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The Enigmatic Genius of Cain The World's First Murder, Part 2

The Enigmatic Genius of Cain The World's First Murder, Part 2

The story of Cain and Abel is not a simple scenario of sibling rivalry.


In considering the Bobby and Debbie scenario I outlined last chapter, some would argue that the Almighty made a "parenting mistake" here. Such a view is rather in vogue lately among contemporary interpreters. In Bill Moyer's nationally televised discussion of Genesis, for example, a fair number of participants were inclined to take this perspective. But the implications of this view are dramatic and harsh, and we might as well be clear about them.

First, it is a tricky business to ascribe errors in judgment to the Almighty. To do so is quite likely heresy from a theological point of view. But even if heresy doesn't scare you, from a simple rational perspective, it seems preposterous to suggest that the Creator of All lacks basic wisdom about parenting. It just is very hard to swallow that the Master of the Universe is less sophisticated about parenting than, say, Dr. Spock or the self-help guru who showed up last week on Oprah to hawk her book.

Evidently something is rotten with this comparison to Bobby and Debbie. Somehow God's acceptance of Abel's offering and His rejection of Cain's was not like mommy's preference of Debbie's pretty picture over Bobby's stick figures. Why?

Let's go back to Bobby and Debbie, for a moment, and try to isolate the parenting "sin" that takes place when Mommy tells her kids whose painting she likes better. What exactly is she doing wrong?

Why My Kids Hate Playing by the Rules of "Boggle"

The great sin, I think, lies in Mommy's stated or implied comparison of Bobby to Debbie. When Bobby and Debbie compete for Mommy's love, when they ask whose painting she likes better, that question is a trap. The question, even if asked in the spirit of childhood innocence or playfulness, pits two siblings against each other in a terrible battle for the love and approval of their creator. If the parent buys into this game; if he or she agrees to play referee in this great game of combat, he or she has failed before even saying a word. The terms of play are themselves rotten.

it is wrong to judge one kid using the other as a benchmark.

This is not to say that it is wrong for Mommy or Daddy to evaluate their kids, or to give or withhold approval -- only that it is wrong to judge one kid using the other as a benchmark. The essential point of illegitimacy here is the false sense of competition: the fact that Debby becomes the measuring stick by which Bobby is judged; the fact that, as a result, neither Bobby's nor Debbie's acts are really being seen as valuable in and of themselves, but only insofar as they measure up or outshine the accomplishments of the other.

There is a game we sometimes play around the table with our kids. It is a word game by the name of "Boggle." In Boggle each player looks at a grid of letters and has sixty seconds to identify a list of words that emerge from contiguous letters. There is a rule in Boggle that all my kids universally hate. The rule is that if all the players around the table have discovered the same word, no one gets any credit for it. Every kid is supposed to just strike those words from their list; they simply don't count.

Now from a strictly utilitarian point of view, this rule makes a lot of sense. It simplifies the process of keeping score. But it's the message behind that rule, I think, which draws my kids' ire. The message is, "What you found, what you discovered, doesn't count if your brother Bobby found it too." Your acts don't have inherent worth or value; they can be "canceled out" by what your siblings do or don't do.

Did Cain Get Compared to Abel -- or to Himself?

Now let's look at the story of Cain and Abel, this time, reading it a little more carefully. Ask yourself, Why did God reject the offering brought by Cain? Let's read the text and see what it tells us about each brother's offering:


And in the process of time it happened that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering to the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the first of his flocks and of their choicest ones. And the Lord turned to the offering of Abel, but to Cain and his offering He did not turn. (Genesis, 4:3-5)


Look carefully here. The text does say that Abel took "from the first of his flocks and from their choicest ones," whereas with Cain we hear no such detail, only that he brought "of the fruit of the ground." The implication is that Abel offered the best of what he had, whereas Cain simply offered some of what he had -- average produce, produce that didn't stand out as either the best or worst of what he had.

But ask yourself this deceptively simple question:

When measured against each other, which offering was of a higher quality?

Nowhere is there evidence to suggest that Abel's offering was worth more or was superior to Cain's.

You might be tempted to answer that it was Abel's -- Abel brought the better stuff. But the real answer is: We simply don't know.

Nowhere is there evidence to suggest that Abel's offering was worth more or was superior to Cain's. We know that Abel offered the best of what he had, whereas Cain offered simply some of what he had -- but we don't know how one offering stacked up against the other. It is entirely possible that Cain's offering was worth more; that his "average" stuff was of a higher quality than the best of what Abel had. We just don't know. The bottom line is: Abel brought the best he could; Cain didn't. Each brother is not compared to the other, but to himself. What he did is being compared to what he could have done.

If Bobby and Debbie both show up with pictures for Mommy's birthday, and Mommy discerns that Debbie did the best she could with the picture, while Bobby's picture looks like something he threw together while watching The Simpsons, it is entirely appropriate for Mommy to note this fact. It doesn't matter that Bobby might be the better artist; that, at an art auction, Bobby's absent-minded doodles might fetch a greater price than Debbie's carefully crafted sunset. All that is irrelevant. If Mommy senses that, relative to his own talents, Bobby presented her with something nondescript, she is entitled to feel that something is not right, and to make her feelings known.

All of which brings us to a very important question: Why did Cain do what he did? If you're going to bring an offering to God already, one would think that one would bring the good stuff. What exactly was Cain thinking?

The Enigmatic Genius of Cain

In our mind's eye, I think we often construct an inaccurate portrait of Cain. One tends to think of Cain as a grudging imitator of Abel. We imagine, perhaps, that Cain saw his brother bringing an offering to God and, not wanting to be outdone, Cain figured he would play along. His heart wasn't really in it though, so he didn't bring the best of what he had.

Cain was the originator -- the first person in the history of the world to bring an offering to God.

But in reality it didn't happen like that. It wasn't Abel who had the brainstorm to bring the first offering -- it was Cain. Cain was the originator -- the first person in the history of the world to bring an offering to God.

It seems strange to say so, but this fact alone qualifies Cain as a kind of spiritual genius. Whatever else one may think of the notion of offerings to God, one thing is sure -- the idea has stood the test of time. A wheel may seem simple and obvious, but its inventor is a genius. Cain, too, was a kind of genius -- he began something, and hundreds of religions representing millions and millions of people have followed suit.

All in all, this makes Cain a much harder figure to peg.

How are we to understand a man who introduces the idea of offerings to the world -- but then, when he actually brings this first of all offerings, brings nondescript, average produce? If you are an innovator, you are not likely to be the kind of person who does things halfway. Why does Cain, the bold inventor of offerings, not bring the best of what he has to God? Cain's genius is enigmatic indeed.

In broad terms, I think this is perhaps the central challenges the Bible puts before us here: How are we to decipher Cain? Like it or not, the story is not really about Abel. He just gets killed, and we know nothing more of him. It is Cain whose legacy endures. It is Cain whose acts and thoughts are the focus of our story. It is Cain the Torah is asking us to try and understand.

A Question of Placement

Our quest to make sense of this story can be helped, I think, by pulling back our zoom lens and getting a broad, landscape view of our narrative. Here's a bit of homework, if you will: Let's take some time to look at the broad context in which our story appears. Is there any meaning in the fact that the Cain and Abel story appears in the Bible precisely where it does?

On one level, there doesn't seem to be anything remarkable about the placement of the story. It comes right after the episode of Adam and Eve in the Garden, presumably because that's when it took place. The narrative appears here because that is its rightful place in the chronology of events. Right?

Well, yes. But sometimes, chronology isn't everything. The links between juxtaposed Biblical stories often run far deeper than the incidental fact that one story happened right before or after another. Stories that appear next to each other in the Bible often shed light on each other in surprising ways.

Is that the case with the Cain and Abel narrative? Is the story of mankind's first murder connected in any essential, meaningful, way to the events that precede it -- namely Adam and Eve's experience with the Forbidden Fruit, and their subsequent banishment from Eden?

Re-read the story carefully, and see if you can find any clues. We'll talk again next week.


1) It is true, of course, that the Bible itself speaks of God "regretting" having made mankind. But the Bible also speaks of the "outstretched arm" of God, and few of us are willing to concede that God has arms. The Bible uses anthropomorphism with reference to God now and then, speaking of the Almighty -- a Being whose essence we cannot begin to understand -- in human terms that we can understand. When the Bible does so, though, we are getting just a faint approximation of reality. Whatever God's "arm" means, it doesn't mean a structure composed of bone and flesh that God uses to eat his dinner with. And whatever God's "regret" means, it doesn't mean the fairly prosaic emotion that afflicts us mortals when we realize we've made a boo boo. The regret of an all powerful, all-knowing being is of a different nature altogether, and its true meaning is shrouded in mystery.




This series is excerpted from Rabbi Fohrman's new book, "The Beast that Crouches at the Door: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Beyond." To purchase a copy visit or visit

November 10, 2007

Article 2 of 16 in the series World’s First Murder

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Visitor Comments: 17

(17) carol UK, November 25, 2007 3:37 PM


I found these articles to be really interesting and thought provoking. Especially regarding the parallel made between the parent's garden and the children's offerings.

It strikes me that the first sin of Eve and Adam is to do with fruit of the ground. They did not say sorry or appear to repent. Nevertheless the undeserved chessed of G-d covered their shame with animal skins.

Cain's offering may have been an attempt to bargain by offering the fruit of the ground (that the Almighty caused to grow) back to G-d....maybe to attempt to get back into the garden or to reverse the punishment?? But he was offering the subject of the previous conflict - fruit of the ground. Perhaps in a form later known as carved wooden idols or similar?

Abel however, may have noted that G-d did the first sacrifice and shed blood and covered his parents and (therefore covered him)with innocent skins. As he offered the same sacrifice (blood and skin) he was in essence acknowledging his sin and using the remedy that G-d himself had prescribed. He was therefore offering repentance as a sacrifice, as simple worship. relying upon the character of G-d to keep his soul while in the exile from the garden.

This was not like Cain, who appears to be asking for a bargain to avoid the punishment. He was not acknowledging his sin nor the need of repentance and trust in the chessed of G-d.

It shows us that it is what our heart's view of the character of G-d. This shows it is our own judgement of G-d which is shows up here. Not so much His judgement of us. He is always the same. We are the ones that don't understand!!!

(16) Dvirah, November 19, 2007 1:50 PM

Reply to Emilio Alvarez

The rebellion of Satan/Lucifer against G-d is a purely Christian concept. According to Jewish belief Angels do NOT have free will and are therefore unable to rebel against their Creator. Even Satan, if he exists at all, can do only what he was constructed to do.

(15) Pepe, November 17, 2007 2:57 PM

I wonder, what made Eve leave Adam and G-d's commandments.

I wonder from the beginnig of this story.What made Eve turn her face away from G-d and His commandments and leave her husband Adam and pay attention to the shrewest talking snake? I wonder for thousand of generations Why Eve turned her face from G-d's beuty? that He fixed for her eyes so she could know Him. For thousands of thousands of generations I wonder What God's snake showed her that made her stand-up by herself and walk-streching her hands to take the snakes' offer, yeit she gave to her husband. I wonder too Why? God curesed His snake, if the snake was only acting according to it's nature.

(14) Aryeh Kahn, November 13, 2007 1:09 PM

a suggested solution and a correction

Well done, Rabbi "Inspector" Fohrman for re-opening the case of the first murder. And interestingly what has drawn so much attention to these files is that it is not a whodunnit, but a whydunnit. Kayin was a complex man. So hopefully, we'll offer at least one solution!
A slight correction may be in order. In the article it says that Kayin gave "average" produce. However, Rashi tells us that Kayin actually gave the worst of his produce. This may prove one of the keys in this case.
Now, let's ask a question. Why bring an offering at all? What kind of gift after all can you possibly give to the Almighty who literally has everything?! True, gratitude can be a motive for giving a gift. However, gratitude is also expressible by prayer or praise which when sincere are even more meaningful expressions of gratitude. What is the unique message of a gift? I suggest that a gift reveals the level of trust in G-d a person has. After all you only give up what you can afford. So why do this?
The story of Kayin is really after the sin of eating from the tree was corrected with the decree of death and expulsion from the Garden. And there are intriguing parallels - Kayin also had a decree of death and expulsion. Perhaps, then, Kayin also had a motive of correcting the sin of eating from the Tree with his offering. For legally, since G-d had forbidden the fruit of the tree, the fruit belonged to G-d and was stolen from Him. An appropriate response then is to recognise that injustice by giving fruit of ones crops to G-d. In other words it was a form of repentance. However, what is strange in this repentance is that it was done with the worst crops. This cannot be accidental for Kayin was making a big, bold and original statement.
The plot thickens as we see that Kayin had a two fold response to G-d's choice of offering. Kayin got angry, and his face fell. Anger, while never correct, is understandable as jealousy, but why did his face fall? I suggest that his face fell indicates that Kayin was depressed – that he was disconcerted that a specific plan of his had been thwarted. And furthermore why did Kayin kill Hevel a'h? Surely since the Almighty had upset Kayin, a much more appropriate response would rather have been to have taken up his grievance with the Almighty! It's apparent then that Kayin regarded Hevel as having more than just having brought a classier offering. I suggest that Kayin was attempting to use his offering to define the terms of relationship between man and the Almighty. When Kayin saw that the Almighty picked Kayin's offering it was apparent to Kayin that the Almighty had picked a different set of terms of relationship than Kayin had wanted. Accordingly, to force G-d's hand Kayin killed Hevel so that Kayin's terms of relationship would have to be accepted.
Kayin's story then comes after the story of the fruit of the tree because it mirrors it. Hava ate from the tree for doubtless many reasons, however, chief among these was surely that Hava lacked faith in G-d's ability to give one everything that one needs and felt she had to act because there were chas veshalom limits on what G-d could do. Similarly, Kayin did not give of his best to G-d because he too lacked faith and felt perhaps especially after the expulsion that man had been partly abandoned by G-d and man crucially needed to provide for himself. Accordingly, Kayin was setting up a structure where man and G-d operated in separate and somewhat distant spheres. By contrast in Kayin's eyes with his offering Hevel threatened the sustainance of man and so Kayin took the advice of the Talmud and rose up and killed Kayin first.
So in conclusion, Kayin's story comes after the story of the fruit because the story of the fruit helps explain Kayin's story. Okay, chaps, over to you – what do you think of all this?!!

(13) bob, November 12, 2007 12:24 PM

substutution sacrifice

When God made coats of skin for Adam and Eve, he was only following the judgement that he had warned of at the beginning. Genesis 2.v17 ---Of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of thereof you shall surely die.
It is obvious that they didn't die, but why?
In gen 2v8 God was walking in his garden and challenges them, and rebukes them for their rebellion. He ends up making them coats of skin. Obviously he didn't just wave a magic wand and hand them a pair of nice sheepskin coats, (an easy task for the creator of the universe), he was demonstrating a principle. The judgement would still be carried out, only it would be on a defenseless pair of sheep, with a knife he undoubtedly carried for that purpose. He took the skins of the animals and put the bloody covering over the two rebels to make clear that judgement was still served but by substitution. This is the origin of atonement. It is clear that cain and abel knew very well what the offering was all about.
Note that Abel kept a flock of sheep, but they where vegetarians.
God warned Cain that without the blood covering he would be an open target for satan. The story illustrates this.

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