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Abel's "More Excellent" Sacrifice
Chapter 11:4
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 more controversial.

            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 difference explicitly.

            1. "Offered 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 example.

            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 cattle drink."

            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.

            Jehovah said 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 lend itself?

            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).

            "Better 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.

            Goodspeed, on 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 of adherents.

 

            II. QUOTATIONS FROM OTHERS.

            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.

 

            III. CONCLUSION.

            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."

            The rationale 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" (emphasis added).

            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.

            2. Macknight, 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.

            (c) "Firstlings" 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.

            (The foregoing 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.)

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