Cain and Abel

Classic tale of brothers and murder.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Cain and Abel were the two sons of Adam and Eve (Genesis 4). Cain is a tiller of the soil and Abel a keeper of sheep. (The suggestion that the narrative contains echoes of a conflict between the settled farmers and the nomadic shepherds has no evidence to support it, since there is no record of such a conflict in ancient Israelite society.) Cain brings an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil and Abel from the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. God rejects Cain’s offering but accepts Abel’s.

Cain and Abel

Jan van Eyck painting “Ghent Altarpiece”,

finished 1432.

When Cain and Abel are in the field Cain attacks Abel and kills him, whereupon God condemns Cain to a life of wandering and puts a mark on him, as a sign that he is protected and no one must kill him. (The expression “the brand of Cain” for a murderer is based on a misunderstanding. Cain was not “branded” in order to mark him as a murderer but rather to protect him from himself becoming a victim of murder.)

The name Cain, in Hebrew kayin, is said to have been given by Eve because she declared: “I have gotten [kaniti, from kanah, ‘to acquire’] a man from the Lord.” Of Abel the text simply says that Eve gave birth to him, without stating that she named him. It is interesting that the Hebrew word, translated as Abel, means “vapor,” and this is a probably an instance, of which there are many in the Bible, of a name describing the subsequent fate of a person; in this case it means, perhaps, that his life was short and insubstantial because he was cut off in his prime.

The narrative is unclear about why God rejected Cain’s offering and accepted Abel’s. One interpretation is based on the word “choicest” of Abel’s offering. Abel brought his very best, whereas Cain was satisfied with the leftovers.

In a Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 22: 7) there are three opinions as to why the brothers quarreled. According to one opinion the brothers divided the world between them, one taking all the land, the other all the movables. The one who took the land ordered the other to get off his land and fly in the air. The one who took the movables ordered the other to strip naked because the clothes belonged to him. Another opinion is that the quarrel was about in whose territory the Temple was to be built.

A third opinion is that Cain had a twin sister (Genesis 4: 17 says that Cain took a wife and otherwise whom did he marry?) but Abel had two sisters born at the same time as him (i.e. they were triplets). Abel claimed both his sisters for himself but Cain wanted the additional one by his right as a first-born to have a double portion.

It is fairly obvious that the Midrash uses the original narrative as a paradigm for human conflict. Why do people engage in violence and what are the basic causes of war? One reason is disputes over land and property, another is arguments over women, and a third disagreements over religion.

In the Jewish tradition Cain is a bad character and Abel a virtuous one, but occasionally there is to be found, if not a justification of Cain’s act, at least an attempt to understand it on the grounds that Cain had had no experience of killing or death and must have been unaware of the seriousness of what he was doing. Cain also features as one of the biblical characters who admitted their fault and hence is a prototype of the penitent, although his repentance is sometimes described as less than totally sincere.

In kabbalah Cain’s soul belongs to the Sura Ahara, the demonic side while Abel’s soul came down to earth again as the soul of Moses. There is a legend (Zohar, (i. 9b] that Cain’s descendants live in the netherworld as two-headed monsters. This legend was known in the Middle Ages in the non-Jewish world as well.

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