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Outward Ritual Inward Rot
© 02.24.20 D. Eric Williams

This article appeared in the February 27 edition of the Cottonwood Chronicle
It is common, when considering the story of Cain and Abel, to think Abel's offering to God was acceptable because it was a blood sacrifice while Cain's bloodless vegetable offering was unacceptable. However, the term used to define the offerings of both men is minchah a Hebrew word meaning gift or tribute. The same word describes the grain offerings of the Moasic dispensation listed in Leviticus 2:3-11. Nothing in the text suggests Cain's offering was rejected because the gift itself was inappropriate. Moreover, Abel's offering is not described as a shedding of blood but a tribute of the best he had from the flock. As far as the offerings are concerned, they were both acceptable. Thus, neither offering was deficient; the problem lay with one of the men giving the gift.

The Bible says when God did not have regard for Cain and his offering, Cain did not show repentance and contrition, but anger and depression (Genesis 4:5). Indeed, God said Cain's offering was rejected because he did not do what was right. Again, the "rightness" of Cain's behavior was not about the nature of the offering. Instead, it was about his failure to overcome sin in his life. As we read in Genesis 4:7, God told Cain, if you do what is appropriate, you'll be accepted, won't you? But if you don't do what is appropriate, sin is crouching near your doorway, turning toward you. However, you must take dominion over it. This warning was pertinent before Cain made his offering; it was a statement concerning his long observed character. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear Cain did not overcome sin. Rather, Cain was mastered by his sinful nature and nursed his rage and despondency to the point of murder. His sacrifice was unacceptable because his was in rebellion toward God not because it was the wrong kind of sacrifice.

One theme consistent throughout the Bible is God's preference for true piety over empty ritual. As Samuel told Saul when he disobeyed concerning his treatment of the Amalekites, Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams (1 Samuel:15:22). The prophet Micah told the post exilic Jews that animal sacrifice was of secondary importance to godliness. For, He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8). This is much the same sentiment expressed to the Northern kingdom by Hosea generations earlier: For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6). Jesus quoted Hosea when reaffirming God's preference for true piety over religiously (Matthew 9:13, 12:7).

Now, none of this means it's okay to ignore the outward acts of religion as long as your "heart is right." When condemning the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, Jesus made it clear that love for God is expressed in love for others and a love for God's law; Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone (Matthew 23:23). Do you see how that works? Be sure to exercise godliness in justice mercy and faith even while you do the "ritualistic" works of worship. They are both important.

In short, don't be like Cain. Don't think outward ritual will conceal inward rot. Instead, make sure of your inner Christlikeness and reveal the same in mercy - and sacrifice.


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