Some time after they were driven out of Paradise, Adam and Eve bore two sons. The elder of the sons was an agriculturist, and his name, Cain, from qanah, ‘I have acquired’, suggests the land of Canaan, centre of tillers of the ground, and future foes of the Hebrews, whose ancestors were popularly considered keepers of the flocks.
Here we have the ancient battle of nomads and pastoralists. ‘Abel’ means ‘breath’ or ‘puff’, an appropriate name for one whose life is cut short. But palaeontology tells us that when humans first appeared on earth two million years ago, they lived by hunting, fishing, and gathering fruit. The domestication of animals happened only around the year 10,000 BCE and agriculture about 8,000 BCE.
No reason is given for offerings to God, but this may well be to secure blessing for flocks or crops. Each culture gives rise to its own form of worship.
Nor does the story explain why the Lord favoured one brother over the other; the younger is favoured over the older, setting a pattern followed with Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his brothers, Perez over Zerah, and Ephraim over Manasseh.
A disfigured figure
God is moved by Cain’s cry of profound pain: ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear. Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me.’
Who could kill him, when nobody existed apart from Adam and Eve? A clan mark of protection and salvation is put on Cain, a promise of sevenfold vengeance that demands recognition and respect from would-be slayers.
Clearly we are in a world of blood feuds and protective clan marks, from a much later time than human beginnings. The Yahwist uses the story of a later period to point out that sin was lurking at the door from human origins, that it had to be mastered (Gen 4:7), and murder lay a long way back in the human story.
But Cain is given surprisingly good press in the next parts of the bible; he is a different figure from what the tradition has made him. The cry of Cain has been interpreted as ‘My sin is so great, I do not deserve forgiveness’. In reality, it was a cry of pain and penitence, which goes against the rest of the earlier text.
To make matters worse, the protective sign of mercy and salvation that God marked him with was misunderstood as a sign of being accursed and shamed due to the sin that was committed.
His family tree in chapter four makes him father of those who built cities, who made cultural and technical progress, and whose descendants became father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle, the first pastoral nomads, the inventors of stringed and wind musical instruments, and the first blacksmith. The evaluation of the line of Cain is very positive as his descendants contribute to human progress.
The enigma of the first wife
A surprise awaits the reader at 4:17 where ‘Cain knew his wife and she conceived.’ Where did he get this woman for a wife? Some who take the story literally say it refers to his mother, Eve, because incest had not yet been prohibited, a stance on a par with those who see the mark of Cain as the dark skin of the Afro-American!
Scholarship today maintains that the story went through three editings which explain the inconsistencies.
The story begins with the birth of a heroic ancestor who founded a famous Bedouin tribe (the Canaanites who lived in the desert to the south of Israel), and married a young woman who belonged to one of the clans and who gave birth to a son, Enoch (cf 4:17).
Their Israelite neighbours knew the story and modified it. They wondered why these Bedouins lived in the arid desert, apart from any cultivated lands, and had to pillage and rob to live a life that was so awful and erratic, away from the Promised Land and God’s blessing.
Israel’s response was that the founding ancestor had begun what the Bedouin continued to do, devastate the crops of their sister tribes, even kill their Israelite relatives, while at the same time worshipping Yahweh, for the story included the line, ‘Cain offered to Yahweh his fruits’.
These Bedouins were infamous for the vengeance they took on anyone who killed a member of their tribe. They may well have worn a sign or tribal tattoo. To complete the story a slain brother, Abel, was added.
The story has now reached its second phase as the legendary hero of the Canaanites becomes slayer of his brother and punished by God to live as a wanderer. He remains the principal character in the story; he alone speaks, and is the only one with an active role, conversing with God.
Later, in the time of Solomon, a third stage is reached when a Jewish scribe sees the possibilities in the story as an explanation of the presence of evil in the world and attaches it to the story of Adam and Eve. Humans disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit; now, in Cain’s story, a person is condemned to a life of hardship for failing his brother.
Offence against God in the garden is balanced by offence against neighbour on the face of the earth; thus evil increases, down to our day when thousands are killed in Iraq, the traditional site for the garden of Eden—a bitter irony, indeed!
The question of Cain’s marriage is not really important; it is part of the old story inserted into Genesis. What really matters is the ending. It wanted to convey the truth that a wrong done to the brother or sister is as grave as the wrong done to God.
Murder is the second original sin, and responsibility towards the neighbour is the same responsibility we have before God. This was a revolutionary teaching in the days of the wealthy elites of Solomon’s times. Many years later it cost a young Jewish teacher his life.
From the depth of biblical prehistory, the story of Cain teaches us that to encounter balance in life we must love both God and neighbour. Too often we have been out of balance and have neglected one at the expense of the other.
Reference: Ariel Alvarez Valdes The Bible: Questions People Ask. Permission of Claretian Press.