When it was time for the harvest, Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the Lord. Abel also brought a gift—the best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock. The Lord accepted Abel and his gift, but he did not accept Cain and his gift. [Genesis 4:3-5a (NLT)]
My guests never get the first piece of pie or lasagna because it always turns into a broken, sticky mess with half of it remaining in the pan. They also don’t get the over-baked cookies, the frayed towels, chipped china, or last night’s left-overs. Since I would never serve a guest anything but the best I have to offer, why is it so tempting to give God less than our best?
While Abel offered his first and best, Cain didn’t and we’ve continued much the same way today. We often complain when we’re asked to serve and begrudge the time spent serving. We give God our money after we’ve purchased everything we want and our prayers only when we can find the time or want something. We read His word when there’s nothing better to do, worship Sunday morning if we wake up in time or the golf game is cancelled, and volunteer only at our convenience. It’s our outdated cans that we bring to the food pantry and our stained and torn clothing that we donate to the resale shop.
When Cain and Abel brought their gifts to the Lord, Cain, a farmer, gave from his crops and Abel, a shepherd, gave from his flock. Literally translated, Cain “bringeth from the fruit of the ground a present to Jehovah” and Abel brought “from the female firstlings of his flock, even from their fat ones.” While God was pleased with Abel’s offering, He wasn’t with Cain’s. Some commentators explain God’s displeasure by saying He wanted an animal (blood) sacrifice rather than the bloodless sacrifice from the soil. Scripture, however, doesn’t say that it had to be a blood sacrifice. The Hebrew word used was minchah which clearly meant gift, tribute, or offering and the later law of Moses tells us that both animal and plant offerings were acceptable. The brothers’ offerings were appropriate for their occupations.
God’s problem wasn’t that one gift was fauna and the other flora; he was displeased with one giver’s heart! Showing his love for God, Abel didn’t give just any animal from his flock; he gave the “firstlings.” The Hebrew word used was bakar, meaning the first and best animals. While there is a similar Hebrew word, bakkurah, (translated as “firstfruits”) for the first and best of a grain or fruit offering, that word was not used for Cain’s gift. While the subtle difference is easily missed by 21st century readers, it would have been abundantly clear to the Israelites. While Abel gave the best, Cain just gave some. We don’t know if his offering was blemished, bruised, or just the leftovers from his harvest, but we do know it wasn’t the first and best!
God didn’t confront Cain because he failed to offer meat; he confronted him because Cain’s heart wasn’t in the right place. Rather than an act of worship, his gift was offered begrudgingly rather than willingly, out of a sense of duty than one of love.
We know from the story of the widow’s two coins that it’s not the kind or size of the offering that matters—it’s the heart attitude of the giver that’s important. Man sees only the gift but God sees the heart of the giver. Hallmark’s “When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best” is one of the most recognized slogans of all time. God gave us His best in Jesus; can we give Him anything less in return? Do we care enough to give Him our very best?
We offer with joy and thanksgiving what you have first given us—our selves, our time, and our possessions, signs of your gracious love. Receive them for the sake of him who offered himself for us, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. [Lutheran Book of Worship]