the divine arch of human redemption (4)
CAIN AND ABEL
When we come to consider the events recorded for us in Genesis chapter 4 where the Divine Scheme of Redemption and the reactions of the first sons of Adam and Eve to it are stated, we perceive the extent to which the essential facts pertaining to the Atonement were revealed and understood by the first family.
THE TWO SEEDS
At the birth of Cain, Eve exclaimed, “I have gotten a man from the Lord” as though this first experience of the outworking of the creative process in childbirth was so wonderful that it could only be ascribed to God. No doubt in the process, Eve experienced the Truth of that part of God’s sentence upon her implicit in Genesis Chapter 3, verse 16, to which may be added the words of John 16:21: “A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour has is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world”. In the words of Eve, there is an underlying inference that in her man-child was the seed in whom salvation from death would be obtained. So she named this, her firstborn son, Cain, meaning “acquisition” in the sense of a treasure. Alas! The consequence of sin were not to be overcome so simply and so soon! Her second son she called Abel, meaning “transitory”, or “vanity”. Here, right from the beginning, we are able to discern how fallible human judgement is when weighing matters which be within the ambit of God’s mind and purpose. He whom Eve called a “treasure” was ere long to demonstrate the degree to which the Serpent mind so soon became paramount, resulting in enmity, murder and fratricide. She called him “vanity”, whom the Word of God describes as “righteous Abel”. The former revealed himself to be faithless and a seed of the serpent; the latter a man of faith, a Type of the seed of the woman.
It is, we feel, not without significance – indeed fitting – that these two sons were born in the order indicated. In matters relating to the sin-constitution of things then being laid, Cain was a prime figure. In him we can detect how the Mind of the Flesh became the dominant power in his life, a feature which has long been pre-eminent in the World around us. Cain was a direct result of transgression, and as the firstborn naturally took precedence over his brother. So the mind of the flesh, with its diabolic content, is stronger and naturally takes precedence over the mind of the Spirit which characterised the actions of Abel.
THE TWO OFFERINGS
The record in Genesis 4:3 informs us that “Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground”. That the Scriptures give us this information would imply that there is meaning to be searched out, especially as, if we omit that part of the verse, the message that follows appears to lose nothing by it’s omission. These two brothers had radically different occupations which reflected the bent of their minds. On the face of it, and were it necessary to create a distinction, we might well conclude that the occupation of Cain, being more physical was more excellent, for it conformed precisely with that edict which God pronounced upon Adam because of transgression, “in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground”.
On the other hand, the occupation of Abel was far less laborious, and more an exercise of the mind. No doubt he was a good shepherd, searching out the best pasture in order to provide in particular for the firstlings of his flock, which may well have been the sole purpose of his vocation. That vocation provided plenty of time for reflection on the events in Eden, recounted by his parents, of sin and it’s condemnation, of his mortality and the means of escape from it, provided by God, symbolised in the Lamb that was slain. The Gospel’s joyful sound was his prime preoccupation. Nor are we implying more than is implicit in the record as the sequel demonstrates for we go on to read that “in process of time it came to pass that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof” (Gen 4:3,4). Here is multum in parvo (much in little) indeed.
The expression “in process of time” is, in the original Hebrew, “at the end of days”, denoting a specific and important date. It certainly marked a signal event in the lives of these two men. There is an implication that, when they were yet youths, living under their parent’s roof, Adam sacrificed as the priest of his family, as did Abraham, Job and other patriarchs, a practice which stemmed back to this original source. But as these brothers reached maturity, and entered into men’s estate and each set up for himself, so likewise each became the priest of his own family. The expression “the end of days” marks this transition, and has also the suggestion that the day was a Sabbath, for that was literally the last day of the week, and the day which, from the beginning was particularly set aside for religious worship.
We next observe that both men brought sacrifices and worshipped the true God, for there was no other. It may well be asked at this point as to the place to which they brought their offerings. Again, we have to read between the lines as well as along them. We do not know when the paradise created by God for man was removed following his expulsion from it, but it would altogether have been in keeping in those early days in the instruction of the children of our first parents for it to have been seen, albeit at a distance, as a salutary reminder of what might have been. Moreover the presence of the Cherubim barring the entrance to it (with all they represented) as the door through which access must be obtained if that paradise was to be regained, would serve as a continual reminder of the consequences of transgression and the need for Atonement.
What more appropriate place therefore than here, before the Cherubim, constituting the Altar that Worship and Sacrifice should be offered? Nor are we assuming too much, because following the rejection and cursing of Cain, and his expulsion from God’s presence, he exclaimed, “my punishment is greater than I can bear … From thy faces (plural) shall I be hid”. There is seen rejection, final and absolute, for only in Christ here symbolised in the Cherubim can access to the Tree of Life be obtained.
The record in Genesis 4 goes on to recount how each sacrifices a part of his property as an evident response to, and proof of, his desire to worship. Superficially to a casual onlooker there appeared no external difference in the offerings, save only that which resulted from the different occupations of the two brothers (and what more natural than that!); but that there was a distinction more essential and momentous we cannot doubt, for the one was rejected, and the other accepted, by that God whose attributes are essentially love, justice, truth and mercy.
It is in the full appreciation of what constituted that distinction that all the principles of the atonement are laid bare. To see this, we must consider. We have already seen that the whole plan of redemption was of necessity the design and work of God, a reflection of the Divine mind. It constituted an essential part of what later in the Scriptures is called the gospel. In its outworking, the whole process was remedial: to rid them of that which was like a canker, gnawing away at their vitals until they expired. Of themselves men had no remedy, and more importantly, no hope of any. When man fell, God pointed out the only means of restoration, of becoming whole. That was by means of a mediator, the seed of the woman, who should crush the serpent’s head (from which had proceeded all that had led to man’s fallen state), whilst the serpent should bruise his heel. This was the only remedy held forth. On this promise, and on this promise alone, however amplified, any hope of life must be founded.
Moreover, it cannot be reasonably questioned but that when God gave man this promise of a mediator, He imparted to him a knowledge of all those appointments which in their code of laws would demonstrate the need and efficacy of sacrifice. Otherwise, all religious worship would have been purely arbitrary. One person, if he saw the need at all, might well have selected as a religious observance that which another might have regarded as foolish. Indeed, had sacrifices not been of Divine institution it is quite probable that they would have been entirely discounted, for it is quite obvious that the Almighty has assuredly need of nothing, nor can He find any delight in the destruction of creatures, especially so delightful as lambs, which He Himself has created and imparted life to. Furthermore, unless Divine instruction had been given, how otherwise would men have known what sacrifices constituted acceptable sacrifices?
But we find Noah, whose father Lamech was contemporary with Adam, being entirely conversant with the distinction between clean and unclean animals, and perfectly aware that the latter could not be offered in sacrifice. Moreover, we discover, as works such as The Golden Bough by Sir James Fraser make clear, that amidst the nations and tribes of the earth, with all their innumerable idolatries, all have retained some vestige of the rite of sacrifice to a being who is supreme. A shadow of truth remains, although the substance has vanished. The common factor, however, cannot be the result of chance; it stems back to the Garden of Eden and the promise of God, the one great sacrifice which He had appointed by one offering to take away the sin of the world. Thus we see that both the selection of the victims and the ceremonies which accompanied their Sacrifice must have been of Divine appointment and therefore instruction..
With these facts in mind we proceed. Before transgression man had ready access to his Creator. God walked in paradise and communed with our first parents. From the period of the Fall however, God became inaccessible except through a mediator and that of his appointment. Moreover there had to be on the part of the suppliant, a recognition of his condition and of his actual relationship to God as a transgressor. Man’s real state before his Creator is not now that of an innocent creature, but of a lawbreaker seeking pardon.
Indeed, it was this recognition that was lacking in the sacrifice of Cain. It was an offering which may well have been appropriate to a man in a condition of innocence, as a token of gratitude for blessings received, and an acknowledgement from Whom they flowed. But there was nothing in the first-fruits of the earth which signified his true condition as a dying creature and why. There was nothing that marked his sense of, and thanks for the gracious promise of God of Salvation. There was nothing which bears the least intimation of, or indeed the need for a mediator and redeemer. Though it marked thankfulness for temporal blessings, Cain’s sacrifice not only slighted God’s offered remedy, but it denoted that, he was oblivious of any disease, for there was no confession of guilt. His mind totally devoid of any spiritual content rose no higher than the ground upon which he trod, by reason of sin.
THE FAITH OF ABEL
By contrast, the sacrifice of Abel proceeded on a totally different principle. It revealed a sensitive appreciation of his underlying condition. He came before God as a sinner, yet in full assurance of faith in an evident understanding of and thankfulness for, the promised redeemer. The writer to the Hebrews in telling words states, “by faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous (that he is justified), God testifying of his gifts, and by hit he being dead yet speaketh” (Heb 11:4).
If it be asked, By what faith he presented himself before God, we reply, by faith in the promised seed of the woman because that was the only, though all sufficient, promise then given to exercise faith upon. With the full understanding of all that was involved in that promise, coupled with the act of sacrifice, and the shedding of blood (with the life thereof) Abel revealed by his actions in what evident detail the understood the divine principles intrinsic in the atoning work of Christ. That it was a lamb that he brought as an offering, there can be little doubt. That it was the firstlings of the flock (the word is in the plural) the Scripture confirms. That he understood what they represented we cannot doubt, for his faith would otherwise have been mere credulity – the performance of mere empty ritual which has no saving efficacy. But Abel’s faith was well pleasing to God. “God testifying of his gifts, and by it he being dead yet speaketh”. Abel slew all he offered, poured out their blood on the altar prepared, and burned the fat of his sacrifice. Here was a public declaration to the world; for it is a living testimony (and a public instruction too for those with eyes to see) of a sure hope of salvation in the dying redeemer, pure and lamb-like in character, to be born of a virgin who should destroy the serpent and become in his resurrection the firstfruits of those who lived and died in that same glorious hope and faith. Abel’s sacrifice was not in itself just the ground of his faith, but rather the practical outworking of it in all it represented. It was not of itself able to bring redemption, but was demonstrative of the One promised who could, and would – the perfect antitype.
The words, “firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof” are easily passed over without realising their significance. The two phrases are distinct from each other. They infer that the sacrifice of Abel was in fact of two kinds. Let the reader at this point turn to the book of Leviticus and read the relevant sections in Chapters 1 and 7 concerning these matters. Though the circumstances surrounding each record in Genesis and Leviticus are different, the principles being exemplified are the same.
In the case of Abel, the firstlings mark the burnt offering in which the whole animal was consumed. The fat was expressive of the peace offering in which the offerer himself partook of the flesh, whose fat was sacrificially burnt. Each in it’s turn exhibited our Lord, the great Antitype and the central object of our, and Abel’s faith; but each representing him from a different point of view. In the burnt offering, the whole of the animal was consumed except the skin, which was used as a covering (for sin). The identification of the offerer with the sacrifice was a personal acknowledgement that no sinner could draw near to God without being consumed – that His judgement in the condemnation of sin was just and proper. So the supremacy of God was confirmed and His righteousness upheld. On that basis, and on that alone, sinful man was allowed to come before the Lord.
But if Abel had stopped there, the sacrifice and all it represented would have been incomplete. He would have declared God’s supremacy and justice, and acknowledged his true estate as a dying creature because of sin, but there would have been no exhibition of the mercy of God, and the efficacy of a mediator and saviour. He would have typified himself as a sinner, but without the promised remedy.
For this reason it was necessary to add another offering, represented by “the fat thereof”. This was the peace offering, which followed the burnt offering. This, instead of being all consumed, was divided, part being consumed before God and part being partaken of by the offerer. In such a way, Abel not only represented the necessity for the atonement, but the certainty of it’s saving efficacy. Here is seen the union of the offerer with the sacrifice, and the reconciliation effected thereby. The animal being partly consumed before God and partly used as nourishment to the offerer – a typical eating together – was not only a sign of the union of God in Christ with the believer, but a token of that need for the eating of his flesh, and drinking of his blood, of truly being one with him. All this and more besides in the mind of Abel spoke of his great faith and revealed in what evident fulness he saw the face of the Master.
The record continues: “And the Lord had respect unto Abel and his offering; but unto Cain and to his offering He had not respect” (Gen 4:4,5). The wide distinction between the sacrifices of Cain and Abel needs to be weighed again and again, for they represent all that is involved in the thinking of the flesh in contrast with the mind of the spirit. Let us not forget that sacrifice, though of Divine institution, was a formality, the value of which lay not simply in its outward appearance, but in its inward spirit in the mind of the offerer. The works of Abel were the reactions of a spiritual mind, intelligent in things Divine. They formed a solemn, though joyful, public declaration of his acceptance by faith in the atonement, and of his renewed life and vigour by feeding upon it, by which his inner man might be renewed day by day. Faith in these great truths was the very essence of his offerings.
Cain, on the other hand, in the rejection of God’s promise, imagined himself rich and increased in goods, and having need of nothing. In the ignorance that rejection of God brings, he could not see that in reality he was wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. He audaciously intruded himself into the presence of the Most Holy, in the pride of his own heart claiming as though by right what was a great privilege. There is no evidence of contrition in coming before the Lord, or thankfulness in being invited to share the benefit of an undeserved act of supreme mercy and grace. He was not only a tiller of the ground with his hands, but his heart was enslaved by earthly things. His affections were sensual and devilish, being derived from the serpent. This world was the centre around which his thoughts revolved. His mind so preoccupied had no perception of his spiritual poverty; it was faithless of any atoning sacrifice, or need of any.
So his offering was rejected, and we have seen the reasons why. Outwardly he appeared to be worshipping God, whilst in reality he was worshipping himself. “And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell”; wrathful with God for not accepting what was a demonstration of his own righteousness as he himself conceived it. Though he appears to render obedience in the bringing of his offering, it was not to honour God, bur rather that God might honour and pay respect to him. All this is made manifest by his reactions. There was no submission to the Divine reproof, no enquiring, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?”, in a quiet and humble spirit. Rather is there made manifest in his reaction an enmity bitter and powerful which takes control of his passions, which find their outlet in deadly hatred and envy against his brother.
“And the Lord said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? And why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door (Gen 4:6,7).
As we reflect upon the circumstances which surround these words we can only marvel at the patience and longsuffering of God. Here was a man, a member, albeit a very early one, of a race of beings under the condemnation of death by reason of disobedience, coming before his Maker as though nothing of a contrary nature had occurred, failing to acknowledge his sinful condition, ignoring the means of redemption provided by God, displaying both arrogance and pique because his faithless offering could not be accepted, and God still pleads with him to reconsider his position.
Moreover, there seems little doubt that the word translated “sin”, chattaath, in the expression “sin lieth at the door”, has the primary meaning of “sin offering”, and is so rendered in almost every case elsewhere in Scripture in which sacrifice is the context. Hebrew is a wonderful language which has the power of concentrating a multiplicity of ideas in one word. The problem of translation is to decide from among collateral consentient ideas, all contained in a word, what is the primary one, and then to consider the secondary meanings which also have an application. One writer made the following observation which illustrates the point: “the translators of Hebrew labour under the impossibility of presenting a translation which renders the whole of the original, as a person who should attempt on a flute to play a Beethoven symphony. The best he can achieve is to convey the melody”.
That being said, we return to the theme. Cain had, by his faithless approach to God, only emphasized his sin-stricken state. Yet in spite of all, here is the intimation that a sin offering was provided by God and near to hand, a remarkable testimony that God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance”. The appeal was there made to Cain, and was either ignored or refused. There is moreover the underlying thought that it was more than proud man could accept that he (the elder) should have to demean himself (as he would see it) to take ought of his hated brother’s substance and so publicly acknowledge his own inferiority in things divine. Alas! It has ever been so!
So we see that the secondary meaning of chattaath comes to apply, for in his further disobedience in failing to repent, sin-transgression-lay at his door. But there are collateral ideas too, for when we come to the reality of the atonement in the person of Jesus we shall see that, not only was he the perfect sin offering provided by God, the door through which we may have access to draw near to God, but that sin itself, in the Scriptural definition of it, found its tenuous lodgment even in him, for it was because of that fact that he overcame and destroyed it.
“And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him” (Gen 4:8). The carnal mind activated by pride and jealousy, coupled with a hatred of Diving things with the faith they demand, is here seen in all it’s uncontrollable venom. The drama has long been re-enacted many times since, in the long saga of human history, its pages stained with the blood of many a righteous Abel. The constitution of sin, with all it’s tyranny, bondage and death, has held sway from the time of Cain until now, but it is not always to be. The writer to the Hebrews refers to “Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and … The blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel” (12:24). In that statement lies the glorious hope of salvation from death, made possible by the sacrifice of our Lord, who in his submission to the powers of darkness conquered. Yea, that precious blood does speak better things than that of Abel; not different things, indeed, the same things, only much better, because efficacious to salvation and all that is contingent upon it in the consummation of God’s purpose. Alleluyah!
Eric W Phipps