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Cain, a righteous person 

Abelís 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.[1] 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 farmers.

While Cain is accused of a single murder, Abel routinely killed animals for a living.

Cainís name means received (from God), while Abelís means vapor, nonessential. He is replaced by Seth, a new son, apparently without regret.

Why 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[2] over it.Ē[i] There are two options: either do good or not.

God 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 victories.

There 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.

Though 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.

Cain, a good person, mourns his brotherís murder: ďMy sin is above what can be tolerated.Ē

That 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

[1] Misunderstanding of Abelís example might influence assigning importance to subsequent children in later accounts, e.g., to Isaac.

[2] Rule as one gives orders to animals or presides over subjects, not to restrain it but to make work.

[i] Gen4:7

[ii] Gen4:24

 [BC1]There are only a couple of chapters before Cain.