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No. 17: The Servant of the Ground

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 17
September, 1990
Copyright 1990, Biblical Horizons

Why was Abel’s offering approved and Cain’s rejected? This question has been debated for many centuries. Some have argued that Cain’s offering was rejected because it was not a bloody offering; others that Cain’s offering was rejected because it was not from the firstfruits; others that Cain’s offering was rejected because he had an ungodly attitude; others that this event shows how arbitrary God can be. Too often, the attention of commentators has been overly focused on Moses’ description of the two offerings. Perhaps an effort to examine other details of the text of Genesis 4 will shed some light on this question.

Cain is called an `oved-adamah, usually translated as a "tiller of the ground" (Gen. 4:2). The Hebrew, however, is not so straightforward. While `avad can mean "to till" (cf. Prov. 12:11; 28:19), it is usually used in the sense of "to serve." The participial form, `oved, is used in connection with mas in Genesis 49:15, Joshua 16:10, and 1 Kings 9:21 to mean "to be a slave at forced labor." In Malachi 3:17, this form of the verb is used to describe a son who serves his father; the Lord promises to spare the remnant of Israel as a man spares his own son who serves him.

An interesting parallel to Genesis 4:2’s description of Cain is found in Zechariah 13:5. There the Lord is speaking to Israel about "that day" when the fountain of cleansing will be opened in the land, and the "unclean spirit," the idols, and their prophets will be removed. In that day, the death penalty for false prophecy will be enforced by the false prophet’s own parents (13:3). Prophets will be ashamed at their own visions, and will refuse to don the hairy robe of the prophet in order to deceive. They will deny that they are prophets, insisting instead that they are `oved-adamot, "tillers [or servants] of the soil." They will try to evade responsibility for the condition of the people of God.

Verses 4-6 have several connections with the story of Cain and Abel. First, Zechariah contrasts the prophet who dons the "hairy garment" with the "tiller of the soil." Jesus saw Abel as the first of the martyred prophets (Luke 11:50-51), and Cain was the first obed-adamah.

Second, the prophet who is the focus of these verses in Zechariah bears wounds (v. 6). When the prophet denies that he is a prophet, a skeptical hearer asks, "What are these wounds between your hands." The prophet’s response is, "Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends" (Zech. 13:6). The false prophet is a wounded prophet, just as Abel was a wounded and martyred prophet. He claims that he was wounded by members of his own family, just as Abel was attacked by his elder brother.

Why would a false prophet bear wounds? Here the connections between Zechariah’s prophecy and the story of Cain and Abel become more complex. The wounds of the false prophet were wounds from an ecstatic orgy, during which he cut himself to gain the approval of his idol (cf. 1 Kings 18). False prophets bear self-inflicted wounds from their attempts to manipulate God. But the true prophet also bears wounds, the wounds of martyrdom, the wounds of persecution.

Thus the conversation recorded in vv. 5-6 might be reformulated as follows:

False Prophet: I am no prophetic Abel. I am like Cain, a servant of the ground.

Skeptic: Then why do you have wounds on your hands? It looks to me as if you have been engaged in some ecstatic prophetic ritual.

False Prophet: You have found me out. I am indeed a

prophet. But I am a true prophet like Abel who was

attacked by members of His own family, not a false

prophet who tries to force God’s hand by self-inflicted

wounds.

Bringing all of this back to bear on Genesis 4, are we in a better position to understand why Abel’s offering was superior to Cain’s? The distinction in Zechariah 13 is between the true prophet and the slave of the ground. In Genesis 4, Abel is the true prophet, while Cain is a slave of the ground. What is the significance of these two descriptions?

In the context of Genesis 4, the reference to "ground" is exceedingly important. Adam had been made from the ground (2:7); after he sinned, the ground had been cursed in reference to him (3:17); in death, Adam would return to the ground (3:19). And now, Cain, the son of Adam, is said to be a servant of the ground, who brings an offering of the fruit of the ground (4:3). After Cain kills his brother, Abel’s blood cries out from the ground (4:10); God punishes Cain be saying that the ground will no longer yield its strength to him (4:12); and Cain complains that he has been driven from the face of the ground (4:14). Cain is a slave of the ground; he is of the earth, earthy.

On the other hand, if we can read the distinction in Zechariah 13:4-5 back into Genesis 4, we conclude that Abel’s offering was approved because he was a true prophet. He was a member of the heavenly council, not a slave of the earth. Taking this a step further, we should ask what makes Abel a true prophet, or, more precisely, what marks him as a prophet? In Zechariah 13:4, the prophet is described as one who wears a hairy garment. Abel, by contrast with Cain, wore the hairy garment of the prophet. He was covered in the skins of sacrificed animals. We seem to be led back to the conclusion that Abel’s offering was accepted because Abel offered a bloody sacrifice for atonement, and (figuratively, at least) covered himself in the skins of the sacrifice (cf. Gen. 3:21).

Abel is the first prophet and the first martyr, and the type of all later prophets and martyrs. And he is particularly a type of the One who was stripped of His prophetic garments, Who offered Himself as a bloody sacrifice for sin, Who is the garment that now clothes His people — the One Whose blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.