The Torah tells us that G-d accepted the sacrifice of Hevel (Abel), but not that of Cain. There doesn’t seem to be any reason given as to why, just that G-d admonishes Cain and warns him to mend his ways. The only obvious difference between what they brought was that Cain brought an offering of produce, while Hevel offered an animal sacrifice. Could this have possibly been the reason for G-d’s favoritism, resulting in fratricide?
This is a very intriguing and fundamental question. Let’s review the relevant verses before explaining them. The Torah states (Gen. 4):
“And it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering to G-d. And Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the choicest. And G-d accepted Abel’s offering; but Cain’s He did not. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. And G-d said to Cain: ‘Why are you angry and why is your countenance fallen? If you will improve, shall it not be accepted? But if you do not improve, sin crouches at the door; and it desires [to ensnare] you, but [it is in your power] to rule over it’.”
On the face of it, Cain seems to be a well-intentioned, innocent victim of Divine favoritism. But understanding Cain’s actions requires putting them in context of his overall character.
The Zohar (Gen. p. 54) teaches that Cain and Hevel were very different from one another. Cain was born before Adam had repented his sin and therefore was tainted by the impurity of the Serpent. Hevel was born after Adam repented and was therefore righteous and pure.
Cain’s first infraction was coveting Hevel’s wife. According to the Midrash (B.R. 22:17), Cain and Hevel were born with twin sisters with whom they were to populate the earth. Cain married his twin, but also desired Hevel’s under the claim that as first-born he deserved a double portion – his wife, and that of his brother.
Hevel became a shepherd because he was reluctant to work the ground which had been cursed by G-d. Cain, however, brazenly took to working the earth to prove his own strength and to flout the authority of G-d. He became so obsessed with the earth that his preoccupation with it dominated him entirely and further distanced himself from G-d (B. R. 22:6).
It is this selfish, egotistical, brash and material nature of Cain which made the difference between their offerings.
A careful reading of the verses shows that while Hevel brought choice firstlings, Cain only brought “of” his produce. In fact, the Midrash teaches that Hevel offered generously the best he possessed – animals which had never been sheared or worked (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 21). Cain, on the other hand, brought the most inferior produce he could find in order to save the best for himself. In addition, he audaciously sought to conceal his stinginess by blaming the inferior quality of his offering on G-d for cursing the land while simultaneously intending thereby to exempt himself from having to serve Him (B. R. 16:8).
But G-d was aware of the true motive behind each one’s sacrifice and thus sent a Heavenly fire to consume Hevel’s sacrifice which was offered with purity and generosity of heart; but Cain’s selfish and arrogant sacrifice remained unaccepted on the Altar (B. R. 22:10).
Thus it was not the type, but rather the quality and intention of the offerings that made all the difference between Cain and Hevel’s submissions. Similarly, it was not Divine favoritism, but Cain’s obstinate, egotistical refusal to heed G-d’s warning and his subsequent unjustified jealousy which brought about such an evil result.
May G-d break and humble the “Cains” of the world and protect us from their malicious guiles and wiles.
- Sources: The Midrash Says, Genesis, pp. 60-65