When God confronted Cain with the murder of his brother, he answered with the famous phrase, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Both Midrash Tanchuma and Midrash Rabbah see this as Cain’s attempt to deflect blame and implicate God as the guilty party. After all, God should have intervened to save Hevel.
However, when God fires back The voice of your brother’s blood is screaming at me from the earth” (Bereishis 4:10) each respective Midrash takes a vastly different approach.
Midrash Tanchuma sees this statement as a corroboration of Cain’s accusation. God is, so to speak, admitting that because Mankind was endowed with free will, there will oftentimes be situations where life seems unfair. Great evil is committed with seemingly no consequences.
Midrash Rabbah, on the other hand, sees the phrase “The voice of your brother’s blood...” as God shutting down Cain’s pathetic and audacious accusation. As if murdering his brother was not enough of a heinous crime, Cain’s is attempting to blame God? Midrash Rabbah offers a series of parables to characterize Cain as the voice of the world’s first apostate:
Cain’s big lie
In the first parable, a government official is walking on the road and sees a dead body and the prime suspect standing over the body. The Policeman asks “who killed him?” The man answers “I could ask you the same question you asked me.” The policeman responds, “you haven’t answered my question.” In the next parable, a man enters a garden, gathers strawberries and eats them. The owner of the orchard runs after him and asks “what’s in your hands? ”The man answers: “there is nothing in my hands.” The Owner of the orchard responds “but your hands are stained with the juice of strawberries!” In the final parable someone enters a farm, steals a goat and throws it over his shoulder. The owner of the farm runs over and asks “what do you have in your hands?” The thief answers: “I have nothing in my hands.” To which the ranch owner responds “but I hear a goat bleating on your back.”
To decipher the meaning of all these parables we turn to the great 16th century commentator (Shmuel ben Yitschak Ashkenazi of Constantinople) the Yifei Toar. He saw these parables as covering a range of defiant attitudes that Cain entertained regarding God’s sovereignty in the world. Perhaps God is (God forbid) not in control. Or, since God is in control, if anything bad happens then it must be God’s will and therefore God is to blame. Lastly, perhaps God doesn’t care about the actions of Mankind so there are no consequences to our actions.
When God asserts “The voice of your brother’s blood is screaming at me,” God is destroying all of Cain’s theological outlooks and accusations with one statement. God indeed is the sovereign ruler of the world. God sees everything. God will decide the consequences for every action of Mankind. Furthermore, Cain was caught red handed – like the murderer crouching over his victim, the man whose hands are stained with stolen strawberry juice or the thief caught with the stolen item still in his possession.
God controlled the conversation
Although this is surely one of the most dramatic exchanges in the Torah between a man and God, it was all for a reason. As Rashi points out, God purposely started the conversation with an innocent question: “where is you brother” (Genesis 4:10).
Rashi states: “God engaged Cain in conversation gingerly with the hope that Cain might repent and say ‘I killed him and I sinned against You.”’ (Midrash Aggadah 4:9:1)
Midrash Tanchuma tells us that this is indeed what happened. Although God settled for a far less dramatic form of repentance in which Cain declared
“And Cain said to God, my sin is too great for me to bear.” (Bereishis 4:13)
God was pleased that this was the first case of repentance in the Torah. A concept that had not occurred to Adam, Chava, or the snake.
Perhaps the message for all of us is that God will accept us with open arms even if we offer up a less than perfect repentance.