Bereishit – Cain and Able (and Seth)

I’m only a week into writing and I’m already struggling with “point of view”. Should this be a blog of ill-informed Torah commentary from a liberal something-or-other? Even in this first section, there are so many things that I want to write about, but haven’t. (Like how there are two fruits in the garden of Eden, the trees of “life” and “knowledge of good and evil”. And that it seems that the humans were allowed to eat of the first one, until they had eaten of the second… and that Eve was told not to eat the fruit of the “middle” of the garden, but at different points both are referred to being in the middle. Weird.)

The story of Cain and Able appears on its face to be the story of “country mouse and city mouse”, or more accurately “country mouse and hunter-gatherer mouse”. Between the two brothers, two of the primary occupations of early tribal Israel must have been personified:

Cain, the elder brother, is a farmer in the tradition of his father. (Genesis 2:15, 3:17)

Abel, the younger brother, was a shepherd. Abel is the first shepherd in the bible and that in itself must have been an amazing creative leap, especially as at this point in the story it is implied that mankind are vegetarians. (Genesis 9:3, God tells Noah “every creature that lives shall be yours to eat”)

The two brothers each brought God a sacrifice of their labors: Cain brought some “fruits of the soil” and Abel brought the “choicest of the firstlings of his flock”. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice, but “paid no heed” to Cain’s. What’s more, God dismissed Cain further by saying “Why are you distressed (by my not accepting the sacrifice) … surely, if you do right, there is uplift.” Not only was Cain’s sacrifice beneath notice, God implied that it always would be and that he was doing wrong by being a farmer.

The rest of the story is well known: Cain slays Abel, but God pities him and prevents anyone from killing Cain in retaliation and he eventually lives to have a line of children (with who? presumably his sister) and they would have been just fine, except for the whole flood thing wiping them out.

But why was Cain’s sacrifice not good enough? I have two theories.

First, the story in a way could be describing a transition from nomadic to stationary tribal life. A shepherd, allowing for some leeway in the translation of that term, is a hunter-gatherer, living on the soil with his animals, moving from place to place to find better grazing. A shepherd might represent a simpler time when the ownership of the land was less important. In contrast, Cain’s chosen profession was that of a farmer. A farmer is civilized, in a way, he’s stationary. Towns can grow up around farms and the whole way of life is more inter-dependent than in a hunter-gatherer culture. If this is the case, God is rewarding Abel for staying with the “old fashioned religion”, for choosing a lifestyle disconnected from a specific piece of land.

On the other hand, and the answer that I like more, is that God is rewarding Abel for his ingenuity. God taught Adam to farm and Adam presumably taught Cain. But Abel, he was a genius and invented a way of doing things that had never before been seen on the Earth. (Of course, with only four people around, most ways of doing things were pretty new.) Abel’s act of creativity was a spark that showed that God’s faith in man was well-placed.

This idea that the Cain story is connected to the different jobs in pre-history is somewhat followed-up on when Cain’s descendants are described.

Cain -> Enoch -> Irad -> Mehujael -> Methusael -> Lamech -> Jabal, Jubal, and Tubal-cain. Jabal is described as the “ancestor of those who dwell in tents” (see: Abel), Jubal as the ancestor of those that play the lyre and the pipe, and Tubal-cain as a man who “forged all implements of copper”.

Nevermind that these weren’t actually the descendants of musicians and copper-makers because those lines would have been crushed by the flood. (Noah’s father was Lamech, but that was a different Lamech. In fact, Cain’s and Seth’s descendant lists in Genesis 4 and Genesis 5 are surprisingly similar with many names either the same or nearly so. Another one of those weird Genesis echos that some scholars find as proof od the Documentary Hypothesis. Did one early version of Genesis claim that all of man was descended from a murderer, but was subsumed by a Seth-centric version later?)

It is interesting to note at least that despite not taking his sacrifice, Cain was well-blessed by God in his punishment. Rather than killing him outright, he was made an unkillable outcast. But as he had no problem finding a wife (sister), he must not have been too much of one.

And finally, Seth as the final named brother (though presumably there were many more, and sisters also) has remarkably little said about him. Was he a farmer? Or a shepherd? Nothing is said.

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