11 votes

Cain and Abel

Cain and Abel

The Story you Might know:

Cain was Adam and Eve’s first son, Abel was No. 2. “in the course of time,” Cain, a farmer, brought an offering of his harvest. Abel, a “keeper of flocks,” also brought “the fattest part of the firstborn of his flocks.” Cain got a God Thumbs Down, Abel, a God Thumbs Up.” Cain was pissed, killed Abel. God exiled Cain and put a “mark” on him so no-one would kill him.

You Might not Know:

Cain goes on to found a city and have progeny, one of whom is the father “of those who play stringed and wind instruments,” another becomes the father of “all those who keep flocks,” another the father of those who make tools. So like, everything you could do in the ancient world except farming.

The father of these three is a guy named Lamech. Perhaps merely coincidentally, Lamech is the name of the father of Noah, the next story in the Genesis. Bible Purists obviously distinguish these two, but we’re talking about the Law Books of Moses here, seems like they would have chosen these sorts of things pretty carefully. I am not a Bible purist (or scholar, for that matter).

Something in this story dings a low-pitched gong deep down in my psyche. Granted, I was raised in a certain christian religious tradition where lots of time were spent on certain bible stories, of which this was one. But it was always presented as a simple morality tale: God wants animal sacrifices, and it’s wrong to kill your brother. Also don’t read anything past where God, who is clearly so merciful, put a mark on cain to save his life.

I turned to the internet, and most of the Christian exposition points to a few New Testament passages that clarify Abel was more righteous and had better faith. I found that wholly unsatisfactory. So I looked for Jewish exposition. One, an academic at a (presumably reformed) Jewish university, basically was like, God, wtf? (totally my summary). Others had various moral expositions, albeit far more eloquently reasoned and rhetoricized than the christians, but still unsatisfactory.

Questions based on the English text alone:

What was really wrong with Cain’s offering, and how would Cain know in advance? Sure, all the whole rest of the bible is about animal (and human) sacrifice, but at this stage? After all, God requires Adam to be a farmer, so Cain is just being a dutiful son, and offering what he has to offer. The implication from the text is not that it was wrong in kind, but that it wasn’t “nice” enough, suggested by the text’s additional detail about Abel’s offering being fat and firstborn.

Also, how can Cain’s descendant, born well after this incident, be the of father those “who keep flocks,” when that’s what Abel did?

How did Cain ditch his curse?

What other people were there to kill Cain? At this point, technically, there’s only Adam, Eve, Cain (and dead Abel). Also, where’d he get a wife? And don’t say Adam and Eve were busy. The text says their next child after Cain and Abel was Seth, born after all this mess.

Other than the nature of the offering and the curse, these questions are really only important to Ken Hamm and his pals.

Based on preliminary research:

The questions don’t easily resolve, as some scholars believe that what Cain offered was flax, which would have been the best of his crops. Also, what Abel offered was goats, when the best offering would have been cows. Conclusion: god doesn’t care what kind, so long as it’s the best of that kind. Or, God prefers a Chevy with full options over a base model BMW (better get that heated seat subscription now!).

Cain’s name might mean “blacksmith.” The father of tools is Tubal-Cain. “Abel” might be a transmogrifation of “Jabel,” the father of those who keep flocks.

Lamech is the same Lamech in both stories, what we are seeing is an attempt to include and combine two traditional sources into one text. Assuming that is true, would keeping the name the same be an effort to signal the reader needs to understand we are bridging two stories? I mean, if I were trying subterfuge, I’d change one of their names. If I were trying to be real, I’d add a footnote explaining it. But then again, I don’t have to write on papryus by hand.

Later interpretations:

In the late middle ages/early post middle ages, depictions of this story show Abel as clean shaven, smaller, with soft features, and wearing fine, aristocratic clothing. Cain is bigger, bearded, aggressively countenanced with sharp, angular features. He’s wearing the clothes of a field-hand.

Why I am writing this:

Like I said, it bangs a ceremonial gong. I feel like there is an important truth embedded here. It’s more spiritual, and important, than merely accepting it as an artifact of changing and competing cultures. There’s some talk of two traditions merging here, one priestly, the other “YHWH-ist,” especially when you consider the preceeding and succeeding texts (Adam <> Noah). The competing cultures are nomadic, pastoral (these two are not exclusive), and agricultural, and also urban “industrial.” Everything comes from Cain—nomadicism, agriculture, technology, music, animal husbandry. Some jewish scholars say Architecture is included in there, too.

My interpretation:

I deign to practice midrash. When Cain lets his displeasure at God’s judgment be known, God says something like, don’t you know if you do right, I will lift you up? I think what is being said here is that what Cain did was not good enough—for Cain. That is, Cain could do better. Abel did the best he could, he gave some juicy meat. But God had bigger plans for Cain. No offering of mere crops, or money, or even cows would have satisfied coming from Cain. No, Cain needed to literally found civilization. And following that path is when the blessings started to flow.

Side-note, In old Egypt, Osiris was the first-born brother of Set, and created culture for humans.

Abel the first capitalist.

I believe that medieval interpretations were attempting to perpetuate feudalism. The depictions of poor, innocent Abel, righteous and faithful servant of God, as aristocratic, against aggressive, crude, farmer Cain as a peasant, is meant to keep the judgmental finger of God pointed firmly and clearly at the heart of the serfs. God’s (through his faithful feudal Lord) is going to expel you if you act like Cain. Keep offering your crops to God (through your faithful feudal Lord) plus some phat veal.

It’s also possible that the story was holding up an early form of capitalism. I’m getting speculative (and casual) here. But whereas farming is a very labor intensive endeavor, flocking is very capital intensive (and also, like modern big capitalists, is very good at externalizing costs). Farming does require land-capital, a few tools, and seed, but mostly crops are grown through effort. Pastoral endeavors, otoh, require capital, namely, the flock. The inputs are externalized-water and pasture not owned by the shepherd. The flock largely persists, producing milk, wool, and babies (ROI!!), requiring much less effort to maintain than dirt. Don’t believe me? How do you think David had all that time to sing those psalms?

Thanks for reading.

14 comments

  1. [12]
    Loire
    (edited )
    Link
    While I see the entertainment value in attempting to rationalize biblical narratives I don't think there is any merit beyond that. The old testament/Torah/Nevi'im/etc are nothing more than written...

    While I see the entertainment value in attempting to rationalize biblical narratives I don't think there is any merit beyond that.

    The old testament/Torah/Nevi'im/etc are nothing more than written record of stories and morality tales passed orally for generations. These are tales that have either purposefully or unintentionally been changed and adapted as they passed from oral storyteller to oral storyteller. The only reason we give these particular oral histories any significant thought is because of the role Christianity has played in western history.

    We don't read the Illiad and attempt to explain Athena's apparent direct intervention in the siege. We don't read Gilgamesh and attempt to rectify a heavenly goddess being supposedly spurned by the protagonist rejecting her sexual advances.

    Cain and Abel is simply a morality story about murder, especially fratricide, passed down by the various peoples that lived in the Levant. Going a bit deeper it may be an allegory on the human condition relating to lust/anger/jealousy and violence. Why a "God" cared about the quality of the particular sacrifices likely isn't terribly important and has probably changed through various re-tellings.

    With that said, I appreciate your deep dive into "competing cultures" angle, especially musings on capital vs labour, or possibly even the early cultural competition you mention akin to a rural vs urban-ish divide. While I don't believe these were the original intentions of the narrative, as with all art future re-interpretation is completely valid.

    I believe there has forever been some level of disdain between those who partake in more menial/labourous tasks such and agriculture and those who pursue the less labour intensive roles society/economies have to offer. This can relate to various points in human history from feudalism, as you mentioned, to the Roman era where agriculture directly competed with soldiery and politics as the "ideal" role within society, to the modern day where we have trivialized the concept to "rural vs urban".

    If we want literal interpretation of the original, I believe the message is simply an allegory on the human condition, where the Jewish/Christian religious elements are purely window dressing. This is the important truth embedded in the narrative: we are rash, violent, jealous animals, but murder is detrimental to society and thus murderers should be punished and ostracized.

    8 votes
    1. [10]
      stu2b50
      Link Parent
      Not in terms of figuring out moral absolutism, since (I'd hope) no one believes any of those things happened, but we absolutely do do all of those things? It's a very prominent part of the study...

      We don't read the Illiad and attempt to explain Athena's apparent direct intervention in the siege. We don't read Gilgamesh and attempt to rectify a heavenly goddess being supposedly spurned by the protagonist rejecting her sexual advances.

      Not in terms of figuring out moral absolutism, since (I'd hope) no one believes any of those things happened, but we absolutely do do all of those things? It's a very prominent part of the study of literature. For the Iliad example, the presences of the Gods is an area with a ton of study - whether it was intended to be allegorical (as they are often mention in an aside next to the domains they preside in), or physical (when they quite directly intervene - but is that intervention or an allegory of their domain), or both - and is there a pattern to when one or the other representation comes up? What does that mean with regards to how the Greeks of that time manifested their religious beliefs?

      It's not only interesting but is an amazing glimpse into how ancient peoples thought and a critical piece of evidence when formulating anthropological arguments.

      Why a "God" cared about the quality of the particular sacrifices likely isn't terribly important and has probably changed through various re-tellings.

      I don't think that's fair. Why isn't it likely to be terribly important? It definitely could be a reflection of certain inherent biases in the storytellers that propagated ancient Judaic mythos. Even if not conscious, which it also could be - it's not like ancient people were any stupider than we are - it can certainly be unconscious.

      Yeah, it could have changed through tellings, and that's part of it - is there a pattern to who told the stories? Did that bias what elements changed or were removed throughout the ages? One theory with Homer's works is that because Bards relied on the patronage and hosting of wealthy landlords, that that manifested directly in the presentation of those wealthy lords in the Odyssey and Iliad - Odyssey especially.


      I can see your angle in that I don't think either Bible is much more than another piece of ancient lore, so looking deep into the Bible to see hidden truths about the Universe is foolhardy, but studying the "why" of elements of ancient texts is a really valuable thing that we do actually do.

      4 votes
      1. [8]
        Loire
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        The difference I am touching at here is that no one (relatively speaking, I'm sure there are some neo-Hellenists out there) analyzes the fantastical elements of non-christian western mythology...

        The difference I am touching at here is that no one (relatively speaking, I'm sure there are some neo-Hellenists out there) analyzes the fantastical elements of non-christian western mythology under the lense of its semi-factuality as do Abrahamic scholars do. The question with the Illiad is never "Why did Hera and Athena take such offense to Paris' decision during a beauty contest" but rather, as you suggested, what do the heavenly interventions represent within the historical context of the event? Of course there have been decades of study concerning classic literature but the context is completely different from that which surrounds biblical narratives, because contrary to your first statement a non insignificant portion of the world's population including practicing Christian's, practicing Muslims and practicing Jews all share and believe these stories.

        The question of "Why was Cain's sacrifice insufficient?" comes with the implicit assumption that the Abrahamic God actually exists and cast judgement upon Cain, rather than acting as a narratively convenient catalyst for the eventual act of jealousy and murder. Because of our history with Christianity we still treat many of these stories as semi-literal rather than the, as I said, narrative window dressing that surrounds the parables of human condition at the core.

        Edit: I truly believe that, within the original context of the mythology, the sacrifice angle was nothing more than and inciting factor for the larger message. Analyses determining that God somehow preferred animal sacrifice (which completely contradicts future canon), or the promise of marriage to Adam's daughter, miss the value of the parable which is that murder is abhorrent and detrimental to the function of society and must be dealt with harshly.

        2 votes
        1. [6]
          stu2b50
          Link Parent
          I don't think OP's post is necessarily assuming any factuality, though. Admittedly I speed-read it, but it seems the main thesis (with arguments cut out for abbreviation) is That is very much in...

          I don't think OP's post is necessarily assuming any factuality, though. Admittedly I speed-read it, but it seems the main thesis (with arguments cut out for abbreviation) is

          Abel the first capitalist... I believe that medieval interpretations were attempting to perpetuate feudalism. The depictions of poor, innocent Abel, righteous and faithful servant of God, as aristocratic, against aggressive, crude, farmer Cain as a peasant, is meant to keep the judgmental finger of God pointed firmly and clearly at the heart of the serfs.

          That is very much in line with the arguments on what the Iliad meant for Greek society, no? They're arguing that in a more in depth reading of Cain and Abel that the seeds of a specific kind of class dichotomy and hierarchy was built and re-enforced in tellings of Abrahamic legend. I think it's a bit of a stretch (and contradicts itself by saying that Abel is the first capitalist, then saying that it perpetuates Feudalism - those aren't the same things, you can bring up common themes between them but that needs to be laid out first) but it's certainly a valid argument, and whether or not the Abrahamic God is real doesn't matter.

          The question of "Why was Cain's sacrifice insufficient?" comes with the implicit assumption that the Abrahamic God actually exists and cast judgement upon Cain,

          It doesn't, because it's in the wrong frame - why does is Cain's sacrifice insufficient for the God that the storytellers created? And what does that say about the people that believed in that God?

          3 votes
          1. [5]
            Loire
            Link Parent
            You're right (as is @NoblePath) that a retroactive analysis of the story in the context of some form of class divide is fertile ground for debate (which I briefly mentioned in my first comment but...

            You're right (as is @NoblePath) that a retroactive analysis of the story in the context of some form of class divide is fertile ground for debate (which I briefly mentioned in my first comment but should have expanded on more).

            It's difficult for me, in a modern context, to conceptualize a shepherd as "higher" class than a farmer, however if we are to accept that premise as true then there is some discussion here as to a have's vs have-nots dichotomy perpetuated by the Cain and Abel narrative. The authority having preference for the "animal sacrifice" re-translated as the preference for the produce of the upper class vs the produce of the menial labouring proletariat.

            To circle back to my earlier post, I would venture to suggest perhaps a more obscure subtext here that might fit better, in that "capitalism", "feudalism" and other advanced political/economic concepts did not strictly exist at the time the parable was created. The subtext concerning Cain an Abel's respective sacrifices may represent an already burgeoning disdain for menial labour roles in early civilizations. Abel's sacrifice of a lamb, while still ostensibly food derived through manual labour, is seen as more prestigious (and to this day likely would still be considered more prestigious as meat is held above grain/produce) than the produce sacrificed by Cain. Abel's labour can also be considered relatively leisurely in comparison to the toil required for ancient subsidence farming. Abel's labour also produces more product than he himself can consume, allowing him to sell his excess to the community, whereas Cain's produce would largely be subsidence leaving much less to be sold and shared with the community. Altogether this may be an ancient form of the modern "Don't become a garbage collector" warning parents pass to their children. Menial labour is frowned upon by society.

            2 votes
            1. [4]
              stu2b50
              Link Parent
              Shepherds in general in the Bible have a fascinating role. God himself is often allegorically represented as a shepherd, the people of Judah (and later Christendom as a whole) his lambs. Jacob,...

              Shepherds in general in the Bible have a fascinating role. God himself is often allegorically represented as a shepherd, the people of Judah (and later Christendom as a whole) his lambs. Jacob, Moses, King David, Amos are all shepherds. When Jesus is born, his birth is announced to shepherds. The bible really likes shepherds.

              In light of NoblePath's argument, I think it does make put all the shepherd fetishizing in a new light - if shepherding is allegorically representative of a Lord - someone with dominion over others, who guides, raises, and leads them and in return gets to consume them - then indeed, Cain and Abel among others could be this subtle promotion of the importance of rulers - a pretty nice message for the literate, priest classes of the ancient world.

              And it does help answer a question: why shepherds? Perhaps the dominion over living animals makes it more suited for this role than farming, the isolation from the rest of the world with your flock a representation of ideal peace between lords by leaving each other alone, the docility of lambs better for the people you own than other domesticated animals.


              Well, at this point the survey classes I took on religion in undergrad are failing me so I'm not sure I have much more, but in any case I do think it's an interesting thing to think about.

              2 votes
              1. [3]
                Loire
                Link Parent
                My question would be: continuing on within this frame of thought can we re-translate the rest of the parable within the same context? The Mark of Cain came with two punishments. The first, a curse...

                In light of NoblePath's argument, I think it does make put all the shepherd fetishizing in a new light - if shepherding is allegorically representative of a Lord - someone with dominion over others, who guides, raises, and leads them and in return gets to consume them - then indeed, Cain and Abel among others could be this subtle promotion of the importance of rulers - a pretty nice message for the literate, priest classes of the ancient world.

                My question would be: continuing on within this frame of thought can we re-translate the rest of the parable within the same context?

                The Mark of Cain came with two punishments. The first, a curse upon the ground in which Abel's blood was spilt made it so the land would no longer yield produce to Cain. The second, the literal Mark of Cain, set him apart as a fugitive and a wanderer.

                The second punishment seems self explanatory, kill your superior and you will be abhorred, you will be exiled. You will be marked for life and know no rest.

                The blood on the soil element is more interesting. Can it be taken literally such that it is suggesting the tiller of soil cannot manage the land without the guidance of their lord/superior? And what is with the implication that Cain became a city builder as a result of the curse? Is this a suggestion that the city dwellers, typically unshackled by lordship are somehow bad? Is it casting a shadow on the independent mercantile class typically associated with cities of the time?

                How do we extend the class based interpretation from part of the parable to the entirety of it?

                2 votes
                1. [2]
                  stu2b50
                  Link Parent
                  So my best guess at extending the interpretation is this: From the next passage, Cain becomes the progenetor of artisans - metallurgist, musicians, and so forth. His curse is that he can no longer...

                  So my best guess at extending the interpretation is this:

                  From the next passage, Cain becomes the progenetor of artisans - metallurgist, musicians, and so forth. His curse is that he can no longer farm - he must wander. So the curse is that Cain and his people can no longer provide for themselves. They can make art, make tools, and trade them for food - but they will never be fully independent. The shepherds can do without music, without tools - but Cain will starve.

                  I'm reminded of how artisans and merchants were the lowest class in Medieval Japanese society. First were the samurai, then the peasants, then artisans, then merchants. That being said I have no idea how it worked where the Bible took place, so maybe that's just off and artisans had a more prominent place in society.

                  You could say that Cain's murder of Abel is akin to a revolution with regicide at the end of it. You killed the Lord of the land. What now? Without the guidance of some kind of ruler, you'll have no place, and will always depend on others for survival. You're too incompetent and stupid without a shepherd gathering you to provide for yourself. You can only do useless things, pssh, like making art, metal workings, and civilization.


                  I'm sure there's also some way to mix in the fact that Cain's line seems angry, or not respectful, or whatever. Lamech just murdered a dude and boasted with Cain's curse as part of it, that's probably considered blasphemy. Then presumably they all die from the flood. Which I have to say seems somewhat contradictory with the fact that Cain's children are said to be such things like the first to play string instruments.


                  As an aside, I really like this line from Genesis

                  But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded.

                  I like to think that God just forgot about Noah until he got a reminder on his calendar about it. Ohhh yeeaah, Noah. Woops. Forgot to drain the Earth.

                  Hm. Omnipotent, huh.

                  2 votes
                  1. Loire
                    Link Parent
                    I imagine God would have been really taken with the sudden silence after however many thousands of years. Animals can't pray and there were only 8 humans on the Ark, the sudden silence when he...

                    I like to think that God just forgot about Noah until he got a reminder on his calendar about it. Ohhh yeeaah, Noah. Woops. Forgot to drain the Earth.

                    Hm. Omnipotent, huh.

                    I imagine God would have been really taken with the sudden silence after however many thousands of years. Animals can't pray and there were only 8 humans on the Ark, the sudden silence when he drowned the entirety of the world's population was probably wonderous.

                    2 votes
        2. NoblePath
          Link Parent
          Just to clarify, I am not assumng any kind of facts in the text. I do not think the text was ever meant to be taken literally.

          Just to clarify, I am not assumng any kind of facts in the text. I do not think the text was ever meant to be taken literally.

          1 vote
      2. NoblePath
        Link Parent
        Thanks for saying what i was thinking (mostly). I will say it is not without value to look for deeper and more nuanced moral lessons in the bible. There are probably few truths about the universe,...

        Thanks for saying what i was thinking (mostly).

        I will say it is not without value to look for deeper and more nuanced moral lessons in the bible. There are probably few truths about the universe, but there might be some goodies about living as a human.

        1 vote
    2. NoblePath
      Link Parent
      There is actually some evidence that oral tradition of ancient Hebrews underwent surprisingly little mutation over time, or at least some experts i have read along the way think so. Personally, i...

      These are tales that have either purposefully or unintentionally been changed and adapted as they passed from oral storyteller to oral storyteller

      There is actually some evidence that oral tradition of ancient Hebrews underwent surprisingly little mutation over time, or at least some experts i have read along the way think so.

      Personally, i think this is what bible gematria is about. All the numbers, and numerical values of the hebrew alphabet, are not about hidden knowledge, but rather a kind of checksum for maintaining textual integrity.

      1 vote
  2. [2]
    HotPants
    (edited )
    Link
    I will just take the Bible at face value. Seth, the third son of Adam & Eve, had Noah as a descendant. Only Noah was righteous. The rest were wiped out by God in Noah's flood. All of Cain's...

    I will just take the Bible at face value.

    Seth, the third son of Adam & Eve, had Noah as a descendant. Only Noah was righteous. The rest were wiped out by God in Noah's flood. All of Cain's descendants so enraged God, he wiped them out of existence.

    Cain & Abel's story is found in The Pentateuch, which was written by Moses. Moses descended from Noah. So from Moses' perspective the story makes complete sense. Did God wipe out all the descendants of Cain in the flood? Sure. But Cain was cursed.

    But the story makes even more sense when you realize the incredible enmity that different tribes have for each other, even when the beliefs are mostly the same.

    The Samaritans and the Jews are a lot closer than you think. They both have copies of almost the same Torah. Curiously, the Samaritan version is slightly more coherent when it comes to Cain & Abel.

    For example, in Genesis 4:8, when Cain talks to Abel, the Masoretic version reads, “Now Cain said to his brother Abel, while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him,” whereas the Samaritan Torah contains additional words: “Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ ”

    Yet if you read the story of the Good Samaritan, it's supposed to be surprising that a Samaritan did anything good at all for a Jew, because they hated each other (it's always the little differences.)

    Similarly, Jesus was likely very close to the Pharisees in teachings. He hated them. More than he hated his Roman overlords.

    So perhaps the only moral of the story is that the person who wrote the story, was a descendant of Seth, and utterly loathed the descendants of Cain.

    Edit: And don't kill your brother. That's always a good one.

    1 vote
    1. NoblePath
      Link Parent
      A necessary conclusion fron your line of reasoning is that the author also hated civilization. Given that they were likely still feeling effects of egyptian enslavement (or thought they were, i...

      A necessary conclusion fron your line of reasoning is that the author also hated civilization. Given that they were likely still feeling effects of egyptian enslavement (or thought they were, i think there is some doubt about whether ancient hebrews were actually enslaved as a whole people), that’s not a totally absurd thought.

      1 vote