A Twist of Cain

Robert W Vest III

"And Cain talked with Abel his brother: And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him." (1)

With these words, Cain, the firstborn of woman, enters the annals of Biblical history as the first murderer. This paper will take a look at Cain's role in the Old Testament, his relationships with other characters in Genesis, and his overall importance in the Biblical narrative. In addition, this work will also take a look into possible motives for Cain's actions, and whether he alone bears the blame for Abel's death.

Cain is first mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in the first verse of the fourth chapter of Genesis, in which he becomes the first being that Yahweh did not have a direct hand in creating, "the first human achievement after the expulsion from Eden." (2) In fact, Eve's words upon giving birth to Cain, "I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD," is interpreted by some scholars as "I have created a man as well as the LORD." (3) This illustrates Eve's anger at Yahweh for expelling her from the Garden of Eden. She has just discovered that Yahweh is not the only one capable of creating life, for she too has that power. Eve's defiance in this opening verse seems to foreshadow that of Cain later in the narrative. (4)

A play on words exists between the Hebrew word qanithi "I have gotten, obtained, created, made," and qayin, the Hebrew version of "Cain," which can be translated as "spear," (5) or more often, "smith." (6) Translating Cain's name as "spear" foreshadows the violent act he will later commit, while "smith" foreshadows Cain's role as the father of civilization, as builder of the first city. (7)

In Genesis 4:2, the birth of Abel commences. The Hebrew name of Abel, hebel, meaning "breath," is a metaphor used when designating something as quickly gone, like a single breath of air. (8) The name of Abel could also be derived from the Babylonian aplu, indicating that the story may have roots in Sumeria. (9)

The passage "and again she bare his brother Abel," has led some Biblical scholars to speculate that Cain and Abel were twins, also suggested by the constant use of my brother, your brother, further on in the tale. (10) This conclusion has led some to compare the story of Cain and Abel to the Roman legend of Romulus and Remus. (11)

After the birth of Abel, the narrative designates Abel as a shepherd, and Cain as a farmer, which could be a possible source of the conflict to come. Some scholars have argued that the tale of Cain and Abel reflects the triumph of civilization (Cain as a farmer, smith, and city-builder) over the simple life of the nomadic herdsman (Abel as a "keeper of sheep"). (12)

Genesis 4:3-7 sets the stage for Cain's murderous act. The brothers offer sacrifices to Yahweh, who accepts Abel's offering but rejects Cain's, which makes the firstborn son very angry. Yahweh tries to counsel Cain, but gives no explanation for rejecting the offering. Cain then goes on to slay Abel.

There are many speculations as to why Cain's offering was rejected. The most common is that Cain's offering, "the fruit of the ground," was of lower quality than Abel's, "the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof." Since Cain did not offer his "first-fruits," he was rejected. However, if assuming that the brothers are following the Hebrew sacrificial rites laid out in Leviticus, one sees that, according to chapter two of that book, it is not essential that cereal offerings be of the first-fruits. (13)

Perhaps the best explanation for Yahweh's rejection is that he was simply toying with his new creations, a divine experiment to see what would happen if he loved one brother but not the other? Perhaps Yahweh, angered by Eve's defiant cry of creation, decided to take his anger out on the child, cursing him for the perceived transgression of his mother? When counseling Cain, Yahweh gives no explanation for his actions, but simply implies that Cain should accept his decision without argument. (14)

Cain decides to handle things his way in Genesis 4:8, when he lures Abel into the field and kills him. Though Cain's motive appears to be jealousy, revenge against Yahweh seems just as likely. One can almost hear Cain defiantly screaming "Reject me, will you?"

Cain's defiance is further illustrated by his response when Yahweh appears and asks Abel's whereabouts: "I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?" Cain is definitely his mother's son, showing a rebellious streak that his spineless father never had. Where Eve has become the creator, Cain has become the destroyer, both provinces previously assumed as belonging to Yahweh alone. (15) Not only has Cain refused to bow to Yahweh's arbitrary whims, but he has the audacity to lie outright to the Almighty! 

Yahweh seems even more angered by Cain's attitude than by his actions. Yahweh curses Cain, telling him that the ground, which Cain has defiled with his brother's blood, will not longer yield crops to him, and the murderer is sentenced to a life of wandering. Where before Cain was the civilized, settled farmer, he has now, ironically, become a nomad and an exile from civilization. This story may have been created to explain the origin of the Kenites, a nomadic tribe who was often at war with the Israelites. (16)

Cain, cursed to a life of wandering, implies that living the life of a fugitive will leave him open to attack by marauders. Therefore, Yahweh bestows a "mark" upon Cain, in order to protect him, both as a warning to anyone seeking to slay Cain and as a symbol binding Yahweh to fulfill his oath of protection. If Cain is slain, then vengeance will be taken upon the slayer sevenfold, meaning any who slay Cain will also be slain, along with six of his relatives. (17) This also seems to be Yahweh reasserting the right of vengeance as being his alone.

The tale suddenly switches gears when Cain leaves the presence of Yahweh. Cain quickly finds a wife and begins fathering children. This wife, according to some sources, is his twin sister. According to the pseudepigraphical book of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel each had a twin sister. The presence of the sisters further explains Cain's reason for murdering Abel, as Abel was to marry the more beautiful sister, and this made Cain jealous. (18)

Cain then moves on to build the first city, which he names after his son, Enoch. How he was cursed to be a wanderer yet still has time to build a city is not explained, but some sources outside the text say Cain was allowed a period of rest from wandering. (19) The author of the story actually may have been making a commentary on the bad effect civilization has on mankind. (20)

Genesis 4:18-22 contains the genealogy of Cain, which bears many similarities to the names found on the genealogical table of his brother Seth (born after Cain's exile) in chapter five of Genesis. This similarity is believed to be due to the Priestly author borrowing many of the names from the first genealogy to build his own list in chapter five. (21)

Among Cain's descendants are Jabal, "the father of such as dwell in tents"; Jubal, "the father of all such as handle the harp and organ"; and Tubal-cain, "an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron." Thus is Cain not only the ancestor of nomadic peoples, but he is also responsible for civilization and all its trappings: arts, crafts, and technology! (22) Though Cain is a murderer, he has also done much good.

Cain's final fate is never mentioned in the Bible. According to some sources, he was slain by his great-great-great grandson Lamech. While hunting, the blind Lamech was prompted by his son to shoot at a beast with a horn on its brow. Afterward, Lamech discovered he had slain Cain (the horn was apparently Cain's "mark"), and "struck his hands together in grief," inadvertently killing his son as well. (23)

However, in the pseudepigraphical book of Jubilees, Cain dies one year after his father, Adam, when his house falls in on him and Cain is hit with a stone-a final irony being that Abel was allegedly slain with a stone. (24)

Surprisingly, Cain would eventually have his own cult, a second century group called the Cainites. This Gnostic sect venerated Cain as the first man cursed by the cruel God of the Jews. The Cainites also venerated Esau and Judas, and had a "Gospel of Judas." (25)

So what can one make of Cain? In this author's opinion, Cain was pushed into his act of murder by an irresponsible deity. Though Cain is certainly guilty of fratricide, premeditated or not, some of the blame should definitely be placed on Yahweh's shoulders. In addition, taking the narrative at face value, Cain gave birth to the arts, technology, and civilization. One could view Abel's death as a sacrifice to the progress of mankind. The tale of Cain and Abel was probably included in the Bible not only to explain the existence of the Kenites and the triumph of the farmer over the herdsman, but mainly to show that rejecting Yahweh had severe consequences. 

It is this author's conclusion that Cain has been miscast as the villain in this narrative. Though he is rebellious and immoral, he is simply reacting to Yahweh's behavior toward him. Yahweh is the true villain of this tale, as Cain would have borne no ill will to his brother had Yahweh been acting fair and just in the first place. In fact, Cain's story seems to illustrate that one is better off without gods, as he seems to be so once he has left Yahweh's presence: he has a family, builds a city, and fathers a diverse group of talented individuals. The story of Cain and Abel seems to have the underlying message that blind faith is ill-placed.


Asimov, Isaac. Asimov's Guide to the Bible: The Old and New Testaments. New York: Avenel Books, 1981.

Bin Gorion, Micha Joseph. Mimekor Yisrael: Classical Jewish Folktales. Vol I. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.

Boadt, Lawrence. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction. New York/ Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1984. 

Charlesworth, James H, ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Vol 2. New York: Doubleday, 1985.

Fretheim, Terence E. Creation, Fall, and Flood: Studies in Genesis 1-11. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1969.

Gibson, John CL. Genesis. Vol 1. Edinburgh, Scotland/ Philadelphia, PA: The Saint Andrew Press/ The Westminster Press, 1981.

Graves, Robert and Raphael Patai. Hebrew Myths: the Book of Genesis. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc, 1963, 1964.

The Interpreter'sBible. Vol I. New York/ Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1952.

Jackson, Samuel MacAuley. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977.

Platt, Rutherford H, ed. The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden. Cleveland, OH: The World Publishing Company, 1927.

Rosenberg, David, and Harold Bloom. The Book of J. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.

Vawter, Bruce. On Genesis: A New Reading. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc, 1977.


1. Genesis 4:8, King James version. From The Interpreter'sBible, vol I (New York/ Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1952), 519.

2. David Rosenberg and Harold Bloom, The Book of J (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990), 188.

3. John CL Gibson, Genesis, vol 1 (Edinburgh, Scotland/ Philadelphia, PA: The Saint Andrew Press/ The Westminster Press, 1981), 141, 143.

4. Ibid, 143. See also Bruce Vawter, On Genesis: A New Reading (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc, 1977), 91-92.

5. Gibson, 143.

6. Isaac Asimov, Asimov's Guide to the Bible: The Old and New Testaments, (New York: Avenel Books, 1981), 33.

7. Gen 4:17.

8. Gibson, 143-144.

9. Asimov, 34.

10. The Interpreter'sBible, vol I, 517.

11. Vawter, 92.

12. Asimov, 33-34.

13. Gibson, 144-145.

14. Ibid, 145-146.

15. Terence E Fretheim, Creation, Fall, and Flood: Studies in Genesis 1-11 (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1969), 93.

16. Robert Graves and Raphael Patai, Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc, 1964), 96.

17. Fretheim, 99-100.

18. Platt, Rutherford H, ed, The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden (Cleveland, OH: The World Publishing Company, 1927), 52-60.

19. Micha Joseph bin Gorion, Mimekor Yisrael: Classical Jewish Folktales, vol I (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), 15.

20. Fretheim, 101.

21. Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction (New York/ Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1984), 122-123.

22. The Interpreter'sBible, vol I, 522.

23. Graves and Patai, 108. See also Platt, 70.

24. James H Charlesworth, ed, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Vol 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 64.

25. Samuel MacAuley Jackson, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977), 337. See also The Catholic Encyclopediasv "Cainites," <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03143a.htm> (26 Nov 2001).