How did Cain and Abel know what to sacrifice?
This is a really interesting question because it points to a very important principle of understanding how God would instruct us from the Old Testament. Many Old Testament quotations in the New Testament illustrate how we need to think about the Scriptures we read to understand what God has for us. Paul states in his letter to Timothy “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching.” (2 Tim. 3:16a) So, first we must be confident that God has something to say to us in “all Scripture.” Yet, to gain the benefit we must understand what these Scriptures teach us. We are too often like the Pharisees to whom the Lord said, “have you not read?” We read scripture, even memorize it, yet fail to gain from it the teaching God has for us.
So, what did Cain and Abel know? What had been revealed to them? First, we have the revelation of the redeemer. (Gen. 3:15) This would be One who would destroy the power of the enemy but would Himself suffer, but not catastrophically. Then, we have the covering provided by God Himself which was of “skins”. (v. 21) This was in contrast to what man could provide for himself. (v. 7) Next, the penalty of death was imposed on the man and the woman (Gen. 2:17, 3:19) and they were excluded from the Garden in which the Tree of Life was placed. (vv. 22, 23) Finally, the cherubim, the angel particularly associated with God’s righteousness, was set to guard the way to the garden. (v. 24 and Ex. 25:18)
Cain and Abel were able to derive from these facts the necessity of the sacrifices. The difference between the two sacrifices tells us an enormous amount about the thinking of these two men. With Abel, we see faith at work. (Heb. 11:4) However, Cain did not have faith and belonged to the evil one. (1 Jn. 3:12)
The one thing that was obvious to both men was that they were outside the garden. They could possibly even see the garden and the cherubim with the flaming sword. Or, at least they knew of them from their parents. Would they reason (1) we can recover the garden by our hard work, or (2) God Himself must necessarily provide redemption and reconciliation? Cain seems to take the first option and bring a sacrifice that was evidence of a garden renewed by his own efforts in the world where he had been placed by judgment.
On the other hand, faith acts according to divine revelation. Abel could discern in the events that he knew that he was under the penalty of death. He could see or could learn from his parents, about the penalty, the garden, the tree of life, and the cherubim. There was no hope of recovering the garden. Reconciliation to God must come from God Himself. He undoubtedly knew of the covering of skins provided by God for his parents and the promise of a Victor over Satan—the Seed—who would suffer the bruising of His heel and thereby fatally wound Satan. In faith, he put this together to see that death born by the Victor would destroy the power of Satan and provide a covering for himself. The sacrifice he brought would have to be the one symbol that would show his own penalty born by Another. So, in the sacrifice he was both owning before God the righteous penalty of death that lay upon him and that he accepted that penalty as his just due. At the same time, he was showing that he knew that someone else (represented by the lamb in this case) bore that penalty. (Gen. 3:15; Heb. 2:14; Heb. 10:4.)
The wonderful part of the work of God is that He does not restore what is lost, he provides something better. Abel received the blessing on the basis of his faith. So, the benefit was immediate. Adam and Eve and all those of faith lost what they could not keep and gained what they could not lose. In the garden, Adam and Eve’s relationship with God was based on works. As soon as they disobeyed God’s commandment they would die, no matter how long they lived in the garden. But, being lost as soon as they received the promise of God by faith they had eternal life, which they never could have had in the garden. (Rom. 3:25 with Jn. 12:23 and 2 Cor. 5:17.)
The question for us is whether we would have had the spiritual discernment of Abel to understand from the facts given that we should bring a sacrifice that represented that we were helpless under the penalty of death and that it was God who had to provide the solution? Or, would we have been like Cain and brought a sacrifice from the fruit of our labor in order to please God to gain restitution?