How did Cain know his offering was not accepted?
Interesting question. Of course we could also ask “How did Abel know his offering was accepted?” Or, “What prompted mankind’s first generation to make offerings to God at all?”
The Bible does not address these questions directly, but if we pause to think through what scripture does tell us certain reasonable assumptions do stand out.
God created man because He desired relationship… someone to love and someone who could love in return. Honest relationship requires free-will. I cannot build intimacy with a machine. As much as I love my morning coffee my coffeemaker will never love me in return. While computers are growing more and more in their ability to mimic human relationship it is still a mimicry. Free-will comes with risk. Free-will does not guarantee reciprocal love, it only makes it possible. Hate or indifference are also possible.
To help man understand this God deliberately made man incomplete. He made Adam whole at first but then removed a part of him:
“So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.” (Gen. 2:21-22)
So man and woman were drawn together in love and by this learned also love toward God… true love born out of free will… free will that also made possible disobedience… sin… and the consequence of sin: death.
Well, we know what happened. Along came the tempter, the prohibition was challenged, the punishment begun. First there was immediate death of relationship. Adam and Eve now hid from God… ashamed of their differences they covered themselves. But their coverings were insufficient. Sin required death… one’s own, or a substitute. And God taught them this truth by offering the first sacrifice to cover sin… by slaying innocent animals and clothing man and woman with their skins. (Interesting isn’t it that we call animal skins “hides” for that became their atoning function.)
This much we know from scripture; what comes next can come only by reasonable assumption. These coverings for sin could only be temporary. They did not remove the corruption now within mankind. Further sins were now our tendency and physical death remained our earthly reality. Until Christ provided His act of ultimate redemption other sacrifices were needed. So it seems reasonable to assume that God instructed Adam and Eve in these principles, and that they in turn taught their children.
Thus, Cain and Abel would clearly have understood that the only acceptable offering required shed blood. In choosing to offer otherwise Cain chose disobedience and his fellowship with God remained broken.
We read further if this in the New Testament book of Hebrews:
“By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead…. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Heb. 11:4, 6).
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