The book of Genesis continues its history of the way the world works with the story of Cain and Abel. The foreshadowing begins right away when we realize that Abel’s name in Hebrew (Hevel) means “nothingness”. This is not a man who will go far in life.
The jealousy between the two brothers seems to be a feud that American historians should know well. The farmer, Cain is envious of his brother the rancher. God seems to approve of the herder rather than the gift of the farmer. Verses 6 and 7 have a cryptic oracle from God to Cain that seems to warn the man about his state of mind when Cain’s offering is not accepted. The oracle seems to indicate that if you do wrong, you should strive to do better, because if you don’t, then sin is waiting to pounce on you to rule over your life. You can overcome sin but the implication is that you should not tangle with sin at all. Cain pays no heed to this oracle and in a truncated verse 8, where it is unclear the situation that caused the two brothers to be together, Cain kills his brother.
God immediately calls Cain to task for killing Abel but we have to pause here for a moment. What exactly is Cain’s crime? Since no person in the world had died yet, there is no reason to think that Cain understood what “killing” was all about. How can Cain commit murder if death was unknown in his world? Still God needs to do something about this taking of a life. After all, Abel’s blood “cries out to Me from the ground.”
There are Bible critics who wonder why God asks Cain about the whereabouts of his brother. After all, doesn’t God know everything? God knows what Cain has done. Why does he ask Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” As I have said many times, when the Bible asks a question like this, it is also asking us, the readers, to answer this question. We can say that this question is one of the central questions in the Book of Genesis. Over and over, the stories of this book deal with the relationship between brothers. Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. We can also see that, since this particular story is about the first brothers, that the question can be as broad as “Where is your brother human being?” Cain’s famous answer, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” has an obvious and direct answer, “Yes” we are responsible for each other. Not just in our family but in the family of human beings.
The punishment of Cain is that he will never settle down but wander his whole life. This is a serious punishment for a farmer. What follows is a genealogy of Cain, one that includes the first city, the first man to take two wives, the first nomadic herder, the creation of musical instruments, the inventor of copper and iron tools, and the first man to kill another in a fight. This genealogy indicates that Cain’s line is a “dead end” for humanity. There will be a new genealogy beginning with Cain’s younger brother that will lead to the great heroes of the Bible.
Bible critics also fault this chapter when Cain and his family marry women; the question asked is where do these wives come from? Adam and Eve have only three children. Cain, Abel (who dies) and now Seth. If God created Adam and Eve as the first human beings, where does Cain find a wife for himself and for his son? The Bible has no answer for this question because it is not interested in being a history of the world. It is a chronicle of the moral education of humanity. There is much that goes unanswered in the Bible because the explanations are not important to moving along the themes that the Bible wants to teach. Cain’s killing of his brother leads to more killing. That is a dead end for humanity. The chapter then rewinds and goes back to Adam and Eve who give birth to another son, and this one’s lineage will hold out hope for humanity in a way that Cain’s lineage does not. The birth of Seth’s son, Enosh marks the beginning of religion in the world as “men began to invoke the Lord by name.” The name they start to use, interestingly, is the four letter unpronounceable name of God.