a righteous person
story is one of the most misunderstood in the Torah. Contrary to common opinion,
Cain, not Abel, is the positive person. He is the firstborn, immensely
significant in ancient culture.
Genesis say Cain was born from God, puzzling in Jewish monotheism, and no hint
of that for Abel.
Cain is more civilized, a farmer; Abel is a herder. Even today, the settled
populations of the Middle East hate and fear bedouin herders, who often raid
weak settlements. The writers and scribes of antiquity were urban. Jews, unlike
Greeks, did not idealize the herders; shepherding was a lowly and despised
occupation. Calling someone a herder was no compliment. Davidís beginning as
shepherd is contrasted to his triumph as king and sage. Abraham, of course, was
also a herder, but the narratives depict the patriarchs as landless people who
settled other peopleís land. They just could not have been presented as
Cain is accused of a single murder, Abel routinely killed animals for a living.
name means received (from God), while
Abelís means vapor, nonessential. He
is replaced by Seth, a new son,
apparently without regret.
did God prefer Abelís offering
and disregard Cainís? Bread offerings Ė like Cainís - are mandatory in
Judaism, and so presumably pleasant to God. The explanation may be in Godís
words to Cain: ďIndeed, if you will do good, patience. And if you will not do
good, evil is lying at your door [like animal], and you rule
There are two options: either do good or not.
may have rejected Cainís sacrifice to teach him patience, which he needed in
order to do good. But Cain, a human possessed of free will, chose another
solution and killed Abel. Significantly, the Torah chooses the word kill,
not murder, as in the commandment. Kill
means a lawful act, like execution or war. Nothing implies that Cain killed his
brother out of jealousy. They met ďin a field,Ē presumably Cainís
cultivated field, and the murder might be a prototypical justification of the
settlersí defense against bedouin or a self-serving attempt to reverse bedouin
is more evidence that Abelís murder posed no problem. When Lamech killed two
people, ostensibly in self-defense, he appeals to the example of Cain: ďIf
Cain is avenged two times seven, truly Lamech seventy seven.Ē[ii]
The argument is a fortiori: Cain
killed one man, and God protected him; Lamech killed two, so God protects him
even more. Here killing seems to be a good deed that merits divine grace.
modern sensitivity decries murder, the medieval and ancient (especially)
attitude was nearer to neutral, no great concern. The modern scruple is
superficial, since few would hesitate to kill to defend life or property.
a good person, mourns his brotherís murder: ďMy sin is above what can be
Cain was cursed is ambiguous. The word [BC1] to curse
the serpent in Eden was different, and cursed
from land is not idiomatic. The proper meaning approximates parted
(from the land), which would bear him no more harvest since he defiled it with
Abelís blood. He is expelled from arable land. Thus, after killing his bedouin
brother Abel, he became a bedouin himself. The story makes sense historically,
since in bad years farmers tended to return to herding and abandon the settled
life. Cainís curse is economic exile, and there was no other. Making him a
bedouin was not punishment, but he chose the second way: impatient, malicious,
and having to control the sin.
God remained sympathetic to Cain, protecting him with the mark, commonly
misinterpreted as a sign of the curse, while in fact it certified ďthat no one
who came upon him would kill him.Ē
Misunderstanding of Abelís example might influence assigning importance to
subsequent children in later accounts, e.g., to Isaac.
as one gives orders to animals or presides over subjects, not to restrain it
but to make work.