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In Genesis 4, we read the following account of Cain and Abel:

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. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Genesis 4:3-5

The story continues that Cain continued in anger and ended up murdering Abel.

So, Cain's offering was not accepted by God, while Abel's offering was. Why was this so? What was it about Cain's offering that made it unacceptable, what was it about Abel's offering that made it acceptable?

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

One interpretation is that Cain's offering was not selective but Abel's offering was of the best ("fat portions") of the special ("firstlings"). Under this interpretation, Abel considered God well worthy of special honor (which tends to be associated with love), while Cain may have viewed the sacrifice more as something to be done, an expected action that was satisfied (perhaps indicating a legalistic inclination, perhaps something like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son). Abel's offering of "firstlings" may also have indicated his understanding that the produce of his flock was a gift from God.

Another interpretation--which I do not believe to be accurate--is that Abel's offering involved blood, indicating a recognition of his need for atonement. This interpretation seems not to account for the special aspects of Abel's sacrifice (and the context gives no indication that the "offering" was one for sins, though likewise it does not specifically indicate thanksgiving).

Even if one views the passage as not clearly giving the reason for God's favor to Abel, the general message of Scripture is that God "looks at the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7) and so one can assume that God's favor coincided with Abel's loving and faithful heart. In fact, assuming that the type of sacrifice itself is what wins God's favor would be wrong-thinking because he does not benefit from such sacrifices (e.g., Psalm 50:9 [NIV]: "I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens,") but seeks a heart-sacrifice (e.g., Psalm 51:17 [NIV]: "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.") of which outward sacrifice is to be a fruit.

In addition, Hebrews 11:4 indicates that the offering came from faith, a trait of the heart without which "it is impossible to please God" (11:6) [NIV]:

By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings.

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To whoever downvoted this answer (around 4 p.m. EDT, 11 June 2013) providing a reason for downvoting is generally helpful. I could agree that this answer would benefit from reworking and some actual research (e.g., commentary reading), but specifying the problematic aspect would be helpful. –  Paul A. Clayton Jun 11 '13 at 20:28
    
OT sacrifies were shadows of NT realities. I think you underestimate the importance of the blood. And no, I wasn't the one who downvoted. –  Matt Nov 14 '13 at 20:49
    
For reference: Tim Keller at Redeemer has a sermon on the 1st paragraph of the answer above. It explains things very well. It is titled Sin As Predator. –  user5197 Jan 22 at 7:04
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I find that with blood all things are made clean. In the temple everything including the people were sprinkled with blood. In Egypt, blood was placed upon the door posts to divert the death angel. The clothing of Adam and Eve supplied by God were skins and the offering of Abel was the fat thereof which came form his lambs. It is without a doubt that the most prominent feature of worship is blood. It is the atonement for sin. As far back as the first men who lived on the face of the earth the requirement was blood. To this very day it is blood that cleanses man. The blood of Jesus ie.. the blood of the Lamb. This is the very thing Abel dealt with when bringing a 'gift' to God.

Whereas with Cain there was the gift of works. To build, plant, or produce in any way builds our needs and desires but they do not answer the relationship issue with God. The fact that God did not accept Cain's 'gift' explains the most important part of our relationship with God. IF you are unable to recognize that we are filthy and unable to have the clean relationship we had before the fall then all that you bring is as a filthy rag. You can not come into the presence of God without the sacrifice for sin. Without the shedding of blood their is no remission of sin. Every time the high priest came into the presence of God it was with a sacrifice. Even now you can not enter into His rest without the sacrifice of the Son of God. Cain did not acknowledge this. Even today when men reject acknowledgement of the sacrifice of Christ and believe that if they are "good enough" they will be let into Heaven. Thus the rejection and the sending to hell. You must acknowledge your state and present Jesus as your sacrifice in order to enter into His rest. Thus Cain hated and killed his brother than to acknowledge his state.

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+1 Yeah, I think this is a key part of the question. Perhaps the best answer would be one that stresses this but also mentions the fact that Abel offered the first while Cain did not. Can you update your answer with this? –  Narnian May 22 '13 at 20:59
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Simple, there was no blood.
You see, without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin. (Heb 9:21).

Do you know what the first sacrifice was?

It was actually an animal. It was performed by God himself who clothed (covered) Adam and Eve with it's skin after they sinned. God showed and taught Adam and Eve about the sacrifice. I have no doubt Adam and Eve also taught their sons this too.

All the old testament sacrifices are a shadow of what Jesus would do on the cross. The death of the animal and the shedding of a clean and spotless animal is a shadow of Jesus' death. Later it was made part of the law but it's always been there and it provided a temporary covering for the sins of the people.

Heb 11:4 By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.

When Cain brought his sacrifice where was the blood? he thought he could come to God in his own way. But God showed Adam and Eve how he was to come. God then gave Cain a chance to "do right" and bring the right offering in faith, but he did not. That is why his offering was not accepted. It's simply because it wasn't an animal sacrifice. Cain could have asked his brother for a calf but he didn't. Instead he brought produce from the cursed ground.

Have a read of Hebrews 9 as well, it's also very interesting.

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