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An unusual but sensible interpretation of the Cain and Abel Tale

Many people are under the impression that the brothers Cain and Abel built an altar with Cain burning fruit of the ground and Abel offering the firstlings of his flock and that God only accepted Abel’s offering. Actually, there is no mention of an altar or burning in the chapter and no passage says that God “accepted” Abel’s offering; it states that “the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering,” but doesn’t say how.

Marc B. Shapiro, a highly respected rabbi and scholar, described the interpretation of this event by Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn. Dr. Shapiro’s article entitled “Assorted Comments” was published in Feedblitz. Rabbi Hirschensohn lived from 1857 to1935. He was the Chief Rabbi in Hoboken, New Jersey from 1904 until his death in 1935. Rabbi Hirschensohn understood that that there was no altar and neither Cain nor Abel burned their gifts, even though today we consider a sacrifice an item burnt on an altar. He supposed that Cain brought his vegetable to the top of a mountain, which was closer to heaven, where he would commune with God, and left the gift there. Because of his “meager religious philosophical knowledge,” Cain probably thought that after he left, God would take his gift. Later, when Cain returned to the site, he saw that the vegetables were where he left them and concluded that God refused to accept his sacrifice. Actually, God was not involved. The notion that the Lord had no respect for his offering was only in Cain’s mind.

Rabbi Hirschensohn imagines that Abel did not leave his firstlings on the mountain, but sent the animal away. Abel allowed it to wander freely, expecting that God would find it and take it. He did not kill the animal, perhaps thinking that God would not want a dead beast. What would he do with dead animal? Since Abel sent the animal away and did not find it, he assumed that God accepted his offering.

Rabbi Hirschensohn thought that Noah offered the first burnt sacrifice when he left the ark after the flood. God did not like the offering and thought it was ridiculous, even offensive since Noah was killing beings that God created thinking that God wanted him to do so. Rabbi Hirschensohn accepted the traditional view that when Noah descended from the ark he was not yet allowed to eat meat; yet Noah thought that he was allowed to kill animals and birds to thank God for saving his life during the flood.

The rabbi recognized that Noah’s behavior is strange. We would have assumed that after virtually every animal died in the flood, Noah would have preferred to ensure that the animals multiply, rather than killing some of them.

Rabbi Hirschensohn notes God’s reaction to Noah’s sacrifice. In Genesis 8:20 Noah offers his sacrifice of thanks. Genesis 8:21 reads, “And the Lord smelled the sweet savor; and the Lord said in His heart: ‘I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more everything living, as I have done.’” Rabbi Hirschensohn understands that God did not approve of Noah’s sacrifice. The rabbi wrote: “It is not farfetched to interpret this verse that God laughed and had pity on the simplicity of man who thinks he can thank Him by offering a burnt animal or bird and destroy them at a time when there are so few of them in the world, and think he is doing what is right. This indicates that the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth in that even a gift to God is given with such cruelty…. How is it possible that this would please God?” (my translation). In essence, Rabbi Hirschensohn is reflecting Maimonides’ understanding of sacrifice that God only “allowed” it to continue for these primitive people.

In summary, while most people do not bother to learn more about the Bible than what they learned as children, a more mature examination of Scripture, such as Rabbi Hirschensohn’s interpretation of the Cain and Abel story can lead people to a new understanding of life.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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