Hebrew Corner 12: Cain’s Sacrifice
by John H. Walton

John Walton on November 14th, 2008. Tagged under .

John Walton

John Walton is Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. He has a PhD in Hebrew and Cognate Studies, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He writes for BioLogos Forum and is the author of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Set–Old Testament.


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).

  • Jim 10 years ago

    I never knew that Cain was sacrificed by John Walton!

  • John Walton 10 years ago

    If God’s act in providing skins were doing something as important as establishing the basis for the sacrificial system, the failure to mention all of that would be inexplicable. We would have to read instructions, reasons, and function all into the silence of the text. This is hermeneutically questionable.

  • Irving Salzman 10 years ago

    Thanks, Dr. Walton. But I am again confronted with some of my own nagging questions. If you’ll allow me the same slack that God extended Abraham in Genesis 18 (“But if there are 50 … 45 … 40 righteous in those cities, you won’t still destroy those cities, will you?”), I will pose them here, with your permission.

    I cannot refute your assertion that if God were setting up the doctrine and practice of atonement by blood sacrifice, the silence in Genesis 3 would be somewhat puzzling. Yet, equally puzzling is God’s provision of animal skins over and above Adam’s and Eve’s already having covered themselves with fig leaves. There had been no death until this point in Genesis. God’s provision of skins would have necessitated the killing of animals (unless there’s some method or process for removing the skins of animals without killing them that I’m unaware of). Why then would God kill animals/His own creation if not to provide a blood covering for the sins of our first parents? Why the extraneous detail about the animal skins otherwise? And can we really truly say that any details in the text are extraneous in the first place?

    While there is no explicit record that God gave Adam and Eve instruction on the blood atonement, is it perhaps helpful to recall that the biblical author (Moses) is recording this for Israel’s sake? Israel did not lack for elaborate, detailed instructions about atonement by blood sacrifice. Leviticus is rather detailed and lengthy. Is it not possible that Mosaic and Post-Mosaic Israelites would have wondered, if not questioned aloud, why the truth of Leviticus 17:11 was mandated of Israel, yet not necessary for anyone living before Sinai. How was it that our first parents were able to maintain their fellowship with God despite their sins? On the other hand, we say and believe that it is a timeless principle that “without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin.” So, while there is no explicit revelation, implementation, inauguration of blood atonement in Genesis 3, can it not be possible that the detail of God’s provision of the skins was recorded for our benefit?

    Further, can we be so hasty as to exclude further revelation to the ancients and the patriarchs merely because the text is silent about it? For example, the laws concerning clean and unclean animals aren’t given until Leviticus 11. Yet, meanwhile, Noah is told to take seven pairs of clean animals onto the ark in contrast to one pair of all the unclean animals. God must have had to fill Noah in on which animals were clean and which unclean. Otherwise, Noah would not have been able to obey God’s directives. Israel which received this revelation would have had a very specific understanding of what the author of Genesis meant by clean and unclean animals.

    In addition, when Abraham and Isaac make their way to Mount Moriah, Isaac, very poignantly, asks his father, “Where is the lamb (“seh”) for the olah (“burnt offering”)? Amazingly, that verse (Gen. 22:7) furnishes us with the very first occurrence of the word “seh.” How can Isaac possibly have known to ask his father the whereabouts of the lamb/seh? How could he have known that the sacrifice of a “seh” was necessary? One can only assume that there was revelation given that exceeds what the reader has access to.

    Moreover, Jesus himself said that Abraham rejoiced to see his day.” I’m not going to pretend I can ever fully appreciate the extent of Abraham’s knowledge of “Jesus’ day,” or what Jesus meant by that exactly. But perhaps the ancients/patriarchs knew a whole lot more than what we give them credit for.

    All of this goes back to my earlier question. Why would God find it necessary to provide skins for Adam and Eve even after they had covered their nakedness with fig leaves? Why did God kill an animal when death had not heretofore ever occurred? It is hard to imagine this as an extraneous detail. And it is hard to imagine that it could have served any purpose other than allowing the reader (at least!) to know that blood was shed subsequent to the sins of Adam and Eve. This certainly fits with later biblical revelation. I can’t imagine God doing it for any other reason. Was He concerned for fashion? I doubt it. Comfort? Do animal skins breathe better than fig leaves? I know I am being silly right now. But if not to shed blood, why else did God find it necessary to put the first animal(s) to death to provide a covering for Adam and Eve who had already covered themselves with fig leaves?