An unusual interpretation of Cain and Abel’s sacrifice


Most people know no more about the Bible than what they learned as children or what they heard their clergy tell them in a sermon, which was not designed to reveal what the Bible says but some moral lesson the clergy feels the congregation should know. This moral lesson in their speech is rarely explicit in the biblical text.


The story of Cain and Abel’s sacrifice in Genesis 4:3-7 is an example. Most people are convinced that the brothers built an altar and Cain burned fruit and vegetables and Abel the firstlings of his flock on the altar and God accepted only Abel’s offering. Actually, there is no mention of an altar or burning in the chapter and no passage says that God “accepted” Abel’s offering; it states that “the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering,”[1] but doesn’t say how.


At least two points should be noted: (1) Most people have ideas about the event that are not true. (2) A true understanding of the event can lead to a remarkable new idea of how to worship God; in essence, God does not want or need sacrifices. Thus when the temple was destroyed in 70 CE and sacrifices, which were the core of biblical ceremonies and holidays ceased, and were replaced by prayer, this radical change in Judaism was acceptable.


Dr. Marc B. Shapiro, a highly respected scholar, described the interpretation of this event by Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn.[2] Rabbi Hirschensohn understood that that there was no altar and neither Cain nor Abel burned their gifts, even though today we consider a sacrifice an item burnt on an altar. Hirschensohn supposed that Cain brought his fruits and vegetables to the top of a mountain where he felt he could better commune with God, and left his gift there. Because of his “meager religious philosophical knowledge,” Cain probably thought that after he left, God would take his gift. Later, when Cain returned to the site, he saw that the vegetables and fruits were where he left them and concluded that God refused to accept his sacrifice. God was not involved. The notion that the Lord had no respect for his offering was only in Cain’s mind.


Rabbi Hirschensohn imagines that Abel did not leave his firstlings on the mountain, but sent the animals away. Abel allowed them to wander freely, expecting that God would find them and take his gift. He did not kill the animals, perhaps thinking that God would not want a dead beast. Since the animals were sent away and Abel did not find them when he returned, he assumed that God accepted his offering. Rabbi Hirschensohn thought that the first burnt sacrifice was offered by Noah when he left the ark after the flood. God did not like the offering and thought it was ridiculous. Rabbi Hirschensohn accepted the traditional interpretation of the Bible that when Noah descended from the ark he was not yet allowed to eat meat; yet Noah thought that he was allowed to kill animals and birds to thank God for saving his life during the flood.


Noah’s behavior was strange. We would have assumed that after virtually every animal was killed in the flood, Noah would have preferred to ensure that the animals multiply, rather than killing some of them.


Rabbi Hirschensohn takes this view when he refers to God’s reaction to his sacrifice. After Noah offered his sacrifice in Genesis 8:20, the Bible states in 8:21, “And the Lord smelled the sweet savour; and the Lord said in His heart: ‘I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.”[3] Rabbi Hirschensohn understands that God did not approve of Noah’s sacrifice. The rabbi wrote: “It is not farfetched to interpret this verse that God laughed and had pity on the simplicity of man who thinks he can thank Him by offering a burnt animal or bird and destroy them at a time when there are so few of them in the world, and think he is doing what is right. This indicates that the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth, that even a gift to God is given with such cruelty….How is it possible this this would please God?”[4]


Rabbi Hirschensohn is reflecting Maimonides’s understanding of sacrifices. Maimonides was opposed to sacrifices. He recognized that the ancient Israelites saw people worshiping their gods with sacrifices and did so too. The Torah could not change what had become so ingrained in the people. Maimonides stressed that the Torah recognized that it is “impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to another; it is…impossible for one to suddenly discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed.” He felt that “it is for this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue,” not because it is good for people to offer sacrifices or that God needs sacrifices, but the people had become so accustomed to it and saw other nations making sacrifices, so the Torah allowed it. However, as Maimonides goes on to explain, the Torah limited sacrifices dramatically: where they could be brought, when, how, and only certain animals.[5]


This concept, that many commands in the Torah were only instituted because of the weakness of human nature and were meant to cease as people improved, applies also to the laws of slavery, witchcraft, the evil son, the captive woman, and an eye for an eye, and a host of others. Each of these laws is contrary to basic morality. But the Torah allowed the Israelites to have slaves, kill suspected witches, kill evil sons, permitted soldiers to have sex with women captured during wars, and retained the ancient retaliatory notion of an eye for an eye, but only under the most restrictive procedures. However, the Torah is written in a manner that encourages people to act in a better manner than the way it is allowed.


In summary, while most people do not bother to learn more about the Bible than what they learnt as children, a more mature examination of Scripture, such as Rabbi Hirschensohn’s interpretation of the Cain and Abel story, can lead people to a new understanding of life and what religion expects from people. In this case, we saw that many biblical laws were not meant to be obeyed forever, and the Torah wanted people to advance to more enlightened behavior.



[1] Translation in the Jewish Publication Society’s The Holy Scripture.”

[2] Dr. Shapiro’s article entitled “Assorted Comments” was published in Feedblitz. Rabbi Hirschensohn lived from 1857 to1935. He was the Chief Rabbi in Hoboken, New Jersey from 1904 until his death in 1935.

[3]Jewish Publication Society translation.

[4]My translation.

[5] Guide of the Perplexed 3:32.