the family, particularly if they had no relatives in a position to help.

Stop and ask would such a ‘poverty clause’ have been applicable to Cain in world which had neither drought or flood or famine? We should also note that poverty in any society is the direct or indirect result of post-fall human sin – either due to illness or accident at best, followed by ineptness or folly, then at worst the powerful oppressing the vulnerable. The sins for which this flour substitute was allowed were those associated with unintentional thoughtlessness or accident, rather than deliberate malice, i.e. failing to heed a general call for witnesses in a matter for judgement; accidently or unknowing touching an unclean thing; rashly making an oath. (This instruction is in the context of unintentional sins in general, beginning in Chapter 4) These are comparatively trivial sins, which were and still are the consequences of the problem of Sin –an important distinction. It would not be until the sacrifice of Christ that this Sin problem derived from Adam would really be dealt with. As Paul writes “with one man came sin … so one man had to die.”(Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15).

The flour offering is a case of God’s grace for a repentant but impoverished Israelite sinner. Did it get their sins forgiven?  For a few months only! By formally repenting and bringing even their impoverished offering to the Priest, the person would be allowed to remain a member of the Israelite community until the yearly God-ordained Day of Atonement. At such time when the sins of the whole community (rich and poor) were dealt with by sacrificing an animal with the shedding of its blood, which was then presented by the High Priest to God in the Most Holy Place. Only then was the debt of their sins, intentional or unintentional, regarded as “paid”.  Note well – the flour offering did not achieve this!

God’s law of blood providing a covering for sin was also reinforced by the Passover, which the Israelites were commanded to celebrate every year to remember when the blood of a sacrificed lamb protected them from the Angel of Death in Egypt.

Now think again, as we ask did any of these ‘grain offering’ requirements apply to Cain?

Cain was not poor. He may not have kept animals himself, but he belonged to the family that owned everything on the planet, and he could have easily traded some of his produce for an animal raised by his brother Abel, or he could have gone out and caught an animal from the surrounding environment.

Furthermore, Cain was not under the Law of Moses. That was not given until more than 3,000 years after Cain, and when it was, the flour offering for unintentional sins was given under the wider context of necessary annual blood sacrifices on the Day of Atonement and Passover.  Therefore, it is folly to argue that God’s provision for the Israelite community applied to Cain.

Cain had either deliberately not learned, or had deliberately ignored, the “law” that had been given at his time i.e. the teaching from his parents, who had learned it from God, about sin and suitable sacrifices. Cain’s attitude certainly was an issue, for he neither showed any remorse nor repentance for his actions.  When when God came to counsel him after the event he just became more angry, to the point of killing his brother.  Cain’s rebellion against God is affirmed by the New Testament writers, who remind us of the contrast between Cain and Abel, where Abel is described as a man of faith who offered a right sacrifice (Hebrews 11:4).  Cain is described as “belonging to the evil one” and whose deeds were evil. (I John 3:12)  Jude also refers to Cain in the context of those who rebelled against God. (Jude 1:11)

Altogether, Cain did not deserve God’s favour. His actions and lack of repentance stand as a warning to all who think they can claim God’s grace on their own terms.

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About The Contributor

John Mackay