Cain and Abel first appear in the Bible in Genesis 4. They are the first offspring born on this planet. They represent the division of humanity from that day on. Cain relied on his own achievement to win the favour of God. Abel relied on the sacrifice of another to achieve acceptance with God. Let us look at the differences.
He was a Genesis 2 man and therefore was a fantasist who operated as though he was living in a day that was long passed. In Genesis 2 everything was good, pure, wholesome and perfect. Accordingly, all the labour appointed for Adam alone initially, and then subsequently with Eve, led to the produce of the earth being acceptable to God. Alas all things changed as sin entered the world and the world fell under a curse. In Genesis 3:17b-18 we read:-
‘Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
Cain brought his offering from that which was cursed. He may have laboured long and hard, but that was the essence of his offering – it was cursed. He was a fantasist because he ignored the implications of Genesis 3. He ignored the fact that, as a result of sin entering the world, what he was bringing was cursed. This is how so many people view themselves before God. They think that their efforts will bring them acceptance with God. Essentially they, in a Cain-like way, view themselves in the land of Genesis 2. To do so before the fall was realistic. But now to view themselves as accepted before God on the basis of Genesis 2 type performance is a catastrophic fantasy.
Dare I say behind all this religiosity from Cain was an unwillingness to accept the testimony of his parents. They had set forward through their actions that a covering is needed and that covering comes through the offering up of another (see Gen. 3:21)
Abel, by way of contrast, is a Genesis 3 man who was a realist. He accepted that the ground was cursed. He accepted the principles which had been established in Genesis 3 that our acceptance now came not through the fruit of the earth, fig leaves, but the giving up of another life, coats of skins. We read thereby that the Word says that But Abel also brought an offering – fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favour on Abel and his offering (Gen. 4:4). His offering is redolent with devotion and thoughtfulness. The fat portions indicate the best part of the animal, whilst the first-born always had a place of honour. Abel was bringing the best. All of this, of course reminds us of our Lord Jesus who was the perfect offering for our sins who gave up his life for us.
I note also, concerning Abel, that his offering was not mixed. Not a bit of fruit of the crop and a bit of animal sacrifice. Rather, he looked totally and wholly to the value of the sacrifice and so should we.
Finally, we read the testimony of the Lord in Hebrews 11:4: 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 if we continue to listen to Abel we will do well.