Rabbi Moshe Reiss
CAIN KILLS ABEL!
Recently the Jewish Bible Quarterly published our article on 'Adam:
Created in the Image of God’. The first incident after Adam and Eve’s
expulsion from the Garden of Eden is Cain kills his brother Abel. Can
we reconcile humans being created in the Image of God with Cain killing
‘And Adam knew Eve, his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain’ and she
then said ‘I have gotten a Man (‘ish’ in Hebrew) with the help of God’.
(4:1) She named him Cain which originates from the Hebrew root ‘to
acquire’ [from God]. The Hebrew ‘ish’ meaning man, not child, is unique
in Hebrew for a new born child. In Genesis chapters 2-3 God created
Adam, and then Eve was produced from man; Eve is saying here that she
produced a man with God’s help, her ‘man-child’.  This is the first
time the term YHVH is used as 'the LORD' by a human being, and it
is by a woman. A Midrash states that at the moment of the creation of
Eve, Satan was born (Midrash Rabbah Gen.17:6). The Targum as well as
Dead Sea Scroll documents state that Cain was born from Satan, ‘from
Adam her husband she bore his [Cain's] twin sister and Abel’. 
The next verse is ‘and she bore as well his brother Abel’ (4:2); note
the absence of any reference to Adam knowing Eve, the lack of any
reference to conception, and no mention of the process of naming.
Many sources propose that Cain and Abel may have been twins born some
with various combinations of female infants – one with Cain and
two with Abel - a total of five children! (Midrash Rabbah Gen. 22:2).
This seems to suggest that Eve procreated a litter of children all born
at the same time, not unlike the other animals only recently created.
Abel was a herder of sheep while Cain was a tiller of the soil. The
ancient conflict between herdsmen/nomads and settled farmers has
continued almost into modern times. Farmers need fences; shepherds know
no territorial property boundaries.
Cain proposed to create a relationship with God - the invisible
inscrutable being - through a sacrifice; an offer of the product of his
work; the vegetables he grew. Abel followed his older brother offered a
choice animal from his herd.  As the eldest son, Cain may have
believed the offer was for the entire family, including his brother. He
may have been surprised and resented that Abel decided to make his own
We are then told that God ‘regarded favorably Abel and his offering,
but did not regard Cain and his offering’ (4:5) implying that the
person represents the gift. God gives no explanation for His Divine
pleasure at Abel’s animal sacrifice nor any reason for his displeasure
at Cain’s vegetarian offer. Cain’s offering required hard work, Abel’s
From that implication tradition retroactively treats Cain’s anger as a
judgment and a moral flaw.
Are we to understand that God prefers blood sacrifices as in the Temple
days?  However, even during the Temple times God accepted sacrifices
made from vegetation, or ‘meal offerings’; an entire chapter
describes them – Lev. 2, among other places. God said ‘I have given you
every seed-bearing plant, for food. . . . and every tree that has fruit
. . . the green plants for food’ (1:29-30). It was only after Noah
survived the flood God says “all moving things that are alive, shall be
for food, like the green plants’ (9:3). The former was in the Garden of
Eden – a vegetarian paradise, the latter on earth when eating animals
became permissible. It is also worth noting that kosher animals that
Jews are permitted to eat are all themselves vegetarians; carnivorous
animals are not kosher; perhaps we are intended to learn that
vegetarianism is a better form of life.
For the vast majority of mankind’s history hunter-gatherers were
predominant until agriculturalists took over. The agriculturalists
represented by Cain created the first urban site – a city (Gen. 4:17)
and the ways of civilization.
Fernand Braudel stated ‘The great division of labor in the countryside
has always been that between crops and livestock, arable and animal,
Cain and Abel, two worlds, two different peoples, always hostile and
ready to quarrel. Shepherds were almost always untouchables . . .
change your mind little girl, take a peasant who is a “man of society”,
a civilized man, not one of those cursed shepherds who “do not even
know how to eat off a plate”.’
As part of the exile from Eden In the previous chapter God told
Adam ‘cursed be the soil for your sake’ (3:17-19). The fruit of
the soil and perhaps the tiller were accursed. Was Cain’s
offering therefore abhorrent to God? Rashi seemed to think so (4:2);
 but what else was Cain to offer.
We are not told how God informed Cain of His reaction, but we do know
that Cain was incensed at God’s reaction. God’s reaction to Cain’s
anger included ‘Why are you incensed, and why is your face fallen. For
whether you offer well or whether you do not, at the tent flap sin
crouches and for you is it longing but you will rule over it’ (4:7). As
pointed out by Robert Alter the verse is ‘enigmatic . . . [and]
is particularly elliptic (4:6-7) in the Hebrew, and thus any
construction is no more than an educated guess’.  (The Talmud agreed
– B.T. Yoma 52a-b.) Otto Prochsch termed this verse ‘the most obscure
verse of the chapter, indeed of Genesis’. 
And Cain went out to speak to Abel and killed him. How did Cain kill
Abel; with a stone? Did Cain understand the meaning of death, did he
assume man was immortal; no human had ever died before? God had told
Adam that he lost immortality (3:23), but did Cain know?
God asked ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ Cain’s response to God is the
well known (in Hebrew as well as English) ‘I do not know; Am I my
brother’s keeper’ (4:9)? Cain did know and lied to God. God responded
‘Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil.’
Traditional Jewish and Christian commentators claim Abel chose a choice
animal, while Cain’s fruit is not so defined. On the other hand it was
Cain who recognized the need to thank God for the bounty despite his
hard work at tilling the soil. Despite the views of these commentators
I see no reason from the text itself to suggest that Cain did not
choose carefully his gift – the first such gift - to God.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Chief Rabbi of Great Britain) states the offering
was a gift. When a gift is rejected, there are two possible reactions:
If you, the giver, ask what went wrong and you try to do better, you
were genuinely trying to please the other person. If you become angry
with the recipient, it becomes retrospectively clear that your concern
was not with the other but with yourself. This is after the fact
especially given that no reason is given for the rejection (covenant
and conversation from the Chief Rabbi, Bereshit 5770).
Regina Schwartz asks why God needed to choose? What would have happened
if God had accepted both offerings; if He had ‘promoted cooperation
between the sower and the shepherd instead of their competition and
violence’.  But God did chose one brother over the other. It is
worth noting that throughout the Bible God favored the younger sibling
(Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David). God reverses the normal
ancient rule of primogeniture which favored the first born (Deut.
21:17). The God of Genesis seems to foster sibling rivalry.
Is it necessary to understand the sacrifice story as part of the
‘killing’ story, could they have been unrelated – a new chapter in the
book if you will? The Targum and Midrashim consider that possibility.
The Targum (Neophyti) states Cain and Abel were having a philosophical
argument about whether the world was created through Divine Justice or
otherwise. Cain noting the arbitrary nature of God’s rejection of his
sacrifice stated ‘there is no judgment and no divine judge’ (in Tosefta
); Abel said mine must have been better. The words Cain used are
exactly the words used by Elisha ben Abuya (JT Megillah 1:9), the
Talmudic ‘acher’ –the Heretic - and colleague of Rabbi Akiva and
teacher of Rabbi Meir. 
The Midrash suggested that the brothers had an argument over land,
honor or women. ‘And Cain spoke to Abel his brother; and it came to
pass when they were in the field.” (Gen 4:8): What were they
discussing? They said: Come, let us divide the world. One took all the
land, and the other took all mobile goods. This one said: The
land you are standing upon is mine; and that one said: What you are
wearing is mine! This one said: Strip! That one said: Fly! [or: Jump].
Between this and that, “Cain rose upon his brother Abel and killed
him.’ (Midrash Rabbah Gen. 22:7) Another version of the Midrash
suggests that Abel’s twin sister was more beautiful and both desired
As Florentino Martinez notes this argument exculpates God from any
blame in the fratricidal conflict. It may additionally be part of the
two powers in heaven theological debate current which was rampant
during the Talmudic times. 
Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, a very important Jewish theologian
(1903-1993), suggested that this midrash presents a caricature of what
might be described as the three main reasons for human conflict
individually and collectively: namely, property, sex, and
religion/ideology. Thus the first religious act turns into a killing.
God then cursed Cain as a farmer whose work will be precarious and
arduous and to be exiled and a restless wanderer. (God had already
cursed the land; he now curses the farmer.) Cain complained that for
killing his brother he would in turn be killed, but who would kill
Cain, there were only his sisters in the world? Were there other
families that are unknown to the Bible?
Maimonides believed that Cain and Abel lacked a ‘true human form’ but
merely ‘resemble man ‘ and not until Seth did man become a moral being
in the image of God – ‘and Adam had a son in his own likeness after his
image’ (Gen. 5:3). Cain and Abel were animals but able ‘to produce
evils that is not possessed by other animals’.  The Zohar (13th
century) seems to agree stating ‘the other sons [other than Seth]
derived from the clinging of the slime of the serpent to its rider, so
they were not in the image of Adam’ (I:54b-55a) 
All humanity are the children of Seth, the replacement brother for the
dead Abel (4:25); since legend has it that Noah was a descendant of
Seth and not of Cain.
Accepting the reasoning of Maimonides and agreed to by the Zohar allows
us to reconcile our problem. After Adam and Eve were created a second
time in a mundane world/earth (chapter 2 of Genesis) they exercised
their first act of free will, eating the forbidden fruit, they were
exiled from a quasi heavenly place – the Garden of Eden. In that place
Cain could do an even greater act of evil by killing his brother.
Thus the connection is not between the human created in the image and
likeness of God but to the Adam and Eve created in the earthly
Another solution is the Jewish version of the fall developed by Rabbi
Isaac Luria, the great sixteenth century (1534-1572) Kabbalist. In
Luria’s commentary on the first words of the Bible traditionally
translated as ‘In the beginning God created heaven and earth and the
earth was ‘tohu ve’vohu’ ‘formless and void’; he asked why did God
first create a world which was formless and a void – a world of chaos?
Before creation God's light filled the universe. Since God decided to
create a world filled with life and free will – His world has His
omniscience - He had to withdraw from the space that He intended to
allow for His creation. Luria explained that God had to contract
Himself, to exile Himself to allow space for a world to be.
God by deciding to create humankind allowed for evil. Thus evil and
creation are an inevitable combination. The very act of God's self
contraction allowed for evil. Kabbalists define evil as the
absence of God; thus by exiling Himself God allowed evil to exist.
This theology of God’s contraction to the heavens becomes visible as
Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden and in the earthly world
through several Jewish exiles (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Rome, Spain and
The human task – redemption, to mend the world – is for Jews to obey
the Torah; for non-Jews by ethical behavior. God exiled himself for the
sake of creation; Jews were exiled for the sake of the world's
redemption. This theology of Isaac Luria was created after the
expulsion of the Jews from Spain (1492).
 Cassuto, Umberto, ‘Commentary on the Book of
Genesis’, (Jerusalem, Magnes Press, 1961) pgs. 198-202; Sarna, Nahum,
‘Genesis: Commentary’ (Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1989)
 Florentino G. Martinez, ‘Eve’s Children in
the Targimim’, in ‘Eve’s Children’ edited by G. Luttikhuizen, (Leiden,
Brill, 2003) pgs. 27-36, also in Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer chapter 21.
This appears to be based on a Gnostic myth, Stroumsa, G. A. ‘Another
Seed: Studies in Gnostic Mythology’, (Leiden, Brill, 1984), pgs. 38-53.
 Leon Kass, ‘Farmers, Founders
and Fratricide: The Story of Cain’, First Things, April 1996.
 The altar on which Cain sacrificed his product
was according to the Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer where Isaac was latter
bound for his sacrifice – the Akedah (Chapter 31).
 Levenson, Jon, ‘The Death and Resurrection of the
Beloved Son’, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1993) pg. 72
Fernand, ‘The Wheels of Commerce: Civilization and
15Th-18th Century’, Vol. 2 (Berkeley, University of
California Press, 1992) pg. 289.
 Developed by my friend Hananya Goodman; in a
personal note to the author.
 From a midrash noted by Ginzberg, Louis, ‘The
Legends of the Jews’, (Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1998)
Vol. 1, pgs. 107-108.
 Alter Robert, ‘The Five Books of Moses’,
(N.Y., Norton, 2004), pg. 30. The Septuagint has three different
versions suggesting there were different Hebrew texts. In addition the
Samaritan adds to the Masoretic Hebrew text, ‘come let us go into the
field’; See Michael R. Schlimann, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, ‘From
Fratricide to Forgiveness’ Duke University, 2008, pg. 296
 Otto Procksch, ‘Genesis’, (Leipzig, Deichot,
1924) pg. 47.
 Schwartz, Regina, ‘The Curse of Cain: ‘The Violent
Legacy of Monotheism’, (Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1997) pgs.
 Martinez, pg. 43.
 The story of Rabbi Elisha as told in the Talmud
is as follows: The rabbi was walking and heard a man tell his young son
‘go up the tree, chase away the mother bird and bring down the eggs, so
that mother can make them for dinner’. There are only two commandments
in the Bible where the reward for obedience is noted; honor your father
and mother and chase away the mother bird before taking the eggs from
her nest (Deut. 22:6-7); for both long life is the reward. The young
son gets a ladder, climbs up the tree, chases away the mother bird,
takes the eggs, falls and dies. As a result Rabbi Elisha denied God.
 Martinez, pg. 40. See also Segal, Alan F., ‘Two Powers
in Heaven’, (Leiden, Brill, 2002).
 Maimonides, Moses, ‘The Guide Of The
Perplexed’, Tr. Shlomo Pines, (Chicago, The University of Chicago
Press, 1963) pg. 32-33.
 Quoted in Kalman P. Bland, ‘Cain, Abel and
Brutism’, in Green, D.A., Lieber, L.S. eds. ‘Scriptural Exegesis’
(Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009), pg. 170.
Maimonides ‘Mishnah Torah’ Translated by M., Hyamson, (Jerusalem,
Feldheim, 1975), Law of Kings and War 12:1-2.
 Minkin, Jacob, S., ‘Abarbanel and the Expulsion of the
Jews from Spain’, (N.Y., Behrman, 1938).