In my last post on Cain’s birth, we looked at the problem that Adam and Eve’s sexual activity caused for ancient biblical interpreters. Since Eden was understood to be a temple and Adam a priest, some interpreters could not accept that Cain was conceived in the Garden, despite the clear indication in Genesis to the contrary (Genesis 2:24-25).
This week we look at an entirely different issue: Why did Cain kill Abel? What was it that “made” him do it? On one level, the story seems clear enough. Nevertheless, answers to these questions—however important they are—are not obvious because the text does not address them specifically.
Genesis attributes Cain’s murder to a clear motive: Cain was angry because God preferred Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s—presumably out of jealousy (although Genesis 4 does not use that word).
God’s words to Cain in Genesis 4:6-7 seem to suggest that God expects Cain to get control of his anger toward Abel (v. 5) before he does something he will regret.
The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master.
Like every verse in the Garden story, these have been subject to a lot of careful thought. We can’t crack all of that open here. It is fair to say, however, that God is more or less telling Cain, “Don’t let your anger get the better of you.” But, like his father Adam, Cain ignores God’s words. Instead of checking his anger, in the very next verse we read that Cain cons Abel into walking out into the field with him and murders him.
So, Cain kills Abel because he is angry, and that anger is sparked by jealousy. But the more griping question is why: Why would Cain be angry in the first place? And why did he see murder as the best solution? On this matter, the story of Cain is notoriously ambiguous. Early interpreters looked for clues in the text to explain why Cain did what he did. Those clues were not hard to find, if you knew how to look.
Born a Man
Genesis 4:1 says the following:
Now Adam knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain [Hebrew qayin] saying, “I have produced [Hebrew qaneh] a man [Hebrew ‘ish] with the help of the LORD.”
Several things jumped out at early interpreters as they tried to explain who Cain was and what he did to Abel. First, note that Eve calls her baby a “man.” The Hebrew word ‘ish can mean a number of things in the Old Testament, but not baby. Perhaps Eve only means “human” in this context, but ‘ish is still a rather startling way of announcing a birth. Early interpreters thought surely there was a hidden meaning in referring to a newborn this way.
For some interpreters, ‘ish indicates that Cain was born with adult-like abilities—perhaps a lingering effect of his father having been made as a fully formed adult. One interpreter found some added significance in Cain’s Hebrew name, qayin. Ignoring the connection to qaneh (produce) of Genesis 4:1, this writer felt more elaboration was required to explain Cain’s “manly” attributes.
And she [Eve] bore a son and he was lustrous. And at once the infant rose, ran, and brought in his hands a reed [qaneh] and gave it to his mother. And his name was called Cain [qayin] (Life of Adam and Eve 21:3).
In Hebrew “reed” sounds like “Cain.” And so this interpreter found in this wordplay a way of explaining Cain’s abilities.
Furthermore, Cain was born—as English translations have it—“with the help of the Lord.” In Hebrew, however, the phrase is simply “with the Lord” [‘et-yahweh]. Cain’s birth was “with God,” and so, it was thought, he was endowed with special powers.
As fanciful as these explanations may sound, each of these ambiguities continue to puzzle biblical commentators today.
The Devil’s Seed
Viewing Cain as a special child given great abilities by God himself is one way of interpreting his birth, but it is not without a hitch—which did not escape the eyes of early interpreters. How could this blessed boy in time become the first murderer?
A good number of interpreters said that Cain had been evil from birth because he was the offspring of the Devil himself. This may appear to come wholly out of left field, but it is not without some basis. You may recall from the previous post that some interpreters surmised that Eve and the serpent had been in some sort of relationship—which is why they were able to have such a casual conversation in the Garden and why the serpent conned them into eating the fruit, out of jealousy against Adam.
That detail is relevant here as well. When Genesis 4:1 says that Adam “knew” Eve—a common euphemism for sexual relations—some interpreters chose to take this word more literally: Adam did not “know” Eve sexually, but knew something about her, what she had been up to.
As odd as this may understandably sound to our ears, this interpretation is found quite commonly among Jews and Christians. We see it in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, where we read that Eve conceived Cain by Sammael, a wicked angel. A medieval rabbinic text, Pirqe deR. Eliezer 21, comments that the serpent himself impregnated Eve, and that Adam’s “knowing” referred to him finding out.
We find this also among Christian writers. Tertullian (160-220) said that Eve was made pregnant by “the seed of the devil” (On Patience 5:15). The Gospel of Philip (one of the Gnostic Gospels, second or third century) plainly speaks of Eve committing adultery with the serpent, a union that led to Cain becoming a murderer. It is possible that 1 John 3:10-12 refers to the same tradition: ”…we should love one another and not be like Cain, who was of the evil oneand murdered his brother.”
Details, Details, Details
Yes, some of these early interpretations—like Cain running around with a reed in his hand—have more entertainment value for us than theological value. On the other hand, appealing to certain details of the text in order to make sense of some difficult parts is a common part of biblical interpretation.
We today do it all the time.
Biblical texts do not always give us every detail to make a final, clear, and permanent determination about what a text means. (Proof of that is the fact that interpretations continue to differ, including today among Christians who agree on a lot of things.) Elements of ambiguity are especially true of biblical narratives. All interpreters “fill in the gaps” of the missing details by looking for direction in the details that are there.
So, we might well ask ourselves, as we read the Garden narrative: Which details do we feel are more important than others? Which details do we prefer to incorporate into our interpretations rather than others? Why?
Pondering these sorts of questions leads to “hermeneutical self-awareness.” Such self-awareness may not lead to the final word about a passage, but it does lead to true humility in interpretation and an encouragement to unity among Christians where they might differ on matters of interpretation.