Of the man Abel, the second son of Adam and Eve, we have this simple introduction along with his brother Cain: “Now Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground” (Genesis 4:2 NAS).
In this extraordinarily brief introduction, we have much of all that we know about Abel. It really is not a great deal of background information. It is true that we are told that Abel offered a sacrifice to God that was acceptable, but other than by this assuming that he must have had a heart for God, the account does not tell us for what reason this sacrifice was acceptable.
Of Abel himself, in our minds we picture this man as a simple shepherd roaming the hills with his little flock of sheep. At least this is what most Bible commentaries say about Abel. In search of something to write about this man for whom we have little information, they usually say something to the affect that “shepherds in the Middle East have shepherded their flocks in similar manners for thousands of years.” However, in our haste to assume that there is not much about which to consider in this second son of Adam and Eve, we have not allowed ourselves to ask some important and often overlooked questions.
A Vegetarian Shepherd
The first of our questions is this: Why was Abel a shepherd, or a “keeper of flocks,” as the text puts it? I ask this question because, in these first days after creation, there does not seem to be most of the purposes for which we today consider important for keeping flocks. At least not those common purposes that the shepherds in the Middle East have been doing it for thousands of years.
The principle reason that people have kept sheep throughout history has been for food, but it seems like this cannot have been Abel’s motivation. As a matter of fact, it is likely that this should not have been the reason for keeping flocks for several generations after Abel. From what we are able to make out from the brief account that we have written for us in the Bible of that early era, the first generations of people upon the earth should have been vegetarians. At least, this is how God first had instructed the people to live.
Shortly after the creation account and regarding the diet of Adam and Eve, and even the diet of the animals, God said only this: “I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food” (Genesis 1:29-30 ESV).
It was only much later, at least fifteen hundred years later, after Noah and his family emerged from the ark after the great flood that God told them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything” (Genesis 9:1-3 NIV).
This permission to eat meat came only many generations after Abel kept his flocks.
Uses of Animal Fiber
In the family line of Cain, the elder brother of Abel, we read of a man named Jubal. Of Jubal it is said that he was “the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock” (Genesis 4:20). The question that I asked of Abel can also be asked of the descendants of Jubal, “Why did they have livestock”?
This brings up another major reason for the traditional keeping of animals – for the shearing of their wool or fleece to make clothing and other materials. This no doubt certainly could have been an additional reason for keeping flocks in the first generations upon the earth. This is especially evident in the family of Jubal, whom, we are specifically told, were tent-dwellers. Tents, of course, need to be made from some type of material. If this cloth was to be woven from animal fiber, to weave sufficient amounts of cloth would no doubt require a good number of sheep or other animal with enough fleece to make the effort worthwhile.
Obedient to the Instructions of God?
However, in saying all of this, and although God gave permission to eat meat only after the flood of Noah, it is not at all a given fact that in the years leading up to that time, every human on earth followed this ordinance of God. I say this especially concerning the family line of Cain and Jubal. I would not at all be surprised if this family line did more than simply shear the wool from the animals. Despite the fact that God told these people that they should not eat meat, it does not seem to me that they necessarily obeyed God in this regard. They seemed not at all to be concerned with other aspects of pleasing God, so it seems doubtful to me that they would be so in this aspect.
Some generations later, when God did sanction the eating of meat to Noah, it does not seem like it was a completely new concept to Noah, although with little doubt, he himself was a vegetarian before God gave permission to eat meat. It was said of Noah that he was a “righteous man, blameless in his time.” (Genesis 6:9).
But even if Noah himself did not eat meat, it may have been something that he had seen in the wicked generation among whom he lived. Although this was not permitted by God in the generations leading up to his days, it is possible and even probable that in that extremely wicked generation, many people that did not submit to the prohibition. When the ban was lifted for Noah and his family, Noah was simply instructed in what manner he should prepare and eat the meat (Genesis 9:3-4).
Keeper of Flocks
I wish not to dwell on this question of the eating of meat, however, for we are principally concerned here with the life of Abel. Thus, we return to the original question that we asked about Abel. “Why did he keep flocks”? Unlike the ungodly family line of Cain, keeping them as a source of food seems to be out of the question for Abel, although certainly he may have used the milk from the animals for food.
We also have the possibility (and perhaps likelihood) that Abel used the wool from the animals for making clothing and tents. Although we learn only of the two brothers Cain and Abel as the second generation upon the earth at this time, there were other siblings that came after them, enough so that a flock for wool and milk may have been required. Nevertheless, for reasons that we shall explore in a few minutes, it may be true that these were not the only purposes for Abel in keeping his flocks.
An Additional Reason for the Flocks
In the verses that follow the introduction of Cain and Abel, we have the account of the offerings that they each brought to God:
So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard (Genesis 4:2-5 NAS).
We have already asked the question of the reason why the offering of Abel was acceptable, but the offering of Cain was not. In cases of the Bible such as this one, we are not certain what we can assume about what these men from only the second generation of people on the earth understood about the concept of sacrifices given as worship, or for the purposes of atonement and forgiveness of one’s sins.
It seems to us a simple matter to look at verses later in the Scriptures that speak of the close connection with the blood of the one sacrificed in order for the forgiveness to be effective. We do not know all the reasons that this blood sacrifice might be so, but this is the clear teaching of Scripture. The concept of the sacrifice of an innocent life as a covering for the sin of another was, if you remember, introduced to us even in the Garden of Eden when God took the life of an innocent animal in order to make garments for Adam and Eve. That was the subject of last week’s post.
Later in Scripture, we read how God was to set up an elaborate system of blood sacrifice in the Old Testament (see Exodus 24:8, Leviticus 4:25–26, and Leviticus 17:11). Further along in the Bible, in the New Testament book of Hebrews, it states plainly, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22b ESV).
These teachings however, came much later in time than when Able and Cain were alive. The simple fact of the matter is that we do not know with any amount of certainty what Able and Cain knew and understood about the concept of sacrifice, and what they did not. We will get back to this topic in a minute, but if we put this information aside for the moment, we again ask the question concerning what made the sacrifice of Abel acceptable to God, but not that of Cain.
What was wrong with Cain’s Offering?
It has been sometimes assumed that the reason that God rejected Cain’s offering was not the offering itself, but the heart attitude of the one who brought it, that is, the heart attitude of Cain.
Some commentators of the Bible have said that it was unimportant that Cain brought a plant offering instead of a blood offering, likening Cain’s offering to the meal or grain offering for which God would one day give instructions to Moses. Rather than focusing on the fact that it was a plant offering instead of an animal offering, these commentators usually take issue instead with the fact that Cain may not have offered the best of his crop, as did Abel. It is mentioned that Able offered the “firstlings” of his flock, but no such designation is given to Cain’s offering (Genesis 4:3-4). Cain just brought some of his crop and may not have worried so much about the quality of what he brought.
By this it is assumed that the distinction between the two offerings was not that one was an animal sacrifice and the other an offering of a crop, but because one offering was given with foresight and reverence, and the other given carelessly. In other words, the offering itself had little meaning apart from the attitude and the life of the person bringing it.
Indeed, I must say that the heart attitude of the one bringing the sacrifice is extraordinarily important. We see the importance of this again centuries later in the person of king Saul of Judah. The subject of his heart attitude was the very point of what the prophet Samuel said to King Saul. When Saul went to war to punish the Amalekites, he was instructed by the prophet, who was speaking for the Lord, to put to death all of the livestock of the Amalekites. Rather than doing this, however, Saul kept back the best of the livestock with the self-pious reason “to sacrifice to the Lord your God,” as he said to the prophet.
Samuel the prophet rebuked Saul for this, saying that “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15). In this instance, even if the sacrifice of Saul may possibly have been done properly and according to the correct instructions, the sacrifice itself remained meaningless because it was done with a disobedient heart. This was a truth repeated by Jesus to the religious leaders of his own day as he quoted these same words of Samuel, “To obey is better than sacrifice” (Matthew 12:7; Mark 12:33).
The Meaning of Sacrifice
In speaking about the sacrifices brought to God by Abel and Cain, we must say that the heart attitudes of the two brothers were important, but the form of the sacrifice seems also to be of significance. The Lord has always placed importance in the details concerning matters of worship. When he instituted the pattern of sacrifice to Moses, God was very particular in almost every detail and warned Moses that he was to “see to it that [he] make them after the pattern for them, which was shown to [him] on the mountain” (Exodus 25:40; Hebrews 8:5).
In saying all of this, we still cannot say what the particulars were concerning the offerings brought by Abel and Cain. Whatever we think may or may not be the case, what we choose to believe about the matter is an assumption on our part. However, it is my opinion that there should have been some understanding on the part of Cain that this offering was to be a blood sacrifice of sorts.
Of course, this is not stated in the much abbreviated account of those first days on history, just as we had not been given any of the details about the skin of the animal used for the covering of Adam and Eve. Also in that case, God did not state that this was to be the foundation and the beginning of what was to become a large body of teachings regarding sacrifices and culminating even in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, this is most often seen to be the case concerning what God did for Adam and Eve.
I view the sacrifices that Cain and Abel brought to God as a continuation of that teaching. I have already spoken of Noah, and now we see that the instructions of sacrifice in some way must have continued right up until the time of Noah, even though we have no record of it. We will remember that when Noah was to enter the ark, he was told by God to take with him seven of every clean animal, but only one pair of every animal that was unclean (Genesis 7:2). The clean animals were to be used as sacrificial animals when Noah again emerged from the ark after the flood (Genesis 8:20).
From where did this concept of clean and unclean animals come? How was it that Noah knew of the sacrificial system? This was well before the instructions for the sacrificial distinctions of clean and unclean were given to Moses by God. It was also well before all of the other instructions about the meanings of sacrifice was given to Moses. Nevertheless, Noah understood the manner and meaning of sacrifice because the teachings of sacrifice and atonement in the first generations. As I mentioned, none of these instructions between the time of Adam and Noah are recorded for us. However, the teachings were much more advanced than we sometimes recognize. The beginning of this understanding came with the teachings to Adam and Eve and continued through Abel.
A Sacrifice that Requires Faith
The writer of the book of Hebrews says concerning the testimony of Abel:
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks (Hebrews 11:4 ESV).
We should notice that, according to this verse in Hebrews, Abel made the offering based on his faith in what he was told. One of the aspects of faith is that the person obeys instructions, even if he or she does not completely understand why things should be done in a particular way. If we say that we have faith in God, then it is incumbent upon us to live in the manner that God tells us that we should live, even if we do not understand the reasons why.
Abel no doubt did not know why a sacrifice of the first of his sheep was important in this sacrifice, just as we frankly do not understand all of the particulars of why Jesus had to die for our sins. We may have come to learn a great deal because of the body of teachings that we have in the Scripture, and we may have come to understand that it was necessary for Jesus to die in order for us to be saved from the penalties of our rebellion against God, which we generally call “sin.” However, the fundamental question of why? is still unknown to us. Why was the blood of Jesus required?
The Difficulties and Importance of Faith
Nevertheless, we believe it as an exercise of our faith in what God has told us. Faith is always important in our relationship with God. We must have faith in what he has told us.
It is puzzling to me why living by faith in God is such a difficult aspect of life for some people to accept, since even our everyday lives continually require that we place faith in something or someone. The requirement of living by faith is true in even mundane things.
If your automobile is making a small scraping sound when you drive it and your mechanic is telling you that you need to bring it in to the shop so that he can take a look at it, if you trust your mechanic, you will do it. The car may still seem to run fine. It goes down the road without trouble and the sound is not severe, but you know your mechanic. His recommendations to you have always been true in the past, and you trust him. You have faith in your mechanic, so you bring your car in.
This aspect of having faith is certainly true when it comes to these sacrifices of Cain and Abel. Even if the two brothers may not have understood all of the aspects of why the offerings were to be as God had told them, if the sacrifice was to be of the correct form, by faith they would have done as God instructed. Able brought his with faith, Cain did not.