Parashat B’reishit constitutes an embarrassment of riches for any biblical interpreter. It is hard to imagine where to start when one parashah confronts us with the Creation of the world, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, genealogies of the longest-lived people on earth, and an intriguing passage on celestial-human intermarriage. But choose we must: and this week Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-26) get the nod.
Conflict, apparently, is a basic part of human nature since the very beginning, even when the population of the world stands at only four. From the start of this narrative, opposition abounds. In the etymologies of the names of the characters, we find our first conflict: Cain, Kayin (related to the root kuf-nun-hei, kanah, meaning, “acquired”) is reported to arise from Eve’s acquisition of a child, implying that his life has significant value (Genesis 4:3). Contrast this with Abel, Hevel (meaning “breath, nothingness”) whose name itself implies something ephemeral and valueless: a puff of breath or vanity. Beyond this lack of intrinsic value, Abel’s birth is virtually uncelebrated in the narrative: the arrival of Adam and Eve’s second son is a mere afterthought when compared to the statement announcing Cain’s entry into the world. Our protagonists’ work in the world is similarly dissimilar: Abel is a shepherd, complete with the nomadic wandering life such work entails; while Cain tilled the soil for his livelihood, with all the “settled-ness” implied by his agrarian lifestyle.
It should be noted here that the clash between these two professions constitutes one of the oldest conflicts on earth, appearing, as the story suggests, in the very first generation forced to live outside the Garden of Eden and apply the toil of their hands to their own survival. Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers points out that the conflict between herders and farmers is one with a rather violent record:
. . . the kind of culture that grows up around being a herdsman is very different from the culture that grows up around growing crops. The survival of a farmer depends upon the cooperation of others in the community. But a herdsman is off by himself. Farmers also don’t have to worry that their livelihood will be stolen in the night, because crops can’t easily be stolen, unless, of course, a thief wants to go to the trouble of harvesting an entire field on his own. But a herdsman does have to worry. He’s under constant threat of ruin through the loss of his animals. So he has to be aggressive: he has to make it clear, through his words and deeds, that he is not weak. (Outliers: The Story of Success [New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008] p. 102)
This essential tension—between the settled, comfortable, impervious agriculturalist and the tenuous, threatened, solitary herdsman—forms the core of our narrative. Only here, the farmer is the one who acts out. Once a generous helping of sibling rivalry is ladled on, the stage is set for some outright aggression.
Our story’s turning point arrives when the brothers make offerings to God. Cain’s comes from the fruit of the soil; while Abel brings the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. God, reviewing the offerings, accepts Abel’s and ignores Cain’s. Puzzled commentators have long noted that Abel’s choice of the best of his firstling animals implies two aspects that Cain’s offering lacked: meat and a certain selectivity. One need only peruse the Book of Leviticus to detect the seriously carnivorous tendency of the offerings brought before the biblical God; the few plant-based offerings (grain, bread, wine, and so on), are mostly side dishes that accompany the main course of bullocks, sheep, goats, pigeons, and more meat in the regular and festival sacrifices. Throughout the Bible, there is also a focus on sacrificing animals that are “best in show:” defect-free, firstborn, and slaughtered while alive and healthy. In short, the biblical sacrificial inclination is toward high-quality meat, and lots of it. So, the acceptance of Abel’s offering and the rejection of Cain’s makes perfect sense in context. Firstlings from a second-born brother clearly outweigh seconds from a firstborn.
Cain, in response to God’s rejection, is greatly grieved, as any overlooked firstborn would be. God’s call to Cain is poignant and moving in Genesis 4:6-7:
“Why your fallen face?
Would you not do well to lift it?
For if you do not do well—
sin is a demon at the door;
you of the one it craves,
and yet you can govern it.”
Here, in nutshell, is the universal human challenge: we have absolute freedom to act, and we know what is right. At the same time, sin is out there, not far away, easily accessible, and often quite inviting. Yet we can master our evil inclinations if we apply ourselves. It’s a challenging call to Cain, yet very hopeful in its reckoning of our human ability to control ourselves. That’s the good news.
The bad news: Cain may have the ability to avoid evil, he just doesn’t in this case. He slays his brother out of jealousy and lies to God about his knowledge of the crime. God, perceptive enough to know what has just happened, calls Cain on his misdeed, and banishes him to be a na vanod, a “rootless wanderer,” (4:12) alone and unprotected on the earth, available to be slain by anyone. (One oddity here is just where all these other human beings might have come from, but the story simply does not cover that.) Cain, in protest, asks God to provide him with protection, and God marks him with an apotropaic mark so others will not do to him what he just did to his late brother.
The well-crafted beauty of this passage now becomes evident: by allowing his jealousy to get out of hand, Cain gives in to aggression against his brother, and then fails to take any responsibility for his own actions even when confronted by the Eternal. But the single act through which Cain robs Abel of everything changes Cain, too. For Cain forever uproots the comfortable, settled farmer who he was, and becomes instead a rootless, unprotected wanderer—in essence, a walking replica of his murdered brother. Once he deprives Abel of his safety, and once he denies his own responsibility, Cain is exposed to the depths of human cruelty in ways he never before imagined. And in so doing, Cain ironically deprives himself of his own ability to feel safe himself. For when the world is not safe for one, it is not safe for anyone.
At the time of this writing in 2010, Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., taught Rabbinic and Second Temple literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.