To put it mildly, Midrash Tanchuma recasts the story of Cain and Abel. First off, The Midrash suggests that Cain was born from the union of Eve and the snake who seduced her. Furthermore, the name Cain come from the Hebrew for jealousy –“Kinah” which emerges from the idea that the snake was jealous of Adam and wanted to marry Eve. The snake convinced Eve to eat from the forbidden fruit assuming that she would then feed it to Adam. Which is indeed what happened. But according to the snake’s logic, since Adam was the one whom G-d warned not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam would be eliminated, thus freeing up Eve as a lonely widow with no one else in the world to marry but the snake.
It didn’t quite turn out that way
Our “Evil Inclination,” crafty but conquerable?
The snake underestimated the fact that G-d was on to him. When you think about it, the crafty snake was pretty dumb thinking that G-d isn’t watching. That should give us hope that the snake – which in Rabbinic literature represents our evil inclination – is also not quite as insurmountable as it’s made out to be. With a little nobility of spirit we could prevail.
Putting all that aside, we have Cain, who inherited his “father’s” (the snake) jealous nature and craftiness. According to Midrash Tanchuma it wasn’t enough for him to own half the world from a 50 – 50 split with his brother. He was too jealous of the half he didn’t own. So he came up with a plan that was as doomed to failure as the snake’s plot to marry Eve. His argument to Abel was, that as the first born he is entitled to a double portion – 66%. Abel agreed. But even that wasn’t enough.
“And Cain spoke to Abel, his brother (Genesis 4:8). What did he say to him? He said: “Let us divide the world between us, but since I am the eldest, I shall take twice as much.” Abel replied: “Perhaps.” “If we do this,” Cain continued, “I want my share to include the place where your offering was accepted.” Abel replied: “That, you cannot have.” Thereupon, they began to quarrel.”
Cain also insisted that his share of the world included the very place where his sacrifice was rejected and Abel’s was accepted. Abel did not agree to this further demand so Cain killed him.
The motives behind the murder
It’s important to remember that Cain was the one who came up with the lofty idea of offering a sacrifice to G-d. His offering consisted of ordinary fruits. (in Israel you might call it “Sug Gimmel” (Grade C), the produce that’s still around when the Shuk is closing). Abel copied his brother’s idea but did it one better by offering the best quality livestock. Imagine the jealous rage of a highly jealous person when his sacrifice was rejected and Abel’s was accepted. It was nothing short of traumatic.
G-d as the first therapist
When Eve was taken from Adam’s rib, G-d took on the role of the first Anesthesiologist, putting Adam to sleep before the operation. Now G-d tried to counsel Cain in anger management and dealing with rejection. First G-d validated Cain’s emotions and then G-d tried to help Cain conquer his emotions by portraying the sin as a physical entity about to overtake him:
“And the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, And why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do what right you can bear (the pain). But if you don’t do what’s right, Sin crouches at the door ready to overtake you. Yet you can prevail over it.” (Genesis 4:6-7)
Obliterating the trauma
Why does Abel reject Cain’s deal and insist on retaining ownership of the spot where their offerings were given? Midrash Rabba (a different collection of Midrash) says this is the very spot where the Temple of Jerusalem would be built. This “coincidence” can be seen in a positive light as the future Temple being the ultimate rectification for this tragic conflict between brothers. Or, this can be seen in a negative light since brotherly strife is the antecedent to “baseless hatred” which the Talmud says was the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple. Either way, our Midrash, Midrash Tanchuma, takes it in a totally different direction.
The Bible does not share what Cain and Abel were arguing about. As we mentioned, Midrash Tanchuma fills in the story with Cain proposing a lopsided split of the world including the spot were they gave their offerings. Here is the verse leading up to the crime:
“Cain said to his brother Abel and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him. (Genesis 4:8)”
The Midrash focusses on one seemingly trivial word in the story:
… “while they were in the field ..” and it says elsewhere: “Zion shall be plowed as a field”(Jeremiah 26:18)
Midrash Tanchuma draws a parallel from the use of the word “field” in the Cain and Abel story and the same word used in Jeremiah’s prophecy of the destruction of he Temple. Perhaps the Midrash is comparing the motive in each case. What were the circumstances in which the Romans plowed over the ruins of the Temple in Jerusalem? This is what Maimonides mentions in the section of his “Mishnah Torah” dealing with the laws of Fast Days 5:3:
“On the day which tragedies were destined, the evil (Roman General) Turnus Rufus plowed over the Temple (of Jerusalem) and its surroundings to fulfill the prophecy “Zion was like a plowed field.”
Turnus Rufus plowed over the Temple as the ultimate insult in order to traumatize and demoralize the Jews by covering up any Jewish identity or connection to the Temple. Is it possible that in making the comparison with the evil act of the Roman General perhaps Midrash Tanchuma is portraying the level of trauma that Cain had endured. He too wanted to obliterate the spot where he experienced his trauma of rejection. Perhaps the murder of his brother was really misplaced anger at G-d for rejecting his offering?
G-d coaxes Cain to repentance.
Midrash Tanchuma also fills in details of G-d’s conversation with Cain after the murder :
Cain retorted: “True, I slew him, but You created the evil inclination within me. Since You are the guardian of all, why did You permit me to slay him? You …killed him, for if You had accepted my sacrifice as You accepted his, I would not have been envious of him.”
Cain tries to blame G-d by harkening back to the fact that his offering was rejected which lead to his jealous rage. G-d seems to respond by saying “it’s easy to blame G-d.” The Midrash then reinterprets this famous verse:
“Then He (G-d) said, “What have you done? your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10)
The Midrash suggests that the phrase “cries out to me” could also be read “the blood of Abel is crying out at Me (G-d)”. In other words G-d is saying. “You’re right. I was there, I could have stopped you from Killing Abel. Since I didn’t, it must be My fault that he’s dead.
Perhaps the Midrash is suggesting that G-d was trying to mirror Cain’s arguments and show Cain that you can come up with all kinds of ways to blame G-d or you can take responsibility for your actions and repent. Which is exactly what Cain did:
“Cain said to the Lord, “My sin is too great to bear!” (Genesis 4:13)
The Midrash fills in the the strange context of Cain’s repentance:
Thereupon Cain cried out: “O Lord of the universe, do You have informers who denounce men to You? My father and mother are the only living human beings on earth, and they do not know that I slew him (Abel); how do You, who resides in heaven know (what I did) ?” The Holy One, blessed be He, answered: “Fool! I bear the (iniquities) of the entire world ..,Cain immediately cried out: “You bear the entire world, yet my sin You are unable to bear. My sin is greater than I can bear (Gen. 4:13).” “Since you have confessed and repented,” said G-d, “go into exile from this place.”
This is quite a paltry act of repentance from the world’s first murderer. It only comes after Cain first denied any knowledge of his brother’s whereabouts, then blamed G-d. Worse still, he repented only after his punishment was announced. Yet G-d accepts his statement “my sin is too much to bear” as a good enough expression of repentance to commute Cain’s punishment from both “wandering” and “exile” to just “exile.”
Cain as a foreshadowing of Jewish history
So what’s the moral lesson of the story?
When you hear about the twin punishments of “exile” and “wandering” it should immediately trigger a reaction. You can’t help but think that it sums up 2,000 years of Jewish history since the destruction of the Second Temple . Perhaps the story of Cain and Abel is foreshadowing G-d’s loving forgiveness of the Jewish People. We too commit major iniquities. Our punishments are well deserved but traumatic nonetheless. We too deny wrongdoing and blame all our misfortunes on G-d. Yet G-d feels our pain and even joins us in exile as it states in Psalms: “I (G-d) am with you (the Jewish People) in times of suffering”(Psalms 91:15). Our anguish spurs a stirring of repentance. As with Cain, G-d accepts even a small degree of repentance as adequate because, above all G-d wants a relationship with us. Even if, at times, it’s a contentious one.
Perhaps the story of Cain and Abel is ironically one of hope and divine protection. It captures the story of our foibles and our feeling of rejection from G-d. And G-d’s unalterable love and forgiveness.