The first reading today is from Genesis 4 and tells the well-known story of Cain and Abel. Did you notice that the whole idea of bringing an offering to God is Cain’s idea; Abel just follows along. Nonetheless, God’s reaction to Cain is unexpected, unexplained and negative: “The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not.” The most popular reason for God’s reaction is that Cain, even though he brought gifts first, brought just some of his harvest, whereas Abel “brought one of the best firstlings of his flock.” Given that other places in the Bible have expressions for bringing the best of the harvest, the assumption is that Cain held the best back for himself.
The Lord speaks to Cain: “Why are you so resentful and crestfallen. If you do well, you can hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door: his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master.”
Is the Lord speaking about the failed offering and explaining why he didn’t accept it? Is God warning him about future challenges (sin lurking at the door) and offering encouragement? Probably both are true, but as we know sin wins and Cain sets down the path to murder his brother. Why?
The first and most common answer is Cain was jealous. Such a reason appeared 2 centuries before Jesus in the Book of Jubilees (4:2), a non-canonical writing. The theme of jealousy also appears in the story of Joseph and his brothers, so it is not unknown to the Bible. The historian Josephus writing in the 1st century AD (Antiquities 1:53-55) agrees but adds that “Cain was both most wicked in other respects and, looking only to gain…”
Cain-as-evil-incarnate appears in the retelling of the story in the apocryphal writing, The Life of Adam and Eve, a Jewish apocalyptic work from the early 1st century AD, the author writes of Cain’s evil disposition upon his birth. The midwife read sign of his evil disposition at the moment of birth and later in a prophetic dream:
Eve told Adam, “My lord, Adam, in my sleep I saw that the blood of my son Abel was pouring into the mouth of Cain his brother, and he drank it without mercy. And Abel beseeched him to leave him (a little) of his blood, and he did not agree to hearken to him but he drank it completely … and it could not at all be removed from his body.” (Life of Adam and Eve 23:1–3)
The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan, a sixth century Christian work (likely reworking a Jewish original), retells the story of Cain and Abel at great length. In this version, Adam rather than his sons give God the first offering, and Cain does not even participate, whereas Abel does so with great reverence. Abel’s piety brings on Satan’s hatred, who then turns to the wicked brother to get him to kill Abel.
Jerusalem Targums (mid to late 1st millennium C.E.) muse that the murder was the result of a theological argument gone awry and turned deadly. In the argument, Cain denies the existence of God; Abel defends God. In the end, Abel is the first martyr for the faith.
In the end we can speculate about the reasons behind this first murder. In the here and now we need to be clear about the motivations for our sin. It is in that clarity that we can see the path of redemption and reconciliation.
Image Credit: Orazio Riminaldi, Cain and Abel, 17th century
Insights from David J. Zucker, “Why Did Cain Kill Abel?”, TheTorah.com (2020).