CHAPTER ONE. A First Case: The Story of Cain and Abel

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ONE OF the first stories in the Bible is about a homicide:

1Now, the man had known his wife Eve, and she conceived

and gave birth to Cain, saying, “I have acquired a male child with

[the help of] the Lord.” 2 Once again, she gave birth, [this time]

to his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became

a tiller of the soil. 3 In time, Cain brought an offering to the

Lord from the fruit of the soil, 4 and Abel, for his part, brought

the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The Lord looked with

favor upon Abel and his offerings 5 but did not look with favor

upon Cain and his offerings. Cain was depressed1 and saddened.

6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you depressed, and why are

you saddened? 7 Is it not true that whether2 you are good at being

1A distinction is to be drawn between -l hrj, “to be depressed, be despondent,” and #a hrj,

“to be angry.” Cf. Mayer Gruber, “The Tragedy of Cain and Abel: A Case of Depression,” in

The Motherhood of God and Other Studies (South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism

57; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992), 121–131.

2In this clause, !a functions as a coordinating conjunction introducing two alternatives in

a protasis, byfyt al !aw ta` byfyt !a awlh, contra the translations and commentaries. Another

example of this may be found in Ezek 2:5 (“And they – whether they listen or not, for they are

a house of rebellion – they will know that there was a prophet among them”). The word byfyt

patient3 or not, sin is a demon at the door; toward you is its desire,

but you control it.” 8 Cain said to his brother Abel, and when

they were in the field, Cain arose against his brother and killed him.

9 The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I

do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 The Lord said, “What

have you done? Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out to me from

the soil. 11Now, you are cursed from the soil, which has opened its

mouth to take your brother’s blood from your hands. 12When you

till the soil, it will no longer yield its strength to you. You will be

a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord,

“My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14Today you have driven

me from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face. I will be a

fugitive and wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may

kill me.” 15 The Lord said to him, “Therefore, whoever kills Cain

will suffer sevenfold vengeance.” The Lord put a mark on Cain so

that no one who came upon him would kill him. 16 Cain went away

from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of

Eden. (Gen 4:1–16)

The forcefulness of this narrative is that it is about social relations and

violence; it is not just an internal linguistic affair of signs and signifiers.4

Cain is portrayed not simply as a cold mechanical killer, but as one drawn

in subtle emotional nuances. The story of Cain and Abel is fraught with

dramatic, psychological, and social possibility, and each turn of the story

escalates the tension and complexity. God confronts Cain with a warning

about the unpredictability and tenacity of the impulse to sin and then returns

to confront him about his role in his brother’s slaying. God does not mention

Abel’s death explicitly at first but asks Cain about his brother’s whereabouts.

Cain evades the question, knowing exactly what befell his brother, but unwilling

to admit his part in it. When God rebukes Cain and announces his

punishment, Cain is filled with feelings of shame and acute despair, and his

acts adverbially in describing ta`. The adverbial usage of the root bfy in Hiphil is discussed in

Bruce K. Waltke and Michael O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona

Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 592.

3The verb a`n rarely appears intransitively in Qal, and since it is used so infrequently, translators

have failed to understand it. NJV translates, “If you do well, there is uplift . . .” reflecting the pun

on “Why is your face fallen?” from the previous verse, but it is unclear what “uplift” signifies.

E. A. Speiser, Genesis (AB; Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1962), 33, suggests, “If you

do well, there is exaltation . . . ,” but the root in Niphal, not Qal, means “exaltation.” RSV’s

translation, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” also transforms the root into its Niphal

meaning. However, in our passage, Gen 4:7, the root appears in Qal. The meaning of a`n in

Qal depends on whether it has an object. When this root is used intransitively in Qal, it means

“patient,” as can be extrapolated from Ps 99:8.

4Cf.William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland

(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 3.

pleading inspires God to mitigate the punishment. In addition to the dramatic

and psychological, the story reflects or raises questions about typical

social and legal matters. What motives serve as causes for murder? Can a

killer ever justify his actions? Who remedies the crime? What is the appropriate

sanction for a slaying? What rules, customs, and norms govern the

prosecution and punishment of a killer? And if a killer is not punished by

execution, what kind of life can he be expected to lead?

Genesis 4 is a good entryway into many of the issues of central concern

in the adjudication of homicide in the Hebrew Bible. It adumbrates the

considerations that inform the treatment of homicide in other biblical texts.

The focus on Cain’s psychology and the impulse to sin reflects a desire to

determine the killer’s responsibility, an essential element in the biblical adjudication

of homicide. The selection of a slaying as the first offense committed

by one human being upon another indicates the seriousness with which slaying

is taken. The killing is set in the field, a place often the site of crime

where the infrequency of bystanders complicates the determination of guilt

(cf. Deut 22:25; 2 Sam 14:6). Divine protection of Cain reflects the anxiety

over the appropriate form of punishment for a killer. And the !ymd,“blood,”

of Abel is not simply a powerful image invented by a creative author for the

tale of Cain and Abel. It is something real that has an existence of its own,

and when blood is spilled, serious consequences result. The story of Cain

and Abel thus opens up some of the critical issues in homicide for the Bible.

There is a preoccupation, even a morbid fascination, with the inner life

of the killer in Genesis 4. The narrative is concerned with the circumstances

leading up to the killing, the motive and mens rea, the state of mind, of the

slayer.5 Cain’s enmity and jealousy toward his brother are aroused by the

5The other main line of interpretation of the story of Cain and Abel shifts the focus from murder.

Rather, this episode illustrates the inevitable conflict between nomads and farmers, between the

desert and the sown. The murder arose naturally and invariably out of this inevitable conflict

and, therefore, the implication is that the killer himself does not really bear responsibility. (Cf.

D. Bernhard Stade, who worked out the interpretation in detail, “Das Kainszeichen,” in Ausgewahlte

Akademische Reden und Abhandlungen [Giessen: J. Ricker’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung,

1899], 229–273; G. S. Kirk, Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures

[Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970], 146; Speiser, Genesis, 31.) According to this

interpretation, Cain is a symbol for the nomadic tribe of the Kenites, who live in the desert

south of Judah and who are at odds with those who live settled lives. However, there is a basic

incoherence at the heart of this analysis. (Cf. Umberto M. D. Cassuto, The Book of Genesis:

Part I: From Adam to Noah; Part II: From Noah to Abraham [Hebrew] [Jerusalem: Magnes

Press, 1986 (1944)], 120–122; Claus Westermann, Genesis 111 [trans. John J. Scullion; CC;

Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1985], 282–284.) Which figure represents the pastoral and which the

agricultural? At the start, Cain is the farmer, that is, the one leading a settled existence, and

Abel the pastoralist. Then Cain is condemned to wander but settles in the land east of Eden.

Furthermore, there is no indication that Cain’s progeny wanders like Cain. His eldest son founds

a city. (Cain himself may be the founder of this city if the name Enoch is a misreading for Irad.)

Cain’s condition is confined to him alone. He is not emblematic of any nomadic or agricultural


seemingly arbitrary evaluation of their offerings. There is only the barest of

implications that Cain’s offering was incorrect in the comparison of Cain’s

offering, “the fruit of the soil,” to Abel’s “choicest of the firstlings of his

flock.”6 The seemingly mercurial judgment of God and the innocence of

Cain in this regard are amplified by the disjunction between the events of

the narrative in vv. 1–6 and God’s words. We would expect God to offer

criticism of Cain’s offering. Rather, God mentions controlling the impulse to

sin.7 After the deed is done, the narrative then explores the inner life of the

killer. When God asks obliquely about Abel’s whereabouts, Cain avoids the

questions and disavows knowledge, so typical of an offender who knows very

well what he has done and is attempting to evade punishment. Cain’s plea

for mitigation of punishment borders on poignancy. This narrative shaping

explores the psychology of the killer before and after the killing as an avenue

for determining the responsibility of the killer for his actions.

Cain’s impulse to kill is depicted as capricious and powerful, illuminating

a theory of sin and personal responsibility. God cautions Cain: “Is it not

true that whether you are good at being patient or not, sin is a demon

at the door; toward you is its desire, but you control it” (Gen 4:7). Sin

is personified as a demon, Akkadian r ¯ abis.u.8 The Akkadian word r ¯ abis.u

originally referred to a high official who held judicial responsibility as an

examining magistrate in preliminary court investigations. Later on, it was

applied to deities, reflecting their judicial role in bringing the guilty party

to judgment.9 This term was then demonized: The fearsome nature and

6Cf. Cassuto, The Book of Genesis . . . [Hebrew], 138.

7Cf. N. H. Tur-Sinai, “At the Door Sin Couches” [Hebrew], Tarbiz 16 (1944), 8.

8Hans Duhm identifies the demonological aspect in Die bo sen Geisten im Alten Testament

(Tu¨bingen/Leipzig: J. C. B. Mohr, 1904), 8–10. Claus Westermann objects that the word $=o

could not refer to a demon because such a personification of sin was unlikely in so early a text

and was simply unparalleled elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 111, 300). In defense of

the demonological interpretation, it is in all events difficult to date this text. Although opinion

on the direct dependence of Genesis 1–11 on Mesopotamian texts has waxed and waned in the

last century of scholarship, even those advocating a minimalist connection recognize elements

developing from a shared common tradition/culture. (Cf. Richard S. Hess, “One Hundred

Fifty Years of Comparative Studies on Genesis 1–11,” in I Studied Inscriptions from Before

the Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 111 [ed.

Richard S. Hess and David Toshio Tsumura; Sources for Biblical and Theological Study 4;

Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1994], 3–26, and David Toshio Tsumura, “Genesis and

Ancient Near Eastern Creation Stories,” in I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood,

27–57, esp. 55–56.) In light of the Mesopotamian background of Genesis 1–11, a reference to

a Mesopotamian concept seems a strong possibility. Gerhard von Rad’s suggestion to transfer

the t from the end of tafj to the beginning of $br to yield $brt eliminates the problem in the

gender agreement between subject and verb but would necessitate the emendation of the thirdperson

masculine suffixes in the following clauses (Genesis [revised edition; OTL; Philadelphia:

Westminster, 1972], 105) and so in solving one problem creates an equally difficult problem.

9AHw, s.v. r ¯ abis. u, 2.935; A. Leo Oppenheim, “‘The Eyes of the Lord,’” JAOS 88 (1968), 173–

180; Dietz Otto Edzard and F. A. M.Wiggermann, “Maˇskim, Kommissar, Anwalt, Sachwalter,”

power of the official were analogized to the character of lesser divine beings,

demons. These demons were not to be treated lightly, just as the officials

should not be treated lightly. Like the officials, the demons possessed a dual

nature, both negative and positive: They could be benevolent or malevolent.

Their presence is ambivalent because of this contrast. They are found at

entrances of palaces and temples in order to protect and to attack.10

The analogy of sin to r ¯ abis.u reflects a conception of wrongdoing as a

powerful impulse that can either control Cain or be controlled by him, just

as the r ¯ abis.u can be beneficial as well as detrimental. Its dual nature is also

reflected in the use of the term tafj, which can refer to “sin” or “purification

from sin.” Furthermore, the root $br, while referring to a demon, is also twosided:

It is not necessarily meant in a threatening sense. The root $br signals

an animal in repose, referring mostly to domestic animals but also to wild

animals.11 Wild animals are potentially harmful but are of little immediate

threat while lying down in their lair.12 Similarly, the potent impulse to sin is

subject to the commands of its master, albeit requiring a firm hand in control.

The impulse to kill is also described in terms of the sexual urge.13 Sexual

desire can be powerful and capricious and can dominate the object of desire

if allowed to; it can be controlled by a stronger will. In short, the impulse to

kill may be capricious, it may be irrational, it may be powerful, but it can

be reined in. In other words, although the impulse to kill someone may be

sudden and overwhelming, the killer nonetheless bears responsibility for his

action because human beings have the capacity to control this impulse.

Attention is paid to homicide because it is an event of the utmost gravity.

Without a doubt, the most heinous violation of the social bond between

human beings is homicide. The story of Cain and Abel highlights the seriousness

by emphasizing the relationship between the brothers and by placing

homicide as the first crime by a human being against another human being.

Although there is no indication that the most heinous occurrence of homicide

is fratricide, the relationship is foregrounded by the emphasis on the fraternal

relationship between Cain and Abel: The word “brother” is repeated

RLA 7.449–455; M. L. Barr´e, “Rabis.u,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (2nd

edition; ed. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and PieterW. van der Horst; Leiden: Brill, 1995),

cols. 1287–1290.

10G. E. Closen, “Der ‘Da¨mon Su¨nde,’” Bib 16 (1935), 436–440.

11John Van Seters, Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis (Louisville,

Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 138.

12Cf. Gen 49:9; Ezek 19:2, 29:3; Ps 104:22.

13The word hqw`t appears three times in biblical Hebrew, Gen 3:16, 4:6; Song 7:11. Its meaning

in Song 7:11 is clearly “sexual desire; sexual urge,” which would work well in Gen 3:16.

However, it is unclear what sexual import this word would have in our passage, Gen 4:6.

Appeal to other languages yields nothing since there are no cognates. The appearance of this

rare word may be due to the construction of a parallel narrative, as we shall see, to Genesis 2–3

in Genesis 4 by the use of verbal reminiscences.

seven times within the episode, six of which are within the description and

aftermath of the murder (Gen 4:2, 8 [twice], 9 [twice], 10, 11).

The killing of Abel is presented in the Bible as the first crime in human

society.14 The heinous nature of the slaying of Abel is intensified by the

way the story is shaped. The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 and the

story of the Garden of Eden in Gen 2:4b–3:24 have been composed to form

parallel narratives about human sinfulness. The narrative of Cain and Abel

has an almost complete verbal parallel with the previous story: Gen 4:7b,

“toward you is its desire, but you control it,” echoes Gen 3:16b, “Toward

your husband is your desire, and he will rule over you.” There are also striking

reminiscences of the story of the Garden of Eden in the story of Cain

and Abel: Gen 4:9, 10, 11 (“Where is . . . What have you done . . .You are

cursed . . .”), in parallel language to Gen 3:9, 13, 17 (“Where are . . . What

have you done . . .You are cursed . . .”). Both narratives possess the same

sequence of sin, investigation, and punishment, the equivalent use of dialogue

at the climax of the narrative, and attention to psychological analysis.

The “trial” takes place face to face. The pronouncement of punishment is

expressed in the form of a curse. The punishment itself is expulsion, and

the sentence is mitigated: God is responsible for the action that protects the

transgressor from the full consequences of the crime. The intention of the

author/compiler is unmistakable – to construct in Genesis 4 a narrative of

crime and punishment corresponding to Genesis 3. Cain’s deed is as serious

a transgression as Adam and Eve’s violation of God’s command.

Killing is serious because the harm done cannot be undone. An amount

stolen can be repaid. Embarrassment, medical fees, and lost work time can

be compensated in a case of assault. But Cain’s deed leaves behind permanent

harm whose repair is difficult. The !ymd, blood, of Abel cries out from the

ground. Although a casual reader might take this as a compelling metaphor

invented by a gifted writer, the image plays on a technical legal term for

responsibility for homicide, !ymd, “bloodguilt.” This term is derived from

14John Van Seters argues that Gen 4:1–16 assumes an earth populated with many people, not

the second generation of humanity, and therefore the story of Cain and Abel does not have a

primordial valence as does the story of the Garden of Eden (Prologue to History: The Yahwist

as Historian in Genesis, 136). By contrast, the narrative of Gen 2:4b–3:24 assumes a tone of

primeval time and origins. Enmity, for example, is established between the descendants of Eve

and the descendants of the serpent (Gen 3:15). Genesis 4 appears ambivalent in comparison to

Genesis 2–3, and it possesses both nonprimordial and primordial elements. The nonprimordial,

on the one hand, is reflected in the assumption of the institution of offerings to God in two

varieties, grain and first-born animals (Gen 4:3–4). The text does not present the punishment of

Cain as the practice to be established for all time (Gen 4:11–12). The occupations of Cain and

Abel as farmer and shepherd appear as typical, not prototypical (Gen 4:2). On the other hand,

this is in sharp contrast to Gen 4:20, where Jabal is explicitly named the first shepherd. Other

elements, the founding of a city and naming it after a child (Gen 4:17) and the designation of

individuals as the ancestors of people with certain occupations (Gen 4:20, 21, 22), suggest the

initiation of institutions of human society.

the sense that the spilled blood of the victim has a concrete existence of its

own and cannot be ignored.

The text uses other technical legal terms and institutions in the interrogation

and sentence of Cain.15 Cain denies that he is the rmw`, the guardian, in

equivalent English legal terminology, of his brother. Cain’s sentence is banishment

from his home, a punishment homologous to a forced stay in a city

of refuge.

Cain’s punishment is mitigated because of the assumption that all who

commit homicide are liable to be killed by whomever they meet and, therefore,

killers like Cain need protection. In biblical law, in fact, the number

of people who have the right to kill a killer is severely limited. The statutes

on homicide in the Bible give the general impression that there is anxiety

over what constitutes appropriate punishment. Indeed, God’s protection of

a killer in Genesis 4 seems at odds with the heinous nature of the offense

committed and the gravity of the punishment, yet as we shall see, it is in

consonance with the treatment of the punishment of the killer elsewhere in

the Bible, where protections are established for killers.

A literary text like Genesis 4 opens up the issue of the nature of literature.

The presence of legal elements, such as legal institutions, technical terminology,

and factors taken into account in the judicial process, in a literary text

poses questions about law in literature. Is it even valid to focus on the legal

elements in a literary text since it is not the intention of a literary text to

describe law per se? Even if it is deemed appropriate to interpret the legal

elements in a literary text, it must be asked to what extent the law and legal

practice are accurately portrayed when legal elements might be exaggerated

or attenuated for the sake of plot or character development or theological

exposition. Furthermore, Genesis 4 poses historical questions. Genesis 4

comes across as having a historical valence for the biblical author because it

purports to tell about what occurred in the most ancient of times. The issue

with Genesis 4, thus, is not simply a question of how accurate it is about

ancient practices but whether it is legitimate to use a literary text like this

one as a document to reconstruct history.

In sum, Genesis 4 is emblematic of the issues involved in the treatment

of homicide in the Hebrew Bible. The attention paid to the inner life of Cain

and to the understanding of sin reflects a preoccupation with determining the

responsibility of the slayer. This is expressed in Cain’s story by the exposition

on the impulse to sin and on Cain’s psychology, while in other biblical texts,

the intent of the killer is extrapolated from the manner of killing or from the

15David Daube, “Law in the Narratives,” in Studies in Biblical Law (Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 1969), 13–15. Daube also recognizes that being another person’s guardian was

not part of the social ethics enshrined in the Bible, but he proposes that the word rmw` was being

used in a metaphorical sense derived from the legal status of being a guardian of property or of

a city. Cf. Paul A. Riemann, “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” Interpretation 24 (1970), 485–486.

prior relationship between victim and killer. The seriousness of homicide is

reflected in its selection as the first crime and in the amount of space devoted

to it elsewhere in the Bible. Abel’s blood crying out to God is not simply

a vivid phrase conjured up by an imaginative author for the tale of Cain.

It is something palpable that has an existence of its own, a problem that is

addressed by the biblical adjudication of homicide. And God’s protection of

Cain belies an anxiety over the appropriate punishment of a killer, an issue

taken up by other biblical texts. Lastly, the question of the nature of literature

and the debate over law and literature as well as the reconstruction of history

find their touchstone in Genesis 4. The adumbration of these critical issues

is not surprising considering the placement of this narrative at the beginning

of the first biblical book, which orients it into a myth of origin, providing a

cognitive map of sociopolitical norms.