Cain and Abel #11
In Genesis 4:12-13 God continues to elaborate on the consequences of Cain ’s action. This verse makes us wonder, again, if a punishment was handed by God, or is God elaborating on the consequences as a matter of cause and effect?
Cain follows with an ambiguous defence statement, which can be interpreted either as an admission of guilt, or the exact opposite.
As we saw in verse 11, God’s words to Cain can be viewed either as those of a judge handing down his sentence, or as a father who, broken-heartedly, shouts to his son the consequences of his wrongdoing, not as a punishment but as a matter of cause and effect. Using an analogy: “What have you done, now you will spend many years in jail.”
Verse 12 continues to elaborate on the consequences. But the more the Bible elaborates, the less it seems like a punishment from God, and more it reads like a description of cause and effect.
“And now you will be cursed by the soil”, it starts in verse 11, and here it continues: If you worked the soil, it would not continue to give its power to you. As a result, you will not be able to be a farmer any longer, and you will have to move on and wander the land.”
This is a conditional statement: if A then B. But it says nothing about what will happen if not A. What will happen if you do not work the soil? There is no punishment there. In other words, your life as a farmer is now over. It is time for you to start a new chapter of your life.
In verse 13 Cain answers to God. But understanding his defence statement depends on the way we read and interpret the word עון (a-von).
Let’s take a sidestep for a moment and learn about the Hebrew language
The Hebrew language does not have vowels. Instead, the way you read a word depends on the Nikud. These are the dots below and above the letters. They distinguish between alternative pronunciations. However, the original Bible does not use Nikud, which was only developed in early Middle Ages. That is, whenever there are alternative ways to read a certain word, we cannot tell which is the original one. The current pronunciation, relying on the Nikud, is already an interpretation done by Middle Ages scholars.
This problem we encounter in verse 13. The word עֲוֺנִי can be read in two different ways. The first is A-vo-ni, which means My Sin. The second is On-yi, which means My Poverty. Based on the way we interpret this this word, we will have completely different, opposite, statements from Cain.
If we believe that My Sin is the correct meaning, then Cain recognises his wrongdoing and admitting his guilt. He is repenting, which can explain why God forgives him and protects him from any harm.
But if we believe that My Poverty is the right meaning, then Cain, a former farmer, is complaining about the harshness of his sentence: “I will be too poor and cannot carry my poverty”. He does not recognise his wrongdoing, and only complains about the severity of the punishment.
What did Cain really say or mean?
Whichever interpretation we choose, however, we run into a contradiction. If we choose the former, then we will see that it does not fit the rest of his ‘defence statement’ in verse 14, where Cain does not show any remorse. Instead, he is only concerned with the consequences of his punishment on his own wellbeing.
On the other hand, if the latter is our choice, and Cain does not recognise his wrongdoing, then why is God not punishing him? Why is He is giving him a protection that no other person in the Bible is ever awarded?
Whichever interpretation we choose, one thing is clear. The story of Cain has much more hidden in it than we are normally led to believe.
Extremely interesting how you explain the linguistic background and the real meaning of the original text. Does it mean the word ‘punishment’ most Bible translations use is not congruent with the original Hebrew word at all? This would change our understanding of Cain’s state of consciousness completely.
Let’s be true to ourselves. This is an interpretation. We do not know if it is THE RIGHT interpretation. In the same way that other interpretations, which many consider as absolute truths, are only interpretations. Nobody knows which is the right one, if there is a right one, or maybe… Read more »
I wonder if the first crime in the Bible happened because of Eve’s disobedience when she ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Was this the initiation of sin?
What would have happened if Adam and Eve would have trusted and obeyed God in the garden of Eden?
Very interesting question Keishi. I have a different take that the common narrative. After all, before they knew good from bad, how would they know they needed to obey God? I think that the common interpretation has many holes in it. Did God tempt people with no understanding of Good… Read more »
[…] action, continues to plead for leniency. This, of course, supports our understanding that in verse 13 he was complaining about his punishment, not admitting guilt. But more than that, this verse […]
My interpretation of Cain and Abel and “Does Cain admit his guilt” can be veiwed through a parable Jesus spoke of in Luke 18: 9-14 And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple… Read more »
Thank you Fran. It is so beautiful to find new interpretations. So many of them we can find in such a short story. I find it even more beautiful that you know that this is your interpretation, and that you do not know if your is true, better or worse… Read more »
[…] first is that, as we discussed in a previous post, it could be the land, not God, that punishes Cain. And unlike God’s word, punishment by the land […]