Cain and Abel – the real story (Bereishit)

We all know of such stories. A parent has two sons. One son is favored the other not.

Counterintuitively – and yet as is so often the case – the favored child is the more delinquent one – narcissistic, selfish, insensitive, aggressive. The kinder, gentler, more obedient son receives the short end of the parental stick.

And we wonder; what’s going on here? Are the parents so obtuse? Favoritism is clearly wrong under any circumstances, yet can be understood when the preferred child is the good boy and the neglected child is the bad one.

Yet, often – too often – the bad boy gets all the love and all the rewards.

This is the archetype of unfairness. And it is guaranteed to result in fraternal estrangement, at best. Indeed, such emotional abuse can continue long after the boys are grown through behavior patterns learnt from the parent. The favored son continues to upbraid, degrade, besmirch and even defraud his sibling.

The result can sometimes be far more devastating than fraternal alienation and lifelong  resentment. Murder is not unheard of.

Indeed, the first recorded case of fratricide (and of homicide) is the killing of Hevel (Abel) by his brother Kayin (Cain). And if we examine the story as told in Bereishit/Genesis 4 we find here the paradigmatic case of parental favoritism in which the wicked son is favored, the good son is beaten down, and the result is murder.

Before going into the story itself, let us remember that at this very early moment in history – assuming the story is true and not a parable – no blood had ever been shed, neither human nor animal. The consumption of meat was prohibited. And mankind was under order from G-d to engage in agriculture exclusively

וַיְשַׁלְּחֵהוּ יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, מִגַּן-עֵדֶן–לַעֲבֹד, אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר לֻקַּח, מִשָּׁם.

Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. (3:23)

There was no dispensation for opting to become a shepherd rather than a farmer. And CERTAINLY no license to kill a sheep.

Hence it is clear from the outset that Hevel was the bad boy; disobedient, doing as he pleased, acting on his own. By contrast Kayin was the good boy, doing as he was told, engaging in the backbreaking, patient work of a farmer who must plough, plant, nurture, weed, irrigate and hope that, come harvest time, there will be a crop.

The shepherd, by contrast, needs no such perseverance and self-discipline. He disrespects all boundaries – be they rules of social behavior or respecting the property of others.  He wanders with his flock, living quite literally off the fat of the land.

Now let us go to the story as we have in Bereishit/Genesis 4:

וְהָאָדָם, יָדַע אֶת-חַוָּה אִשְׁתּוֹ; וַתַּהַר, וַתֵּלֶד אֶת-קַיִן, וַתֹּאמֶר, קָנִיתִי אִישׁ אֶת-יְהוָה

 And the man knew Hava his wife; and she conceived and bore Kayin, and said: ‘I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.’ (4:1)

וַתֹּסֶף לָלֶדֶת, אֶת-אָחִיו אֶת-הָבֶל; וַיְהִי-הֶבֶל, רֹעֵה צֹאן, וְקַיִן, הָיָה עֹבֵד אֲדָמָה .

And again she bore his brother Hevel. And Hevel was a keeper of sheep, but Kayin was a tiller of the ground. (4:2)

Take note how Kayin is the first-born and the obedient son, yet it is Hevel who gets prioritized in describing their chosen work. Already, the younger, rebellious son is the favorite. And this is long before either of them brings an offering to the Lord.

Now it is important to note that, although Adam was the medium through which Hava (Eve) got pregnant ,  G-d is clearly the father figure, if not the father outright.:

וְהָאָדָם, יָדַע אֶת-חַוָּה אִשְׁתּוֹ; וַתַּהַר, וַתֵּלֶד אֶת-קַיִן, וַתֹּאמֶר, קָנִיתִי אִישׁ אֶת-יְהוָה

And the man knew his woman Eve; and she conceived and gave birth to Kayin, and said: I have acquired a man with God”. (4:1)

Most of us go through life with a child’s Bible story concept of the tale of Kayin and Hevel. We recall that Kayin brought an offering of vegetables, and according to the Midrash (yet with no basis whatsoever in text) not particularly good produce.  Hevel, by contrast, sacrificed a nice fat sheep. G-d preferred Hevel’s offering, resulting in Kayin’s jealous fit – during which he murdered his younger brother.

Yet this is hardly the narrative one finds in Bereishit/Genesis.

Clearly it was Kayin  (the already neglected older brother) who took the initiative in terms of acknowledging G-d’s bounty, while Hevel took his cues from his elder brother’s action. Indeed, it is entirely possible that Kayin was hoping to gain favor with an unloving father by way of bringing this very first offering in history.

Based just on Bereishit/Genesis 4:2-3 one can conclude two things:

  1. In a non-carniverous world, when consuming flesh was forbidden for all creatures, it is Hevel who violates the ethos by killing a sheep, while the agrarian Kayin obeys G-d’s ruling by bringing a strictly vegetarian offering. Where did Hevel get the idea that it was okay to kill a lamb, and that this would actually find favor in G-d’s eyes?
  2. It appears Hevel was not merely a copycat. He was a rebel, even a provocateur, who took it upon himself to violate the norms and spill blood in order to appeal to the Almighty father.

Hence, it is especially puzzling that G-d acknowledges Hevel’s offering while ignoring that of Kayin.

Not surprisingly, Kayin is crestfallen:

Yet, contrary to our childhood Bible story notions, Cain did not immediately murder his younger brother.  Rather G-d only now notices Cain and his depressed mood:

 וְהֶבֶל הֵבִיא גַם-הוּא מִבְּכֹרוֹת צֹאנוֹ, וּמֵחֶלְבֵהֶן; וַיִּשַׁע יְהוָה, אֶל-הֶבֶל וְאֶל-מִנְחָתוֹ וְאֶל-קַיִן וְאֶל-מִנְחָתוֹ, לֹא שָׁעָה; וַיִּחַר לְקַיִן מְאֹד, וַיִּפְּלוּ פָּנָיו

And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD looked favorably on Hevels offering; but upon Kayin and his offering He did not look with favor. And Kayin became angry  and his face downcast. (4:4-5)

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-קָיִן:  לָמָּה חָרָה לָךְ, וְלָמָּה נָפְלוּ פָנֶיךָ.
הֲלוֹא אִם-תֵּיטִיב, שְׂאֵת, וְאִם לֹא תֵיטִיב, לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ; וְאֵלֶיךָ, תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ, וְאַתָּה, תִּמְשָׁל-בּוֹ

And the LORD said to Kayin: ‘Why are you upset? and why is your expression so downcast.? If you pull yourself together won’t you be lifted up? And (but) if you do not improve, then sin is sprawled in the doorway desiring you, but you can overcome it. (4:6-7)

Verses 6 and 7 are cryptic to say the least. What motivation is G-d giving Kayin to enable him to lift his spirits? If anything, G-d sounds like the classic authoritarian father, utterly insensitive to his miserable child, telling him “Boy, get a grip or things will only be worse for you”.

G-d offers no explanation as to why Hevel’s offering was acknowledged, while Kayin’s was ignored. He makes no attempt to lift Kayin’s flagging spirit. If anything he only beats down Kayin  down even further.

Kayin, in his misery, and with no one else to turn to, now reaches out to his brother Hevel.

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר קַ֖יִן אֶל־הֶ֣בֶל אָחִ֑יו

“And Kayin spoke to Hevel his brother …” (4:8)

The big mystery here is what was the content of the brothers’ conversation. The Torah offers no clue. But clearly whatever it was, it served as the straw that broke the camel’s back, pushing Cain over the top from simple misery into outright fury.

וַיְהִי בִּהְיוֹתָם בַּשָּׂדֶה, וַיָּקָם קַיִן אֶל-הֶבֶל אָחִיו וַיַּהַרְגֵהוּ

and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Hevel his brother, and killed him. (4:8)

Now let us return for a moment to Bereishit/Genesis 4:1   Hava/Eve was impregnated by Adam, but she views G-d as her true partner, whereby Adam merely serves as a biological conduit.  Understandably, therefore, Kayin (and most likely Hevel) is raised to view G-d as his father. The relationship is filial in a very direct sense.

G-d clearly favors Hevel.  Hence, Kayin attempts to win favor with his father (G-d) – as every rejected child does – by presenting him with a gift.

The favored child, upon noticing his sibling’s attempt to win a sign of love, goes for an end-run, cutting his brother off at the pass. This only adds insult to injury, when Father, yet again, gives the cold shoulder to the rejected child while showering affection on His favorite. What’s more, Hevel has the nerve to break the rules by making a gift that violates normative behavior, knowing he can, and will, get away with it.

And then, in a final blow to the rejected son’s already battered ego, G-d as father tells Kayin to get his act together … or else.

Hoping against hope for a word of sympathy from the favored brother, Kayin approaches Hevel.  We are not privy to the conversation. Yet, from the terrible outcome we can readily surmise that Hevel did nothing to ease his brother’s pain. If anything, it appears he may have poured salt on Kayin’s wounds, resulting in the world’s first recorded case of homicide, indeed fratricide.

What we have here, clearly, is a cautionary tale.  A demonstration of what happens when a callous parent plays favorites.  When the suffering child is given a dressing down rather than a warm embrace; and the favored child, knowing he can get away with anything, aggravates his sibling’s emotional wounds.

It happens all the time.  The pattern is classic. And, while fratricide is rarely the outcome, there often ensues a lifetime of pain and estrangement, of being lost perpetually in the emotional wilderness of Nod.

And, as a final note:  The killing of Hevel is the first recorded case of מידה כנגד מידה – measure for measure.  Hevel spills the blood of an innocent sheep and loses his own life the same way.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.