When trying to understand why God rejected Cain’s offering, commentators have made a number of suggestions. Some suggest that because Cain’s offering was not a blood offering that it was rejected, some suggest that this is an example of God’s divine sovereignty and predestination, some have even suggested that God chose Abel’s offering because it had a better aroma. The most common suggestion, and I believe the best, is that Abel, with a thankful heart, gave from the very best that he had but Cain gave only from his leftovers. Here are some things to consider when trying to understand why God rejected Cain’s gift.
1) The Structure of the language in the passage implies that Cain’s gift was careless. Hebrew tends to be very terse and when additional adjectives are used to describe something, it usually is significant. I have broken apart the two parallel portions from this passage regarding the gifts so that it is a little easier to see how they compare one to another. (Note: Hebrew is read from right to left).
|מנחה||—||מפרי האדמה||—||—||ויבא קין|
|a gift||—||From the crops||—||—||And Cain brought|
|—||ומחלבהן||צאנו||מבכרות||גם הוא||והבל הביא|
|—||and from their fat||of his flocks||from the firstborn||also he||And Abel brought|
2) The possessive “his” is used in describing Abel’s offering but absent in the description of Cain’s offering suggesting that Abel’s offering may have been more personal.
3) The term Firstborn/Firstfruit can be used to speak both of animal and grain offerings (Lev. 2:14). Similarly, “fat,” meaning the best part, was also used in reference to grain offerings. While these terms are translated differently into English they are the same in Hebrew and their absence in the description of Cain’s offering is a strong indication that Cain’s offering was less than satisfactory.
4) Cain’s response to the rejection of his offering is a strong indication that his heart was not right before God.
5) The texts states that Cain and Abel brought a “gift” and never suggests that either gift was a “sacrifice.” In the Levitical law an offering ( מנחה ) almost universally refers to a grain offering. While this word can occasionally refer to a “gift” in a more general sense (like it does in this passage), as a technical term of the Levitical law it never refers to an animal sacrifice. If the intent was to imply that a blood sacrifice was required, one would expect the vocabulary of a blood sacrifice to be used; it is not.
6) Ancient Rabbinic tradition suggests that Cain brought from the refuse. (Ge. Rab. 22.5) and Philo (1st century philosopher) saw Cain as an example of a “self-loving man” who showed his gratitude to God too slowly and then not from the first of his fruits.
7) Commentators, both modern and ancient, have frequently noted that the rejection of Cain’s offering was not based on the kind of offering but of its quality and his heart attitude in bringing it to the Lord.
“The passage is intent on showing the contrast between the two men. Also interpreting Cain as stingy conforms with the narrative’s depiction of his self-absorbed attitude (4:7) and his absence of conscience (4:13).” K. Mathews, The New American Commentary, Vol 1 – Genesis 1-11.
“The ground of the difference is not stated, and it can only therefore be inferred. But it can hardly have lain in anything except the different spirit and temper actuating the two brothers. Cain, it is to be noticed, as soon as he perceives that his offering has not been accepted, becomes angry and discontented – in itself a sufficient indication that his frame of mind was not what it should have been.” S. R. Driver, Westminster Commentaries – The book of Genesis.
“Contrary to the popular opinion that Cain’s offering was not accepted because it was not a blood sacrifice, it seems clear from the narrative that both offerings, in themselves, were acceptable — they are both described as “offerings” (מנחה) and not “sacrifices” (זבח). J. Sailhamer, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 2
“Abel said: “My sacrifice was accepted because my good deeds exceeded yours.” Cain answered: “There is no justice and there is no judge, there is no world to come and no reward or punishment for the righteous and wicked.” About this the brothers quarreled. Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him with a stone.” Jonathan ben Uzziel, 1st Century B.C.
“And Cain brought from the crops an offering for the Lord – from the refuge. An evil tenant, he was eating the first-fruits and from the wealth for the King.”
Berashit Rabbah 22:5