Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss


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 his brother?

‘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’. [1] 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’. [2]
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. [4] 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 independent offering.
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 less so.
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? [5] 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”.’[6]
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); [8] 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’. [9] (The Talmud agreed – B.T. Yoma 52a-b.) Otto Prochsch termed this verse ‘the most obscure verse of the chapter, indeed of Genesis’. [10] 
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’. [11] 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 [12]); 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. [13]

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 her.

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. [14]

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’. [15] 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) [16]
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 manner. 
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 Shoah).
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).

[1]    Cassuto, Umberto, ‘Commentary on the Book of Genesis’, (Jerusalem, Magnes Press, 1961) pgs. 198-202; Sarna, Nahum, ‘Genesis: Commentary’ (Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1989) pg. 32.
[2]     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.
[3]       Leon Kass, ‘Farmers, Founders and Fratricide: The Story of Cain’, First Things, April 1996.
[4]    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).
[5]    Levenson, Jon, ‘The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son’, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1993) pg. 72
[6]               Braudel, Fernand, ‘The Wheels of Commerce: Civilization and                Capitalism: 15Th-18th Century’, Vol. 2 (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1992) pg. 289.
[7]    Developed by my friend Hananya Goodman; in a personal note to the author.
[8]    From a midrash noted by Ginzberg, Louis, ‘The Legends of the Jews’, (Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1998) Vol. 1, pgs. 107-108.
[9]     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
[10]    Otto Procksch, ‘Genesis’, (Leipzig, Deichot, 1924) pg. 47.
[11]   Schwartz, Regina, ‘The Curse of Cain: ‘The Violent Legacy of Monotheism’, (Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1997) pgs. 3-4.
[12]   Martinez, pg. 43.
[13]    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.
[14]   Martinez, pg. 40. See also Segal, Alan F., ‘Two Powers in Heaven’, (Leiden, Brill, 2002).
[15]     Maimonides, Moses, ‘The Guide Of The Perplexed’, Tr. Shlomo Pines, (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1963) pg. 32-33.
[16]    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.
[17]            Maimonides  ‘Mishnah Torah’ Translated by M., Hyamson, (Jerusalem, Feldheim, 1975), Law of Kings and War 12:1-2.
[18]   Minkin, Jacob, S., ‘Abarbanel and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain’, (N.Y., Behrman, 1938).