The story of Cain and Abel is the next major story in the Bible, after the Creation account and the story of the Garden of Eden. In short, Cain murders his younger brother Abel and is exiled for his crime. But is the story ‘just’ a moral tale, or might it be an attempt to explain something deeper about the development of human civilisation?
Let’s take a closer look at the story of Cain and Abel. Before we come to the analysis, here’s a brief summary of what we are told in the Book of Genesis.
Cain and Abel story: summary
The entire story of Cain and his brother Abel is found in one chapter of the Book of Genesis: chapter 4.
After God expels them from the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve ‘knew’ each other, i.e., they had sex, and Eve conceived a child. This child was Cain, their firstborn son. They then have a second son, Abel. We are told that Abel was a shepherd or ‘keeper of sheep’ while Cain was a farmer or ‘tiller of the ground’.
One day, Cain brought some of the crops he had grown, and presented them to God as an offering. Abel also brought an offering: the ‘firstlings of his flock’ of sheep. But whilst God is pleased with Abel’s gift, he is less than pleased with Cain’s. Cain grows angry and downcast, and God tells him that if Cain strives to do well, he will be accepted by God. So the crops, we are to assume, don’t matter: it’s striving to be a good person and do good deeds that will lead to God’s acceptance.
But this incident seems to have had an effect on Cain, because one day when he was in the field with Abel, he ‘rose up against’ his brother and killed him.
When God came to Cain, he asked where his brother was. Cain responded truculently, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ Which is no way to speak to God, surely.
Anyway, it didn’t matter because God knows everything, and he could hear the voice of Abel’s blood crying to him from the ground, where Cain had presumably buried him. God cursed Cain for his crime, and told him that his crops would fail as punishment. He would become a fugitive, on the run, and a vagabond, a beggar. Cain cannot bear such a punishment, and fears that anyone who sees him and learns what he did will seek to kill him.
So God set a mark upon him – the so-called ‘mark of Cain’ – which ensured that if anyone did take vengeance into their own hands and kill him, they would have God’s vengeance delivered upon them seven times worse.
Cain left the field and went to live in ‘the land of Nod’, which was ‘on the east of Eden’ (Genesis 4:16). ‘Nod’ is from the Hebrew meaning ‘wander’, symbolising the fact that Cain had now become a wanderer or nomad. (The idea of the ‘land of Nod’ denoting the realm of sleep appears to have been based on a pun on ‘to nod off’, meaning to fall asleep; the earliest reference to ‘land of Nod’ meaning ‘sleep’ is in the work of Jonathan Swift.)
At some point Cain got married, and his wife conceived a son, Enoch. He built a city and named it Enoch, after his son. The rest of Genesis chapter 4 details the descendants of Cain.
Cain and Abel story: analysis
There’s a clear indication that whoever wrote the story of Cain’s killing of Abel was not the same person who wrote the accounts of the Creation and the Fall. If we read the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis, we learn that Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel are the only four people in the world at this point. Yet Cain tells God that ‘every one that findeth me shall slay me’ (Genesis 4:14). So who, then, are these other people Cain is worried about? And where did his wife come from?
In other words, the Cain and Abel story probably originated in a separate source from the story of Adam and Eve, but was grafted on later, with the inconsistencies in the two stories left unresolved.
So, these two accounts must belong to different traditions. But what does the story mean? It’s often taken to be an injunction against murder, but that doesn’t get us very far, beyond a fairly self-evident moral point. The clue to the deeper meaning of the story of Cain and Abel perhaps rests on two aspects of the narrative: the offering to God which Cain produces, and God is displeased with; and the clues provided by the etymologies of the two brothers’ names.
Let’s begin with the incident involving the offerings of the ‘fruits’ of the field (i.e., Cain’s crops) and Abel’s sheep. Cain’s crops are deemed unsatisfactory by God, while Abel’s sheep are received enthusiastically.
This has been analysed as a reference to God’s preference for animal sacrifice as an offering, but it may also allude to the wretched life to which a particular group was reduced when their crops failed, and they were forced to make a living by doing smith work (see below) for other tribes. The Dictionary of the Bible even points to sources which tell us that certain castes were forbidden to keep cattle; we can see how this would lead to their resentment of other castes who could do so, and profited as a result.
But a clue to the origins of the Cain and Abel story may also lie in the symbolic meanings of the brothers’ two names. ‘Cain’ is from a root word meaning ‘forge’ or ‘smith’, and is cognate with the Arabic kain, which means the same thing. In Genesis 4:22 we learn that ‘Tubal-cain’ was ‘an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron’, which lends credence to this etymology (Tubal was a district in Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey).
Meanwhile, ‘Abel’ is believed to be derived from Jubal or Jabal, the ancestor of nomadic shepherds.
If we put these two names together, we find that Cain represents the farmer and skilled artisan, while Abel represents the herdsman or nomad. As Isaac Asimov points out in his endlessly informative Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The Old Testament by Isaac Asimov (September 19,1973), the authors of these early histories were farmers and settled city-men who would doubtless have viewed nomads as a threat to their civilisation: the nomads were potential invaders and raiders. Cain is not just a farmer but a representative of a skilled class of metal-workers, remember: as such, he symbolises the development of more advanced technologies during the Bronze Age (as it gave way to the Iron Age).
Curiously, it’s been suggested that Abel’s name might be distantly related to the Babylonian aplu, meaning ‘son’. As with the Great Flood and other origin-stories from the Book of Genesis, the tale of Cain and Abel may have emerged from earlier Sumerian myths about the clashes between the older, nomadic way of life and the new city-focused farming culture that was displacing (and replacing) it. The fact that Cain, the representative of this new culture, kills his brother, who represents the weaker nomadic culture, is a sort of allegory for this mass shift towards more advanced agriculture in the ancient Middle East.
But if this is the case, why is Cain condemned to go to the land of Nod and become a nomad? It may be that this represents the fact that the displacement of nomadic peoples was by no means settled at this point, and that the balance of power and influence may have swung between the farming and nomadic cultures, back and forth, as one tribe or group defeated or rivalled another. It’s impossible to say for sure. Another theory is that the tale is a kind of ‘Just So’ story explaining how, after Adam was reduced to tilling the land (after enjoying paradise in the Garden of Eden), his son Cain – and, subsequently, all mankind at that time – was further reduced from tilling the land to a rootless nomadic existence.
But it seems more likely that these early stories from Genesis, both of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, are less about the beginnings of mankind than about the development of civilisation during the age of agriculture.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.