After God created the heavens and the earth, tragedy struck in a catastrophe that has never been forgotten, a tragedy now ingrained in our DNA and repeated in every generation.
The tale of Cain and Abel is a story of envy, despair, and evil that has stained the human condition (Genesis 4:1-15).
As dramatic as this story is, in only fifteen verses does the episode unfold and resolve. The narrative gives only bare details of Cain’s and Abel’s lives and their fates. Abel (Havel) was a keeper of sheep. His Hebrew name means “vapor,” reflecting his short and purposeless life.
Cain was a farmer and tiller of the soil, the same ground that he polluted when he murdered his brother and his brother’s blood soaked the earth.
We learn that the brothers each had brought to God offerings. Cain was first – Abel followed. God rejected Cain’s gift and received Abel’s joyfully. Cain felt humiliated and shunned by the God he yearned to serve.
Why did God reject Cain’s gift? We don’t know. God, however, seemed surprised by Cain’s strong reaction and asked: “Why are you so upset? Why has your face fallen? Is it not thus: If you intend good, bear-it-aloft, but if you do not intend good, at the entrance is sin, a crouching-demon, toward you his lust–but you can rule over him.” (vs 6-7) [An enigmatic ancient poetic passage – see below]
A shame! Instead of sympathy God gave Cain a lecture. Yet, we can’t really blame Cain for his distress. He felt rejected and utterly alone. Even Cain’s parents were missing from the scene, so he struck out against the one closest to him – the only one there – his brother Abel.
Cain and Abel had spoken or argued, but we’re not told about what. The rabbis offer several explanations.
One said that the brothers had agreed to divide the world. Cain took all the land and Abel took everything that moved: but then they fought out of greed for more.
Cain said: “The land upon which you stand is mine. Get off – you may fly if you like, for I don’t own the air. But the land is mine and not for your use.”
Abel shot back: “The clothes you wear are made from the wool of my flock. Strip down. Walk naked. You’ve no right to the product of my sheep.”
A second sage said that each brother owned both land and movable property and that they fought about on whose land the Temple in Jerusalem would be built.
“The Temple should be built on my land,” said one.
“No. It must be built on mine,” said the other.
Their battle thus became a religious war each claiming that God was on his side.
A third rabbi said that Abel had a twin sister, a magnificently beautiful and alluring woman, and since there was no other woman on earth, each wanted her.
Cain argued: “I must have her because I am the first born.”
Abel too felt entitled: “She’s mine because she was born with me. Together we must stay.”
The rabbis regard Cain and Abel as symbols. Each explanation is an argument for what drives people to hate and kill each other; materialism, religious fanaticism, and sexual obsession.
“Cain rose up against Abel and slew him.” (v 8)
The Midrash claimed that Abel was the physically stronger man, and as he was about to kill Cain, Cain pleaded for his life: “We are the only two in the world. What will you tell our parents if you kill me?”
From fear or perhaps pity, Abel lowered his weapon, and at that moment Cain murdered him.
After the deed (as if God didn’t know), the Almighty asked: “Where is Abel your brother?”
Cain was cold and disengaged: “I know not; am I my brother’s keeper?” (v 9)
God expected moral accountability, but as he had turned on his brother, so too did Cain turn on God:
“You hold watch over all creatures, and yet You demand an accounting of me! True, I killed him, but You created the evil inclination within me. It’s Your fault! Why did You permit me to slay him? You slew him yourself, for had You looked favorably on my offering, I wouldn’t have had reason to envy and kill him.”
God emphasized to Cain the heinous significance of his murderous act, but Cain didn’t understand.
God said: “The voice of your brother’s blood(s) cry to Me from the ground.” (v 10)
The Hebrew for blood (dam) is written in the plural (damim) meaning that killing one human being is equivalent to the murder of every generation to come, of an entire world, genocide. And given that Cain killed his brother, murder is also fratricide.
As tragic as this tale is, the ending is abruptly positive. Adam and Eve chose life again and bore their third son, Seth, in the place of Abel. We are considered Seth’s descendants (v 25) and neither carry the legacy of victim or aggressor. That is for each of us to decide.
Note: The above is a creative compilation of the Biblical text and rabbinic commentary. The translation of the poem – vs 6-7 – is borrowed from Everett Fox’s translation of The Five Books of Moses – The Schocken Bible: Volume I.