The man and his wife, Eve, have two children: Cain and Abel. Cain grows up to be a farmer (or as the Bible puts it a “tiller of the soil”). Abel grows up to be a shepherd. God accepts Abel’s offering of his choicest lambs, but ignores Cain’s offering of his crops as inferior. However, God speaks to Cain and tells him not to be distressed that his offering wasn’t accepted because if Cain makes the right moral choices, good things will happen to him.
Shortly after God’s admonition, Cain brings his brother to a field and viciously murders him. God arrives asking Cain where his brother is and Cain responds with the famous line, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
God immediately responds to Cain’s verbal dodge with “What have you done?” suggesting he knew Cain had murdered his brother and was testing to see if Cain would admit it of his own freewill. God punishes Cain by making the soil fallow for him, forcing him to live a nomadic existence for survival. Cain cries that his punishment is too great to bear since he won’t be able to get his own food and he will have to rely on others to provide him with his food as he wanders across the earth, thus making him vulnerable to those who might wish him harm. God responds to this plea by marking Cain so that anyone can identify him as under the protection of God and tells him if anyone should kill him they will experience a punishment seven times worse.
This story has a lot of depth for one that it is literally only a couple of paragraphs long (around 350 words) in the JPS translation. When I used to write my own fiction and participate in critique groups, the short stories my friends wrote were usually somewhere in 3000-6000 word range. Before we move onto a deeper analysis of the story, let us look at the many aspects of the human experience this tiny little story covers: sibling rivalry, domestic violence, the dangers of envy, and the way selfishness and immoral behavior go hand-in-hand.
The first important detail is the contrast of occupations of the two brothers: we have, Cain, the farmer, and Abel, the shepherd. This level of the story is allegorical. Literally the characters functions as types rather than full-fledged characters. The shepherd is shown to be superior because he provides meat, while the farmer only provides grain to the community. On a symbolic level, the story implies that meat is a superior food source than grains.
Likewise, we are told Abel gives the “choicest” of his flock, while Cain just offers any old portion of his produce. There is an issue of translation here.
“brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock” – JPS
“brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof” – KJV
“fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock: – NIV
The JPS is interpreting the lines for us so that a modern audience can understand the ancient audience’s perspective, in which “the fat” of a firstborn would be the “choicest.”
Since the text specifically mentions Abel gives the choicest of his flock (or a specific quality that would’ve been considered the choicest by an ancient audience), while not designating Cain’s offering with any particular descriptor, we can assume by the omission and juxtaposition of the passages that Cain just gave any old offering. So we have another contrast between offering the best one has for sacrifice and anything one has. God distinguishes between the two and for this reason accepts Abel’s offering. By not offering the best part of his produce, Cain is basically saying he doesn’t care enough to sacrifice his best to God. It should not be surprising that in response God doesn’t extend his blessing to this half-hearted effort. From these details we see that the story is a dramatization of the proper way to offer sacrifice and offerings to God. You should offer the best you have, otherwise God is likely to reject it.
God’s admonition to Cain suggests that although He rejected his offering, He hasn’t rejected Cain outright. He really does want Cain to succeed and is giving him advice on what to do. The ending of this poetic piece of advice encourages Cain that he can still master his own sins. It is worth exploring the ambiguous language of the passage.
“Why are you distressed,
And why is your face fallen?
Surely, if you do right,
There is uplift.
But if you do not do right
Sin crouches at the door;
Its urge is toward you,
Yet you can be its master.”
These words serve as a link between what has already happened with the ritual worship of God and the moral behavior God expects from us that features in the second half. When God admonishes Cain to “do right” there is a sense He means on an ethical level, but also that He is chastising Cain for not having done the right thing in regards to the rituals Cain is expected to perform. Failing to do the right thing in one’s ritual obligations and failing to act morally are linked here. The text implies that when one fails in their ritual obligations they will also likely fail in their moral obligations. Religious ritual and moral behavior go hand-in-hand. The two ways to master sin, according to the text, are engaging in specific rituals and ethical behavior. If Cain cannot be bothered to offer his best fruits and worship God properly, why do we expect him to put effort in making proper ethical considerations?
Right after hearing that he can still obtain God’s blessing by leading a moral life, what does Cain do? He murders his own brother. The text never states an explicit motivation, but from the details in the text it would seem he does it out of jealousy. Abel’s offering was accepted and his was rejected. Even though God gives him another opportunity and tells him what he needs to do, Cain’s jealousy overwhelms him into committing the horrific murder of his own brother. Even after being caught, he seems more worried about himself than the fate of his brother or remorse for his crimes, suggesting a highly egotistical and narcissistic person. Cain refuses to recognize his own moral failings or ways he can improve himself. Thought of in the context of the tribal Israelites, the story is suggesting the type of person who would kill his own brother and fail to perform his duties and obligations, is a selfish egotistical person who puts himself before the community. Such a person would kill his own brother if provoked and thus is harmful to community cohesion.
The language when God punishes Cain parallels Adam’s punishment, although worse; now the land will not “yield its strength” at all. When God questions Cain about the murdered Abel’s location earlier in the story, this scene also recalls Genesis 3 when God calls out to the naked Adam and Eve and asks them where they are in the garden. God’s initial response is also the same in both stories, “What have you done?” These parallelisms suggest a sophisticated literature in which later episodes of the Bible purposefully echo linguistic and motivic patterns from earlier episodes, but often with some important changes. Cain doesn’t just disobey God as his parents do by eating a piece of fruit, but actually murders another human being. Both Adam and Eve try to assign their blame to others, but do fess up right away to eating the fruit; Cain blatantly lies, claiming he has no idea where Abel is shortly after killing him. The parallelism between episodes creates a contrast that allows us to see that the Israelites understood there were different levels of sin and some sins are worse than others.
Additionally, Cain’s loss of his ability to farm probably served as a fable-like warning to the original Ancient Israelite audience, many of whom were farmers. The moral would look like this: if you engage in sinful activities like murder, your crops will fail to grow because God will punish you.
Even though Cain doesn’t live up to his side of the bargain by acting righteous or by performing rituals in a manner worthy of God—indeed, he shows himself to be an all-around terrible human being—God still shows him pity and provides him with some protection. God’s mercy serves to highlight Cain’s hypocrisy when he murders his brother and asks “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This rhetorical question implies that Cain doesn’t see it as his job to watch over his brother and protect him. By placing his protective mark on Cain, God does what he expected morally of Cain. Am I my brother’s keeper? Well, as God illustrates here, it is our job to watch over others, even if their behavior deems they may not deserve it.
Further hypocrisy exists in Cain’s behavior; he fears strangers will harm him because he imagines them to be just like himself, ready and willing to betray another human being out of jealousy, distrust, or for profit. Cain’s viewpoint is cynical about people because he thinks all people are like him, which is yet another way the story criticizes such selfish behavior.