Why, in Genesis 4, does this strangely ambiguous and shockingly bloodthirsty story make its appearance, about the two brothers Cain and Abel? Cain was not, of course, a historical person but an invention, a character in a story intended to portray something ‘true to life’. Needing to find him a name, the storyteller came up with קַיִן (qayin) which sounds like another word in the same sentence, קָנָה (qanah) meaning, “to create or obtain”. The Bible’s editors enjoyed this ‘playing with words’, and so should we, its readers. Similarly, Cain’s brother Abel is an invention. His name הֶבֶל (hevel), means “breath, vapour, what is insubstantial and fleeting”, foreshadowing his short life and premature death.
One reason for the story’s inclusion can be suggested if we (quite legitimately) translate Eve’s words (obscure in the Hebrew) as, “I have created a man equally with Yahweh”. She might then be in danger of making too much of the idea (as Yahweh had feared) that she and Adam would “become like one of us”, the exalted “sons of God” (Gen.6:2) in Yahweh’s divine council. A common theme, in ancient Near Eastern mythology, is that of human beings beginning to think they’re the equal of the gods, and having to be put in their place, whether by world-wide floods, or the destruction of their presumptuously sky-scraping buildings. As things turn out, Eve’s “creation” of a man didn’t have a happy ending.
A different reason for the story’s inclusion may lie in the fact that, “Abel took care of the flocks, while Cain cultivated the ground”. Here is the age-old rivalry between the farmer with settled house and fields, and the herder with moveable tent and beasts, and the inevitable squabbles (or worse) about access to pasture land and water wells. The Hebrew Patriarchs were on the side of the nomadic pastoralists, but lest that should be regarded as in any way demeaning, they’re pictured as being very wealthy, with large herds and lots of herdsmen, and well able, if necessary, to successfully fight pitched battles in defence of their own interests.
The pastoralist, Abel, comes out on top when his offering to Yahweh is regarded favourably, while Cain’s is not. There may be an echo here of Yahweh’s words to Adam that, because of his ‘original sin’, “the ground is cursed because of you.” It’s certainly made clear to Cain that, due to his spiteful killing of his brother, “the ground will no longer yield its best for you”. On the other hand, there may be a suggestion that God had an issue, not so much with the content of Cain’s offering of “fruit of the land”, so much as the merely ‘dutiful’ attitude of the offerer. This is suggested by the story teller’s emphasis that Abel brought “the firstborn of his flock, even the fattest of them”. No expense was spared in an expression of gratitude, not just duty.
No one comes well out of all this, and that surely includes God. There’s no indication that the brothers were given advance notice of the ‘rules of the game’. God gives no explanation to Cain beyond the obscure and unaccommodating comment that he didn’t “do what was right”. He’s simply told he’d better sort himself out, or “sin” will “dominate” him, which it thereafter does when a confused, humiliated, hurt and angry man gives way to revengeful and deadly feelings. Perhaps that’s why Yahweh (despite his later insistence on “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”) passes only a sentence of exile, and puts “a special mark on Cain”, to deter anyone thinking to “strike him down”. Perhaps guilt is another of the many ‘human’ emotions which this God of the Bible can give way to.
Finally, to return to the settled agriculturalist versus the nomadic pastoralist, perhaps the last word should go to Rogers and Hammerstein – “Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends. One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a cow, but that’s no reason why they cain’t be friends”. Oklahoma came too late, however, for the unfortunate Cain and Abel.