Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell
Genesis 4: 2-5
A modern man or woman might see the story of Cain and Abel as completely anachronistic and irrelevant to contemporary life.
After all, one might reason, what can the practice of burning sacrifices to God have to do with anything these days? Not even religious people do that anymore. No one thinks of God as desiring or being pleased with some ritual sacrifice.
But the picture changes dramatically when we consider what sacrifice really is in the abstract, as Jordan Peterson does in his new book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
Let’s begin our consideration of the matter here by noting that the sacrifices of Cain and Abel are the first religious acts recorded in the Bible. We might think that such actions are unsurprising since the Old Testament itself is full of details about what to sacrifice and when to sacrifice it. There are prescriptions for the sacrifice of bulls and goats and doves. There are descriptions of “grain offerings” and “drink offerings,” too.
But the sacrifices made by Cain and Abel come long before the law was given to Moses. These sacrifices recorded early in the book of Genesis are made over a thousand years before the sacrificial systems were revealed to Moses and set down in the book of Leviticus. Thus, we may suspect that the actions of these two brothers were more or less intuitive or instinctual. They sacrificed because it seemed right to them. It seemed to be a way to blessing.
Peterson argues that the impulse to sacrifice was something that evolved over millennia and that it is not unrelated to the ideas of saving and sharing. He contends that early humanity observed, over time, that those who sacrificed – like those who saved and shared – tended to be blessed or rewarded in their endeavors. They flourished.
The practice of sacrifice was the forgoing of some immediate gratification in the hope of some future benefit or blessing. In concrete terms, Cain and Abel surrendered some delicious and nutritious food for the purpose of pleasing God and thereby obtaining His blessing that would mean future fertility, future multiplication of their wealth.
If we think of the matter in these broad terms, then the practice of sacrifice is not something strange and archaic, it is very much a part of life.
Peterson writes that work is sacrifice. When we put our noses to the grindstone, we sacrifice immediate pleasure or repose for the hope of future blessing. We talked last week of the twenty-year old surfer who is at the very peak of his strength and skill and has every reason to expect that in the next five years he will be able to find and ride hollow, blue waves all over the world. There will be thrills and exhilaration and great companionship. Maybe even contest victories and recognition.
But he sacrifices all of this, puts away his surfboards and enters medical school where he will be subjected to long days and nights in libraries, classrooms and hospitals for years to come. He may surf again someday, but his prospects for the kind of performance he is capable of now and that few ever know will be gone forever.
Why has he done this? There may be altruistic reasons involved in his decision, but part of the equation in almost any such case is the notion that his present surrender will issue in greater blessing down the line. He anticipates that his adult life will be far more fulfilling if he forgoes the five summers of love that could now be his. Once his ordeal is completed he will bring in, year after year, the kind of income that will enable him to marry and raise a family in comfortable style. He will find himself surrounded with interesting colleagues, intellectual challenges and with recurrent opportunity for personal growth and professional advancement.
If we think of sacrifice in that broad way, then this ancient story takes on meaning and relevance for each of us. Then the question becomes: what do we do when our sacrifice is not accepted? When we surrender present benefit and the hoped-for future blessing does not come to pass?