Updated: Nov 5, 2021
Genesis 4: 2b-5 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. And Abel also brought an offering—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.
Whenever I remember what Abel sacrificed, I remember a good lamb shawarma I had once. Lamb is not an easy meat to prepare as you would often need herbs to remove the gamey smell. Unless you prefer the full gamey taste of lamb, you must prepare it with rosemary, thyme, and other aromatics. That lamb shawarma was really a good food memory! But let us not get too distracted and look at one of the first 'food reviews' in the Bible by the very first 'Food Reviewer' of the Bible. Before we proceed, some of you may be wondering, wait wasn't it a burnt offering and not a meal that was given to God? Is it then a critique about food? Here is an excerpt from the article Sacrifice in Ancient Israel by William Gilders:
In the Hebrew Bible, sacrifice always involves transformation. One of the most common ways to transform something as a “sacrifice” is to destroy it., Destruction removes the animal from the ordinary realm to a transcendent one. Biblical texts tell us that what God received from a sacrifice was the smoke of the burning, as a “pleasing aroma” (see, for example, Lev 1:13). By receiving the smoke, the transformed sacrifice, God enjoyed a fellowship meal with human beings. This meal took place at God’s dwelling—the temple.
The qorban sacrifice much later in Leviticus had understood the context of the sacrifice as a 'fellowship meal.' Granted that in Genesis it wasn't clearly spelled out whether it was a qorban sacrifice (Hebrew word used in Genesis 4 is minchah, which means offering), the parallelism of what was offered to God suggests that the offering's acceptance/rejection shared a similar acceptance/rejection of the sacrifices offered to God in Leviticus. In this sense, what was offered was for God's consummation.
So what was God's criticism really about? Was it about the quality of the ingredients? Was it protein vs fruits and vegetables?
In my opinion, it seems that the more important thing God was focusing on was the heart of Cain and Abel. The vehicle that reveals the truth in their hearts was seen in the 'meal offering' prepared for God.
Genesis 4 compares Cain's fruit offering with Abel's "fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock." Cain's offering was rejected, and Abel's was looked upon with favor. It wasn't a competition in that only one of the two was going to be accepted. It could have been that both were accepted by God, but this was not the case. The comparison must have been felt. In some way, just like some chefs who hear of customers not appreciating their food, Cain becomes very angry with God's response, causing him to have his face to be downcast.
I try imagining myself in Cain's place. In some modern sense, like Abel, Cain had brought an offering of his hard work. Cain probably asked, "Why can't God just accept what I give? "
All of Cain's hurt has one key source: pride. Cain made the offering more about himself than it was about who the sacrifices were for. Of course he will be offended. He didn't look to God's response, instead, he festered jealousy in his heart. Interestingly, Genesis does not record God's conversation with Abel whose offering was accepted, but with Cain whose offering was rejected:
Genesis 4:6-7 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 rule over it.”
God had wanted to help Cain overcome his jealousy. However, instead of asking what is right, what God had wanted, amending his actions, he instead follows the path of sin: anger, blame, and letting sin control him which leads to the first murder recorded in the Bible.
Pride indeed is one of the hardest sins to confess and deal with. It is a false soil that many have grown deep roots in. Awareness of our own pride is easy, and the process of replacing it with the more stable soil of humility is hard work.
God saw Cain's heart and wanted to lead him to humility. Why didn't God just pretend to like Cain's offering? God does not stand on the side of untruth - what is accepted is accepted and what is rejected is rejected.
In our last post, we talked about how food was a vehicle of ideology. Although we do not have explicit mention of what Cain did wrong with his offering, the subtle clues of comparison with the extended description of Abel's sacrifice being "fat from the firstborn of his flock" suggest that Cain didn't give of his best. It may also be a wrong understanding of what the sacrifices were for: because of sin, blood needed to be shed for the covering of sin. This echoes what we see in the New Testament: for the wages of sin is death. This "plant" vs "animal" offering parallels with Adam and Eve's clothing attempt with fig leaves compared with God's provision of "garments of skin". It seems the author of Genesis wanted to show that there was two approaches: man's way, and there was God's way and God's way was good and right. When we do prepare food to serve others, do we let our pride dictate our action? The world rewards this kind of self-assertiveness, especially in modern day cooking shows where the chef's individualism is celebrated. The other extreme probably is also problematic: the approach where the "customer is always right." This leads to a lost of a centeredness in what we do. Finding the right balance of ownership for cooking and yet having the other person in mind is not easy. There are two examples that come to mind when it comes to finding this balance. The first is Jiro (from the documentary, Jiro dreams of Sushi). Jiro hones his skills, building his own approach for serving good sushi with attention to the smallest details with the fish, the rice, and the presentation. There was even a segment where he takes into account the gender of the guests, including their seating arrangement in his sushi bar so that they can enjoy the sushi fully. I am inspired by Jiro's 100% giving of himself but also have 100% consideration of the one receiving his sushi.
The second example is my father's approach in cooking for my youngest brother. In my family, my youngest brother has the best tongue for tasting food (which also means he was a bit more picky when it comes to what he ate). I remember seeing my dad take time to prepare many of his own recipes with significant adjustments suited for my youngest brother's taste and preference. That would mean having separate preparation at times so that my youngest brother could enjoy the food. I learned from my father's example that we can choose to see the provision of food not only as a source of personal pride which others needed to accept and acknowledge, but as a means to really consider the person receiving the food and asking what would they like and enjoy. The key takeaway from today's lesson is that we must learn how not to make things all about ourselves but also learn to look at how others receive what we give. When we shift our focus heavenward and outward, we will also find that our opened hearts receive acceptance and joy.
The Greatest Commandment that Jesus points us to is to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. (Mark 12:28-31) Let us learn to give fully of ourselves, but also keeping God and others in mind. Beyond the food that we prepare, how can we show our selflessness in how we work or interact with others in our community?
Reflection Questions: Have you ever been overly offended by someone's criticism of your food? How have your responded? Have we allowed pride to dictate us in how we work and interact with others? Could we also clothe ourselves with humility, to learn and to serve others with love?
Dear God, help us not to make everything all about ourselves, but to also shift our focus on You and on the community you have placed around us. Help us to love You fully and to love others as we love ourselves. With humility, grant us a chance to change for the better as we prepare ourselves as a living sacrifice to worship You. In Jesus' Name we pray, Amen. Hungry Chaplain