"More Excellent" Sacrifice
Cecil N. Wright
Text: "By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent
sacrifice than Cain, through which he had witness borne to him that
he was righteous, God bearing witness in respect of his gifts: and through
it he being dead yet speaketh" (American Standard Version).
1. PERSONAL OBSERVATIONS.
The basic lesson
is that Abel offered by faith and was accepted as righteous, implying
that Cain did not offer by faith and therefore was not accepted. But
we need to learn as best we can the significance of the expressions
(1) "offered by faith" and (2) "a more excellent sacrifice."
In some respects the latter is more elusive than the former, and therefore
The reference in Hebrews
is to the following from Genesis 4:2b-5: "Abel was a keeper of
sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in process of time it
came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering
unto Jehovah. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock
and of the fat thereof. And Jehovah had respect unto Abel and to his
offering: but unto Cain and his offering he had not respect. And Cain
was very wroth, and his countenance fell."
It is to be observed
that Genesis mentions nothing directly about faith but describes the
objective difference between the two offerings, whereas Hebrews mentions
the subjective difference (faith) but does not mention the objective
by Faith." Yet, while faith is not mentioned directly
in the Genesis account in regard to either, a belief in the existence
of God is implied on the part of both -- of Cain as well as Abel,
for he "brought an offering unto Jehovah" as did Abel. The
Hebrew word translated "offering" is minchah,
which in the LXX is rendered thusia, or "sacrifice"
in English, as occurs in our Hebrews text quoted above -- words referring
in scripture to an offering unto God or a god.
But there are
different kinds of faith -- (a) "faith" in the existence of
God, but "apart from works" of obedience, which is ineffectual,
"barren," "dead"; and (b) "faith" that
is effectual, manifesting itself by its "works" (James 2:17-26).
Both James 2 and Hebrews 11 make it clear that it is the latter that
is accounted to man for righteousness. Note also the following Old Testament
At the waters
of Meribah (Numbers 20:2-13), in the oasis of Kadesh-barnea, normally
supplied by a stream gushing from a certain rock, there was no water
when the Israelites led by Moses and Aaron arrived, and the people mutinied.
God spoke to Moses, saying: "Take the rod, and assemble the congregation,
thou, and Aaron, thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their
eyes, that it give forth its water; and thou shalt bring forth to them
water out of the rock; so thou shalt give the congregation and their
But they were
seemingly so frustrated and angry with the people for their obstreperousness,
that Moses spoke, not to the rock, but to the people, saying, "Hear
now ye rebels; shall we bring you forth water out of this rock?"
And Moses "smote the rock with his rod twice," which he was
not commanded to do, "and [notwithstanding] water came forth abundantly,
and the congregation drank, and their cattle." But that was not
the end of the story.
unto Moses and Aaron,: "Because YE BELIEVED NOT IN ME, TO SANCTIFY
ME IN THE EYES OF THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL, therefore YE SHALL NOT BRING
THIS ASSEMBLY INTO THE LAND WHICH I HAVE GIVEN THEM." Consequently,
they both died before the land of promise was entered.
Was this because
Moses and Aaron on that occasion believed any less in the existence
of God than previously? Obviously not. But they did not exactly obey
God either, and besides, they took credit unto themselves for the miracle
God would perform instead of giving him the glory and "sanctifying"
him "in the eyes of the people."
2. "A More
Excellent Sacrifice." Obviously, in much the same way, Cain,
though believing in the existence of God, did not believe so as to obey
God fully as did Abel. For, "By faith Abel offered a more excellent
sacrifice than Cain," according to the King James Version,
the American Standard Version, and others. The Greek text, however,
has only pleiona thusian, "more sacrifice."
But more in what respect? As to quality, as per the KJV
and ASV? As to quantity, seeing his "gifts" (plural)
are mentioned? Or, as to kinds (which is also quantitative),
as some have thought, to which the word "gifts" would likewise
The Genesis record,
however, does not specifically mention more than one kind of
offering by either. So, if, as some think, is implied that Abel
brought a vegetable offering (a thank-offering later incorporated
in the law of Moses) as well as an animal sacrifice (Possibly as a sin-offering
as well), the former was not the point of difference in the offerings
of the two, and therefore not specifically mentioned, whereas the lack
of animal offering by Cain was the significant difference.
And in such event, it would not be unlike that of Mark 10:46-52 reporting
the healing of only one blind man by Christ as he was leaving the city
of Jericho, though according to Matthew 20:29-34 he healed two -- possibly
because the mention of the one and identifying him (Bartimaeus, son
of Timaeus) would be more significant for the readers Mark had in mind.
But this, while a possibility, or if even a probability, is not
a conclusively established fact with reference to the Genesis
and Hebrews records.
And most translations,
ignoring that as an option, favor the concept of more as to quality,
as the KJV and ASV, already cited, with the NKJV translating the same
way. And there are a few instances in the New Testament scriptures where
it is unquestionably so used, though much more frequently used with
reference to quantity or numbers. The following are variations from
the wording "more excellent," yet all seeming to have to do
with quality: "better and more acceptable" (Amplified); "better
sacrifice" (TCNT, NASB, JB, TEV, Spencer, Living Oracles); "richer
sacrifice" (Moffitt); "a sacrifice superior" (Berkley);
"A sacrifice greater" (NEB).
sacrifice" is seen to predominate in the variations from "more
excellent sacrifice." But the Greek word of our text is not that
used in other passages of Hebrews and translated "better"
(1:4; 7:7,19,22; 8:6; 9:23; 10:34; 11:35) -- namely, kreisson.
And Alfred Marshall, in his Greek-English Interlinear (almost standard
in our day) has the following in English under the Greek word for "more":
"a greater (? Better)." In other words, with him there are
some reservations about "better" being the sense of the text.
The Rheims and
Rotherham translation, "a fuller sacrifice," might be interpreted
either qualitatively or quantitatively (as to either numbers
or kinds). An the rendering of Wemouth, Williams, and RSV, "a
more acceptable sacrifice," while obviously expressive of fact,
does not indicate why more acceptable.
the other hand, puts it: "Faith made Abel’s sacrifice greater in
the sight of God than Cain’s." This, too, while obviously true,
because faith, which comes from hearing God’s word and results in obeying
it, caused Abel to offer the sacrifice that he did, but was absent in
Cain and did not lead him to offer a like sacrifice. Yet if what Goodspeed
intended to suggest is that what he offered would itself have been sufficient
and acceptable if only Cain had offered with the same sincerity and
earnestness that Abel made his offering, that can hardly be correct
for reasons already touched on. That viewpoint, however -- that believing
a thing is right makes it right and acceptable to God -- has a multitude
II. QUOTATIONS FROM
1. A. T. Robertson,
Word Pictures in the New Testament: "Literally, ‘more sacrifice’
(comparative of polus, much). . . . Precisely why Abel’s
sacrifice was better than that of Cain apart from his faith is not shown."
(That seems an obvious conclusion from what we have noticed above.)
2. The Pulpit
Commentary: "It is usual to find a reason in the nature of Abel’s
offering as signifying atonement, and to suppose that his faith manifested
in his recognition of the need of such atonement, signified to him,
as has been further supposed, by Divine command. This view of the intention
of the narrative is indeed suggested by the description of what his
offering was, viewed in light of subsequent sacrificial theory; but
it is not apparent in the narrative taken by itself, or in reference
to it in the passage before us. The acceptableness of the offering is
here simply attributed, as of necessity, to the faith of the offerer,
without any intimation of how that faith had been evinced. And with
this view of the matter agrees the record itself, where it is said that
‘unto Abel his offering the Lord had respect’; i.e. to Abel first, and
then to his offering." (We reserve comment till later, in "Conclusion.")
3. Adam Clarke,
Commentary: "More sacrifice; as if he had said; Abel,
by faith, made more than one offering; and hence it is
said, God testified of his GIFTS, tois dorois. The plain
state of the case seems to have been this; Cain and Abel both brought
offerings to the altar of God, probably the altar erected for the family
worship. As Cain was a husbandman, he brought a mincha,
or eucharistic offering, of the fruits of the ground,
by which he acknowledged the being and providence of God. Abel, being
a shepherd or a feeder of cattle, brought, not only the eucharistic
offering, of the fruits of the ground, but also of the produce of
his flock as a sin-offering to God, by which he acknowledged
his own sinfulness, Gods justice and mercy, as
well as his being and providence. Cain, not at all apprehensive
of the demerit of sin, or God’s holiness, contented himself with the
mincha, or thank-offering: this God could not,
consistently with his holiness and justice, receive with complacency;
the other, as referring to him who was the Lamb slain from the foundation
of the world, God could receive, and did particularly testify his approbation.
Though the mincha, or eucharistic offering,
was a very proper offering in its place, yet this was not received,
because there was no sin-offering. The rest of the history is
well known.: (For a more detailed and expanded treatment by Clarke,
see his comments on Genesis 4:3-5.)
4. James Macknight,
Apostolical Epistles: "‘Offered to God (pleiona thusian)
more sacrifice.’ In this translation I have followed the critics, who
tell us that pleiona, [an expression] in the comparative
degree, signifies more in number rather than more in value.
Accordingly they observe, that notwithstanding Cain ought to have offered
a sin-offering, he brought only ‘of the fruit of the ground an offering
to the Lord,’ which was no proper sacrifice. But Abel, ‘he also brought
of the firstlings of his flock, and of the fat thereof’; that is, besides
the fruit of the ground, which was one of the gifts mentioned in the
following verse,* he also brought the fattest of the firstlings of his
flock; so that he offered a sin-offering as well as a meat-offering
[that is, a thank-offering], and thereby shewed both is sense of divine
goodness and of his own sinfulness. Whereas Cain, having no sense of
sin, thought himself obliged to offer nothing but a meat-offering; and
made it perhaps not of the first-fruits, or of the best of the fruits."
*Should be same
verse, in Hebrews 11, that is, v.4.
1. The conclusion
of The Pulpit Commentary as given above, that the offering of
Abel was accepted because he was accepted, and not at all on account
of the kind of his offering, does not square with all the facts. For
the kind of offering he made was the result of his faith,
which made him and therefore his offering to be accepted. The
Commentary’s implication is that if Cain had had the same kind
of faith subjectively that Abel had, his offering just as it was objectively
would have been "more" than it was, just as Abel’s was "more"
than his. But surely that is not the whole truth -- for, if he had had
the same kind of subjective faith Abel had, he would not
have omitted the kind of offering objectively that distinguished
Abel’s from his.
It seems in order
to allow the author of the Genesis section of the above mentioned Commentary
to correct the author of the Hebrews section on this point. Beginning
with the phrase, "Unto Abel and his offering" (Genesis 4:4),
he comments as follows: "Accepting first his person and then his
gift (cf. Prov.12:2; 15:8; 2 Cor.8:12). ‘The sacrifice was accepted
for the man, and not the man for the sacrifice’ (Ainsworth); but still
‘without a doubt the words of Moses imply that the matter [emphasis
added] of Abel’s offering was more excellent and suitable than that
of Cain’s,’ and ‘one can hardly entertain a doubt that this was the
idea of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews’ (Prof. Lindsay, ‘Lectures
on Hebrews,’ Edin. 1867). Abel’s sacrifice was pleiona,
fuller than Cain’s; it had more in it; it had faith, which was wanting
in the other. It was also [emphasis added] offered in obedience
to Divine prescription. The universal prevalence of sacrifice rather
points to Divine prescription than to man’s invention as its proper
source. Had divine worship been of purely human origin, it is almost
certain that greater diversity would have prevailed in its forms. Besides,
the fact that the mode of worship was not left to human ingenuity under
the law, and that will-worship is specifically condemned under the Christian
despensation (Col.2:23), favors the presumption that it was divinely
appointed from the first."
of the Hebrews author of The Pulpit Commentary for the conclusion we
have challenged is set forth in the first part of our quotation from
him above, as follows: "It is usual to find a reason in the nature
of Abel’s offering as signifying atonement, and to suppose his faith
manifested in his recognition of the need of such atonement, signified
to him as has been further supposed, by Divine command. This view of
the intention of the narrative is indeed suggested by the description
of what his offering was, viewed in the light of subsequent sacrificial
theory [maybe either sacrificial "history" or "philosophy"
would be a better term’; but it is not apparent in the narrative taken
by itself, or in the reference to it in the passage before us"
With this climaxing
statement we would agree, but would insist that it still gives no reason
for believing that obedient faith would not result in animal sacrifice
on the part of Cain as well as of Abel. As to how much God had revealed
of divine philosophy behind the requirement of animal sacrifice, we
do not know. But it seems probable that the ancients were better informed
than Old Testament makes known. For example, Jesus informed the Jews,
saying, "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day; and he saw
it, and was glad" (John 8:56) -- a thing not apparent apart from
New Testament revelation.
in his Apostolical Epistles, states that the critics "tell
us that pleiona, in the comparative degree, signifies
more in numbers rather than more in value." If he
is correct, for that is its predominant use. But there are a
few obvious exceptions, as in Matthew 12:41,42; Luke 11:31,32 (a parallel
passage); and Acts 15:28, where "greater" can hardly be improved
upon in translation. In the parallel passages, Jesus is "more"
(greater) than either Solomon or Jonah. And the other speaks of "no
greater [more] burden than these necessary things." However, even
in the latter, what would make the burden "more" would be
more things in number. But in Matthew 6:25 and its parallel in Luke
12:23, quoting Jesus as saying, "Is not the life more [pleion]
than the food, and the body than the raiment?" the reference again
is not to "more" numerically, but valuewise.
3. So, it seems
that not every point of argument by Clarke and Macknight can be proved
conclusively, but that neither can any be disproved
conclusively, and that, all things considered, the weight of probability
is considerably in their favor. Or so it seems to this writer, on the
basis of the following considerations:
(a) In the Hebrews
text, Abel is said literally to have offered "more sacrifice"
than Cain. In the absence of a context indicating otherwise, the word
for "more" is likely to mean more in number rather than more
in value, and the text itself mentions Abel’s "gifts" (plural).
(b) The Genesis
account likewise lends itself to such an interpretation. Cain brought
one kind of offering, namely, the fruit of the ground, but Abel "also
brought of the firstlings of the flock and of the fat thereof."
That is, he not only brought the kind of gift Cain had brought, but
the other kind in addition -- hence, "gifts," plural, as per
the Hebrews text.
and "fat" (fat of animals slain in sacrifice) were characteristics
of certain offerings required under the law of Moses 25 or more centuries
later, and so did not originate with Sinaitic legislation. The same
was true of vegetable offerings also. under the law of Moses, animal
sacrifices as well as vegetable offerings were used as thank-offerings,
though animal sacrifices alone were used as sin-offerings except in
extreme poverty, when prescribed vegetable offerings could be substituted
(Leviticus 5:11-13). So, the offerings of Cain and Abel (and in all
likelihood of Adam before them) were prototypes of those legislated
centuries later in the law of Moses at Mt. Sinai.
is offered for whatever it may be worth as a matter of consideration,
but without endeavoring to force its conclusions. And any data or argument
to the contrary would be welcome.)