In the Genesis story, we find Cain and Abel in a field. There, the elder brother, Cain, kills Abel, the younger. Midrash Raba (22) on this passage remarks that Cain does not know how to take the life of another human person. So, he decides to imitate his brother, slaughtering him in the same way he had seen Abel himself slaughter animals as sacrificial offerings to God. When that same God questions Cain, after the murder, it is with either an utter innocence or with a calculated intent to cross-examine the killer: “Where is your brother Abel?” And Cain responds, without batting an eyelid: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9)
It is a disturbing passage. As a Jewish theologian, I have always felt that this dialogue between Cain and God has an irrational edge. And many midrashim that have endeavored over the centuries to make sense of it, have only enhanced the acute sense of discomfort felt in these verses by generations of readers.
The two very first brothers ever to live on this earth — and one murders the other! The elder brother slaughters the younger, and so, throughout history, younger brothers have always feared their elder siblings. Later in the Genesis tale, similarly, we see how Abraham sets the stage for every human child to be terrified of their father’s faith — and rightly so.
My intention is to read difficult passages such as these with the mind and heart of a Jewish community leader, seeking a mature form of Jewish life. I’m not interested in finding the villain, in order to feel better about myself and pass responsibility off on someone else. Rather, I try to read as someone who believes that all such texts are given to me and to my community as signs of our duty to learn — about the Cain, the Abel, and the God that are all within us.
There is something flawed in the whole social and religious fabric of the world that Cain and Abel inhabit. In my view, that flaw originates in the particular concept of God presented there, and especially in God’s relationship to human beings at the beginning of the Book of Genesis.
Chapter 4 of Genesis describes how Cain brings offerings to God from the fruits of the earth, the crops that he, according to Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, loved to grow. Abel, too, brings offerings of his own to God. However, unlike Cain, who offers plants, Abel slaughters living animals as sacrifices. There is something strange here: why does Abel believe that, as an offering to the Divine, love and devotion are not enough? Why, further, does he believe that God desires a “zero sum” gift, at the ultimate expense of a breathing creature living among us, a sentient being that has been entrusted to our care?
What was it about the quality of human relationship with God, that convinced Abel that animal sacrifice was required of him, and that his God, in fact, loved the scent of slaughtered flesh, as it will be written clearly a few chapters later (Genesis 8:21).
There is another problem raised by God in Genesis. We read that God accepted the animal sacrifices offered by Abel, but rejected Cain’s gifts, rather than accepting the offerings of both brothers, as all good parents will do out of abundant love for all their children. Here, it seems, God is teaching that divine love is finite and limited, and thus prompting his human creations to compete for God’s love.
These are the two lessons God teaches the world’s first brothers, through their relationship with the Divine: to compete for love and to desire slaughter. And thus, God introduces the weapons of the world’s first war, weapons that Cain will of course use to kill his brother. Cain’s murder of Abel is a logical outcome: the act not only eliminates Cain’s only human competitor; it also effects the sacrificial slaughter of his rival.
Midrash Tanhuma senses the complexity of this passage, and so offers an explanation. When God questions Cain, asking “Where is your brother?” then Cain’s response can be paraphrased, “Am I my brother’s keeper? It is You, God, who are responsible for life and death, so what do You expect of me?” We might even say that the midrash could have gone a step further, to say, “It is You who taught me and my brother that You prefer the scent of slaughtered animal sacrifices over the fragrance of plants. Do You now find fault with me, for learning from You so well?”
Cain is exiled, to “wander to and fro across the earth” (Genesis 4:12). Perhaps it is true, then, as we read in the Kabbalah of Ha’ari (R. Isaac Luria), that Cain represents that part of us which must learn somehow to live in this world, without heeding the commands of God. This lesson, perhaps, may protect us from those inevitable moments, when God commands us to actions that are immoral. And so Cain wanders, learning to transform this harsh world into his home, learning to live without the unreflective need to turn ever outward, toward the transcendent.