What is the significance and nature of Cain and Abel’s gifts? i.e., what was the basis of their
acceptance or rejection?
Personally, reading the history of Cain and Abel has always been one of those Bible passages I always go back to try to completely understand what God is trying to tell me in this passage. Is this passage just another story of sibling rivalry, or is there more meaning behind it? Out of all the history of sibling rivalry through the OT, why does this one stick out so much? To use a personal example of sibling rivalry, my brother and I were always striving to seek the attention of our parents. My brother would often do something wrong, and sometimes I would often think to myself if he was just seeking attention. Is this the case in the history of Cain and Abel? Was Cain seeking attention from his birth parents, or even from his heavenly Father? There are three commentaries that introduce topics to discuss in this passage.
On Adam Clarke's Commentary of the Bible, Mr. Clarke recognizes the sacrifices of Cain and Abel and differentiates them and their significance. Mr. Clarke states “According to this interpretation, Cain, the father of Deism, not acknowledging the necessity of a vicarious sacrifice, nor feeling his need of an atonement, according to the dictates of his natural religion, brought a minchah or eucharistic offering to the God of the universe. Abel, not less grateful for the produce of his fields and the increase of his flocks, brought a similar offering, and by adding a sacrifice to it paid a proper regard to the will of God as far as it had then been revealed, acknowledged himself a sinner, and thus, deprecating the Divine displeasure, showed forth the death of Christ till he came.”1 Clarke believed that Cain's refusal to offer a living sacrifice to the Lord was less grateful than Abel's living sacrifice. While Abel offered up a living sacrice, I believe Clarke recognizes this as a representation of the coming Messiah and how He was offered as a living sacrifice for the sins of the world. Clarke goes on to say that “Thus his [Abel] offerings were accepted, while those of Cain were rejected; for this, as the apostle says, was done by Faith, and therefore he obtained witness that he was righteous, or a justified person, God testifying with his gifts, the thank-offering and the sin-offering, by accepting them, that faith in the promised seed was the only way in which he could accept the services and offerings of mankind.” So in other words, Abel's gift came with faith and thanksgiving, while Cain's may have been given half-heartedly or out of requirement.
John Calvin puts this argument into use when he says “...but he begins with the person of the offerer; by which he signifies, that God will regard no works with favor except those the doer of which is already previously accepted and approved by him. And no wonder; for man sees things which are apparent, but God looks into the heart.”2 Calvin goes on to state that Cain was trying to appease God with his sacrifice. Calvin does not believe that Cain was offering his sacrifice with a humble heart and was trying to give to God what he could muster, while Abel was giving to God, in Calvin's words, a “...good odour of faith, they had a sweet-smelling savor.” Abel's gift to God was given through faith and he was giving his best. He was showing obedience to his Lord and Father, and this is why his gift was accepted and not Cain's.
Winifred Borlee seems to take Calvin's view a little further in The Christian Science Journal and says that Cain, when he became wroth at his rejection of his gift to the Lord, “betrays a proud and self-righteous state far from that humble spirit...”3 Cain never felt that humble spirit when approaching the Lord, but Abel did. Abel approached the Lord with humility and a pure heart. This view is like telling someone they didn't do a good job after they did something for you, but they did it for a reson that is purely for them, and they have a temper tantrum. This is what happened with Cain. Borlee suggests that Cain had a temper tantrum after being told his gift was not suitable, which also shows he had other, or selfious, purposes for giving this gift.
My personal view on this subject is a mixture of all three views. I recently listened to a sermon by Pastor Robert Morris from Gateway Church in Texas. He introduced that Cain didn't give his first offering, and kept some of his goods for himself before giving some to God. He tied this in with tithing. When we receive a gift, or paycheck, we should give to God first out of thanks, and then do what we need with it. In Genesis, it says that Abel gave his first born of his flock. So he gave to God first, before keeping any for himself or taking some for him, I never looked at this passage this way. I feel that we need to give our first and best to God. I think that Cain kept the best for himself, and then gave to God what he could, just to appease God. Well, there is no such thing as appeasing God. You should always strive to give God your best.