Priestly Profiles: Primeval Priests (2)

In the previous article in this series, we asked the question, “Who was the first priest?” We suggested that Adam and Eve were not priests. In this article we will make a further attempt to answer the question.


Cain, “possession”[1] – the name of this first boy gives some impression of all the hope that he represented for his parents. “I have gotten,” said Eve, “a man from the Lord” (Gen 4:1).[2],[3] This newborn baby seemed to represent the prospect of restoration: the recovery of all that Adam and Eve had so cataclysmically lost through sin. Few infants have carried such a freight of hope; few have so utterly confounded that hope or so bitterly disappointed their parents. Instead of life, Cain brought death; instead of obedience, rebellion; instead of communion with God, banishment from His presence.

The details of what Cain knew about God and his approach to Him are not revealed to us. Clearly, Cain understood that he had an individual responsibility to approach God by way of sacrifice. We might infer, from later Scriptures, that Cain, as the first born, may have had a special role, with special priestly responsibilities – in the family – though such an inference is based on limited evidence.[4] However, there can be no doubt that Cain had been instructed about the proper way to approach to God. That instruction seems to have included when God was to be approached – NET renders the opening clause of Genesis 4:3 “at the designated time” – and it certainly included details of how that approach was to be made.

In the event, it was in this latter detail that Cain failed. Though he came at the right time, he came in the wrong way. There has been some debate about in what way, exactly, Cain’s sacrifice was deficient.[5] Generations of gospel preachers (myself included) have emphasised that, in contrast to Abel, Cain offered a sacrifice without blood, that no life was given. It should be noted, however, that Scripture never highlights this as the problem with Cain’s offering. Moreover, it is striking that the word used for both Cain’s and Abel’s offering is one which “usually denotes grain offerings as opposed to animal sacrifice (e.g., Lev 2), though it occasionally covers the latter as well (e.g., 1Sa 2:17,29).”[6] Another issue, less often emphasised, is that while Abel is said to have “brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof” (v4), Cain “brought of the fruit of the ground” (v3). In such a condensed account, and with the heavy use of parallelism in the narrative, such an omission is not to be ignored, or explained away. Abel brought what was first and best (the fat). No such details flesh out Cain’s offering, and the eloquent silence seems to indicate that Cain’s appreciation of God fell far short of what it should have been.

That is confirmed for us by Hebrews 11:4, a verse that goes right to the heart of the problem with Cain’s sacrifice: “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain.” Abel offered by faith. This means that he offered in obedience to God’s command. Cain’s offering was an inferior and unacceptable offering, because it was not by faith. This is an important point to grasp. The fact that Abel’s offering pleased God while Cain’s displeased Him was not because Abel had made a lucky guess. Nor does it indicate that Abel had brought a greater intelligence to bear upon the task of figuring out what God wanted. Abel offered by faith: he knew his offering would be acceptable for he offered what God had told him to. Cain’s offering was not by faith: he knew that what he brought was not what God required – but he brought it anyway.

The offering of sacrifices is a priestly act. In his failure to offer an acceptable sacrifice, Cain failed as a priest. But that deficient sacrifice was an expression, and not a cause, of his failure. We have noticed already that Cain’s attitude to God was wrong, and this lay at the root of all his problems. As the narrative unfolds and Cain digs in to his rebellion, in spite of overtures from God, our understanding of just how limited Cain’s appreciation of God is grows. And his understanding of his responsibility to his brother is equally limited. We noted in the previous article that the verbs used to describe Adam’s responsibility to “dress” and “keep” the garden are linked elsewhere in Scripture with the work of priests. Both occur in the description of Cain. The first is used to describe his occupation: he was “a tiller of the ground” (4:2). The second is used by Cain himself when he asks “Am I my brother’s keeper?” A priestly man would have recognised that that’s exactly what he was. Cain was no fit priest, and his estimation of God and of his brother alike demonstrated that just as clearly as his sacrifice did.


The flame of Abel’s life flickers only very briefly on the pages of Scripture. In contrast to the sense of possession expressed in Cain’s name, his name seems to mean “vanity, vapour, nothingness.”[7] He is not the first born, nor the first boy, but the first victim. We never hear him speak; only his blood cries, and with a voice that only God can hear (Gen 4:10). We are only told of one thing that he did. But that one thing had a significance of cosmic proportions. Abel “offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice” (Heb 11:4), and in that act of obedience and devotion, he became the first recorded worshipper in Scripture and the first priest. He brought what was first and best and, by faith, he offered it to God. And God accepted it. It is unlikely that we can approach any adequate appreciation of what Abel’s offering meant to God. How precious must this act of obedient faith in a fallen world have been. How poignant the pointer through the centuries to the One who would offer a sacrifice that was not just acceptable but utterly conclusive. Abel’s life was tragically cut short, but it was not wasted, for in it he did something for God.

“He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second” (Heb 10:9) is a principle that runs right through Scripture. We see it here as Cain, with all the privilege of primogeniture, fails utterly, and Abel, the unassuming keeper of sheep, takes his place. His brief period of priestly service was only a sketchy outline of those that would follow, but it gives a singular significance to the man who never speaks but who faithfully serves.

[1] This is one possibility for the meaning of Cain’s name. Other possibilities include a smith or metalworker or “something worked, i.e., a creature.” See Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1987) and Victor P. Hamilton, Genesis, Chapters 1–17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, NI: Eerdmans, 1996), 220.

[2] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.

[3] The reading of the text favored by Martin Luther and adopted by the ISV (“I have given birth to a male child—the Lord”) makes the scope of Eve’s expectation even more emphatic.

[4] Some scholars see a reference to the honour due to the first born in the notoriously difficult to interpret words of Genesis 4:7. See for an overview of this and other approaches to the verse, C.L. Crouch, “חטאת as Interpolative Gloss: A Solution to Genesis 4:7,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 123(2), 250–258, esp. 252–253.

[5] See, for a useful summary, Wenham, Genesis, 104 and Bruce K. Waltke, “Cain and his Offering,” Westminster Theological Journal 48 (1986), 363–372.

[6] Wenham, Genesis, 103. Waltke, “Cain and his Offering,” argues that “the unusual element in the story from a lexical perspective is not that Cain’s offering is bloodless but that Abel’s is bloody!” (366).

[7] Hamilton, Genesis, 222.