This is a story the Bible tells about a man who starts his life toiling in the fields as a farmer and ends up building a city. He calls this city after his son, and then he starts a dynasty that helps shaping human civilisation.
What an inspiring story it can be, what an inspiration it is for anyone that is facing a major life change, to anyone who mourns what they are leaving behind, and cannot see the opportunities ahead.
Only that this story has a catch. To start his transition into the position of power, the man must first get punished for a murder. But not just of anyone. He first has to kill his own little brother.
It was common to kill your own family members to achieve wealth, fame, and power. It often worked for the killer – If only they could get away with murder.
But Cain could not get away with it. Instead, he is caught and judged by God. And yet, it is God who gives him the super-power that helps him change his life for the better. How did he get away with murder? And, as this is the Bible, what does it want us to take away from this story?
When you look at the story from this point of view, the common interpretation of the older brother killing his younger one out of jealousy, and then getting punished to wander the world, does not sound right. (Cain did not wander, he settled). If anything at all, this story may be seen as encouraging murder in return for fame and riches.
But can we read the story of Cain differently?
- We tend to think of Abel as ‘the good guy’. This is what we see in art. This is what they teach us at Sunday schools. But how do we know Abel was good? Is it possible that after God had received his offering, Abel turned proud or even evil? What atrocities did he commit? We do not know if Cain killed Abel because of jealousy. We do not even know how soon after the offering he killed Abel. Was it hours? Weeks? Years?
- Was the killing a murder? Was it an accident? Maybe Cain killed Abel in self-defence. The Bible does not tell us. So how can we know for sure?
- Did God use Cain to direct humanity from farming towards building cities. Could God refused Cain’s offering to start this process? God, after all, works in mysterious ways. This might have been his way of giving humanity the push to it needed to start creating urban settlements.
- Did God have special, ‘soft spot’ for Cain? Was Cain God’s son? As we discussed in a previous post, this is one possible interpretation to Eve’s words when Eve says קָנִיתִי אִישׁ אֶת-יְהוָה (I created a man with God). In this case, could God have rejected Cain’s offering just like a father who is tough towards his older son. The father is always dissatisfied with his son’s achievements. He is always demanding from him. He does not do it because he does not love his son. On the contrary. He does it because he loves him dearly. The father does it because he expects the most from the eldest. He does it to make sure his eldest is always the best.
The Hebrew Bible is all about multiple interpretations
All the above, and many more are possible interpretation that are consistent with the text. But is any of them correct? Can more than one interpretation be correct at the same time?
The Bible uses hints, clues, paradoxes, and ambiguities to force us to think, search, contemplate and meditate. It forces us to remain humble and admit that we will never know for sure the way of God. All we can do is seek and get closer, a tiny step at a time. When we stop asking and searching, or when we find one interpretation that we arrogantly believe is the only one, we also stop this spiritual progress. When we are confident that we know, we can be sure that we will not advance any more.
I hope that in these sixteen posts in which I analysed the text of Cain and Abel I managed to show you that there are different ways of reading the text in the Bible. Because once we recognise and admit that we do not know, we have already made a spiritual leap forward.
You can see here the text of the Bible (Genesis 4) both in Hebrew and in English: https://mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0104.htm