You'd probably try to come up with something that fits the crime. Perhaps Cain should himself be killed to avenge his brother's blood. If you were in a less punitive frame of mind, you might argue that Cain should be forced to experience something that teaches him about the horrors of murder. Or, if you were really in a lenient mood, you might opt for a rigorous community service assignment: Maybe Cain should be required to contribute in some fundamental way to the building of human society.
But God does not choose any of these options. Here is the Almighty's response:
And now: Cursed are you from the ground that has opened its mouth to take the blood of your brother from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer give its strength to you; a wanderer shall you be throughout the land. (Genesis 4:11-12)
God declares that Cain shall be "cursed from the earth," that he shall experience difficulty farming and that he will be a wanderer. But what does any of this have to do with Cain's act of killing his brother?
The verse, of course, supplies an answer. It says that the earth has "opened its mouth to accept" Abel's blood -- and for this reason, Cain shall experience a curse with respect to that same earth. But there's something less than satisfying, at least at face value, with this explanation. One can't help feeling that the ground's role is rather incidental here: It happened to be that Abel's blood fell on the ground and soaked into the earth, but that doesn't describe the essential heinousness of the crime, does it? If Abel's blood had fallen on the kitchen floor instead, would Cain have been cursed through linoleum tiles?
A Focus on Ground
A closer look at things reveals something astir in this text. For some reason, the "earth" is very important in these verses. The ground is not an incidental part of Cain's punishment; it is the essential core of it. Everything that happens to him is phrased in terms of the ground. First Cain is told that he will be cursed "from the land;" then, that when he works the land, it will no longer give its strength to him; and finally, that he will be a wanderer throughout the land. The Torah's focus on land here is relentless, and Cain's anguish in the face of all this is palpable, "My sin is greater than I can bear... here you have cast me away from the face of the earth..." (Genesis 4:13, 14).
Why of all things is Cain's relationship to the ground targeted by the Almighty in response to his act of fratricide? And why is Cain so deeply affected by this?
Cain's Name and His Profession
A clue, perhaps, comes from two things we find out about Cain the moment we are introduced to him. The text tells us his name and his profession. He is called Cain, and he chooses to be a farmer. Curiously these two facts seem to be related.
Cain is not someone merely named Cain, he is Cain; he embodies the word. But what does Cain mean?
We tend to think of names as fairly incidental pieces of information. But in the Bible, that assumption doesn't always hold up. Names are often important clues. When we name people, we try to embody our hopes for them; we try to sum up who we think they are, or hope they will be. All the more so with Cain, for in fact, Cain was never actually named Cain. He just was Cain, "...and Eve conceived and bore Cain" (Genesis 4:1).
Other children in the Bible -- Ishmael, Moses and Samuel, for example -- are given names by parents or by others, but not Cain. In his case, the association between name and identity runs even deeper. He is not someone merely named Cain, he is Cain; he embodies the word. But what does Cain mean?
In Hebrew, Cain's name is kayin. The context suggests, as we will explore a bit more in coming articles, that the name derives from the word kanah, which means acquire.
Cain the farmer works the earth, and Cain the "acquirer" seeks to ground himself in possessions. For both, land -- ground -- is indispensable.
Why Real Estate is So Real
It is no coincidence that people call land "real estate." It is called that because it is the most "real" thing we can have. By comparison, everything else is transitory. Everything else comes and goes. Even we come and go. We die and are gone, but not land. Land sticks around, and having it makes us feel real; it makes us feel anchored to something that lasts.
Cain the "acquirer" has a special relationship to land.
It is here that we come to an interesting difference between Cain and Abel. While Cain comes from the word kanah, acquire, Abel comes from the very opposite. In Hebrew, Abel is pronounced hevel, which means, of all things, breath, or more precisely, the steam that escapes one's mouth on a cold winter's day.
Hevel is a word that appears elsewhere in the Bible. Its most common string of occurrences is in the Book of Ecclesiastes. The word hevel is, in fact, the first word in that book, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity," says Solomon in Ecclesiastes. Except what he's really saying is "hevel havalim." Everything is hevel, everything is breath.
Everything is like breath. It all dissipates. At the great door to the next world you have to leave everything behind you.
What does it mean to say everything is breath? It goes to the very heart of the Book of Ecclesiastes. In that book, Solomon, one of the richest, most successful men to ever live, reveals his anguish -- an anguish that is, ironically, the stepchild of his success. His distress comes from the realization that his achievements will not, cannot, last. Everything, Solomon declares, is like breath. It all dissipates. It all ends with death. At the great door to the next world you have to leave everything behind you.
It is not just that you can't take your wealth or possessions with you. That would be bad enough. But the successful man wants more than wealth. He wants to make a difference; he wants to leave his mark on the world. Here, too, he is frustrated by the problem of "breath." All the rivers flow to the sea, Solomon observes, but it doesn't seem to matter. The sea is still not full. We try to make a lasting impression, but in the end, only one thing lasts, "One generation comes, one generation goes, but the land lasts forever" (Ecclesiastes 1:4).
The earth itself outlasts us. It alone, in the world we inhabit, has the aura of permanence, and by clinging to the earth, we achieve a measure of solace against the great terror of hevel, of breath.
Hevel -- Abel/breath -- dies. Hevel is unattached and transitory; he chooses to herd sheep, but Cain the acquirer attaches himself to the ground -- he becomes a worker of the earth -- and relentlessly seeks to share in its permanence.
And now we come back to the consequences for Cain's act of murder.
If you look carefully, I think you'll find that the three elements of Cain's punishment are closely related. They form a kind of triangle, if you will. The top of the triangle states a principle, and the two sides express how the principle plays out.
The top of the triangle is the general, opening statement that Cain will be "cursed from the land"1 -- that Cain will be separated from the ground. And what is the effect of this separation between Cain and the earth? For that, we look to the two sides of the triangle. The effect is that Cain becomes a wanderer and that he experiences difficulty farming.
We human beings get two basic things from the ground. Firstly, the ground "grounds" us; it gives us a place to be. Secondly, the ground nourishes us. The soil provides us with the fruits and vegetation that we cultivate through agriculture.
Cain related to both these aspects of ground. He cultivated the earth in an effort to partake of its nourishment, and he was the "acquirer," a man seeking "grounding." Now, in both these respects, Cain becomes "distant" -- cursed -- from the ground.
First off, the ground will no longer give him a place to be. He will become a wanderer, unable to settle down anywhere.2 But it is not just in the sense of "home and hearth" that Cain is rootless. Cain's lack of roots expresses itself quite literally in an inability to cultivate roots, an inability to succeed in the great enterprise of agriculture. The second leg of Cain's triangle is that the ground will no longer give its strength to him. It will no longer provide him with the bounty he had sought through farming.
A Divorce from the Earth
For Cain, the impact of this triangle of consequences -- curse "from" the ground, being a wanderer, difficulty farming -- seems less economic than personal. He has been distanced from something that really matters. This, at least, is how Cain himself seems to see it, "My sin is greater than I can bear. Here, you have cast me away today from upon the face of the earth and from Your Face I will hide" (Genesis 4:13,14)
In Cain's eyes, he has been rejected, separated -- divorced, even -- from the earth.
When Cain speaks of being "cast away" from the earth, the Hebrew word is geirashti. Speakers of Hebrew will be familiar with the word. Its other meaning is divorce; the termination of the marriage bond between a man and woman. In Cain's eyes, he has been rejected, separated -- divorced, even -- from the earth. This painful distance expresses itself in the two fundamental ways the earth takes care of us, in its ability to give us a home and in its capacity to nourish us. In both these ways, Cain finds himself at odds with earth.
We have begun to see how the twin portraits of Cain the farmer and Cain the "acquirer" start to merge for a fuller portrait of Cain and the consequences that befall him. But in so doing, we have glimpsed just a part of a much larger and more expansive picture. For in fact, the links between Cain the farmer and Cain the "acquirer" go much deeper than this. Indeed, if we look carefully at these two aspects of Cain, we may begin to discern the answers to the two fundamental questions we raised recently: Why Cain, a man bold enough to bring the first recorded offering to God in the history of mankind, would choose to give merely average produce as his gift. And why the story of Cain seems so eerily reminiscent of the story of Eden.
1 Yes, the syntax is awkward, but in Hebrew, that's exactly what the text says: that Cain will be cursed "from" the ground. The strange phrase can either mean that the ground is the source of Cain's curse, (the one doing the cursing, as it were), or that the effect of the curse is to separate Cain "from" the land. Either way, the sense is that a rupture has occurred between Cain and the ground. The earth is being portrayed in strangely sentient and personal terms, and the implication is that something has gone wrong with Cain's relationship with this being, the earth.
2 Interestingly, the end of the story tells us that Cain settles in the land of Nod, and that he builds a city which he names after his son. At first glance, Cain seems to succeed in subverting his decree of exile. But the place he "settles" in is not really a place; its name is the Land of Nod, a Hebrew term that means "the Land of Wandering." And, as the classic commentator Nachmanides notes, the Torah speaks of Cain's urban construction project -- his building of a city -- in the present tense. The text doesn't say, as you might expect, that Cain built a city and dedicated it to his son, but rather that: Cain was building a city and dedicated it to his son...
Nachmanides suggests that the present tense indicates that Cain never finished the project. He was perpetually "building," starting at one point, then stopping, then starting again, always dreaming the dream, but never able to see the project through to completion. Cain desperately seeks to ground himself -- to make a home for himself, or to build a whole city full of homes, but he is a wanderer. The harder he tries, the more the dream evades him. He is truly rootless, condemned in every sense of the word to a life of complete transience.