Thursday, March 26, 2015

Why I Believe: Evidence Thirty-four: Joseph Smith and Cain's Offering

101 Reasons Why I Believe Joseph Smith Is A Prophet

Evidence Thirty four:
Joseph Smith and Cain's Offering©
(Updated 30 March 2015)

There are those who do not think Mormons are Christians. One of the things which I love about the Prophet Joseph Smith is his great testimony of Jesus Christ.(1) One manifestation of it is reflected in his near single minded view of the Christ-centeredness of the scriptures.(2) An example of this phenomenon is what he taught about why the Lord rejected Cain’s offering in the story found in Genesis 4. Verse 3 says “in process of time ... that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord.” Abel, his brother, offered the firstlings of the flock. “But unto Cain and to his offering,” the scripture reads, the Lord “had not respect.  And Cain was very wroth.” Cain was so wrathful that he ended up killing Abel.

A typical Christian interpretation of the difference between the two offerings is found in the popular NIV Study Bible, which gives this commentary:
The contrast is not between an offering of plant life and an offering of animal life, but between a careless, thoughtless offering and a choice, generous offering (cf. Lev 3:16).  Motivation and heart attitude are all-important, and God looked with favor on Abel and his offering because of Abel’s faith (Heb 11:4).(3)
I set this beside what Joseph Smith had to say on the subject.  His remarks are found in a lengthy epistle to the Church dated 22 January 1834.(4)  He was twenty-nine years old.
By faith in this atonement or plan of redemption, Abel offered to God a sacrifice that was accepted, which was the firstlings of the flock. Cain offered of the fruit of the ground, and was not accepted, because he could not do it in faith, he could have no faith, or could not exercise faith contrary to the plan of heaven. It must be shedding the blood of the Only Begotten to atone for man; for this was the plan of redemption; and without the shedding of blood was no remission; and as the sacrifice was instituted for a type, by which man was to discern the great Sacrifice which God had prepared; to offer a sacrifice contrary to that, no faith could be exercised, because redemption was not purchased in that way, nor the power of atonement instituted after that order; consequently Cain could have no faith; and whatsoever is not of faith, is sin. But Abel offered an acceptable sacrifice, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God Himself testifying of his gifts. Certainly, the shedding of the blood of a beast could be beneficial to no man, except it was done in imitation, or as a type, or explanation of what was to be offered through the gift of God Himself; and this performance done with an eye looking forward in faith on the power of that great Sacrifice for a remission of sins. But however various may have been, and may be at the present time, the opinions of men respecting the conduct of Abel, and the knowledge which he had on the subject of atonement, it is evident in our minds, that he was instructed more fully in the plan than what the Bible speaks of, for how could he offer a sacrifice in faith, looking to God for a remission of his sins in the power of the great atonement, without having been previously instructed in that plan? And further, if he was accepted of God, what were the ordinances performed further than the offering of the firstlings of the flock?(5) 
Two things are important to highlight in this interesting analysis. First, Joseph does see a considerable difference between an offering of plant life and animal life. Second, this entire paragraph is surfeited with Jesus Christ, the atonement, and faith.  Consider the following:

1. Abel had faith in the atonement and offered an acceptable animal sacrifice, one that typified or properly symbolized the Savior’s sacrifice. 

2. Cain did not offer the correct type of sacrifice and could not do so in faith because the fruits of the field do not typify the sacrifice of Christ.

3. Animal sacrifice was to point toward Christ, because the atonement was “instituted after that order.” However, the shedding of an animal’s blood “could be beneficial to no man, except it was done in imitation, or as a type ... of what was to be offered through the gift of God Himself....”  That gift was Christ.

4. This was all done looking forward to a remission of sins, through the atonement.

5.   To exercise faith through such a system, Able must have known about Christ, the atonement,  and the plan.

Quite a different view than that of the NIV Study Bible. This is typical of Joseph Smith, it is not unusual or exceptional. He understood the mission and purpose of Jesus Christ. He understood the atonement and how the Old Testament law of sacrifice pointed toward the atoning sacrifice of Christ. He understood the necessity of having faith in Christ in order to please God, to live righteously, and to gain salvation. This is the message he drew from the story of the two sacrifices of Abel and Cain. Interesting is it not, how his critics never call attention to this most obvious and consistent focus of his teachings and ministry. I wonder why not?

Thank God for Joseph Smith!

Lets think together again, soon.


1.   I like and share the view of my friend Jeff Marsh who wrote, "...Joseph Smith was one of the most powerful testifiers of the resurrected Lord and Savior Jesus Christ the world has ever known."  See, W. Jeffrey Marsh, Joseph Smith the Prophet of the Restoration, (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort Inc., 2005), p. 14.

2.  This is consistent with Jesus' teaching, "Search the scriptures; for ... they are they which testify of me."  (John 5:39.)  It is not always remembered that the "scriptures" he speaks of were the Old Testament.  Perhaps a few things may have been circulating from his teachings.  There are a number of ways one can approach this idea.  An interesting one is found in an article in the Ensign asserting that the Book of Mormon mentions the Savior more times per verse than even the New Testament.  See, Susan Ward Easton, "Discovery," Ensign, (July 1978), p. 60.

3.  Kenneth Barker, ed, The NIV Study Bible: New International Version, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), p. 11, note at Gen. 4:3-4.

4.  Joseph Smith, “The Elders of The Church in Kirtland, To Their Brethren Abroad,” HC 2:15-16.  See also TPJS, pp. 58-59, emphasis added.  The original was in the Evening and Morning Star, vol. 2, no. 18 (March 1834), 142-144; no. 19 (April 1834), p. 152.  Respecting Joseph's argument that Abel knew the gospel and the law of sacrifice relative to the death of Christ, Moses 5:7 teaches us that an angel taught Adam that animal sacrifice “is a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father....”  Surely Adam taught this to his children. Moses 5:12 says Adam and Eve "made all things known unto their sons and their daughters."  Concerning Moses 5:7, Elder M. Russell Ballard has written, much as Joseph argued about Abel, “This teaches us that originally, ancient Israel understood the relationship between the sacrifice of their offerings and the sacrifice of the Lamb of God.” He refers the reader to D&C 138:12-13, which says: “And there were gathered together in one place an innumerable company of the spirits of the just, who had been faithful in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality; and who had offered sacrifice in the similitude of the great sacrifice of the Son of God, and had suffered tribulation in their Redeemer’s name.” See M. Russell Ballard, Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Timeless Gospel Messages with Insights from his Grandfathers Melvin J. Ballard and Hyrum Mack Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015, p. 118.

5.  Joseph Smith had more to say in this same epistle about blood sacrifice and their knowledge of Christ. He wrote:  "Our friends may say, perhaps, that there were never any ordinances except those of offering sacrifices before the coming of Christ, and that it could not be possible before the Gospel to have been administered while the law of sacrifices of blood was in force. But we will recollect that Abraham offered sacrifice, and notwithstanding this, had the Gospel preached to him. That the offering of sacrifice was only to point the mind forward to Christ, we infer from these remarkable words of Jesus to the Jews: "Your Father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad" (John 8:56). So, then, because the ancients offered sacrifice it did not hinder their hearing the Gospel; but served, as we said before, to open their eyes, and enable them to look forward to the time of the coming of the Savior, and rejoice in His redemption. We find also, that when the Israelites came out of Egypt they had the Gospel preached to them, according to Paul in his letter to the Hebrews, which says: "For unto us was the Gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it" (see Heb. 4:2). It is said again, in Gal. 3:19, that the law (of Moses, or the Levitical law) was "added" because of transgression. What, we ask, was this law added to, if it was not added to the Gospel? It must be plain that it was added to the Gospel, since we learn that they had the Gospel preached to them. From these few facts, we conclude that whenever the Lord revealed Himself to men in ancient days, and commanded them to offer sacrifice to Him, that it was done that they might look forward in faith to the time of His coming, and rely upon the power of that atonement for a remission of their sins. And this they have done, thousands who have gone before us, whose garments are spotless, and who are, like Job, waiting with an assurance like his, that they will see Him in the latter day upon the earth, even in their flesh."  HC 2:16-17, TPJS, 60-61, emphasis added.


  1. Very helpful! It makes me wonder how often I might forget that what I do now in the Gospel should also be done linked to my faith in Jesus Christ--that it all points to Him. Thankfully, it is very clear in the ordinances and practices we engage in that Christ is the center. It becomes a mercy that we get to self-assess and commune with The Lord weekly to make sure that we are making an acceptable offering in our lives.

    1. You make an excellent point of asking the question, "How does this apply to me?" That is something that isn't always done, not only when we study Church history, but also with the very basic idea of theology. It should not be just an intellectual exercise, but should arrive someplace, such as "How much is Christ at the center of what I do, think, and teach. Thank you!

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