The faith of Abel (Hebrews 11:4)

A fresh take on Abel’s faith.

There’s no shortage of sermons and podcasts on faith, on how to receive by faith, or how to protect ourselves with the shield of faith. But do you recall any sermons on the faith of Abel?

Who wants to follow in Abel’s footsteps? Whatever faith he had, it didn’t end well for him.

I did find a message where Abel’s faith tops the list. Abel is the prime example 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.

Didn’t Cain win that one? Why start a faith message with the loser? What was different about Abel’s faith?

Cain was the firstborn of Adam and Eve. Every ancient listener understood what that meant for his position in the family. The oldest son was responsible to lead and protect the family.

But in Genesis, God did not always follow people’s expectations. The birthright went to Isaac not Ishmael, Jacob not Esau, Joseph not Reuben.

This isn’t just about offerings. The main point is that God favoured Abel rather than Cain:

Genesis 4:4–5 (NIV)
4 And 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, 5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

Cain was not about to be relegated to second place. It occurs to him that if he removes the competition, God will have to accept him. It’s a scheme Cain cannot shake, even when God warns him that Cain is unleashing an evil that will enslave him rather than give him the position he wants (Genesis 4:7).

The rest, as they say, is history. The murder does not give Cain the position he craved. Cain loses his position in the family: a fugitive, exiled from the family, establishing a community that survives by violence (Genesis 4:16-24).

But what does any of this have to do with Abel’s faith?

Abel’s faith

Why did God accept Abel and his offering? I think God is more interested in the giver than the gift.

The issue was not that Abel offered an animal while Cain offered grain. Whoever dreamed up that nonsense had not read past the first chapter of Leviticus. Grain offerings feature 16 times in Leviticus 2, almost 100 times in Scripture.

There is a difference in the way they approached God:

  • Cain presented some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to God (4:3)
  • Abel offered the fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock (4:4).

Abel offered his best. He wasn’t culling scrawny runts, offering animals he didn’t want (as in Malachi 1:13). I wonder if Cain noticed how Abel valued the firstborn.

Cain doesn’t seem to have the same appreciation for God’s blessing. It reads more like meeting an obligation, paying a tax, doing something you’re obliged to do. God sees through it.

By his faithfulness, Abel presented the better offering. That’s why God chose Abel and turned Cain down.

What follows vindicates God’s choice of Abel as the faithful son. Cain really is unsuitable to lead and protect the family.

Losing Abel

Killing Abel forces God to accept Cain. With the younger brother out of the way, Cain regains the position and honour he deserves as firstborn.

Despite Cain’s murderous thoughts, God still talks to him. In rejecting God’s authority and asserting his own, Cain opens the door to a marauding predator (Genesis 4:6-7). Cain won’t listen. The monster takes Cain. Cain takes Abel.

This other power that is not-God (sin) is now destroying the family. In a single day, the family loses Cain as well as Abel. The faithful son is dead. The unfaithful son no longer has his place in the family.

The family wants justice. In their minds, letting Cain live would dishonour the memory of Abel. God blocks their desire for vengeance. The monster to whom Cain sold his soul is not permitted to continue wreaking havoc on the family. God himself is the protector of this family.

Cain leaves the family that lives in the presence of the Lord (4:16). He creates another community where people get justice through violence (4:23) regardless of what God says (4:24).

But doesn’t that leave the family that lives in God’s presence doomed? No justice. No children. No future. Nothing but a competing city that may kill them before they die out.

So, what good did Abel’s faith do? With no descendant to carry on his story, the last mark Abel made on the earth was a bloodstain.

Abel’s voice

The family has lost Abel. The I AM has not.

The Lord said, “… The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10 ESV).

God never forgets a face. Or a name. Cain has not erased Abel from God’s story. The stain of Abel’s blood on the ground is calling God to act. Through his faith(fulness), Abel is still speaking after he died (Hebrews 11:4).

Cain has not forced God to accept him in place of Abel. God gives the grieving family another child in place of Abel (Genesis 4:25).

I remember a counsellor struggling to make sense of that text. No one comforts a grieving parent by saying, “Don’t worry; you’ve still got the other one.” Genesis 4:25 is not about giving the family another child to mitigate their loss. It’s about giving the family a future.

To God, Cain was unacceptable. To regain his place, Cain opened the door to an unspeakable evil, the power of death. The flaw in Cain’s plan was that God can give life. God gives the family Seth, in the place of Abel. The family line now continues through Seth (Genesis 5).

God responded to Abel’s word, even after Abel died, for Abel was still in God’s story. Through that word, the powers of sin and death that had been crouching at the door were not able to take over God’s world.

A better word

When the family saw how God had given them a future rather than a revenge, that was when people began to call on the name of the Lord (Genesis 4:26) instead of calling on violence for justice (4:23-24).

Abel’s faith did not prevent the violence. But Abel’s faith leads us to the son whom God provides to lead the family.

This is the story of Scripture. God doesn’t set the world right by wiping out everything and everyone touched by evil. God sets the world right through the murdered messiah, the faithful Son who speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:24).

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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