Cain kills Abel. Of this, we can be sure. But, why? Tradition answers: jealousy. Cain bemoans, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Another surety is that translation takes its source on a different path.
In Midrash Tanhuma, the rabbis notice the use of anochi (אנוכי) in Cain’s (in)famous plea. This Hebrew pronoun usually translates as ‘I.’ The word captured the rabbis’ attention because, although less common than the alternate form of the pronoun ani (אני), it is a term of prominence. The first commandment, to use a major example, is ‘I am (anochi) the Lord your God.’
This midrash holds a fascinating argumentum: anochi can translate to ‘I,’ but it can also be a name of God. Therefore, hashomer achi anochi (השמר אחי אנוכי) —’Am I my brother’s keeper?’—can also read, ‘the keeper of my brother is God.’ (The first commandment would likewise read, ‘anochi is the Lord your God.’)
In the former is a question; but the latter renders a statement that points to God’s omnipotence and omniscience, even suggesting a share of divine responsibility for the violence. It can also be a simple answer to God’s question, ‘Where is Abel your brother?” Cain’s answer: ‘I do not know. The keeper of my brother is God.’
God replies to Cain, ‘The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Therefore, you are cursed from the ground…’
If Cain’s statement-answer is correct, that God is Abel’s keeper, it stands to reason that God would affirm to Cain that as his keeper God hears Abel’s blood crying out from the ground. God continues, explaining that ‘now’—because of his action—he is cursed min ha’adama (from the ground, by the ground, in the ground; it depends on one’s translation of ועתה ארור אתה מן האדמה).
God, here, could either be punishing Cain—the traditional explanation—or God could be following up on his own responsibilities as Abel’s keeper (and as Cain’s, as we shall see). God explains to Cain that the ground no longer freely supports him (לא תסף תת כחה לך).
Because Abel’s blood is in the ground, it is from the ground that Cain is cursed (it may well be that it is Abel—or rather the blood of Abel—that curses Cain from the ground). But it is not clear from the text alone that God punishes Cain. For this interpretation, one should rely on other Midrashim, those adopted by traditional commenters like Rashi and the Ramban, as well as classical Christian thinkers.
Cain hears the consequence of his action—that the ground, the soil, no longer provides of its own volition, and he worries: ‘my iniquity is too great to bear’ (גדול עוני מנשוא). This often translates as ‘my punishment is too great to bear,’ or, ‘my sin is great to bear.’ Although these are legitimate and plausible translations, a word more closely related to sin, or something like crime or wrongdoing, is khatta’t (חטאת). Indeed, this is the word God uses 7 verses earlier, in Gen 4:7, as he warns Cain of his lurking anger. A logical question, then, if Cain wanted to indicate, unequivocally, that he did wrong, is why not use khatta’t, or at least choose a less ambivalent word than ‘iniquity’ (avon).
To continue with our hypothetical proposition that Cain did not flippantly answer God’s question with a question, whether he himself was his brother’s keeper, but rather answered God’s question with an affirmation that God is the keeper of all humanity; it makes sense that God marks Cain so that, despite the new reality Cain faces, being cursed from the ground, he would not be killed while searching for a new way of life. The keeper of Cain is God.
Cain’s answer is ingenious. Once he settles down, Cain has a son and founds the first city. His son, Enoch, invents music, and his descendants invent craftsmanship, architecture, the arts. Cain is the father of civilization; in more ways than one, he is father to us all.
Fratricide as the birth of law, civilization, and even redemption is an age-old concept. Joseph’s brothers betray him, which starts a process that brings Joseph to a position of leadership with an ability to offer a home for his starving compatriots in Canaan (including his brothers).
Moses indirectly kills (his adoptive brother, or father) Pharaoh; an inevitable step in the staircase that leads the Hebrew nation to the Promised Land.
Romulus kills his brother Remus during the founding of Rome.
Judas betrays Jesus; a betrayal that begins a sequence of events that Christians believe leads to a final redemption. (The Gnostic Gospel of Judas points to the possibility that groups in Late Antiquity believed Judas acted under orders from his Lord).
The Quraysh, Muhammad’s own clan, attack Muhammad, exiling him to Medina in what is known as the Hijra—the beginning of the Islamic calendar.
There are many examples like these.
Not unlike the famous quip offered by twentieth-century blues singer R.L. Burnside when asked by a reporter why he murdered the man that stole his woman’s heart: “I didn’t mean to kill nobody; I just meant to shoot the sonofabitch in the head. Him dying was between him and the Lord,” the story of Cain and Abel is rich, with meanings as numerous as the stars.
It is not my intention to challenge tradition with this post; the tradition of Midrashic interpretation supports some of these musings. But rather, it is my intention to show that civilization, in every case, has roots in violence. They must be overcome, somehow, with divine help, to fully live in the presence of the Creator.