It’s Christmastime. Company buffets with honey-baked ham conclude with white elephant exchanges. At the mall, window displays compete for the attention of shoppers, who seem to march on search-and-destroy missions for “the perfect gift.” More timid shoppers, who try to avoid the hustle and bustle, surf the Net in the safety of their homes. ’Tis the season for gift giving. And each gift we give can reveal a lot about our relationship with its recipient.
That was certainly the case in Genesis 4. There we read about a murder that happened all because someone gave a halfhearted gift. In this case the recipient was the Lord.
The skinny on fat
The scene had begun so beautifully. Eve, like any mom, must have had great hopes for her two boys—Abel, the shepherd, and Cain, the farmer. But life soured quickly: “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” (Gen. 4:3–4, nasb). If we look first at what Abel brought, we notice it was “of the firstlings”—the firstborn animals. (Later in the Law God required the firstborn of everything.) We also see in the description of Abel’s gift that he brought fat portions of the animals.
North Americans devalue fat. In fact, we avoid fat at all costs and stock our grocery shelves with nonfat foods. But in much of the world, even today, fat is considered a delicacy of the highest order. My husband and I discovered this fact when we were touring a hospital overseas. One of our guides served us hors d’oeuvres, and my husband popped a square of mozzarella in his mouth—or so he thought. It was actually raw fat! Our hosts had offered us their best. That’s exactly how God regarded the fat on animals. When offered in sacrifice, fat made a pleasing gift. Contrast that with the gift Cain brought. The text says simply, “He brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the ground.” Later in biblical history we see grain listed as an appropriate offering. Yet where are the firstfruits? Rather than bringing God the best, Cain brought some of the stuff he grew. Nothing special.
I grew up in Oregon’s fertile Willamette Valley. To supplement the family income my dad planted a one-acre garden, a pear orchard, and a Christmas tree farm. He was good at it, too. Every August he set aside the largest, most perfectly formed pears and exhibited them at the state fair. Sometimes his rhubarb was good enough to enter alongside the pears. Or a squash would make it all the way to the judges’ booth. For his display Dad chose only the choicest fruit. You don’t take leftovers to the judge!
What God wants
The writer of Hebrews tells us that “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts” (Heb. 11:4).
Unfortunately Cain’s offering revealed a low view of God. He brought something that cost him nothing. So we read, “And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Gen. 4:4).
Sure enough, when God preferred Abel’s offering, “Cain was very angry and his face fell.” But our gracious God gave Cain a second chance, saying, “Why are you angry? And why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must rule it” (v. 6).
In my junior year of high school, my little sister and I both played on the varsity soccer team. At the awards banquet she received the award for “Most Valuable Player.” Me? I got nothing. She was a better soccer player, and now everybody knew it. Was I happy for her, recognizing I could excel in other arenas? No way!
Sadly, Cain had that older-sibling jealousy to an extreme. So “when they were in the field Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him” (v. 8). In the field no one can witness a murder; no one can hear screams for help. Cain killed his own brother in cold blood.
So the Lord showed up again. And He did the same thing with Cain that he did when Adam sinned. He asked a question: “Where is Abel your brother?” (v. 9). Yet unlike his father, Adam’s firstborn showed no shame. He started with a lie: “I do not know.” But then he added a smart-alecky remark: “Keeper of my brother, am I?” Can’t you see the shrug and hear the cocky attitude? He’s hinting that he thinks God is unreasonable even to ask the question.
Back in the orchard Adam blamed the sin on “the woman You gave me.” Here his son acts the same way, times two. Since the first human and the first sin, we have often blamed God for our own wrongs. Now if it had been up to me, I would have struck Cain with lightning. But our gracious God asked another question: “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground” (v. 10). From the ground God had cursed, the ground that Cain had worked, and the ground that soaked up Abel’s blood, we see the evidence of Cain’s evil. Here’s the penalty: “When you cultivate the ground, it will no longer yield its strength to you; you will be a … wanderer on the earth” (v.12). At this point we might expect Cain to say, “Thanks for not giving me what I deserve.” But instead he complained, “My punishment is too great to bear!” (v. 13). They’ll kill me! Can you imagine? They might want to do to Cain what he did to his brother.
God showed him mercy again, saying, “Whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold” (v. 15). Then God put a mark on Cain, so that whenever anyone saw it they would know not to harm him.
In our world full of street signs, billboards, and store signs, we usually think of a sign as a visual image. We might envision Cain’s mark as a placard saying, “Don’t Murder Me.” But the word “mark” could mean something different from that. In Joshua 2:12–13, when Rahab asked for a sign, she received protection for herself and her family. So the sign could simply be God’s protection. We know only the sign’s function: to keep anyone from injuring the murderer. And in that sign we see once again God’s grace. Where is the Old Testament God who is supposedly always vengeful? The word “murder” has been used in Genesis 4 up until now. But when God promised to protect Cain, we see a different word—“injure.” In other words God’s protection of Cain extended beyond those who would “murder” him to those who might beat him up!
So how does the story end? “Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (v. 16). When God drove Adam and Eve from the orchard, they traveled in the same direction: east of Eden. And “Nod” means wandering. So Cain went to the land of wandering—away from the presence of the Lord. And it all started with one shoddy gift.
Each of us is a lot like Cain. East of Eden is where each of us would remain, in the land of wandering, if it weren’t for the saving work of Jesus Christ. Because of Him we no longer walk farther and farther from God. Christ, the most pleasing sacrifice of all time, invites us through His reconciliation back into fellowship with the Father with a promise that one day we’ll eat of a tree in Eden Restored. And knowing that should evoke in us a desire to return to Him what Cain should have given—not our leftovers, but our best offering.
It’s Christmastime—a season when we get so frenzied exchanging cookies and white elephant gifts that, if we aren’t careful, we lose sight of the greatest Gift ever given. We get all wrapped up in giving gifts in honor of His birthday, but like Cain we offer to the honoree our leftovers. What does God really want from us? If we asked Him to tell us His heart’s desire, what would top His Christmas list? No longer does God want animal fat and literal firstfruits. Instead Romans 12:1–2 tells us He wants one thing: us. Our lives. Not grain or dead animals. But ourselves as living sacrifices. The gift we bring says a lot about our relationship with the Recipient.