Apples to Oranges (Genesis 4:2b-7)
"Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”
Cain and Abel had different jobs, so the gifts they gave God were like apples and oranges. Abel brought livestock. Cain brought fruit and vegetables. How would you ever compare those two offerings?
But God could see straight into the motives of both men. He knew that Abel brought the best he had and that Cain did not.
A nice cut of meat couldn’t impress a God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills, of course. So what’s actually going on here? Let’s take a look at a word the KJV uses for God’s reaction--instead of “regard,” the Lord is said to “respect” one offering more than the other.
The Hebrew term for “regard/respect” seems to involve more than cold, intellectual assessment--it’s an expression of feeling as well. It means that you’ve taken time to inspect and consider something deeply, and what you’ve found in it moves your emotions.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the O’Henry short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” In this beautiful old tale, an impoverished husband and wife secretly sacrifice their most beloved possessions so they can buy extravagant gifts to give one another on Christmas morning. O’Henry concludes the story with these lines:
“…here I have told you the story of two children who were not wise. Each sold the most valuable thing he owned in order to buy a gift for the other. But let me speak a last word to the wise of these days: Of all who give gifts, these two were the most wise. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the most wise.”
Despite the dozens of times I’ve read this story, such pure devotion always puts lump in my throat. In a hardened and cynical world, these two little fools shine so bright.
Likewise, the Great God who was wounded by the distrust of Adam and Eve looked down upon the earth and saw a single male child born of that couple who had hidden from God and stolen from God. Yet instead of trying to pull apart from God, Abel ran toward him. He willingly chose the most beautiful “fruit” of his flock, and he sacrificed it. Instead of holding what was precious close to his chest as his parents had, he put it on the altar and gave it to God.
God’s “respect” isn’t an analytical reaction. He’s not a greedy tax collector who is excited over big net gains. He is a Heavenly Father who is moved like all of us would be in the face of a pure gift of radical trust. He sees what Abel is actually offering. Like a husband on Christmas morning who sees that his wife has sold her beautiful hair out of love for him, the Lord's mighty heart is stirred.
As goofed up as hot-and-cold King David was, we see him making a similar choice in II Samuel 24:24. David wants to build an offer on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, and Araunah offers the land for free. But David wants to incorporate trust into his offering, so he says, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.”
This sort of giving isn’t legalism. It’s not an attempt to earn God’s heart by human performance. It’s about using the tangible stuff of earth to pass through a portal into the unseen. It's about living an earthly life that diagnoses the deepest posture of our souls. Jesus alludes to this sort of transport in his parable of the shrewd manager. He says,
“make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16).
The dirty street currency of the flatlands can be used actively in the realm of God. How strange. I’m reminded of MacDonald’s novel Lilith here, a story about a dual reality in which the doings of one realm impact another. It’s difficult for us to see in both dimensions simultaneously, but this sort of vision expresses the life of the faithful.
In the visible realm, Cain was just offering a bunch of vegetables--but in the eternal world, he was standing before God holding back from him, not completely trusting him, saying, “You can have this much of me, but no more.”
It rattles me a little to think that the barriers I put up between myself and God might impact not just his evaluation of me—but also his emotions toward me. Could I really move the heart of the maker of the universe? What would it mean to a God who looks down on the rebellion of the human race day after day to hear one of his children say, “Papa, here is everything. I trust your heart with my whole world”?
I’m scared to do it. My impulse is to hold back parts and pieces from him, flinching, and saying, “I’ll reserve these three things because I would die if you took them. I love what I see and feel more than I love you. You can have the peripheral parts of my life as worship, but you cannot have the core of me.” But God knows apples from oranges, and when I choose to yield it all, he knows what I’m giving, and it moves him.