Hebrew Corner 12: Cain’s Sacrifice
by John H. Walton
In popular circles the tradition that Cain’s offering was unacceptable because it was not a blood sacrifice is still very common, despite the fact that no major evangelical commentary on Genesis in the last several decades endorses it. The offerings that Cain and Abel bring are described in the text by the term minhâ. In Leviticus, the minhâ is discussed in ch.2, where NIV translates it as "grain offering." Its purpose is simply to give a gift to honor deity, and is usually given in a context of celebration. It often accompanies an animal sacrifice, but usually is comprised of grain. Outside of ritual contexts, the term can be used in personal or political senses. In political contexts it refers to tribute paid from a vassal or subordinate state to the overlord (2 Kings 17:3-4). When individual persons are involved the term refers to a gift to give deference or honor (Gen 32:18; 43:11; 2 Kings 8:9). These usages are duplicated in cognates across the Semitic languages.
Consequently, it is clear that the problem with Cain’s sacrifice did not have anything to do with the absence of blood. Fruit and vegetable offerings would have been just as appropriate for a minhâ as animal offerings would have been. Additionally it should be noted that even Abel’s offering is described in terms of "fat portions" with no reference to blood. Finally, blood is usually used in the sacrificial system to accomplish kpr (NIV: "atonement"—see next week’s blog). Genesis 4 neither mentions a need for kpr nor the procurement of it for Abel. We must look elsewhere to identify the fault in Cain’s offering.
Adapted from J. Walton, Genesis (NIVAC)
John H. Walton (PhD, Hebrew Union College) teaches Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament and the forthcoming A Survey of the Old Testament (Third Edition).