Cain and Abel

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CAIN AND ABEL , the first two sons of Adam and Eve, the progenitors of the race according to the Bible, after their banishment from the garden of Eden (Gn. 4). Cain (Heb., Qayin), the elder, was a farmer; Abel (Heb., Hevel) was a shepherd. The biblical text jumps from their birth to a later episode when both made (apparently votary) offerings to the Lord: Cain presented a meal offering of his fruits and grains, while Abel offered up the firstlings of his sheep. The offering of Cain was rejected by the Lord, and that of Abel was accepted. No reason for this is given, and generations of pious attempts to justify this event have been made by contrasting the intentions of the donors and the nature and quality of their donations. Cain's despondency led to a divine caution to resist the temptation to sin (Gn. 4: 67); presumably this refers to the jealous urges and hostile resentments Cain felt. But the elder brother was overwrought and killed his brother in the field. This led to the punishment of Cain: like his father, he would not farm a fertile earth; and, like him, he would be banished "eastward of Eden." Fearing further retribution, Cain was given a protective "sign," whose aspect delighted the fancy in later legends and art. There is a deliberate reuse of the language of the temptation and punishment of Adam and Eve (Gn. 3) in the ensuing account of the temptation and punishment of Cain (Gn. 4: 117).

The murder of Abel by Cain in Genesis 4: 117 is the first social crime recorded in the Bible, and it complements on the external level the inner temptation and misuse of will depicted in similar language in Genesis 3. The tradition of Cain's act of murder and his subsequent punishment is followed by a genealogical list that presents him as the progenitor of several culture heroes. His son, Enoch, founded the first city (Gn. 4: 18); and two other descendants, Jubal and Tubalcain, were respectively named the cultural ancestors of "all who play the lyre and the pipe" (Gn. 4: 21) and those "who forged all implements of copper and iron" (Gn. 4: 22). There is thus an anachronistic blending of Cain, whose name means "smith," with an ancient agricultural forebear. In so presenting Cain as the ancestor of technology and culture, the tradition displays a pessimistic attitude toward such achievements (complementing the attitude taken in the tower of Babel episode, in Genesis 10: 19) and shows a profound psychological insight into the energies and drives that underlie civilization. The episode of Genesis 4: 117 may reflect an old literary motif of debates between farmers and herdsmen as well as the fairly universal theme of fraternal pairs who represent contrasting psychological and cultural types.

Early rabbinic interpretation drew forth various elements of the story for moral and theological emphasis. The Midrash elaborates the psychology of fraternal strife (Genesis Rabbah 22.7), depicts Cain's impious rejection of divine justice when his offering is rejected but also notes his act of repentance in the end (Gn. Rab. 11.13), and shows the cycle of violence that was unleashed by Cain's act, since this deed led to his accidental death at the hands of his descendant Lamech who, in grief, accidentally killed his own son as well (Gn. 4: 2324). Early Christian tradition focused on Abel as the head of a line of prophets who were killed (Mt. 23: 25) and emphasized his innocent blood (cf. Heb. 12: 24); thus they set the framework for the typology that related Abel's innocent death to that of Jesus and saw Cain as representing the children of the devil (1 Jn. 3: 12). For Augustine, Cain was furthermore identified with the Jews. The topos of Cain and Abel recurs in the medieval mystery plays, and the murder of Abel was a common iconographic motif in Christian and Jewish art.


Aptowitzer, Vigdor. Kain und Abel in der Agada den Apokryphen, der hellenistischen, christlichen und muhammedanischen Literatur. Vienna, 1922.

Fishbane, Michael. Text and Texture. New York, 1979. See pages 2327.

Ginzberg, Louis. The Legends of the Jews (19091938). 7 vols. Translated by Henrietta Szold, et al. Reprint, Philadelphia, 19371966. See volume 1, pages 5559.

Réau, Louis. Iconographie de l'art chrétien. Vol. 2. Paris, 1956. See pages 93100.

Speiser, E. A. Genesis. Anchor Bible. Vol. 1. Garden City, N.Y., 1964. See pages 2938.

New Sources

Levin, Schneir. "The Abel Syndrome." Jewish Bible Quarterly 20 (1991): 111114.

Paine, Robert. "'Am I My Brother's Keeper?' (Genesis IV:9): Violence and the Making of Society." Qualitative Sociology 24 (2001): 169189.

Ratner, Robert J. "Cain and Abel, and the Problem of Paradox." Journal of Reform Judaism 37 (1990): 920.

Michael Fishbane (1987)

Revised Bibliography