וַיְהִי מִקֵּץ יָמִ֑ים וַיָּבֵא קַיִן מִפְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה מִנְחָה לַיהוָה וְהֶבֶל הֵבִיא גַם־הוּא מִבְּכֹרוֹת צֹאנוֹ וּמֵחֶלְבֵהֶ֑ן וַיִּשַׁע יְהוָה אֶל־הֶבֶל וְאֶל־מִנְחָתוֹ
After a time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the soil, but Abel brought an offering not only of the first-born females from his flock, but their fat portions also. And the LORD favored Abel and his offering,
After a time: unlike verse 4:2, the author introduces the verse with a Hebrew formula indicating an indeterminate passage of time. Literally, the Hebrew reads, “And it was from end of days” (וַיְהִי מִקֵּץ יָמִ֑ים).
fruit of the soil … first-born females from his flock: I’ve translated this verse in a way as to make clear that not only was the act of offering important to God, but also the personal value of the offering was even more important. In other words, the greater the sacrifice on the giver’s part, the more highly regarded is the act itself.
In this verse, the author makes clear that Cain’s offering is perfunctory whereas Abel’s offering constitutes a substantial sacrifice. Not only the fat of the first born but the fat of the first born females – see commentary below.
… females from his flock: the Hebrew word written here is וּמֵחֶלְבֵהֶ֑ן (/u⋅mei⋅chel⋅vei⋅hen/). A careful analysis of the grammar of this compound word is revealing. Here is its literal meaning:
The key word in this phrase is “their” (underlined for emphasis). In English, ‘their’ is a third-person plural possessive pronoun((As in “their apples” or “their children”.)). However, unlike English (but like so many other languages such as Spanish, French, and Italian), Hebrew is inflected for gender. For example, in Italian the indefinite possessive pronoun ‘their’ occurs in two forms: i loro (when the antecedent refers to a masculine noun) and le loro (when the antecedent refers to a feminine noun).
In this case, the pronoun (‘their’) in question refers to a female antecedent. It seems that the author has taken pains to inform us that the fat in question has been taken from the females of the flock. Now, for domesticated herds (sheep, cattle, etc.,), females are more highly valued than males. The shepherd needs only 1 ram to increase the size of his flock, but to accomplish this same end he needs as many ewes as he can get. The loss (or sacrifice) of a ewe would have been deeply felt and the author goes out of his way to inform us that Abel’s sacrifice would have been economically painful.
The take away message from this verse, I think, is that the author is drawing a stark and obvious distinction in the worth of the two sacrifices. Abel’s reflects a greater respect for the LORD by his willingness to make a substantial and painful sacrifice. As for Cain? Not so much.
ASIDE: I found it interesting that all but one commercial Bible took note of this fact (see, for example, the four representative translations below). The only Bible I could find that translates the pronoun in question is Young’s Literal Translation:
and Abel, he hath brought, he also, from the female firstlings of his flock, even from their fat ones; and Jehovah looketh unto Abel and unto his present (YLT)
favored: derived from “וַיִּשַׁע יְהוָה אֶל־הֶבֶל וְאֶל־מִנְחָתוֹ” which, literally translated is “and-He-gazed the-LORD to-Hevel and to-his-offering”. To ‘gaze’ in this context means ‘regarded’ or less ambiguously, “favored” Hevel’s offering. The author is telling us that God approved of Abel’s offering but largely ignored Cain’s (See the commentary for Genesis 4:5-6).
My translation conventions can be found here.
And it was from the end of days that Qayin was caused to bring from the fruit of the soil an offering to the LORD. And Abel was caused to bring also [an offering] from the first-born [females] and of their fat his flock. And the LORD gazed toward Havel and toward his offering.
Commercial Bible Translations
- (nrs) In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering,
- (kjv) And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. 4 And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering:
- (niv) In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. 4 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,
- (net) At the designated time Cain brought some of the fruit of the ground for an offering to the LORD. 4 But Abel brought some of the firstborn of his flock– even the fattest of them. And the LORD was pleased with Abel and his offering,