I finished “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” not long ago. This is a Christian work that dates anywhere from the fifth century C.E. to the ninth century C.E. It was written originally in Arabic and was translated into Ethiopic.
In this post, I will highlight how this work addresses a question: Why did God in Genesis 4 accepts Abel and Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain and Cain’s offering?
The answer to this question that I heard when I saw the story of Cain and Abel on Superbook as a kid was that Cain had a bad attitude. Cain did not give God the best, whereas Abel did.
In high school, I read an alternative explanation. This was in a book by E.W. Bullinger entitled The Great Cloud of Witnesses, which was about the exemplars of faith in Hebrews 11. According to Bullinger, what differentiated Abel’s offering from Cain’s offering was not attitude, so much, but rather the nature of the sacrifice. Abel offered an animal sacrifice, whereas Cain offered fruit from the ground. Animal sacrifices atoned for sin because they were blood sacrifices, and without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin (Hebrews 9:22). Fruit sacrifices, by contrast, not only did not atone for sin, but they were also from ground that God had cursed (Genesis 3:17). For Bullinger, the lesson of the Cain and Abel story was that we should trust the blood of Christ for salvation, rather than our own cursed works.
I have heard Bullinger’s interpretation in other settings. When I was in college, I visited a conservative Baptist church. The pastor there was criticizing the view that God rejected Cain’s offering because Cain had a bad attitude, treating it practically as a deception from Satan! The pastor believed that God rejected Cain’s offering because it was not a blood sacrifice, the only kind that would atone for sin. The pastor took the opportunity to invite us to trust in the blood of Christ for salvation. Otherwise, God will reject us and our flawed attempts to win God’s favor.
I lean in the direction of saying that Cain’s sacrifice was rejected on account of Cain’s bad attitude. Genesis 4:4-5 says that Cain brought from the fruits of his ground, and that Abel brought the firstlings of his flock and the fat. The implication seems to be that Abel brought his best for God, whereas Cain did not.
Where does “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” land on this question? Its telling of the story is in Book I, chapters 76-78.
“The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” leans in the direction of saying that God rejected Cain and Cain’s sacrifice on account of Cain’s bad attitude. Cain did not value or enjoy the worship of God. Abel regularly went with his parents to worship God, but Cain often did not go. When Cain did offer a sheep to God, it was the smallest sheep that he could find. Cain was eyeing the sheep when he was sacrificing it, as if he did not want to give it up. Cain had a murderous attitude towards his brother Abel. Cain feared that his parents loved Abel more than him and that they would give his beautiful sister to Abel in marriage, and Satan was encouraging those thoughts. When Abel and Cain both brought offerings, Cain threw Abel away from the altar, offered his own sacrifice, and cried out to God to accept it. But God did not send God’s divine fire from heaven to accept Cain’s offering. God considered Cain proud and (for some reason) fraudulent.
Abel, by contrast, enjoyed the worship of God and was guileless and meek.
There are two things to note, which are relevant to Bullinger’s interpretation.
First of all, “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” does not make a big deal about Abel offering an animal and Cain offering fruit. In fact, that is not even necessarily the case. Cain offers an animal on a couple of occasions. And Adam instructs Abel to offer corn.
Why “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” says this, when Genesis 4 is clear that Cain offered fruit from the ground and Abel offered from his flock, is unclear to me. There does seem to be a loose understanding of “fruit” in “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan,” Book I, chapter 77. There, Adam instructs Cain to take from the fruit of his sowings and offer it to God, and Cain in that chapter offers an animal. That does not solve everything, however. Genesis 4:2 says that Abel was a keeper of sheep, whereas Cain was a tiller of the ground, so it makes sense that Abel would offer a sheep while Cain would offer fruit. As far as I can remember, “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” does not differentiate between the occupations of Cain and Abel. Was “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” relying on oral traditions rather than the biblical text itself?
(UPDATE: This article states: “It is remarkable that in this legend the offerings of Cain and Abel have been reversed. Contrary to what the Scriptures say, in this tale it is Cain who offers animal sacrifices and Abel who offers grains and vegetables. It is possible that this alteration reflects a bowdlerisation of the biblical narrative by an Encratic Christian heretic who rejected the killing and eating of animals, perhaps due to a ‘Manichaean’ rejection of created matter.” I am unfamiliar with this author and I do not know his credentials, though I do know Doug Ward, whose publication the article was in. I am not equipped presently to evaluate his statement, but I may revisit it in the future.)
Second, there does seem to be an assumption in “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” that Cain and Abel are offering sacrifices to atone for sin. It was not the case that Abel’s sacrifice had an atoning function, whereas Cain’s did not. In chapter 77, Adam tells both Cain and Abel to offer fruit to atone for their sins and wickedness. Adam notices that Cain hates his brother, and Adam hopes that their offering of sacrifices to God will soften their hearts. Cain’s offering in this retelling probably did not successfully atone for Cain’s sin because God rejected it on account of Cain’s attitude.
While God does detest Cain in “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan,” God still shows Cain mercy after Cain kills Abel. That is a theme that runs throughout “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan”: God’s mercy and patience with people, notwithstanding the wrong things that they do.