What Was Wrong With Cain’s Offering?


‘Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, ‘With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.’ Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour. So, Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 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 rule over it.’ Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ The LORD said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.’ Cain said to the LORD, ‘My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.’ But the LORD said to him, ‘Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.’ Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So, Cain went out from the LORD’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.’ Genesis 4:1-16

We know from Hebrews 11 that God considered Cain’s sacrifice the wrong sacrifice, Hebrews 11:4. The only thing we can assume strictly from the text is that the right sacrifice would have been the same as Abel’s.

Notice it says ‘a better offering,’ 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 doesn’t 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 aren’t 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.

How one can say with certainty that Abel and Cain were told to make a blood sacrifice?

Where is the command to do so?

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 don’t include full details. Yet we teach these events, adding extra detail to them with complete confidence that we aren’t advocating 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 doesn’t say so anywhere in Genesis 3. In fact, the word ‘Devil’ doesn’t 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 them to later related content.

The interesting thing is this, there is more meat to the story than first appears. 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.

When it comes to offerings, what is required?

1. The offeror. You must have the one who is bringing the sacrifice.

2. The offering. You must have the ‘thing’ that the person is bringing.

3. The object of the offering. The offering must be offered to somebody, God or something, an idol.

If we were to ask ourselves if these requirements existed in the account of Genesis 4, we would say ‘yes.’ The offerors were Cain and Abel, the offering was an animal or produce, and the offerings were made to God. But there are other requirements that aren’t so obvious. God placed certain qualifications on a sacrifice to make it legitimate. If these requirements weren’t met, then the sacrifice was rejected as not being acceptable.

How can we say with confidence that God told Abel and Cain to offer a sacrifice?

As I mentioned earlier, no conversation is recorded in Genesis 4 of God giving Cain and Abel these requirements of sacrifice-making. Is there any other 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.

1. 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?’ Genesis 4:6

God must have talked to them often, as there isn’t even one hint of terror or fear in Cain’s demeanour. 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.

2. 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 rule over it’. Genesis 4:7

God couldn’t have phrased His question in the way He did if Cain didn’t know what was right to do. God even implied that Cain knew how to ‘rule’ his sin. Both of these indicate prior knowledge and 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 doesn’t naturally reside in the human heart, we don’t instinctively like or make sacrifices.

But 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 favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour.’ Genesis 4:4-5

Abel did seven specific right things when he offered his sacrifice.

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, Genesis 4:4 / 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, Genesis 4:4 / 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 doesn’t require all for something to be a legitimate offering. He just requires a representation.

‘And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.’ Genesis 4:4

God carried this so far that when He gave instructions on collecting the Tabernacle tax, He restricted the amount, Exodus 30:15.

When you think of who God is, His power, and 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, Genesis 4:4 / Exodus 13:12.

Though the Bible doesn’t 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, Genesis 4:4 / Exodus 13:12.

6. He offered an animal of the flock. He didn’t offer a fish, owl, dog or pig, Genesis 4:4 / 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, Hebrews 11:4.

The odds of Abel doing these seven right things on his own are beyond reasoned explanation. 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.

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.

Let’s see what Scripture says again in Hebrews 11:4

‘By faith, Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith, he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.’

Like I mentioned earlier, notice it says ‘a better offering,’ 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 doesn’t 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, 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 clear that God instructed Abel and Cain to offer an animal sacrifice, but also seems clear that a blood sacrifice was required, Hebrews 12:23-24.

Does the blood in this passage refer 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 this had to do with a blood sacrifice offered by Abel. Whichever way you interpret it, one thing is clear, the passage doesn’t read, ‘You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 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 offering. The most obvious thing is that it wasn’t the same sort of sacrifice as Abel’s. After all, we have established that Abel did the right thing.

But why would God want an offering 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, 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.


There appears to be a proper time for Cain and Abel to offer their sacrifices because the text says literally, ‘In the course of time.’ Genesis 4:3 in other words there was a ‘prescribed time’.

Apparently, there was also a ‘prescribed place’, it says, ‘they brought their offerings to the Lord.’ Genesis 4:3.

Now, where was that?

My suspicion is, that it was at the place where the cherubim were because in the Old Testament often the cherubim guard the presence of God, but that is just speculation. But there was apparently a prescribed time, ‘in the course of time’.

There was a prescribed place, ‘to the Lord’.

And evidently, there was also a ‘prescribed way’ because notice God said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? If you do what’s right, won’t you be excepted?’ Genesis 4:6

God could only say that if Cain knew what was right to do.

What does the Bible say about faith?

Romans 10:17 ‘Faith comes through hearing.’ You can’t act in faith until you’re given a revelation from God for you to act on. So evidently God had given to them instruction about ‘a time’ and ‘a place’ and ‘a way’ to bring him offerings.

And evidently, God had instructed these first worshippers, that the only acceptable offering for sin had to ‘involve death’.

Now I suspect that he gave that revelation remember when he made coats of skin to Adam and Eve, Genesis 3:21. But somehow God had communicated a revelation that an offering of atonement must involve death.

Yes, the Bible does talk about grain offering but never for atonement. Any offering in the Bible for atonement always involved blood, Leviticus 17:11 / Hebrews 9:22.

Now think about this, is that why possibly Abel was a keeper of flocks? Because he wanted to act in faith to the Lord’s command. You might say, well why wouldn’t he keep flocks?

Now, remember at this point man is still a vegetarian. Why would he keep flocks, if he’s not going to eat meat? I guess the wool would be useful for clothing.

But evidently, it was important to Abel to always make sure there was always a lamb ready for sacrifice to God.



"Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need."