In Genesis 4:1-7 God seems incredibly unfair. Two brothers, Cain and Abel, bring their offerings. One brings “some of the fruits of the soil…” (v. 3 TNIV). The other brings “fat portions of the firstborn of his flock…” (v. 4 TNIV).
God accepted Abel and his offerings but not the offerings of his brother.
Why did God do that? Was He in the mood for steak that day and therefore rejected the salad?
Was it to demonstrate His absolute freedom to do whatever He liked, a chance to show that “Life is unfair but God is free? (Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Atlanta: John Knox, 1982, p.56)?”
Was it because God demands blood sacrifice, and farmer or shepherd, you have to come before Him with an animal sacrifice? Doesn’t seem to say so in the text.
The book of Hebrews gives us this summary of the transaction — “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” (TNIV) — but it only begs the question. In what way did Abel demonstrate his faith?
The answer is simple and is found in the text. Bruce Waltke summarises it this way:
“In actuality, the key to Cain’s failure is found in the narrator’s careful descriptions of Cain and Abel’s tribute. Cain brings ‘some of the fruits.’ There is no indication these are the first or the best. Abel brings the best, fat from ‘the firstborn.’ Cain’s sin is tokenism. He looks religious, but in his heart he is not totally dependent on God, childlike, or grateful.”(Genesis, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001, p.97)
In our day of cholesterol phobia, we may not recognize the significant of “fat” in biblical times. In ancient times, the fat was considered the choicest part of the animal. And the firstborn was the most important part of the flock. So the fat of the firstborn is the best of the best.
Cain did his religious duty. But his heart was not in it. Abel’s worship was intentional. He loved the Lord with all his heart, soul and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5). He gave the best of his best. And God says that is the only worship acceptable. How could we even imagine even for a minute that the Almighty would accept token worship? Or be fooled by those going through the motions?
Even on our best day the best of our best would not be good enough for God. But He sees the trajectory of our hearts. He is even willing to accept two fishes and five loaves (John 6:9), or even “a fraction of a penny” (Mark 12:41-44)) — if the heart is right.
I preached on this passage last Sunday and as always, it is the speaker who most needs to hear the message. I have been a follower of Jesus since 1969 — time enough for Christianity to be just a part of my life, time enough for tokenism to creep in. What is worse I am also a bible teacher, which means I handle the scriptures and talk about the holy all the time. I run the danger of seeing God as just part of my job. God help me.
I also have a different concern. I fear that people will read this piece and throw themselves into more church activism. Too many churches seem to equate giving our best to God with giving our best to the church. Some pastors use such bible passages to get their members to do more to propagate their church programmes. Giving our best to God is not equivalent to burning out for Him.
If we are serious about giving our best to God, neither apathy nor guilt driven activism will be acceptable. If indeed it is our heart that God wants then we should ask the Lord to tutor our hearts. We need to be yoked/reyoked with Him (Matthew 11:28-30) and learn from Him what precisely He expects from us. What we cannot do is go through life careless as to how we relate to Him.
Each morning when we awake, we have a choice to make. What will we bring to the altar? We can bring lip service and tokenism. Or we can pour out our lives as a drink offering (2 Timothy 4:6). It appears there is no middle path.
Give of your best to the Master;
Give Him first place in your heart.
Give Him first place in your service;
Consecrate every part.
(Give Of Your Best to the Master, Grose & Barnard)