I’m not sure about you, but for many years the word “worship” brought images of music and singing and dancing. If you go to college to be a worship leader, you’re expected to learn music and play an instrument, or at least sing. Plus the average church splits services into two basic portions, the worship portion with music and/or singing, and the message portion. But the first example of worship encountered in the Bible is in Genesis chapter 4, the record of Cain’s and Abel’s offerings.
In English we often use the words “sacrifice” and “offering” interchangeably and frankly I haven’t studied the significant differences between the two. In Genesis there are 2 different Hebrew words translated “offering” and two different words translated “sacrifice.” No matter what word is used however, something is destroyed by fire. The word used in this passage of scripture is minha and is translated “offering,” so I’ll be using the word “offering” here when I’m talking about what Cain and Abel brought to the Creator.
Cain worked the ground and Abel was a shepherd. They both brought a portion of the fruits of their labor to the Father as an act of worship, an offering by fire. However, nowhere is there any recorded instruction from Yehovah to Adam and Eve to “offer” anything which begs the question, what made their sons bring something to a specific place in order to destroy it and call it an “offering”? What made them believe this was an acceptable act of worship?
I’ve heard sermons and read commentary that blood sacrifices were instituted when the Father put “coverings of skin” on Adam and Eve, but none of the words I mentioned above are found in that passage. Even if the Father killed animals for their skins, nothing in the words indicates that those animals were used as offerings or sacrifices. Again, there are no recorded instructions for Adam and Eve to make offerings and sacrifices of any type to Yehovah, so where did Cain and Abel get the idea?
The answer is, we really don’t know. We don’t even know if Adam and Eve ever brought offerings to Yehovah; all we know is that Cain and Abel thought burnt offerings were a good way to worship the Father of creation.
What I’ve heard and read about this passage of scripture assumes that the offerings were sacrifices for sin, but that’s not what is actually written. Nothing in the passage tells us what kind of offerings these were, just the items that each brought to put on the fires. Later on, when the Father does give instructions for different offerings and sacrifices, He includes first fruit offerings (grain) and thank offerings (animals), so we could just as easily conclude that the brothers were bringing these types of offerings. There isn’t even a reason given for why one was accepted and the other rejected, only that Cain did not “do well.”
Let’s summarize what we do know from the written record and what we don’t. What we don’t know is why Cain and Abel chose to make burnt offerings as a form of worship since there is no instruction to do so. We don’t know what type of offerings these were, and we don’t know exactly how Cain did not “do well.” (Yes, the author of Hebrews said that Abel’s was “better” than Cain’s, but that still doesn’t tell us how it was better.) Any time we think we know these answers, we’re really just speculating, and speculation never makes good doctrine.
What we do know is that they brought these offerings to the Creator and laid them on the fire, and we know that one offering was accepted, the other rejected. We also know that Cain did not “do well.” That’s it, that’s all we can say with certainty that we truly “know” about this incident. Is it disconcerting to realize how little we actually definitively know about this incident? Are you challenged to check this for yourself? Good. We need to check for ourselves that what we believe is true, otherwise we’re simply following what man has given us to believe instead of following what our Father in Heaven has given us to believe. You should check everything you ever read or hear for yourself, just like the Bereans did.
And be willing to accept that we don’t always get an answer to our questions. Our Father apparently didn’t think we needed to know what type of offerings these were or precisely why one was rejected and the other accepted. Apparently He thinks that what we need to focus on is that He won’t always accept what we think is an acceptable act of worship.
While we don’t know what it was that Cain did wrong it’s obvious that he did do something wrong or the offering wouldn’t have been rejected. The bigger problem for Cain comes after the offering was rejected. He continued to go down the “wrong” path instead of simply doing what was right, whatever that might have been in that context. When the Father talked to Cain about the rejection, He didn’t even rebuke him, but questioned him; “Why are you angry…? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, will you not be rejected?” (Gen 4:6 – 7a, ESV) We’re human, there’s always room for improvement.
Yehovah’s next statement to Cain intrigues me: “If you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Gen 4:7b, ESV, emphasis mine). We don’t know exactly how Cain did “not do well” with the offering, but apparently Cain hadn’t yet “sinned.” Instead, sin was “crouching at the door” and if he chose to do so, Cain could have overcome that sin. Sadly, he chose to let sin overcome him and the rest is history.
In conclusion, worship isn’t just music and dancing. The first recorded acts of worship were burnt offerings brought by two brothers, children of the first humans the Father created. We don’t know why the brothers chose this as an act of worship, but that’s what it was. It’s hard for modern people to think about “worship” in this way, but that’s the way they did it “way back when.” The smell of burning grain and flesh, the heat of the fire, the smoke rising (or maybe not) are all part and parcel to early worship. The worship was intended to please God, but obviously our worship doesn’t always do that. Instead of focusing on all the reasons why Cain’s offering was rejected (wrong sacrifice, wrong attitude, etc., etc.), maybe we need to focus on Yehovah’s words in the end; “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, will you not be rejected? If you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
We can’t help Cain overcome sin in his life no matter how much we try to figure out what he did wrong, but we can rule over the sin in our own. And when we do, our worship will do what Abel’s did; become a pleasing aroma that rises to Heaven and pleases our Father and Creator.