The god of Cain and the god of Islam: Missiological Insights

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On the surface the story of Cain and Abel is about murder, jealousy, anger, and family feud. And indeed it is; for the book of Genesis was all about the beginning of all things. It was the first murder story. It demonstrated the horrible effects of the entrance of sin into the world that infected the human heart, damaging the spiritual condition of man before God. Yet upon closer examination the story has much greater significance. Let us attempt to glean from the story some crucial lessons pertaining to who God is, and what is true and acceptable worship.

My hope is that this story can help clear the confusion about Allah, the god of Islam, and whether the worship Muslims offer to God is acceptable in His eyes.

The following text is Genesis 4:3-12. Please read it carefully, and do not assume you know the story well.

In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offeringfat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

From Adam to Cain

After the fall and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the presence of God in the Garden of Eden, there is nothing written about the religious beliefs or practices of the first human family.

As a result there is much speculation as to why the Lord did not accept Cain’s offering.

Some commentators think that the problem is that Cain offered “some fruit”—unlike his brother, who offered “fat portions”—so they conclude that he was not generous in his offering. These commentators propose that the problem was with with the heart, not with the outward expression of worship. I do not agree with this conclusion because the Hebrew does not have the word “some” or “portions” in the text. The Hebrew simply says that Cain brought an offering “from the ground” מִפְּרִ֥י (mep-peri).” As to Abel, he offered “the firstborn from the flock.” So there is no reference to the intent of the heart. The text states the type of gift each offered to Yahweh.

Let us now examine more closely the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, to find clues that are significant for understanding the mindset of Cain before he committed the first murder in history.

Let us bear in mind these points:

  1. By now Cain was an adult who had reached the age of accountability.
  2. The only God Cain and Abel knew was Yahweh, the God of their parents Adam and Eve. Cain presented his offering to Yahweh, just as his brother Abel did.
  3. Cain and Able must have been aware of the requirements, or God would not have condemned Cain for something he did not know about.

Adam and Eve as parents must have passed on God’s requirements to their children. Otherwise how did Abel know what to sacrifice? It makes sense to assume that God had instructed Adam and Eve of how to approach him after they were banished from his presence. This would have necessitated introducing rituals such as burning sacrifices on an alter made of stones.  Early on God imbedded in the history of his people a means to cover sin with blood. Even though it was not until Moses that the rituals of sacrifice were regulated, blood sacrifices existed even before Abraham.

The god of Cain

This brings us to the critical question: Who was the god of Cain? Did he worship the same God that his brother Abel and their parents worshiped, or did Cain worship a different god?

It is important to remember that Cain was the first son of the first couple, Adam and Eve. The only God Cain knew was יהוָֽה (yahwehJehova,) the God who created his parents and all things that existed, including his field which he cultivated and the flocks which his brother Abel kept.

Therefore, no one can question that Cain worshiped the One True God, the same God that his brother Abel and his parents worshiped. For there was only One God and no pagan gods were known to the first family.

The gods of Other Nations

The scriptures tell us that throughout history of mankind, many gods were introduced as the objects of worship for many nations. Even God’s people were seduced to worship idols and other false deities. There was at least one god to every town:

“You, Judah, have as many gods as you have towns” (Jer 11:13).

Paul spoke of many gods.

“For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”)”1 Cor 8:5).

It is interesting that Paul says that there are many gods in heaven and on earth. So was Paul a polytheist? Certainly not—because in the same passage he affirms that there is One True God.

“…yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came” (1 Corinthians 8:6).

So have we just caught Paul in a contradiction when he says that there are many gods and yet there is only one God? Notice these words: “for us,” and “so-called gods.” Paul is saying that though people are worshipping idols, for them they are real gods. “But for us there is one true living God.” Here, Paul makes a clear distinction between the God we worship, and the many gods that people claim to worship. Paul was careful to say that the other gods are “so-called gods.” They do not exist in reality. But they do exist in the minds of those who worship these false, non-existent gods. Therefore anyone who is not worshipping Yahweh is worshipping a false god.

So from Adam until our days, there has always been only one Yahweh who is the Living Creator God.

Therefore Cain’s God, Yahweh, did exist and still does exist. So, what then is the issue?

The scriptures are very clear that Cain believed he was making an offering to the true God. Cain did not deny God, nor did he refuse to worship him.

“Cain brought of the fruits of the soil an offering to the LORD”(וַֽיְהִ֖י מִקֵּ֣ץ יָמִ֑ים וַיָּבֵ֨א קַ֜יִן מִפְּרִ֧י הָֽאֲדָמָ֛ה מִנְחָ֖ה לַֽיהוָֽה׃). The Hebrew word translated “the Lord” in English is Yahweh יהוָֽה. This is the same God as the God of Abraham, Moses, David and his descendants in history down to the NT.

Did Cain deny God? No.

Did he refuse to worship God? Not at all.

Did he in fact worship God? Certainly.

Obviously in his mind he was doing the right thing. He wanted to worship the Lord and present his offering “מִנְחָ֖ה” (“minhah,” literally meaning “gift”) to God. He made the effort to collect the grains and vegetables that he used to present to God. In his mind, he was worshiping the God of his father and mother, the God of his brother Abel, the One and only Creator God who made the universe.

For further proof from the text we read that it was Yahweh, not a false God who spoke to Cain and warned him against what he was about to do:”Then the Lord (Yahweh) said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?’” (Gen 4:6).

A false God does not speak:

“They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see” (Psalm 115:5).

The puzzle we face here is that though Cain was sincere in his efforts to please God and worship him by sacrificing to him and not denying him, God did not accept his offering מִנְחָ֖ה.

How can this be? Why was God not pleased with Cain? Why would God not accept his gift?

There are many interpretations of this text, and many speculations as to why God refused to accept the vegetarian gift. Although it is important to try to understand the various interpretations, the fact remains that God whom Cain worshiped did not accept his gift.

“If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Gen 4: 6-7).

Cain did not do the right thing, even though he thought he did the right thing by offering a gift to Yahweh.

Cain and Contextualization

“Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil” (Gen 4:2).

There is a reason why Genesis makes a clear distinction between two cultures; one vegetarian, the other pastoral. This stark contrast that the Bible makes is key to the purpose of God for giving us this story. God knows that people are capable of justifying their rebellion by reasoning that each person must worship God in his or her own way, and within his or her cultural context. This has happened through out history, and we know it happens in our times.

In my view, Cain was the first contextualist.  It made perfect sense for him to reason, “My brother herds sheep, I work the land; he presents a blood sacrifice, I give a vegetarian gift to God.”

In other words, Cain thought to himself that since he was a farmer, he could worship God within his own cultural context. He did not feel the need to cross over to his brother’s context and sacrifice a lamb.

Cain’s context was the farm. He devised a religious ritual consistent with his culture. Why should he convert to his brother’s religion that requires blood sacrifices? Shouldn’t God have understood that Cain was trying his best to please Yahweh from his own perspective, his own culture and context? He assumed that God would be gracious and accepting of any gift, so long as it was a gift. I wonder whether he was too prideful to go to his brother Abel and ask for a sheep, or to barter with him for a sheep. For whatever reason, he did not present a blood sacrifice, and the fact remains that God did not accept his gift.

So I can with confidence conclude that it did not matter whether Cain thought he was worshiping the same God as his brother Abel. The bigger issue is whether God accepted his worship.

Cain made up his own concept of God and his own approach to God. Though he did not deny the God of his fathers, he wanted a God who suited him and catered to his choices—not a God who held him accountable to the requirements and rituals, but a god that accepted any worship regardless of whether it were within his will or not.

Cain in the New Testament

The book of Hebrews sheds important light on the story:

“By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead” (Heb 11:4).

What does “faith” here mean? Practically, it must mean that Abel trusted God’s word and worshipped him according to the ordinances God established for Adam and Even and all their descendants. Cain, on the other hand, ignored God’s ordinance and made up his own path to God.

Is this not how Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, approached God? He denied the blood sacrifice and led millions of people in this deception. Further, he introduced to his people the concept of works as a means of salvation. The works that God does not require are worthless. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, calls these works evil.

“Love one another, not as Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:11–12).

Cain worshipped God—but he did not know God, he did not believe God, and he did not obey God.

Application to Muslim Ministry

For decades now the missionary movement has been following in the steps of Cain. Not that they deny the God of the Bible, but that they have the mind of Cain, who reasoned: “I can approach God from inside my culture. I do not need to cross over to my brother’s culture.”

The so-called “Insider Movement” tries to encourage contextualized worship of God by not challenging Muslims to convert or change their cultural practices. I dare say that the insider movement today is a continuation of the religion of Cain.

Like Cain, Muhammad did not deny the true God, but he did make up his own concept of God and his own way to God. In effect he made a god in his own image. And many missionaries are falling for this man-made concept equating the Muslim god, Allah, with Yahweh, the God of the Bible. Many blatantly claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

There is no doubt that Muslims think that they are worshipping the Living God. The Jews in the time of Jesus thought the same thing.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus participates in a serious and most revealing confrontation with the Jews of his time. They claimed to know and worship the God of Abraham, and they called him their Father. Yet Jesus bluntly shocked them with the harshest words any religious person can hear:

  1. “You belong to your father, the devil.” John 8:44
  2. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” John 8:47
  3. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. Though you do not know him, I know him. John 8:54-55
  4. You worship what you do not know.” John 4:22

In the same vein, Muslims claim to worship the true God, yet clearly and certainly they do not belong to God, nor do they know him; therefore, their worship is not acceptable to God. Only through Jesus God’s gift to mankind can we truly know God, and worship him in Spirit and in Truth.

Bassam Madany, a scholar and minister of the Gospel to Muslims for decades, points out the contradiction:

“But it must be made clear that their one god “Allah” revealed in Surah 112 cannot be the God revealed in Scripture. [For the Qur’an says] “Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; and there is none like unto Him.”

Paul’s words “yet for us” mean, as far as Christians are concerned, that there “is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ…” This Pauline formula was adopted by the Church Fathers when they formulated the Nicene Creed.

Therefore with confidence I can conclude based on Genesis 4, as well as the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, the book of Hebrews, and John’s First epistle, that even though Cain intended to worship the true God, he in effect worshiped a false god of his own making. Therefore the God he worshiped is not Yahweh, the God of his brother Abel; nor is the god of Islam the God and Father of Jesus Christ.

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About Author

Georges Houssney was raised in the predominantly Muslim city of Tripoli, Lebanon. He came to faith in Jesus Christ as a teenager. Soon God grew a deep love for Muslims in his heart, and he began to sense God's call for full-time service among them. Well-known for his work supervising the translation and publication of the Bible into clear modern Arabic, Georges and his family moved from the Middle East to the United States in 1982 to minister to international students. Georges is passionate about reaching internationals here and abroad with the great news of salvation. He writes and lectures internationally about ministry to Muslims, and he strives to awaken a new generation who will proclaim the gospel boldly. Georges is founder and director of Horizons International and does Muslim evangelism training through his training Engaging Islam.

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