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Cain, by <a href="/content/Henri_Vidal_(sculptor)" style="color:blue">Henri Vidal</a>, <a href="/content/Jardin_des_Tuileries" style="color:blue">Jardin des Tuileries</a>, <a href="/content/Paris" style="color:blue">Paris</a>
Cain, by Henri Vidal, Jardin des Tuileries, Paris

In the biblical Book of Genesis, Cain [1]Q%C4%81%CC%81]]nd Abel [2] o sons of Adam and Eve.[3] Cain, the firstborn, was a farmer, and his brother Abel was a shepherd. The brothers made sacrifices to God, each of his own produce, but God favored Abel's sacrifice instead of Cain's. Cain then murdered Abel, whereupon God punished Cain to a life of wandering. Cain then dwelt in the land of Nod (נוֹד, "wandering"), where he built a city and fathered the line of descendants beginning with Enoch.

The narrative never explicitly states Cain's motive for murdering his brother, nor God's reason for rejecting Cain's sacrifice, nor details on the identity of Cain's wife. Some traditional interpretations consider Cain to be the originator of evil, violence, or greed. According to Genesis, Cain was the first human born and Abel was the first to die.

Genesis narrative

The story of Cain's murder of Abel and its consequences is told in Genesis 4:1–18 (Translation and notes from Robert Alter, "The Five Books of Moses"):[4]

  • 4:1 – The Hebrew verb "knew" implies intimate or sexual knowledge, along with possession.
  • 4:2 – Abel's name could be associated with "vapor" or "puff of air".[4]
  • 4:8 – "Let us go out to the field" does not appear in the Masoretic Text, but is found in other versions including the Septuagint and Samaritan Pentateuch.[4]
  • 4:10–12 – Cain is cursed min-ha-adamah, from the earth, being the same root as "man" and Adam.


Cain and Abel are traditional English renderings of the Hebrew names. It has been proposed that the etymology of their names may be a direct pun on the roles they take in the Genesis narrative. Abel is thought to derive from a reconstructed word meaning "herdsman", with the modern Arabic cognate ibil now specifically referring only to "camels". Cain is thought to be cognate to the mid-1st millennium BC South Arabian word qyn, meaning "metalsmith". This theory would make the names descriptive of their roles, where Abel works with livestock, and Cain with agriculture—and would parallel the names Adam ("man," אדם) and Eve ("life-giver," חוה Chavah).

The oldest known copy of the biblical narrative is from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and dates to the first century BC. Cain and Abel also appear in a number of other texts, and the story is the subject of various interpretations. Abel, the first murder victim, is sometimes seen as the first martyr; while Cain, the first murderer, is sometimes seen as an ancestor of evil. Some scholars suggest the pericope may have been based on a Sumerian story representing the conflict between nomadic shepherds and settled farmers. Modern scholars typically view the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel to be about the development of civilization during the age of agriculture; not the beginnings of man, but when people first learned agriculture, replacing the ways of the hunter-gatherer.[5]

Cain and Abel are likely symbolic rather than real.[6] Like almost all of the persons, places and stories in the Primeval history (the first eleven chapters of Genesis), they are mentioned nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible, a fact that suggests that the History is a late composition attached to Genesis to serve as an introduction.[7] Just how late is a matter for dispute: the history may be as late as the Hellenistic period (first decades of the 4th century BCE),[8] but the high level of Babylonian myth behind its stories has led others to date it to the Babylonian exile (6th century BCE).[9][10] A prominent Mesopotamian parallel to Cain and Abel is the Sumerian myth of the Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzid,[9][10][11] in which the shepherd Dumuzid and the farmer Enkimdu compete for the affection of the goddess Inanna,[12] with Dumuzid (the shepherd) winning out.[13] Another parallel is Enlil Chooses the Farmer-God,[14] in which the farmer-god Emesh and the shepherd-god Enten bring their dispute over which of them is better to the chief god Enlil,[15] who rules in favor of Enten (the shepherd).[16]

Jewish and Christian interpretations

One question arising early in the story is why God rejected Cain's sacrifice, since Cain never received instructions about how to sacrifice correctly, nor had he done anything wrong, and why God then admonishes Cain with a warning about sin.

According to the Book of Genesis, Cain (Hebrew: קַיִן Qáyin, in pausa קָיִן Qā́yin; Greek: Κάϊν Káïn;[19] Ethiopian version: Qayen; Arabic:قابيل‎, Qābīl) is the first child of Eve,[20] the first murderer, and the third human being to fall under a curse.[21]

According to Genesis 4:1–16 [103], Cain treacherously murdered his brother Abel, lied about the murder to God, and as a result was cursed and marked for life.

Exegesis of the Septuagint's narrative, "groaning and shaking upon the earth" has Cain suffering from body tremors.[23] Interpretations extend Cain's curse to his descendants, where they all died in the Great Deluge as retribution for the loss of Abel's potential offspring.[24]

One popular theory regarding the name of Cain connects it to the verb "kana" (קנה), meaning "to get" and used by Eve in Genesis 4:1 [104] when she says after bearing Cain, "I have gotten a man from the Lord." In this viewpoint, articulated by Nachmanides in the thirteenth century, Cain's name presages his role of mastery, power, and sin.[25] In one of the Legends of the Jews, Cain is the fruit of a union between Eve and Satan, who is also the angel Samael and the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and Eve exclaims at Cain's birth, "I have gotten a man through an angel of the Lord."[26] According to the Life of Adam and Eve, Cain fetched his mother a reed (qaneh) which is how he received his name Qayin (Cain). The symbolism of him fetching a reed may be a nod to his occupation as a farmer, as well as a commentary to his destructive nature. He is also described as "lustrous", which may reflect the Gnostic association of Cain with the sun.[27]

Cain is described as a city-builder,[28] and the forefather of tent-dwelling pastoralists, all lyre and pipe players, and bronze and iron smiths.[29]

In an alternate translation of Genesis 4:17, endorsed by a minority of modern commentators, Cain's son Enoch builds a city and names it after his son, Irad. Such a city could correspond with Eridu, one of the most ancient cities known.[30] Philo observes that it makes no sense for Cain, the third human on Earth, to have founded an actual city. Instead, he argues, the city symbolizes an unrighteous philosophy.[31]

In the New Testament, Cain is cited as an example of unrighteousness in 1 John 3:12 [105] and Jude 1:11 [19]. The Targumim, rabbinic sources, and later speculations supplemented background details for the daughters of Adam and Eve.[32] Such exegesis of Genesis 4 introduced Cain's wife as being his sister, a concept that has been accepted for at least 1,800 years.[33] This can be seen with Jubilees 4 which narrates that Cain settled down and married his sister Awan, who bore his first son, the first Enoch, approximately 196 years after the creation of Adam. Cain then establishes the first city, naming it after his son, builds a house, and lives there until it collapses on him, killing him.[34]

Speculation exists that the ground could play a more significant role in relation to early stories of Genesis, like Adam, Noah, and Cain.

In this alternative reading of the text, the ground could be personified as a character.

The reaction from the ground raises the question, "does the intimate connection between humans and the ground mean that the ground mirrors or aids human action, regardless of the nature of that action?"[35]

In Jewish tradition, Philo, Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer and the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan asserted that Adam was not the father of Cain. Rather, Eve was subject to adultery having been seduced by either Sammael,[36][37] the serpent[38] (nahash, Hebrew: נחש) in the Garden of Eden,[39] or the devil himself.[32] Christian exegesis of the "evil one" in 1 John 3:10–12 [107] have also led some commentators, like Tertullian, to agree that Cain was the son of the devil[40] or some fallen angel. Thus, according to some interpreters, Cain was half-human and half-angelic, one of the Nephilim. Gnostic exegesis in the Apocryphon of John has Eve seduced by Yaldaboth. However, in the Hypostasis of the Archons, Eve is raped by a pair of Archons.[41]

Pseudo-Philo, a Jewish work of the first century CE, narrates that Cain murdered his brother at the age of 15. After escaping to the Land of Nod, Cain fathered four sons: Enoch, Olad, Lizpha and Fosal; and two daughters: Citha and Maac. Cain died at the age of 730, leaving his corrupt descendants spreading evil on earth.[42] According to the Book of Jubilees, Cain murdered his brother with a stone. Afterwards, Cain was killed by the same instrument he used against his brother; his house fell on him and he was killed by its stones.[43] A heavenly law was cited after the narrative of Cain's death saying:

A Talmudic tradition says that after Cain had murdered his brother, God made a horn grow on his head.

According to the Mandaean scriptures including the Qolastā, the Book of John and Genzā Rabbā, Abel is cognate with the angelic soteriological figure Hibil Ziwa[47] who taught John the Baptist.[48]

According to the narrative in Genesis, Abel (Hebrew: הֶבֶל Héḇel, in pausa הָבֶל Hā́ḇel; Greek: Ἅβελ Hábel; Arabic: هابيل‎, Hābīl) is Eve's second son. His name in Hebrew is composed of the same three consonants as a root meaning "breath". Julius Wellhausen, and many scholars following him, have proposed that the name is independent of the root.[49] Eberhard Schrader had previously put forward the Akkadian (Old Assyrian dialect) ablu ("son") as a more likely etymology.[50]

In Christianity, comparisons are sometimes made between the death of Abel and that of Jesus, the former thus seen as being the first martyr. In Matthew 23:35 [108] Jesus speaks of Abel as "righteous", and the Epistle to the Hebrews states that "The blood of sprinkling... [speaks] better things than that of Abel" (Hebrews 12:24 [109] ). The blood of Jesus is interpreted as bringing mercy; but that of Abel as demanding vengeance (hence the curse and mark).[51]

Abel is invoked in the litany for the dying in the Roman Catholic Church, and his sacrifice is mentioned in the Canon of the Mass along with those of Abraham and Melchizedek. The Alexandrian Rite commemorates him with a feast day on December 28.[52]

According to the Coptic Book of Adam and Eve (at 2:1–15), and the Syriac Cave of Treasures, Abel's body, after many days of mourning, was placed in the Cave of Treasures, before which Adam and Eve, and descendants, offered their prayers. In addition, the Sethite line of the Generations of Adam swear by Abel's blood to segregate themselves from the unrighteous.

In the Book of Enoch (22:7), regarded by most Christian and Jewish traditions as extra-biblical, the soul of Abel is described as having been appointed as the chief of martyrs, crying for vengeance, for the destruction of the seed of Cain. This view is later repeated in the Testament of Abraham (A:13 / B:11), where Abel has been raised to the position as the judge of the souls.

The following family tree of the line of Cain is compiled from a variety of biblical and extra-biblical texts.

Various early commentators have said that Cain and Abel have sisters, usually twin sisters.

The Book of Genesis does not give a specific reason for the murder of Abel.

Ancient exegetes, such as the Midrash and the Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan, tell that the motive involved a desire for the most beautiful woman. According to Midrashic tradition, Cain and Abel each had twin sisters; each was to marry the other's. The Midrash states that Abel's promised wife, Aclima, was more beautiful than Awan. Since Cain would not consent to this arrangement, Adam suggested seeking God's blessing by means of a sacrifice. Whoever God blessed would marry Aclima. When God openly rejected Cain's sacrifice, Cain slew his brother in a fit of jealousy and anger.[55][56]The%20Dictionary%20of%20Phras]]abbinical exegetes have discussed whether Cain's incestuous relationship with his sister was in violation of halakha[57]

Muslim interpretation

The story appears in the Quran, in Surah 5, verses 27 to 31:[58]

The story of Cain and Abel has always been used as a deterrent from murder in Islamic tradition.

Muslim scholars were divided on the motives behind Cain's murder of Abel, and further why the two brothers were obliged to offer sacrifices to God.

According to another tradition, the devil appeared to Cain and instructed him how to exact revenge on Abel. "Hit Abel's head with a stone and kill him", whispered the devil to Cain. After the murder, the devil hurried to Eve shouting: "Eve! Cain has murdered Abel!". Eve did not know what murder was or how death felt like. She asked, bewildered and horrified, "Woe to you! What is murder?". "He [Abel] does not eat. He does not drink. He does not move [That's what murder and death are]", answered the Devil. Eve burst out into tears and started to wail madly. She ran to Adam and tried to tell him what happened. However, she could not speak because she could not stop wailing. Since then, women wail brokenheartedly when a loved one dies.[62]Tafsir]]Tafsir]]Tafsir]] different tradition narrates that while Cain was quarreling with Abel, the devil killed an animal with a stone in Cain's sight to show him how to murder Abel.

After burying Abel and escaping from his family, Cain got married and had children.

Some Muslim scholars puzzled over the mention of offerings in the narrative of Cain and Abel.

According to Shi'a Muslim belief, Abel ("Habeel") is buried in the Nabi Habeel Mosque, located on the west mountains of Damascus, near the Zabadani Valley, overlooking the villages of the Barada river (Wadi Barada), in Syria. Shi'a are frequent visitors of this mosque for ziyarat. The mosque was built by Ottoman Wali Ahmad Pasha in 1599.

Legacy and symbolism

Allusions to Cain and Abel as an archetype of fratricide appear in numerous references and retellings, through medieval art and Shakespearean works up to present day fiction.[21] A millennia-old explanation for Cain being capable of murder is that he may have been the offspring of a fallen angel or Satan himself, rather than being from Adam.[39][32][41]

A medieval legend has Cain arriving at the Moon, where he eternally settled with a bundle of twigs. This was originated by the popular fantasy of interpreting the shadows on the Moon as a face. An example of this belief can be found in Dante Alighieri's Inferno (XX, 126[65]) where the expression "Cain and the twigs" is used as a kenning for "moon".

A treatise on Christian Hermeticism, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, describes the biblical account of Cain and Abel as a myth, i.e. it expresses, in a form narrated for a particular case, an "eternal" idea. It shows us how brothers can become mortal enemies through the very fact that they worship the same God in the same way. According to the author, the source of religious wars is revealed. It is not the difference in dogma or ritual which is the cause, but the "pretention to equality" or "the negation of hierarchy".[66]

In Latter-day Saint theology, Cain is considered to be the quintessential Son of Perdition, the father of secret combinations (i.e. secret societies and organized crime), as well as the first to hold the title Master Mahan meaning master of [the] great secret, that [he] may murder and get gain.[67]

In Mormon folklore — a second-hand account relates that an early Mormon leader, David W. Patten, encountered a very tall, hairy, dark-skinned man in Tennessee who said that he was Cain. The account states that Cain had earnestly sought death but was denied it, and that his mission was to destroy the souls of men.[68][69]David%20W.%20Patten%3A%20Ap]]o kill him and take his curse upon themselves (M, 24, SLC, 1963)."[71]

Freud's theory of fratricide is explained by the Oedipus or Electra complex through Carl Jung's supplementation.[72]

There were other, minor traditions concerning Cain and Abel, of both older and newer date.

The author Daniel Quinn, first in his book Ishmael and later in The Story of B, proposes that the story of Cain and Abel is an account of early Semitic herdsmen observing the beginnings of what he calls totalitarian agriculture, with Cain representing the first 'modern' agriculturists and Abel the pastoralists.[74]

Cultural portrayals and references

See also


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