Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Cain’s Murderous Rage

Posted by foryourfaith on September 17, 2010

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The story of the Garden of Eden ended with great sorrow. Adam and Eve, by their own sin, had been banished from a world that was wholly good. They were united as man and wife, but their union was clouded by their sin.

“Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived.” Two sons were born to them. The first-born, Cain, became “a tiller of the ground” like his father; the second named Abel, became a shepherd.

The name Cain may be a play on a Hebrew word meaning “get,” as Eve’s statement, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” The name Abel is also a Hebrew word. It means “vapor, breath, futility,” and may suggest that his life was cut short.

The struggle between the first brothers has mystified generations of Bible readers. Yet the deeper meaning of the story has shone through the bible’s brief account.

It is remarkable that this powerful drama, so influential in our thinking and so well known throughout the world, should occupy only 54 lines of text (in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible).

The two sons brought offerings to Yahweh. Cain brought “the fruit of the ground,” and Abel “the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions.” In the ancient world, there was often conflict between farmers and semi-nomadic shepherds. Many scholars believe that the story of Cain and Abel reveals the tension between these two ways of life.

Yahweh “had regard for Abel and his offerings, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Genesis 4:4). Why would God prefer Abel’s offering over his brother’s, and how did he make his preference known? The silence of Genesis left a mystery for later generations. A passage in the New Testament attributed God’s choice to the faith of Abel (Hebrews 11:4).

Theorizing about this mystery, the Jewish historian Josephus spoke of Abel’s respect for justice and virtue, and of Cain’s complete depravity. According to Josephus, God preferred what grew according to nature (animals) over what man forced from nature (crops). Interestingly, the Torah commanded sacrifices of both animals and grain crops.

Cain was furious at God’s disregard of his offering. Genesis reported that “Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell” (Genesis 4:5). Yahweh responded to Cain, counseling him that all was not lost; Cain’s fate was in his own hands. He was a man in danger; he could “do well” an be accepted, or “not do well.”

The Lord said to Cain, “Sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7). The moral struggle of humanity was vividly portrayed as a life-and–death struggle with a savage beast within.

The “beast” pounced, and like many others after him, Cain was unable to master it. In the field one day, “Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him” (Genesis 4:8). Cain so resented God’s preference for his younger brother’s offering that he could not control himself. Their differences had led to bitter resentment and, finally, to murder.

When Yahweh appeared and asked about Abel, Cain responded, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This question has echoed through the centuries, and has come to represent man’s inhumanity to man.

No longer just struggling together in a harsh world, humans were now fighting one another. The Lord’s anger burned as he said to Cain, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” Now Cain was cursed to be “a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Fearing that he had been forsaken by God, Cain said, “My punishment is greater that I can bear . . . and whoever finds me will slay me” (Genesis 4:13-14).

In his mysterious graciousness, Yahweh did not abandon the murderer. Instead the Lord said, “If anyone slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” (Genesis 4:15). He gave him a mark, perhaps like a tattoo or a tribal mark, to protect his life. “Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Genesis 4:16).


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