Where in the Scriptures does it say that God told Cain and Abel to bring a blood sacrifice? My Bible footnotes say that the problem was with Cain’s attitude, not the sacrifice—that a bloodless offering was quite acceptable.
We know from Hebrews 11:4 that God considered Cain’s sacrifice the wrong sacrifice. The only thing we can assume strictly from the text is that the right sacrifice would have been the same as Abel’s.
By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead. (Hebrews 11:4)
Notice it says “a better sacrifice,” not “a better attitude.” God spoke “well of his offering,” not “well of his attitude.” No doubt Cain’s attitude was wrong as well, but Scripture does not say so in this passage.
We know that Abel’s sacrifice had all the attributes of a burnt offering type of sacrifice, which would have been a blood sacrifice offered as a covering for sin. Bloodless sacrifices are not recorded in the Bible until the time of Moses. A careful analysis of the passage yields no other solid interpretation except that God told them exactly what to do. Abel obeyed and God was pleased. Cain did his own thing and God was displeased.
People with previous Bible learning want to know how one can say with such certainty that Abel and Cain were told to make a blood sacrifice. “Where is the command to do so?” Though I have rarely been questioned on it, to some degree, the same question could apply to the offerings of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Job.
In the early chapters of the Bible, many things happen that do not include full details. Yet we teach these events, adding extra detail to them with complete confidence that we are not propounding heresy. A classic example has to do with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. How do we know that the snake was the Devil? It does not say so anywhere in Genesis 3. In fact the word Devil does not appear anywhere in the Old Testament. Even the word Satan doesn’t appear until 1 Chronicles 21:1. And yet, with confidence we teach that it was the Devil who deceived Eve. We do so because we incorporate the whole body of biblical knowledge into the story.
In the same way we find no text in Genesis 4 outlining a conversation between God, Abel and Cain or sacrificial instructions to Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Job. The only way we can determine what possible dialogue occurred is to study these early passages, and compare it to later related content. The interesting thing is this: there is more meat to the story than first appears.
But before we look at that issue, we need to settle some questions surrounding the words offering and sacrifice.
Sacrifice or Offering
Some say that Abel and Cain offered a gift offering (Hebrew: מִנְחָה minḥâ) in contrast to a blood sacrifice associated with atonement. This argument is based on the common usage of minḥâ with grain or non-blood offerings. Since the Bible uses the word minḥâ for Cain and Abel’s offering, it is reasoned that the offerings were gifts and not atoning sacrifices involving blood. However, sometimes the word minḥâ is used in reference to blood sacrifices. It is not 100% consistent.
Since there are a number of words used to describe sacrifices, we need to allow Scripture to define the word offering. In speaking of Abel and Cain in Hebrews 11:4, Scripture uses a Greek word (θυσία) that is used 11 times in Hebrews in relation to the concept of substitutionary atonement. This is the word the Holy Spirit saw fit, by inspiration, to describe the offerings of Cain and Abel. It does not rule out a grain offering (Cain’s) but it certainly includes a blood offering (such as Abel’s).
Additionally, approximately 200 years before the Greek New Testament was written, the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek (LXX). In Genesis 4, the LXX translators used that same Greek word (θυσία) that later the Holy Spirit inspired the writer of Hebrews to use. It is also a general term used for sacrifice throughout the entire Old Testament (LXX).
It seems reasonably clear that with Cain and Abel, we cannot differentiate between the words offering and sacrifice to the point where their gifts are entirely divorced from concepts surrounding substitutionary atonement, including the shedding of blood.
We also need to keep in mind that up to the time of Moses, all offerings involved a blood sacrifice with one exception: the offering given by Cain and that offering was rejected.
Next, let’s look at the irreducible minimums of a sacrificial offering—the type made by godly men in the Old Testament. By irreducible minimums we mean those essential aspects that, if you were to leave any out, a sacrifice would cease to be a sacrifice. In this case the most obvious irreducible minimums of a sacrifice would be:
- The offerer: you must have the one who is bringing the sacrifice.
- The offering: you must have the “thing” that the person is bringing.
- The object of the offering: the offering must be offered to somebody (God) or something (idol).
If we were to ask ourselves if these minimums existed in the account of Genesis 4, we would say “yes.” The offerers were Cain and Abel, the offering was an animal or produce, and the offerings were made to God.
But there are other irreducible minimums that are not so obvious. God placed certain qualifications on a sacrifice to make it legitimate. If these requirements were not met, then the sacrifice was rejected as not being acceptable.
A. Man must approach God consciously aware of who he was dealing with. A person could bring the right offering, but if it was done mechanically, reluctantly, irreverently or arrogantly, then God would not accept it. The psalmist, King David, taught that even the right sacrifice brought with a wrong heart—mechanically or irreverently offered—was not acceptable to God.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (Psalm 51:15-17).
King David’s point was that the only acceptable sacrifice is one offered in true praise (or with a right heart). Samuel made the same point when he said:
Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry (1 Samuel 15:22-23).
Nothing is recorded specifically about Cain and Abel’s thinking regarding God as they approached God, but we can guess based on the next point. We can almost say for sure that Abel came humbly, aware of God’s awesome greatness, while Cain took a rather arrogant approach.
B. Man must approach God in faith. Not only must the sacrifice not be done with the wrong heart attitude, God expected that the one bringing it be conscious that he was flinging himself solely on God being true to his Word. God was not some sort of trickster who would tell them to do something and then laugh, or back down and not keep His promise. God is altogether trustworthy and man’s exercise of faith towards God is a demonstration of man’s recognition of that fact.
C. Faith must have a rational purpose. God never asks us to direct faith towards a mindless, illogical, nebulous nothingness. Faith has to have rationale. Why bring the sacrifice? Was it to praise God, seek forgiveness of sin, or show thankfulness. . . what? We know from Scriptures recorded later in history that different sacrifices were allowed for different reasons. So the type of sacrifice was also important, because with it came the purpose for faith.
D. Sacrifices must be acceptable. We can safely say that God did not consider some articles as sacrifices. God did not allow man to offer him a pig or weeds. For example, if it was an animal, the beast had to be in good condition; it could not be mangled or on its deathbed.
E. It must be offered in an acceptable way. If the sacrifice was an animal, it was not to be chained and starved to death. It could not be hung, poisoned or struck on the head. Very specifically, the Bible says it was to die by shedding its blood.
He is to slaughter it at the north side of the altar before the LORD, and Aaron’s sons the priests shall sprinkle its blood against the altar on all sides (Leviticus 1:11).
F. It must be offered on an altar. The sacrifice wasn’t to be flung into the river or off a cliff. It wasn’t to be left to wallow in the mud. It wasn’t to be paraded around town. It was to be offered on an altar. With Cain, Abel and Job, no altar is mentioned, but Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all mentioned in connection with altars. We aren’t told in those passages just how God expected them to build an altar, but when we get to the life of Moses, God lays it out very clearly.
Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you. If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it. And do not go up to my altar on steps, lest your nakedness be exposed on it (Exodus 20:24-26).
God obviously had strong feelings about how an altar should and should not be built. God must have told Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob something for them to even know to build one in the first place. I believe it is safe to assume that God gave them these minimal details of what an altar should be. I believe it is also safe to assume that knowledge was also passed on to Cain, Abel and Job.
There is one other interesting point one can make about altars. An altar represented a point of contact between God and man. It was a place (not the only place) where man came to do business with God. The significance of that point can be missed until you think of what it would have been like to have no altar. There you have Abel, Cain, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Job, all wandering around town holding their sacrifice in their hands, but not sure how to communicate that they are trying to approach God. Not only did they have to know how, they needed a where. An altar gives significance to the words, “But Abel brought fat portions. . .” Abel brought the sacrifice where? Without doubt he met God at an altar.
There may be other irreducible minimums, but these are enough to get the picture. Any violation of these essentials and God did not accept the sacrifice. Having travelled all over the world and visited over 40 tribal groups, I know that many bizarre things are done in ritual sacrifice. The basic essentials of proper sacrifice-making are not an intrinsic part of human thinking. So, “How did Cain, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Job know what was acceptable?” The answer seems self-apparent, even simple. God must have told them.
A Previous Conversation
We now come to our question: “How can one say with confidence that God told Abel and Cain to offer a sacrifice.” As we said before, no conversation is recorded in Genesis 4 of God giving Cain and Abel these irreducible minimums of sacrifice-making. Is there any additional Scriptural evidence that such a conversation took place? I believe we can say, yes, there is ample evidence that God gave Cain and Abel some very specific instructions.
A. First of all, we do know that God talked to Abel and Cain—apparently audibly.
Then the LORD said to Cain, ”Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?”
God must have talked to them often, as there is not even one hint of terror or fear in Cain’s demeanor. Later on in the Scriptures we see records of angels talking to Zacharias, the shepherds and Mary, with these individuals showing significant apprehension. But in Genesis 4, nothing in the record comes across as this conversation being some sort of exception to the rule. We can safely say that God did converse with Cain and Abel. This can also be said of other godly men whose lives are recorded in the early pages of the Bible.
B. Secondly, we know that God had at least one conversation prior to the sacrifice being offered. God, in speaking to Cain, referred to what was “right.” The Lord referred back to a preceding conversation.
If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7).
God could not have phrased his question/statement in the way he did if Cain did not know what was right to do. God even implied that Cain knew how to “master” his sin. Both of these indicate prior knowledge, prior conversations. That prior conversation(s) would have had to contain the essential details we saw above. The fact that Cain and Abel even knew to offer a sacrifice of any kind implies knowledge gained from God. We saw that such knowledge does not naturally reside in the human heart. We do not instinctively like or make sacrifices.
The Right Thing
Now we must face the question: Just what was the “right“ thing God commanded Cain and Abel to do? To start with, we can reply with confidence that Abel did that right thing. God wanted Cain to do the same thing Abel had done.
The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor (Genesis 4:5).
In addition to that generality, according to the details found later in the Pentateuch, Abel did seven specific right things when he offered his sacrifice. The Bible tells us in Genesis 4:4:
But Abel 1brought 2fat portions from 3some of the 4firstborn of 5his 6flock.
1. Abel brought the sacrifice. He didn’t send it with someone else or let it wander loose around town. Abel presented the offering himself.
When any of you brings an offering to the LORD. . . He must present it. . . (Leviticus 1:1, 3)
2. He offered the fat. With an animal, only certain parts of the animal were considered acceptable. For example, God would not have accepted the hide, horns, hooves or sex organs.
The priest shall burn them on the altar as food, an offering made by fire, a pleasing aroma. All the fat is the LORD’s. “This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live: You must not eat any fat or any blood.” (Leviticus 3:16-17)
How did Abel know to offer the fat?
3. Abel only brought some of his flock. He did not bring all his flock. God does not require all for something to be a legitimate offering. He just requires a representation. We may think that is obvious, but I have visited tribal locations where a payment of all is not out of question. God carried this so far that when he gave instructions on collecting the Tabernacle tax, he restricted the amount.
The rich are not to give more than a half shekel and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the LORD to atone for your lives. (Exodus 30:15)
When you think of who God is, his power, his vengeance on sinners, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see Abel slaughter his whole herd—just out of fear. But he didn’t. How did he know that a representative sacrifice was sufficient?
4. Abel offered a firstborn. The Scriptures say:
All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the LORD. (Exodus 13:12)
Though the Bible does not indicate that all sacrifices had to be the firstborn, it is also clear that the firstborn was considered the best of the flock. How did Abel know to offer a firstborn?
5. The animal that Abel offered was his. It belonged to him. He made a personal sacrifice. He wasn’t offering something that had cost him nothing.
All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the LORD. (Exodus 13:12)
6. He offered an animal of the flock. He didn’t offer a fish, owl, dog or pig.
When any of you brings an offering to the LORD, bring as your offering an animal from either the herd or the flock. (Leviticus 1:2)
How did Abel know to offer a sheep or goat?
7. In addition to the six things that the Bible records in Genesis 4:4, it also says that Abel came by faith.
By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. (Hebrews 11:4)
The odds of Abel doing these seven right things on his own—all at once—are beyond reasoned explanation. I asked a mathematician one time to calculate the odds (mathematics not being a forte of mine) and she said that they were so huge they might as well be infinite. For example, take just two items. What were the odds of Abel selecting the right kind of animal out of all the mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and bugs that exist? In addition to that, what were the odds of him selecting an acceptable part—of all the body parts—out of any given creature? Just choosing those two items alone involve incredible odds. God obviously must have told them something, and if he told them anything at all, a very reasonable assumption would be that he told them the irreducible minimums of sacrifice-making.
A Blood Sacrifice or a Good Attitude?
But now we face the question of the sacrifice itself. If God told Cain and Abel about sacrifices, could he not have told them it was okay to bring a grain or vegetable sacrifice? How do we know that a blood sacrifice was significant to the situation? Could not God have been pleased with Abel’s attitude and thus commended him on that basis alone? Suppose Cain was rejected, not because of his sacrifice, but because of his attitude. After all, we saw that attitude was also part of the irreducible minimums. Don’t some Bible scholars say: “there was nothing wrong with Cain’s sacrifice. Bloodless offerings were offered by the Israelites. The problem was Cain’s attitude”?
Well, is that true? Was the problem solely the fact that Cain did not have the right attitude? Let’s see what Scripture says.
By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead (Hebrews 11:4).
Once again, notice it says “a better sacrifice,” not “a better attitude.” God spoke “well of his offering,” not “well of his attitude.” No doubt Cain’s attitude was wrong as well, but the Scripture does not say so in this passage. In another passage Cain was admonished not for his attitude, but for his actions (the wrong sacrifice), while his brother’s actions (the right sacrifice) were commended.
Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous (1 John 3:12).
Granted, actions are the result of wrong attitudes, but neither passage leaves us any room to doubt that the sacrifice in question was also at the core of the problem. Not only does it seem amply clear that God instructed Abel and Cain to offer an animal sacrifice, but also seems clear that a blood sacrifice was required.
You have come to God. . . to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:23-24).
It is debated by some scholars whether the blood in this passage refers to Abel’s blood, shed by Cain, or to the blood of the sacrifice by Abel. Since the blood in question is directly linked to the sprinkled blood which definitely belongs to Jesus, it would seem that the rules of parallel interpretation would demand that this had to do with a blood sacrifice offered by Abel. Whichever way you interpret it, one thing is clear, the passage does not read:
You have come to God. . . to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the good attitude of Abel.
So, the Bible does clearly say there was something wrong with Cain’s sacrifice. The most obvious thing is that it wasn’t the same sort of sacrifice as Abel’s. After all, we have established previously that Abel did the right thing. But why would God want a sacrifice like Abel’s?
If we take the whole of Scripture, we can safely say that almost, if not all, the sacrifices up to the time of the Tabernacle were burnt offering-type sacrifices. They involved death and the shedding of blood. We now know that these sacrifices were powerful pictures of what—at that time—was yet to come. To make them into anything else is to reduce the impact of Scripture. That is why we can say that the right thing that God told Cain and Abel to do was what we find as a pattern throughout all of Scripture.
For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul. (Leviticus 17:11)
We have no reason to believe that the instructions God gave Cain and Abel were to offer any other sacrifice than this kind of sacrifice—a blood sacrifice. It would seem that the burden of Scripture is on any other interpretation to prove otherwise.
Interpreting these passages in this light is not some new twist to Scripture. Many solid theologians from the past, representing a spectrum of thinking, wrote that the concept of blood atonement was illustrated from the earliest pages of the Bible.
H. Spurgeon (1834 –1892) delivered a Sunday sermon on August 29, 1858 at the Music Hall, Royal Surrey Gardens, in which he said:
“… Cain; he cared nothing for Christ; he was not willing to confess his sin; he had no objection to present a thank-offering, but a sin-offering he would not bring. He did not mind bringing to God that which he thought might be acceptable as a return for favors received, but he would not bring to God an acknowledgment of his guilt, or a confession of his inability to make atonement for it, except by the blood of a substitute.
“…What did Abel bring? He brought a sacrifice which showed the necessity of blood-shedding but Christ brought the blood-shedding itself. Abel taught the world by his sacrifice that he looked for a victim, but Christ brought the actual victim. Abel brought but the type and the figure, the Lamb which was but a picture of the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world; but Christ was that Lamb. He was the substance of the shadow, the reality of the type.”
Dr. William Graham Scroggie (1877-1958), in his monumental three volume series titled The Unfolding Drama of Redemption said:
“The produce of the earth was not adequate in the sight of God for clothing for Adam and his wife (Gen. 3:17), and so skins were provided, necessitating blood-shedding (Gen. 3:21). That this has a religious significance seems clear from what is here stated (Gen. 4:4,5). The parents would teach their children what the Lord had taught them; laying emphasis on the nature of sin, and the necessity for such covering as the skins symbolized …”
“The difference, then, between the two brothers as worshippers was not vocational, but spiritual. Both had received the same instruction, and witnessed the same example, but, whereas Abel worshipped according to God’s will, Cain worshipped according to his own will. To use terms which belong to a later time, Cain was religious, but Abel was Christian. Abel believed that guilt demanded blood-shedding, but Cain did not acknowledge his guilt.
“…Cain, who would not shed a lamb’s blood by the will of God, shed his brother’s blood in defiance of law; human and divine.”
Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse (1895–1960), for many years pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, wrote the following:
“The highway to the cross was now firmly established. Here the first lamb is seen, one lamb for one man. Later, at the Passover, there will be one lamb for one household (Ex. 12). Then, on the Day of Atonement, there will be one sacrifice for the nation (Lev. 16). Finally it is Christ who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29).
“This was God’s way then of illustrating the awesome power of the bleeding Lamb. One Lamb saves a man, then a household, then a nation, and finally is available through the Lamb of God for the whole world.”
Nathan J. Stone, a Jewish Christian and professor of Hebrew wrote in his book Names of God:
“[God] teaches man how to approach Him anew by means of sacrifice, a substitute. This is the clear implication of Abel’s approach to God through the sacrifice of a life, and the rejection of Cain’s approach for lack of it.”
Beloved radio pastor, Dr. J. Vernon McGee (1904–1988) wrote:
“The difference between Cain and Abel was not a character difference at all, but the difference was in the offerings which they brought” … What was more excellent about Abel’s sacrifice? It was a blood sacrifice! Cain’s offering was not a blood sacrifice, so it was rejected. This was a tremendous picture which prefigured the Blood of Christ…”
Dr. W.A Criswell (1909–2002), two-term elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention and undoubtedly one of the 20th century’s greatest expository preachers wrote:
“Abel’s offering was acceptable, and the offering of Cain was not acceptable (v. 5). Focus in this chapter is not only upon the men themselves but also upon the difference in their offerings. Cain’s offering was (1) bloodless (cf. Hebrews 9:22), (2) the work of his own hands (cf. Titus 3:5), and (3) a product of the cursed ground (cf. 3:17). Abel, on the other hand, presented ‘a more excellent sacrifice’.”
William MacDonald (1917–2007) in his Believers Bible Commentary said:
“There must have been a time when Cain and Abel were instructed that sinful man can approach the holy God only on the ground of the blood of a substitutionary sacrifice. Cain rejected this revelation and came with a bloodless offering of fruits and vegetables. Abel believed the divine decree and offered slain animals, thus demonstrating his faith and his justification by God (Heb. 11:4). He brought the firstborn of his flock, saying in effect that the Lord deserves the best. Abel’s offering points forward to the substitutionary death of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
But such teaching is not a theological remnant from the past. GotQuestions website answers queries this way:
“Some question, ‘How were Cain and Abel supposed to know what to sacrifice?’ The answer is that God must have instructed them. It is clear that the offering was to be a substitutionary atonement, because we read in Hebrews 11:4, ‘By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did.’ When Abel came for worship, it was by faith that he brought his offering, the ‘fat portions from some of the first-born of his flock’ (Genesis 4:4). The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, and it was accepted.”
Dr. H. L. Wilmington, in his popular Wilmington’s Guide to the Bible, writes:
“Cain brings a bloodless offering to God and is rejected (4:5). Not only was the sacrifice bloodless, but it had already been cursed by God; therefore, Cain added insult to injury. (See 3:17). Cain may have thought it to be far more refined and cultured to bring fresh fruit and vegetables rather than a bloody animal offering, but not so!
“There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Prov. 14:12) We have in this verse the first plank of that great scriptural platform of truth that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin. (See Lev. 17:11; Heb. 9:22)
“And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission” (Heb. 9:22).
Abel offers a lamb sacrifice and is accepted (4:4).”
It is not hard to see in the above quotes the seriousness of removing the significance of the shed blood and the element of substitution from the story of Cain and Abel. When we ignore the importance of the blood sacrifice in this earliest of stories, we remove from the Scriptures one of its strong points; namely, that from the very beginning man was not only provided a way back to fellowship with God, but that “way” was consistent with what Jesus accomplished on the cross.
Theologians, both old and recent have established this as a sound and reasoned approach to these verses of the Bible. Indeed, once again, it is not being arrogant to say the burden of Scripture is on any other interpretation to discount this understanding.
Copyright © 1997, 2016 John R. Cross
Editor’s note: For a good overview of the Bible’s central message and more details for the reason God asked man to bring a sacrifice, please read the book entitled, By This Name.
-  Some scholars feel that Jacob’s anointing of the stone in Genesis 28:18 was a “pour offering.” That could be debated as an anointing or dedication, rather than a sacrifice.
-  For example, Ezra 9:5, Psalm 141:2, Daniel 9:21 cf Numbers 28:1-8; Leviticus 1:1-10
-  By the time of Moses, grain offerings were included in the sacrifice. If included they always followed on after a blood offering. It is notable that Cain’s offering was made apart from that element.
-  http://www.romans45.org/spurgeon/sermons/0211.htm
-  Dr. William Graham Scroggie, The Unfolding Drama of Redemption, Kregal ©W. Graham Scroggie pp. 69,70,71
-  Nathan J. Stone, Names of God, ©1944 Moody Press p. 27
-  William MacDonald, Believers Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson ©1995, 1992, 1990, 1989 William McDonald p. 37
-  http://www.gotquestions.org/Cain-and-Abel.html
-  Dr. H.L. Willmington, Willmington’s Guide to the Bible, Tyndale ©1981, 1984 H. L. Willmington p. 9