Genesis 4:2-7 - Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks ...

Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it." (Genesis 4:2-7)

Isn't this about relationships?

As discussed with the last verse, we can know by key parts of these verses that this is not a historical event, rather this is an allegorical parable meant to convey certain lessons.

One of the many reasons we know this is because the Supreme Being would not need to ask Cain why he was upset. God knows our hearts immediately. He does not need to ask us anything. And God is not a politician - He doesn't need to fain His interest in us.

Another indicator is that the Supreme Being does not favor the offering of one over another's. The Supreme Being is fair to each of us.

Rather, any perceived favor from the Supreme Being is merely part of an exchange of a relationship: The more care we put into that relationship the more the Supreme Being will respond.

This is true of any relationship. Either party can worsen or better a relationship by what that person puts into it. God, however, always loves us unconditionally. So there is no question of His love: Rather, it is us who become selfish and self-absorbed, and thus miss out on a relationship with the Supreme Being.

What is the importance of offering to God?

As indicated in this verse and throughout the scriptures, making offerings to the Supreme Being is a critical facility for reaching out to God and re-establishing our loving relationship with Him. This has been recognized and taught not only by God, but all of God's representatives, including Jesus (as his "giving thanks" were actually private offerings to God). This was an ancient tradition:
"Then celebrate the Feast of Weeks to the LORD your God by giving a freewill offering in proportion to the blessings the LORD your God has given you." (Deut. 16:10)
All the Israelite men and women who were willing brought to the LORD freewill offerings.... (Exodus 35:29)
A "freewill offering" - also called a "fellowship offering" - indicates that the offering is made with love and devotion. It is not that God is forcing us to make an offering. Rather, it is an offering that represents our desire to re-establish our relationship with Him.

And it is not the offering that God wants. He doesn't need the stuff. God already owns everything.

This might be compared to a young child picking up one of his toys and offering it to his parents. The parents don't want the toy. They bought the toy in the first place, and they already own the toy. But they appreciate the love and the care extended by the child as the child offers the toy. "It's the thought that counts," is often said when a gift is given that is not important to the receiver: They recognize the care the gift represents.

This means that while Cain might have been thinking that his offering just wasn't good enough and was therefore neglected, we can know by God's statement that it was not the gift. It was Cain's approach to the matter. He was thinking that his offering needed to be recognized.

This, in fact, is the meaning of the Hebrew word, שעה (sha`ah). This word is being translated to the phrase "look with favor." However, it's real meaning relates to recognition or regard.

Cain was upset because God seemed to give Abel more recognition for his offering than He gave Cain for his offering. This is indicated by the Hebrew words קין (Qayin) and מנחה (minchah) which connect Cain to his offering. We know from the verse that God recognized and regarded Cain, otherwise, He would not have spoken with him.

But it was Cain's attitude that is at issue. Cain didn't think his offering was recognized as much as God recognized Abel's offering.

And therein lies one of the numerous lessons imparted by this parable. Our focus upon ourselves and what we get out of our relationship with God is not condoned. This also goes for comparing our situations with others.

What is the core message?

This reveals one of the core issues the ancient teachers are trying to convey with this parable: That one of the biggest hurdles we face is our self-centeredness and our enviousness of others. Not only did the symbolic Adam become envious of God ("you will be like God," the serpent advised them in Gen. 3:5): After we fell from the spiritual world to the physical world and took on these physical bodies, that envy is now expressed towards others, as we become envious of what our neighbor has.

This envy of others is rooted in self-centeredness. Self-centeredness is diametrically opposed to love. Love means to give of oneself completely to another, while self-centeredness is to consider oneself more important than others.

And this is why the modern teaching by so many 'self-help gurus' that we need to "love ourselves before we can love others" is wrong. The reality is - as spoken by Moses and Jesus in the "first and foremost" commandment - that we have to love God before we can truly love others.

So we find that Cain is so focused upon himself and how much recognition he is receiving for his offering, that he has become jealous and angry. To this, God says to him:
"If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it."
This is yet another lesson conveyed in this deep parable. God is communicating that "sin" - self-centeredness - is something that will grab us and entangle us, eventually bringing us down into the depths of anger and violence. This is what God is trying to warn Cain of. That his self-centeredness ("sin") will result in a downward spiral.

"What is right" is being translated from the Hebrew word, יטב (yatab). This is a poor choice of translation. The Hebrew word means "to be good, be pleasing, be well, be glad" according to the lexicon. Thus in this context, "to be pleasing" is a better translation.

What the verse is conveying is that if we do what is pleasing to God, then this will protect us from self-centeredness. But if we do what is not pleasing to God, we are not protected. In that case, self-centeredness will grip us ("desires to have you") and we will spiral down into the depths of hell - as we contend with our own hatred, violence and the consequences of our activities.

Thus we can draw multiple lessons from these verses. Here are a few:

- Making offerings to God provide a means for our re-establishing our relationship with Him;
- God recognizes all our offerings to Him, not by what we give, but by the love we give them with;
- We should not compare what we have been given with what others have been given. We all have our own lessons to learn;
- By focusing our activities upon pleasing God, we are protected from the ravishes of self-centeredness, which wraps us up and wrecks us.

The essence here is the critical instruction of Moses and Jesus:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment." (Matt. 22:37-38)

Only this will truly fulfill us.

Consider another translation of this verse in Chapter Four of the New Book of Genesis.