Cain and Abel #8
The commonly told story tells us that Cain killed Abel because he was jealous that God accepted Abel’s offering but not his own. But does the Hebrew Bible support this story? Why did Cain kill Abel?
The text looks simple and straight forward enough, doesn’t it? Yet we are not told what the reason for the killing was. Can we safely conclude that it was jealousy?
First, let’s keep in mind that the killing did not take place immediately after the offering, but rather some unspecified time – hours, days, maybe longer – after the discussion with God. So it unlikely to be a rage of jealousy.
But this is not all. Let’s study the beginning of the verse,
וַיֹּאמֶר קַיִן אֶל-הֶבֶל אָחִיו
And Cain said to Abel, his brother
The expression וַיֹּאמֶר א אֶל-ב, or And A said to B is one of the most common expressions in the Bible. In this chapter alone it appears five time. There is nothing special about it. Except that it is always followed by what A said to B, and therefore, it is natural for the translator to translate וַיֹּאמֶר as said to. Verse 6 in our chapter is such an example:
This is the case everywhere. That is, everywhere except for our verse. Without being told what was said, it is not even a proper, complete sentence (neither in English nor in Hebrew). This introduced a challenge for the translators, and instead of translating it as said to, just like in the other cases, they made an exception, and as you can see below they changed the translation into spoke unto.
But translating the same sentence in two different ways to cover for your own misunderstanding is nothing but disrespect to the original text. Nothing is coincidental in the Bible, and an exception is a flag for us, a call for our attention.
But what could it mean?
The Bible tells us of a conversation that took place between the two brothers before the killing. We know that Cain said something to Abel. We do not know what. But we know it was important – why else would the Bible tell us about it?
Were the brothers discussing God’s conversation with Cain? Was Cain warning Abel about sin? Did Abel get jealous that God, while accepting his offering, spoke to Cain and not to him? Was Cain’s acting in self-defence? Was it an accident? We will never know. But we do know that whatever was said there was important enough for the Bible to highlight it with an exception. Can we still assume that it was a rage of jealousy that led Cain to kill his brother?
But that’s not all.
There is another important issue to consider: Was it a murder?
Using modern legal terminology, we are familiar with different type of killing: first degree or premeditated murder; second degree murder, which is not premeditated; a voluntary manslaughter; and the least severe of all – the involuntary manslaughter.
This distinction is important not only in modern law, but also in the Bible. Because while many translate the fifth commandments (Exodus 20:12) as “You shall not kill”, the Hebrew text uses a different word:
You shall not murder
Unlike the ten commandments, our verse does not use the word murder, instead, it uses ַיַּהַרְגֵהוּ, that is, and he killed him. This word is very general and can mean any kind of killing, from premeditated murder to killing by mistake, from a sacrifice to God to slaughtering an animal. So was Abel’s killing a murder? We do not know. We do know however, that it was unlikely to be a rage of jealousy, and we do know that God, later in the chapter, would provide Cain with protection, a treatment that no murderer deserves.
And yet, despite the many open questions this chapter raises, most of us prefer to believe the simplified version of the story: an evil Cain murdering his innocent brother. But isn’t that the way we mostly treat and judge others? Don’t we all love to rush to conclusion, delighted in judging and condemning others at the first hint or rumour, always certain that we know the truth, even when the truth is unknown. Could this be what And Cain said to Abel, his brother and the rest of this verse come to teach us and warn us about?
You can see here the text of the Old Testament both in Hebrew and in English: https://mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0104.htm