Summary: The story of Cain and Abel's sacrifices is well known but often misinterpreted or misused to prove certain pet theories. This presentation considers how a proper understanding may be gained.
The Sacrifices of Cain and Abel.
Most Bible readers will be aware of the story of Cain and Abel, a story infamous as the first murder in the Biblical narrative. It’s a story that catches the imagination because just one generation after the first sin in the garden of Eden we already have what most people would classify as the most serious kind of crime taking place. It can be debated as to whether any one sin is any worse than another but at a purely instinctual level most of us will agree that murder seems about as serious a sin as is possible in human terms.
However, it’s at this point that agreement over the understanding of this passage in Biblical history pretty much stops. Preachers have been regaling congregations with various interpretations or applications of this passage since the beginning of Christian preaching and yet, as we will shortly see, the use of this passage to support various pet doctrines is not necessarily justified.
For example, I have heard it said that the two offerings, fruit and vegetables from Cain and a lamb brought by Abel, represent true and false worship offered by God's people. Various authors and speakers go on from that basic premise to suggest this true and false worship may be expressed in terms of which day of the week you worship on, the style of music used in your worship, the order of service or liturgy used or any number of other particulars of Christian worship. I don't want to use this occasion to dive into any of these controversial topics but I do want to question whether or not this story can be used or extrapolated to cover these kinds of questions.
Techniques or Methods for Biblical Interpretation.
In most disciplines the method used by those who practise the discipline is described or summarized in order that others may make use of it or apply it to other situations. So, if a particular method is used to solve a mathematical problem and proves successful or convenient then that method is recorded in order that it might be of service in the solution of other mathematical problems in the future. This practice is the basis of most academic disciplines. The same is true of Bible study. In this case the method, termed Hermeneutics, presents a number of principles which may be used or applied to the understanding of different passages of scripture.
In the case of Scriptural interpretation there are numerous techniques each more fantastic than the last. The Jewish ‘midrash’ hermeneutic encouraged scholars to ‘read into’ passages the most amazing interpretations. Every act, word, number or article could be endowed with enormous significance and a whole set of theories built upon minor details of Biblical narrative. It is fair to say that one of the most commonly accepted hermeneutic methods among Christians today is what is known as the ‘Authorial Intent Hermeneutic”.
This method consists of trying to deduce what the original author of the passage was trying to say to his readers. (A variation on the idea of CIE – context is everything – with the context in this case being historical and authorial.) In all cases it is also important to note that the Bible, as an inspired work, actually represents the intent of two authors – the Divine Author and the human author. Thus in trying to understand what a passage is really saying we need to consider what the intent of the human author was and what the intent of the Divine Author, working through him, might be.
Since around 85% of the Bible consists of narrative it may be that we are tempted to look for further meaning or application of the stories told. Again, many great sermons have been built upon very shaky ground as preachers tried to tease out their own meaning from scriptural passages and make an application for their listeners that would enable each listener to go away feeling as though they’d had some new truth revealed.
A slightly humorous example of this might help explain why such interpretation and application, unless constrained to some extent, can be so dangerous. A young preacher I once listened to happened across the passage in Genesis chapter 11 which refers to the building of the Tower of Babel. The narrative records that, since no stone was available, the builders used ‘brick for stone and slime for mortar’. (Gen. 11:3 KJV) Now, the impending embarrassment might still have been averted if this young preacher had enough sense to look for the meaning of this passage by either going back to the original language or by consulting a modern translation of the Bible. He did neither.
Our young man, ill informed, made what appeared to him to be a logical connection. Slime, he thought, is slippery. Furthermore, the tower of Babel was an unsuccessful affront to God’s authority. He made a connection and constructed a delightful little treatise on the subject of how important it is that we, Christians, build our lives not on something slippery like slime but on something solid and reliable. The sentiments this young preacher expressed were, no doubt, sound but his use of scripture to support this presentation was nonsensical. The bitumen used by the Mesopotamian builders was about as far from slippery slime as can be imagined and the remains of their brick towers and Ziggurats are still visible to this day, thousands of years later.