Cain murdered his brother Abel for God did not value his offering as that of Abel. God considers each person in His creation of great value as if that was the only one on the earth not because He has a right over our life but because life itself is a great blessing from Him. Do we try and value our life or our right over our life or on the hope of a great life? This then also defines the value of our relationship with God.
Start of bringing offerings to God – Animal sacrifices to an invisible God seem barbaric to us today but this was the first significant activity that man did after expulsion from the Garden of Eden. And this act of attempt to worship God led to the first tragedy in the present state of human life. The idea of bringing an offering to God started with Cain first and since he was ‘a tiller of the ground’, he brought ‘an offering of the fruit of the ground’. His brother Abel was a shepherd and he brought ‘the firstborn of his flock and their fat’. God respected/accepted Abel and his offering but not Cain and his offering, thereby making Cain angry ‘and his countenance fell’. It is said that Cain brought an inferior sort of offering but Abel brought the best of his sheep (Genesis 4:2-8).
Why couldn’t Cain understand the big difference in his and Abel’s offering and God accepted the better of the two? Abel brought his best and Cain his worst or just anything, though he initiated the idea. Hebrew word ‘hevel’ or Abel means ‘air or nothing’ while Cain means acquired and Cain was obviously a thinker and Abel a lightweight. Though fire came down from heaven and consumed Abel’s sheep on the altar, God chose to speak to Cain and he was the prophet or the one to whom God speaks.
But why did Cain bring an offering to insult God in a way, when he was not carrying his best? God did not need the gift but Cain probably brought it as an expression of gratitude to God acknowledging Him to be the source of all blessings. So, Cain’s thought was that it is not the gift that is important but the act of acknowledgment. Taking Cain’s perspective further, one can argue that an expensive gift would show him to be presumptuous before God, who created everything. Abel had not given thought to details and decided if bringing an offering is good then why not carry the best and from this point it was Abel who misunderstood the idea of bringing an offering.
If we take that the aim of an offering is in the offering itself, in terms of giving a gift to God, then Cain was right. But if it is not about the gifts but about offering oneself then Abel was right for one cannot sacrifice self without self sacrifice. The first point, thus, is that bringing an offering to God is about self sacrifice.
The second point is about sacrifices and prayer – To understand it better, let us examine the Lord’s Prayer by separating it into three parts. First, the supplicant must first praise God which we do in the first three verses; the second is ask God to provide daily needs which we do seeking daily bread (Manna), forgiveness and safety from evil; the third is recognizing His power to do so and thank Him. Thus the idea of praying, like offering sacrifices, is about thanking God for His blessings and recognizing His Sovereign control over us.
Why was Abel’s offering preferred by God? – The concept of gratitude or ‘hakoras hatov’ is both emotional and rational and our relationship to our parents is the proper model for this to understand our relationship with God.
One view is that the parents gave us life and being grateful is a moral responsibility but parents produce children for their own purpose of name being carrying forward etc. Because parents who do not care for their children well lose respect before others, parents do it for prestige. So why do we owe them gratitude? Gratitude for the parents is an emotional thing and has no rationale but when interacting with God the intellectual aspects dominate over emotional ones. ‘God is Spirit’ and thus abstract and incorporeal and our connection to Him is through our mind or spirit and without a rational basis we may find it difficult to feel gratitude to God (John 4:24). Based on the same analogy, God also created us for His good reasons for He wanted to create and provide all blessings. The key however lies in understanding the difference between rights and obligations.
Supposing I have a right to life and all blessings, then whoever supplies me all this is just giving me my rights and there is no obligation. But if He stops my rights then I have reason to be angry and many times children claim rights from their parents under the same belief. The parent sees the relationship with obligation attached to it, for they made great sacrifices to ensure good future and life for their child but the child sees it as their duty to give his/her rights. Who is right? Apostle Paul puts it in the right perspective, ‘For in Him (Lord Jesus) all things were created, things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible (material and spiritual), whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities. All things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together’ (Colossians 1:16-17).
If we apply the thought process of a child seeking rights then it cannot apply to God for not only did He create everything for Him, nothing can exist outside of Him. In that scenario if we are asked to pay for what we receive, can we object? Theoretically we can say, I did not ask for this life and am I willing to die today, this moment? Then I cannot question God’s motives for creating me and giving me all blessings, unless I am ready to forego all this. Otherwise I am obliged to do His will and offerings were allowed by God in recognition of this obligation of mankind to Him. God declares, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings’ (Hosea 6:6). That is why service to God is called ‘avodah’ which actually means ‘slavery’, but it also means ‘work, worship and service’. Since life is a gift from God, anyone taking it, his own or anyone else’s commits a great sin against God. David cried out to God after being confronted by Prophet Nathan about murder of Uria, husband of Bathsheba, ‘Against You, You only, have I sinned’ (Psalm 51:4).
Now if we see Cain and Abel bringing their sacrifices, Cain did not want to acknowledge that He belongs entirely to God. The offering of the animal as a sacrifice was the declaration that the one making the offering realizes that his own life also belongs to God. Cain saw his right to exist in the same manner that God has a right to be God, thus equating himself to God, in the same manner that Satan did. Though he acknowledged his duty to express thanks to God for the benefits received and brought a gift, but it was not the best that he had. Therefore, God told Cain, ‘Why are you annoyed? And why has your countenance fallen? Surely, if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin lies at the door. Its desire is for you, and yet you can conquer it. God was telling Cain that his attitude was the gateway to sin and it is the same about our attitude to our parents when we say, ‘It is my life, so don’t tell me what to do’. When we give our offerings to God, He does not see the amount but the attitude ‘for He searches the hearts and minds’. Then the value of the two coins offered by the widow become more valuable than everyone else’s offerings (Mark 12:41-44).
Is killing someone in God’s name and purpose, correct? – As per Scripture there are two instances of killing in the name of the LORD. First, Balak the Moabite King, out of great fear of the Israelites, had asked Balaam to come and curse the Israelites camp. But all his three attempts failed and instead of cursing, Balaam blessed the Israelites. Then he advised the Moabite King to use women to lure the Israelite men to sin resulting in a plague on the Israelite camp that killed 24,000 people (Numbers 24). A Simeonite man named, Zimri defied Moses’ instructions and brought a Moabite woman into the camp. Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, presumed Moses to be unable, to take action due to his own marriage to a Midianite woman, went and pierced them both with a spear, thus killing them (Numbers 25:6-8). God recognized Phinehas’ zeal for Him and gave him His ‘covenant of peace’ and for his descendents a ‘covenant of an everlasting priesthood’ (Numbers 25:12-13).
The second instance is about King Ahab of Israel who ‘did evil in the sight of the LORD, more than all who were before him’. He married Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Sidonians and under her influence ‘worshipped Baal’ and built a temple for him in Samaria (1 Kings 16:30-31). Prophet Elijah confronted Ahab and declared no rain for three years and at the end of that period challenged Ahab to call to Mount Carmel all Israelites, 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah ‘who eat at Jezebel’s table’. Jezebel had massacred the prophets of the LORD and Obadiah had hidden 150 prophets of the LORD. Prophet Elijah, who was alone, offered the other prophets to arrange a sacrificial offering to their god and call for fire from their god and that he would do likewise. Both groups were to call on the name of the one they worshipped and that ‘the God who answers by fire, He is God’ (1 Kings 18).
When the prophets of Baal failed after trying till the time of the evening sacrifice, Prophet Elijah set up an altar of 12 stones, set his offering on wood stacked thereon, got a trench dug around the altar and drenched the wood and the offering three times with water. LORD God answered his call and fire from heaven consumed ‘the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust and it licked up the water that was in the trench. At Elijah’s call the Israelites seized the prophets of Baal and they were all executed. Jezebel, the queen, threatened Prophet Elijah of the same fate and he fled into the Judean territory and after forty days march reached the ‘mountain of God’.
Phinehas and Elijah were religious heroes for Israel for they both stood in the breach. But both were not commended by God for their being zealous for God. Phinehas was given covenant of peace but that he will not be required to do anything for God and Elijah was rebuked by God. At Mount Horeb God showed him one of the great scenes, a whirlwind, an earthquake and a fire and then talks to prophet Elijah in a ‘still small voice, asking, ‘What are you doing here?’ Prophet Elijah repeated his words of before, ‘I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty’. Probably he had not understood what God had been trying to tell him that He is not to be found in violent confrontation, but in gentleness and softly spoken words. God then tells him to go appoint Elisha as his successor (1 Kings 19: 11-18).
But why this ambivalence? – The zealot is not acting within the parameters of the law of God and the zealot is actually trying to take God’s place and executing judgment without a trial. God’s command is clear, ‘Vengeance is Mine’ (Deuteronomy 32:35). Jude, the brother of Lord Jesus, clarified that Archangel Michael did not rebuke the devil when he tried to take Moses’ body but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you’ (Jude 1:9). Just before being taken captive, Lord Jesus rebuked His disciples for trying to use a sword to defend Him clarifying that He has the authority to receive more than twelve legions of angels from God the Father and healed the ear of Malchus, servant of the High Priest (Matthew 26:52-53).
Those who listen to the LORD God know that He executes in His time and manner and though He does use human agents for that, He never desires someone to take vengeance for God into his/her own hands. Phinehas was not appointed leader of the Iaraelites after Moses, for to lead requires patience, forbearance and respect for due process. Probably nothing in religious life is more risk-laden than zeal and no truth greater than the fact that God is not to be found in the use of force but in the still, small voice that turns the sinner from sin.
One can be saved only by grace but the faith that enables us to face both the external and internal violence of thoughts and words is also God’s gift and not due to human ways. Believers will keep on facing violence during their sojourn on earth, both from external sources, worldly and demonic forces that are opposed to God and from within due to struggles with thoughts, feelings and desires. God also allows this to enable us to get closer to Him and then seek answers like Job. But God will never permit a situation to come our way for which He has already or is preparing us to successfully face and overcome.