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Genesis: Cain and Abel

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Genesis by Robert Garland

After the Lord God has discovered that Adam and Eve have eaten of the forbidden fruit, He punishes them as any parent might punish disobedient children. First, Chapter 3 v 14, He curses the serpent, next He inflicts sorrow on women by making them give birth in labour, and last He makes men work hard in order to scrape together enough to eat.

These, again, are etiologies. They explain (1) why women don't like snakes – as Alter notes, it's the first time there's a split between humans and animals (2) why they undergo such pain in giving birth, (3) why men rule over women, and finally (4) why men have to struggle so hard to keep the wolf from the door. And now it is that Adam, the man, calls his wife Eve, which means something like Life-giver. She acquires a specific identity, in other words.

And here comes a delightful touch: after the Lord God has punished the pair, he makes coverings made out of skin for them, evidently because he realises that fig leaves won't do the job adequately. This shows compassion a second time on the part of the Lord God. The first time was when he created a woman to be the man's companion.

"Now that the human has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. To prevent humans from eating of the Tree of Life and live forever – " the Lord God observes to no-one in particular and then breaks off. And to prevent Adam and Eve from eating of that tree, He expels them from the Garden of Eden and sets up divine beings with flaming swords called cherubim to prevent him from ever re-entering.

Chapter 4 begins with the memorable statement that – quote "Adam knew Eve his wife." By "knew" the author means he had carnal knowledge of her. In other words, they had sexual relations for the first time. As a result, Eve conceived and first gave birth to a boy called Cain and later to a boy called Abel.

Cain becomes a tiller of the ground, a farmer, whereas Abel herds sheep. In time, each of them brings an offering to the Lord, in the hope He will continue to provide them with food. This, of course, was common practice in the ancient world. To offer a sacrifice to a deity, rather like a tithe, a kind of thank-you present. It turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the Lord preferred the sheep that Abel offered to the nuts, berries and grain that Cain offered, and this made Cain very upset. So there is rivalry between an older and a younger brother, and the younger is preferred. This pattern will be repeated several times in Genesis.

Observing Cain's jealousy, the Lord reproaches him – the Hebrew is very obscure at this point – and warns him that "the demon sin crouches at his door". Then he adds, "but you will rule over him or it," meaning perhaps he will conquer his inclination to commit a sin. Well, if that is what God means, his words certainly don't resonate with Cain because he promptly goes out into the field and kills his brother.

The Lord then says, "Where is your brother Abel?" Is this a genuine question, meaning God is unaware of the murder at this point, or is it a rhetorical question, meaning God is aware. Cain then makes the celebrated reply, "I don't know. Am I my brother's keeper?"

The Lord immediately grasps what has happened because he hears Abel's blood "crying out to him from the ground." That's a very evocative and chilling image. It's almost like it's out of a horror movie I always think. He curses Cain, tells him the soil he tills will be unproductive, and that he will be a fugitive. When Cain protests at the enormity of his punishment and expresses his fear that anyone who meets him is likely to kill him, the Lord tells him that if they do, they will experience what he calls a sevenfold vengeance. What exactly that means, I'm not sure. The Lord then puts a mark on Cain, presumably a tattoo or a brand, so that no one will kill him and Cain departs for the mysterious land of Nod.

Cain then has sexual relations with his wife, who gives birth to a boy called Enoch. This is a problem for those who insist on taking the Bible literally, because how there can be any woman alive, either in the land of Nod or elsewhere, for Cain to marry.

The Cain and Abel story is troubling on many levels. Most troubling is that it doesn't explain why the Lord prefers Abel's offering to that of Cain. It seems wholly unfair, when supposedly Cain was showing as much devotion as Abel. Was it his fault that he was a tiller of the land? Or should we read the story primarily as an aetiology – an explanation as to why hunters were regarded as superior to farmers with Cain and Abel operating as personifications of different lifestyles?

Aside from this, it's noteworthy that the first action on the part of humans once they've been kicked out of Eden is fratricide, one of the worst crimes imaginable. The human propensity for revenge, for cruelty for unreasoned anger is made clear at the outset. Cain may have been unjustly treated by Gods in our eyes, but it wasn't Abel's fault that the Lord preferred his offering. Abel is an innocent victim of Cain's anger, which really should have been directed towards God.

Incidentally, the history of Rome also begins with fratricide. When Romulus, its founder, after whom the city is named, is building its walls, his twin brother Remus derides those walls by jumping over them, whereupon Romulus plunges his sword into him and kills him. There seems to be a painful awareness in both accounts that fratricidal division and violence lie at the foundation of the human consciousness.

There follows a lengthy genealogy, a list of names of X begetting, Y begetting Z and so on. The only point I want to make here is that their age in years is precisely given. In prehistoric times, in the era before there was any writing, someone's age could only be guessed at. Since, moreover, this was a society where the elderly were respected, it's not surprising that people claimed to be hundreds of years old. The older you were, the more respected you were. The oldest person of all is Methuselah, who lived 31 years shy of a full millennium years – 969 in other words. Noah of Noah's Ark also had a good run for his money. He was 500 years old when he gave birth to his three sons Shem, Ham and Japheth.

The story of Noah is the subject of the next lesson.

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Written by

Robert Garland