Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Cain’s Birth
Pete Enns closely examines the “gaps” in the stories surrounding Cain in Genesis 4 and discusses ideas that the ancient commentators formulated in response to these factually incomplete accounts.
After Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, they have two children: Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-2). The birth of these two figures, especially of Cain, raised some questions in the minds of early interpreters—just as they continue to for contemporary readers of Genesis.
This week we will look at one of those questions: were Adam and Eve celibate in the Garden? This question may seem a bit strange for modern readers, but it was quite important for some ancient interpreters.
More importantly for us, the interpretive principle by which one ancient interpreter handled this specific issue is a very common one in contemporary Christian interpretation: using other parts of the Bible to inform our interpretation of Genesis. The question, then, is: how our application of this principle differs from this one example below, if at all?
Were Adam and Eve Celibate in the Garden?
The fact that Adam and Eve had no children in the Garden suggested to some interpreters that perhaps Adam and Eve were celibate until they were expelled. On the surface, this is unlikely, since Adam is in the Garden in Genesis 2:9 and is given Eve as his mate in 2:21-23.
Also relevant for some interpreters is a nuance we see in Genesis 2:23, when Adam says “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Some interpreters understood this to imply that Adam had been watching the other animals cavorting (Genesis 2:20) and longed for a suitable partner for himself. For example, Jubilees 3:3-4 and Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 1:35 both imply that Adam was looking longingly at the animals with their mates.
This longing led to the creation of the woman out of Adam’s side in 2:21-22. This is why Adam said “at last.” It was upon seeing the woman that Adam said he now (finally) had a partner just like the animals did. This implied for many early interpreters that Eve had been given to Adam for the purpose of sexual intimacy, and so it can be assumed they consummated their relationship in the Garden. In fact, they were brought together to be “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
Although it is not explicit, the biblical story seems to suggest pretty strongly that Adam and Eve were not celibate in the Garden. However, as with virtually every single verse in Genesis, interpretation is rarely a simple matter, for there is much more at work than what a verse says.
An issue that occupied early interpreters—and many others since—is whether sex is inherently sinful. If sexual activity is only something introduced after the Fall, then is it part of the Fall? If, however, it is part of the nature of things while in the Garden, then sexual activity becomes part of God’s plan for humans.
Again, one would think this should not be a problem: the woman was given to Adam for the purpose of becoming “one flesh,” and so we presume sexual relations between Adam and Eve commenced in the Garden and so were not the result of sin.
But what complicated the matter considerably for some interpreters was their understanding of Eden as a temple. Adam was a priest-like figure who worked and tended the Garden as priests would later tend to affairs in the temple. That being the case, an observant Jew could hardly allow Adam to know Eve while on his priestly duties.
The book of Jubliees has a big concern for priestly matters and maneuvered around this. In 3:6-9, this author argues that Adam and Eve were created outside of the Garden, consummated their marriage there, and then were put into the Garden where they remained celibate until they were exiled after the Fall. This differs from the account in Genesis 2:9, which places Adam in Eden and then is given a mate in vv. 22-23.
Jubilees has a real issue with sexual relations in the Garden, and the author handles Genesis accordingly. But perhaps we can have a bit of sympathy for this ancient author. His reading of the Genesis story was informed by what he read elsewhere in the Bible.
His respect for Eden as “holy ground” in the presence of God himself is so profound that he has reservations about the first couple sharing physical intimacy in God’s presence. This is all the more so because sexual abstinence when in God’s presence or going about his work (as Adam was doing as a “priest” in Eden) is found elsewhere in the Old Testament.
In Exodus 19:15, in preparing to receive the commandments from Moses on Mt. Sinai, the men are not to “go near a woman.” It is very common in Jewish theology to think of Mt. Sinai as a temple of sorts. According to Exodus 19, only Moses could go to the very top of Sinai, which corresponds to the high priest alone entering the Holy of Holies. Others could go part way up the mountain, which corresponds to the portion of the temple on the other side of the curtain. The rest could only stay at the foot of the mountain, which corresponds to the outer court of the temple.
So, as at Sinai, so too in Eden: refraining from sexual contact is required. The fact that the Garden story does not say this is unfortunate but hardly important for these early interpreters, since Scripture as a whole dictates what any one passage may or may not say. The theology of priesthood and temple observance determines what Genesis can mean. Adam and Eve were celibate in the Garden.
For those who have been reading this series of posts on Genesis and ancient interpreters, you can probably anticipate my next point. However tempting it might be to look down upon and even dismiss this particular piece of interpretation (and for the record, I do think sexual intimacy in Eden is clearly assumed in the text), what do we make of their interpretive principle?
It has always been common for Christians to read parts of Scripture in light of the whole, which is what the author of Jubilees is doing from his particular perspective. But how does one know if one is violating the text or just augmenting it properly? Are there rules to follow for reading all of Scripture in harmony? Or, conversely, is this even a good principle to begin with?
This is an important issue for Christian readers of the Bible and of the Garden story specifically. To what extent should Christian theology determine how the Garden story should be read? Or maybe I can put that a bit differently: how do we know if we are doing a good job of reading the Bible in light of the whole canon?
Previously, 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).
Now 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 one and 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.
According to Genesis 4:1-5, Cain killed his brother Abel out of anger when God preferred Abel’s offering of “the fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock” (v. 4) over the offering of Cain, “some of the fruits of the soil” (v. 3).
But no rationale is given for why God found Abel’s offering more acceptable. What is especially puzzling is that both types of offerings—animal and agricultural—are commanded of Israel later on (on grain offerings, see for example Leviticus 2). As we have seen so often in these opening chapters of Genesis, there are “gaps” in the text that raise natural questions, then and now. Several explanations were given in antiquity to account for why God preferred Abel’s offering to Cain’s.
Tending the Earth is a Lower Profession
Some early interpreters thought that there must be something less worthy about tending the earth compared to tending to animals. The first century Jewish philosopher Philo, who advocated an allegorical approach to Scripture, put it this way:
One of them labors and takes care of living beings…gladly undertaking the pastoral work which is preparatory to rulership and kingship. But the other occupies himself with earthly and inanimate things (Questions and Answers in Genesis 1:59 and The Sacrifices of Cain and Abel 14, 51).
Of course, Genesis 4 says nothing of the kind, but Philo did not pull his explanation out of nowhere. Both David and Moses herded flock before they were called to shepherd Israel (see 1 Samuel 16:1-13 and Exodus 3:1). So, Philo thought that Abel’s superior occupation signaled that his sacrifice had greater value.
The first century Jewish historian Josephus gives a similar explanation. He writes that shepherding was a virtuous profession, where as plowing the earth was not. Why? Because farming brings things out of the ground by “force,” which for Josephus suggests greediness. Tending flocks, according to Josephus, is simply a matter of letting things grow “on their own” (see Jewish Antiquities 1:53-54).
The Problem is a Defective Offering
Other interpreters took another approach. Abel’s animal offering was from the firstborn (meaning the best because it is first) of his flocks, but all we read about Cain’s offering is that he brought “some of the fruits of the soil.” Some interpreters understood this to mean that Cain’s offering was second rate—not of the firstfruits. In fact, that Cain offered “some of the fruits” seems to violate Leviticus 2:14, where offering the firstfruits of the grain is commanded.
Since Genesis 4 has little to say on why God was displeased, interpreters sought for an answer, and the wording of Cain’s offering certainly raises some suspicion. This interpretation can be found for example in Philo (The Sacrifice of Cain and Abel 52) and a medieval rabbinic commentary on Genesis called Genesis Rabbah 22:5 (which refers to Cain’s offer as the “leftovers” of the harvest).
The Problem is Cain
A third approach to explaining God’s displeasure with Cain’s offering is to find some shortcoming in Cain himself. The problem is not that Cain was a farmer (solution one), or that he got the offering wrong by not giving the firstfruits (solution two). Rather, Cain’s disposition was wrong (which, incidentally, might explain solution two).
It makes some sense to focus on Cain’s spiritual shortcomings to explain God’s displeasure—surely the problem has to be more than God not thinking much of grain. Once again, if only the text were explicit we could arrive at some definitive answer. But the closest the text comes is that God looked favorably on “Abel and his offering” but disfavorably on “Cain and his offering.” That word “and” suggests that God might have been taking into account not only something about the offering itself, but something about the offerer as well. Most commentators today would say that expecting “and” to help us in answering our questions is a bit of an exegetical reach, and I agree. “And” likely can’t bear that burden; the phrases simply mean the offerer was evaluated on the basis of the offering, not some other basis independent of the offering.
Nevertheless, some early interpreters felt that there was something corrupt about Cain and not Abel that led to God’s displeasure. The fact that the story in Genesis is silent on the matter led interpreters to make up a story to fit the interpretation. It was mused that Cain already had a long history of sins and evil deeds that lie behind God’s anger—Cain’s offering was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
For example, Targum Neophyti to Genesis 4:8 says that, just after the murder, Cain and Abel have a theological disagreement about why Abel’s offering was preferred. Cain says that God is not loving and the world is not just, for otherwise his offering would have been accepted, too. Abel answers:
No, it is my view that the world was indeed created with divine love and is altogether arranged in keeping with people’s good deeds. But it was because my deeds have been better than yours that my sacrifice was accepted with favor and your sacrifice was not.
Abel argues here that he has a track record of goods deeds whereas Cain does not, and that God’s displeasure stemmed from Cain’s sinfulness. In this sense, Cain’s reaction of anger is just another example of his character. Cain killed Abel not just because he was angry in general. According to this interpretation in the Targum, Cain was angry with Abel for pointing out his sins.
Slow Down and Listen
In the opening chapters of Genesis, we have seen repeatedly that some of the details needed to clarify the creation and garden stories are not given to us. But readers today need not think of these gaps as simply problems to overcome. These gaps can serve a positive spiritual purpose: they encourage faithful readers to ponder over and meditate upon Scripture—precisely because the meaning of certain portions is not necessarily obvious. These sorts of “gaps” invite readers into God’s presence and to sit with the word of God with patience and humility.
Recap: Who Cares what These Ancient Interpreters Said?!
What I have said previously bears repeating here: the reason why we are even taking the time to look at how early interpreters handled Genesis is to encourage interpretive self-consciousness and humility on the part of readers today. The opening chapters of Genesis, however pivotal they are for Christian theology, are nevertheless notoriously challenging in some details, and these matters have been pondered for over two millennia.
Today, interpretive self-consciousness and humility in interpreting Genesis are driven by (at least) three factors: (1) scientific advances in our understanding of origins vis-à-vis the biblical creation story, (2) our growing understanding of the nature of origins stories in the ancient world and how those stories affect our understanding of Genesis, (3) the interpretive challenges of reading Genesis on its own terms, in part because it is a “gapped” narrative, meaning the story does not supply all the details needed to make definitive interpretive decisions (as we have seen).
These three factors taken together have brought Christian interpreters over the last 150 years or so to ask: What are these stories in Genesis doing? What does it mean to read them well? What are we to do with these stories today at the outset of the twenty-first century?
My recent series on Genesis, Creation, and Early Interpreters has focused solely on the third factor mentioned above: the gapped nature of the stories themselves and the interpretive challenges that result. The other two factors (science and biblical scholarship) have been and will continue to be treated in other posts written by various contributors.
I hope this recap will clarify what the intention of this series is, and therefore how it is to be read. I am not interested in solving the interpretive challenges of Genesis here. I am only interested in pointing them out. Of course, commentators on these posts are free to enter the ancient dialogue and propose their own tentative solutions, although hopefully with a degree of interpretive self-consciousness and humility.
The ancient interpreters we meet in these posts believed that Scripture is God’s Word every bit as much as Christians do today. They also understood that that very confession meant taking the time to look at the details and work through the challenges. This, I think, is a valuable lesson for interpreters today to keep in mind.
So, with that in mind, let’s continue with looking at some other interpretive issues in the story of Cain that came up for ancient interpreters. The story of Cain and Abel is important because it is the story of the first sin, yet it presents numerous interpretive challenges, then as now. We continue here with another example with more to follow next week.
Good vs. Evil
The story of Cain and Abel flies by pretty quickly. The characters are hardly fleshed out for us—we begin in Genesis 4:1-2 with two brothers and by the time we get to v. 8 there is only one. We know nothing of what kind of people they were like, what sort of relationship they had before this one incident, etc.
There was a well-known tendency among ancient interpreters to derive from stories like this some broader moral principle. Characters that were presented in Scripture in skeletal form were fleshed out and ambiguities cleared up—they were painted in black and white so that the biblical stories could serve as clear, unambiguous moral lessons.
This is how some early interpreters treated the Cain and Abel story. This first act of sin in the Bible came to be understood as the first struggle of good vs. evil.
That is why you see ancient interpreters remarking casually about Cain being evil (or unrighteous, etc.) and Abel being righteous. Note that they are not saying this about the sacrifice, which is what God judged in the biblical story, but the sacrificers themselves. And they are not simply saying that Cain did something evil and Abel did something righteous; they are saying that Cain is evil and Abel is righteous. These judgments are missing from the biblical story.
Even though the righteous man [Abel] was younger than the wicked one [Cain]… (Philo, “Questions in Genesis” 1:59)
Abel, the younger one…made a practice of virtue…Cain, however, was altogether wicked (Josephus, “Jewish Antiquities” 1:53)
And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berekiah (Matthew 23:35; see also Hebrews 11:4, 12:24; 1 John 3:12)
The last example from Matthew hints at an additional angle on the “good vs. evil” theme that is fleshed out elsewhere. Since Abel was an innocent and righteous man who died unjustly, he came to be understood among some early interpreters as a martyr figure—someone who willingly submits to suffering and death. For example, in the 4 Maccabees (Apocrypha, first century AD), the mother of the seven slain martyrs recounts how her education of her sons prepared them to meet their death with dignity (4 Maccabees 18:6-19). Among this list of martyrs, v. 11 mentions “Abel slain by Cain.”
Likewise, Cain came to be a symbol, not of a righteous martyr, but one who was somehow responsible for the wickedness of future generations. In fact, it is Cain’s act of wickedness that, in the minds of many ancient interpreters, was the cause of the flood in Genesis 6. We will begin next week by looking at this episode.
Earlier we saw that Cain’s murder of Abel came to be seen by early interpreters not simply as an isolated act of sin, but as representative of something bigger. Cain did not simply do something wicked, but his wicked act showed a much deeper problem, that he is wicked. This way of reading the story of Cain was taken in various directions by early interpreters. One of those ways was to make Cain the cause of the flood.
Genesis 6:1-4 gives the reason—more accurately, we seem to be given two reasons—for why God inflicted such a cataclysmic punishment on all flesh. Cain is not mentioned.
One reason is the “giants” (Hebrew nephilim) mentioned in v. 4, though we are not told here explicitly what about these figures warranted God’s punishment—although the references to the “sons of God” cohabiting with the “daughters of man” seems to be relevant. It seems that divine beings were cohabiting with human women, and possibly the “giants” were their offspring.
In antiquity, a good number of interpreters seized on this episode to explain why God brought the flood (e.g., 3 Maccabees 2:4; Ecclesiasticus 16:7; Jubilees 5:1-11). Such “cross-breeding” wholly violated the order God had established at creation (Genesis 1), and so played a major role in God’s decision to flood the earth.
Genesis 6:5, however, seems to come at it from a different angle. The blame rests not just with the sons of God or the giants, but with humanity at large. Humans had become thoroughly wicked, with a disposition only toward doing wicked acts.
But this explanation passed by rather quickly for early interpreters—one verse—so they sought to anchor God’s punishment in something more concrete. One of those anchors was Cain’s murder of Abel.
Cain was a “logical” candidate of sorts because his act was the only truly wicked act recorded in the chapters preceding the flood story. Cain’s murder of Abel, therefore, was understood not just an isolated wicked act, but a crucial factor in God’s decision to destroy the world in a deluge. One clear example is from the apocryphal book Wisdom of Solomon 10:3-4:
When an unrighteous man [Cain] departed from her [from following Wisdom] in his anger, he perished because in rage he slew his brother. When the earth was flooded because of him, Wisdom again saved it, steering the righteous man [Noah] by a paltry piece of wood.
Two things are worth noting here. First, this author sees a causal link between Cain’s act of murder (first sentence) and the flood. Second, note that putting the blame on Cain is not defended or explained, but tucked away in that small phrase “because of him.” This casual allusion to Cain as the cause of the flood indicates that the explanation needed no elaboration because it was already well know at the time in which this author wrote (early in the first century A.D.). By the time this author gave his account of the flood, Cain’s role in instigating God’s wrath was already a commonly accepted explanation.
Slightly veiled in this line of interpretation is an apologetic motive: to defend God’s actions. God’s destruction of the entire earth tends to raise a moral eyebrow or two in today’s world, but it also raised challenges in antiquity concerning God’s goodness and justice. In fact, the history of Christian and Jewish interpretation has demonstrated how interpreters have struggled with the how to reconcile the absolute destruction of creation and God’s justice. This is especially true given the ever-so-brief (and puzzling) explanation given in Genesis 6:1-5. One might think that the reasons for something so utterly devastating would deserve a fuller treatment.
Early interpreters found in the Cain story a possible explanation that offered some rationale. Admittedly, the story of Cain is several chapters and many hundreds of years (ten generations) removed from the flood story (according to the genealogies of chapters 4 and 5). Didn’t this distance from the event render Cain an unlikely candidate?
Not at all. In fact, it is precisely Cain’s chronological distance from the flood story that supported their apologetic agenda: the fact that God waited ten generations from Cain to Noah is evidence of his great patience and mercy. This interpretation is found in the Mishnah, the compilation of Jewish oral tradition dating from about A.D. 200 (tractate ‘Abot 5.2).
Connecting the flood to Cain’s murder of Abel was aimed at explaining in a theologically pleasing way why God would wipe out all creation with water. Interpreting the Bible in such a way as to defend God’s justice is common practice among all traditions that take Scripture seriously, modern and ancient.
For example, answers vary about such things as: God’s order to kill Canaanite men, women, and children (Deuteronomy 20:10-20); treating virgin daughters as property (Exodus 22:16-17); stoning rebellious teenagers (Deuteronomy 21:18-21); and dashing the heads of Babylonian babies against the rocks (Psalm 137:9). The answers may vary, but all agree that some answer must be given, since these passages as they stand, without further explanation, are theologically troubling.
Expanding on the story of Cain and connecting him to the flood is one ancient example of this same interpretive phenomenon.
As we have seen, ancient interpreters produced some inventive interpretations of the story of Cain. The story is ambiguous in places, and some of those ambiguities could be theologically objectionable if left to themselves. So, early interpreters fleshed out the story where needed to clarify what was unclear and to make theologically palatable what was potentially theologically objectionable.
Now I want to end our discussion of the story of Cain by listing three other issues that early interpreters felt needed to be addressed.
What Weapon Did Cain Use to Kill Abel?
Some early interpreters specified that Cain used a stone to kill Abel (e.g., Jubilees 4:31: “He [Cain] killed Abel with a stone”). The biblical author clearly has no interest in supplying his readers with this information. But ancient interpreters assumed that clues were hidden in the text, and that attentive reading—which is the only worthy posture for reading Scripture—will reveal these clues eventually.
Some interpreters saw in Genesis 4:8 a clue revealing the implement used. Cain killed Abel “in the field,” and so he must have used something that he could have readily found in the field: a stone. Although such details do not typically interest modern readers, we, too, commonly make inferences about what biblical texts do not say in light of what they do say.
Where is Abel?
In Genesis 4:9-11, God comes to Cain and asks him “Where is Abel, your brother?” and then a second time “What have you done?” What troubled ancient interpreters is that God needed to ask. Was he not omniscient?
Of course, throughout the Old Testament, God is presented as a character in the story who acts in (perhaps surprisingly) “human” ways. In the flood story God “regrets” that he made humanity; in Genesis 22 God tests Abraham, and the outcome was not certain from God’s point of view (see v. 12); in Exodus 32:11-14, Moses debates God and convinces him to relent from his intention to destroy the rebellious Israelites.
As a general rule, these human presentations of God (anthropomorphisms) did not sit well with early interpreters, and so they sought ways to ease the theological tension. So, in this case, some interpreters stressed that God knew exactly what happened. He only questioned Cain in order to expose further his culpability.
For example, Philo (Questions in Genesis 1:68) says that by asking the question, Cain would reveal his guilt or innocence by his answer. If Cain killed Abel “through necessity,” then Cain would confess. If he denied it, he would be declaring his own guilt. Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 1:55-56) inserts into the biblical scene a period of interrogation, where God already knew of Cain’s guilt but through “persistent, inquisitive meddling” was able to charge Cain openly with murder.
Modern interpreters commonly read this same episode and conclude, as did the ancient interpreters, that God’s question “Where is Abel?” is not genuine but rhetorical. The ancient interpreters just go a little further and insert some details.
Cain Repented of his Sin
God banishes Cain to a life of wandering, and Cain complains that this will leave him open to retaliation (v. 14). Verse 13 is typically translated, “My punishment is too great to bear,” but the Hebrew also allows for, “My sin is too great to forgive.” Three translations of antiquity— the Septuagint, a Targum (Aramaic), and the Latin Vulgate —actually chose to translate v. 13 to reflect this idea of forgiveness.
Early interpreters were fond of seeing examples of repentance in other biblical characters who exhibited no such repentance in the biblical stories. Not unlike some modern day preachers, ancient interpreters looked for “preaching points” in the text—opportunities to hook a desired lesson to a biblical text. In this example, we are reminded that theological concerns can sometimes affect translations themselves. Virtually no English translation today is free from the criticism that the translation committee’s decisions were sometimes driven by a desire to conform to the needs of the target audience (think of the issues surrounding gender neutral translations).
Seeing how people of faith throughout history handled sacred Scripture humbles contemporary readers who feel that biblical interpretation is an easy matter. But it also encourages us to know that we are not the first to engage the text with care and diligence in order to understand better God’s story.
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