Understanding Sin and Evil #2: Cain and Abel – An Oracle of Sin

Thank you to the wonderful Mariana Gil Hammer for the transcript of this episode. 

Hello, and welcome to another episode of Understanding Sin and Evil, Episode 2: Cain and Abel, an Oracle of Sin. Now, if you haven’t listened to the first episode, which was a story of Adam and Eve called The Origin of Sin That Wasn’t, I highly recommend that you go back and listen to that episode before listening to this one. You can understand this episode on its own, but you’re going to miss a lot if you don’t listen to the first one beforehand. 

So let me talk a little bit about how this podcast series will continue. In the last episode, you heard an explanation of the Adam and Eve story in the Bible before the layers of interpretation that we get to later, and what the plain text meaning of that story is in its biblical context.

This episode, we’re going to be talking about the story of Cain and Abel again, in its biblical context, even though I will sometimes bring in some later interpretation when it is relevant or when it’s just too interesting to ignore. Then in the next episode, we will be talking about later interpretations of both these stories. 

The Cain and Abel story includes the first explicit mention of sin that we get in the Hebrew Bible. 

But for some reason, and we’re going to talk about that later as well, this story did not resonate particularly in the Second Temple Period. It resonated later, but not in the Second Temple Period, not much. After the next episode — when we talk about how the Adam and Eve story was interpreted in the Second Temple Period and immediately after the Destruction — after that episode we’re going to be going back to the biblical text and we’re going to be talking about Genesis 6 (Bereshit vav), verses one to four, what becomes the Watchers myth in the Second Temple Period. And then we’re going to be spending quite some time talking about how the Watchers myth plays out in different Second Temple interpretations. 

But now let’s turn to our text. I will mainly be using the NJPS translation, but I’m going to be changing it liberally when it’s not that close to the plain meaning of the text. And I will also be talking about certain cases where you might see a very different translation in your Bible. So, let’s turn to our texts. And luckily enough, this picks up right where we left off last time: right after the expulsion from Eden, we have the conception of Cain and Abel, or as I will call them Kayin and Hevel. So I’m starting with chapter four. 

Now Adam knew his wife Eve and she conceived and bore Cain saying, I have acquired a man with the Lord. (Gen 4:1)

So, the word that she’s using for acquired is kaniti, hence Kayin. I have acquired a man with the Lord. Now this wording sounds peculiar to us, but it expresses two different things. First of all, we have to have the name Kayin in there somehow. So we need the word kaniti, acquired. But besides that, what is this expressing?

This is expressing the first human birth. How does a woman feel? She’s given birth. There has been no birth before, she has made a man with God, right? She’s made a person. Wow. At the same time, it’s kind of hubristic, it’s kind of prideful for her to say that. And that’s a little bit of a foreshadowing of what’s going to happen to Kayin later, it is a kind of pride. And then she has another child and she continued to give birth. She bore his brother Hevel and here we have no explanation of the name Hevel. Frankly, we, who know the end of the story, don’t need an explanation of the name Hevel because Hevel means a breath or vanity — something that is gone in an instant. So if you are familiar with Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) that “vanity of vanities all is vanity.” The phrase there is hevel havalim, vanity of vanities.

So that’s the name that she gives her second child. So we know he’s not going to be around for long. Returning to our text: and Hevel was a sheep herder, and Kayin was a worker of the land. 

If you remember, or any of you have seen the musical, Oklahoma, “the farmer and the cowman should be friends.” So, we have that kind of basic conflict here where Hevel herds sheep and Kayin works the land, and it’s not going to end well. 

In the course of time, Kayin brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil. And Hevel also brought from among the firstborn of his sheep and from their fat and God “listened” to Hevel and his offering, but to Kayin and his offering he did not heed. And Kayin was very upset and his face fell. (Gen 4:3-5)

Now in the plain meaning of the text it’s not quite clear why God listens to Hevel and not to Kayin. And it’s not even clear really what that means. One would assume that both of them asked for something and only Hevel got what he wanted and Kayin did not get what he wanted. And that’s how they knew their offering was accepted.

In rabbinic tradition, you know that your offering is accepted if the smoke goes straight up to heaven. So according to rabbinic interpretation, Hevel saw that his smoke went straight up. He knew that his sacrifice was accepted. Kayin saw that his smoke did not go straight up. His offering was not accepted. Why would this be? Well, there is a hint to the answer, even in the plain meaning of the text. And of course this “hint” becomes very prominent in later interpretation: In terms of Kayin, even though he brings an offering first, the text simply says that he brought of the fruit of the earth, regarding Hevel it says that he brings the first born of his sheep and their fat. It sounds like Hevel made an effort to bring the best and Kayin just brought. So that of course becomes prominent in later interpretation, which tries to explain why Hevel was listened to and Kayin was not, that is, why Hevel’s offering was accepted and Kayin’s offering was not.

But what’s important for us in this series really is what happens next:

And the Lord said to Cain, why are you distressed? And why is your face fallen? Surely if you do right there is uplift. (I’m going to explain that in a minute.) But if you do not do right, sin crouches at the door, it’s urges toward you, yet, you can be its master. (Gen. 4:6-7)

Now, because this is the first time we have a statement about sin in the Bible, an explicit statement about sin that needs a lot of unpacking, I’m going to go into depth looking at this statement. 

Why are you distressed? Why is your face fallen? This is clear enough. Surely if you do right, or if you do good, se’et: there is uplift. I actually really like that translation for se’et: uplift. It’s simply, something’s going to be lifted up. What is going to be lifted up? In later interpretation what is lifted up is sin. If you do right, your sin will be lifted away from you. Now, I actually tend to side with the medieval commentator Ibn Ezra right here. Ibn Ezra says, what’s the context of the “uplift”? It comes right after the question: Why has your face fallen? Now, your face can fall. And it can also be lifted. If God lifts your face it means that God accepts you. God shows you goodwill. So, God is saying, why is your face fallen? If you do good, it will be uplifted. I’m going to accept you. I’m going to show you favor.

And if you don’t do good, sin couches at the door: “lapetach chatat rovets.” What does the word rovets mean? Here it’s translated as “couch.” I like to use the word crouch, but “couch” is actually closer — rovets really it does mean to lie. It’s a word that’s usually used specifically for animals, animals lying in the field, animals lying in their pens. So sin here becomes animalistic, like an animal it’s waiting for you at the door, kind of lying there at the entrance. And it desires you, its urge is toward you — it desires you and you shall rule it. Now, what does this juxtaposition remind us of? This reminds us of Eve’s curse. Do you remember the curse for Eve? God said, you will desire your husband. And he will rule over you.

And in this case, it is sin that desires Kayin and therefore Kayin will be able to rule it. Because if you recall what we discussed last time, the “rule” seems to be that if you are desired, you can rule, you can control the thing that desires you. Now, it’s pretty obvious what an early interpreter would think, right? You have a really nice parallel and it’s the same words, the same verbal construction. It’s exactly the same. Ve’elecha teshukato ve’atah timshal bo (and to you is his desire and you shall rule him) — it’s exactly the same construction. So what is the parallel again? Sin desires Kayin and Kayin can rule it. Eve desires Adam and Adam can rule her. Woman desires man, man can rule her. So it’s not that surprising that there’s this idea that grows, at least in interpretation, that woman equals sin. Woman is sin because in the last chapter, who desires man? Woman desires man, and who does man rule? Woman. And here, sin desires man, and man can rule sin.

However, let’s go back to the actual text. There’s no parallel made explicitly here. Here, God is just talking to Kayin. There’s no woman involved. There’s just sin. Okay. Now interestingly enough, the word for sin here seems to be a feminine word, but the the verbs that are used and the possessive pronouns that are used are masculine. So in other words, when the text says couches, it’s rovets, not rovetset, so it’s masculine. And “to you is his desire/its desire,” the plain meaning is “his desire,” not using the feminine. Whereas we would have actually expected the feminine, because it’s using a feminine form of the word for sin, it’s using chatat and not chet. So that’s an interesting note, that’s actually taking us away from that interpretation of the woman being sin. 

What is important to understand here though, Is that even though sin is being described as this animalistic being that lies in wait if Kayin does not do well — in other words, it is kind of threatening because sin desires Kayin– but because sin desires him, Kayin can control it. Kayin does not need to sin. Kayin has some kind of control over sin. 

The question remains, what is sin? Because it’s really being described as kind of an animal. What does it mean? That is really not explained here, but we have several important pieces of information. Apparently it waits for a person who doesn’t do good. And even if it waits for a person like an animal, that person can still control it. 

At any rate, Kayin does not listen. So the very next thing that happens is — well, it’s not quite clear. I’m now reading from the Hebrew Bible: vayomer Kayin el-Hevel achiv vayehi biheyotam basadeh. I’m going to translate that. “And Cain said to Hevel his brother… and it was when they were in the field.” (Gen 4:8)

Now, if you’re following along in a Christian Bible or even a study Bible, you may have read a different verse. And that verse would have said as follows: “and Kayin said to Hevel his brother let’s go to the field. And when they were in the field, Kayin set upon his brother Hevel and killed him.” Now we do have the Cain set upon his brother and killed him in the Hebrew Bible. But what is not in the Hebrew Bible is that statement: “let’s go to the field.” The Hebrew verse is clearly missing something because the phrase in the Hebrew verse isn’t “Kayin spoke to Hevel.” It’s “Kayin said to Hevel his brother.” And we don’t know what he said. So why do you, if you’re following along in a different Bible, why do you have the statement “Let’s go to the field”? Because the Septuagint, which is a Greek translation of the Bible, which was the basis of the Vulgate, which itself was the Christian Latin translation of the Bible, which was in turn the basis of many English Bibles, has that insertion. And I am calling it an insertion. It’s what’s considered a secondary insertion. 

Why is that a secondary insertion? You say, well, maybe it dropped out. And the answer is because it makes sense for someone to put it in, to make the text work more smoothly. We’re missing a piece – he says something to Hevel. One would assume that he says something that explains a little bit about what’s going on. Right? He says something to him. And then suddenly they’re in the field. 

Now earlier during the Second Temple Period when Jews were a little freer with biblical texts, and we have several versions of the Bible from that time, one of those versions became the basis of what we call the Masoretic text, which is the text that Hebrew Bibles use today, and one of the other versions became the basis of the Septuagint, the Greek Bible. I’m oversimplifying here, but this is enough for our purposes.

The basis of the Greek Bible tended more towards what’s called harmonization, towards smoothing problems out. So we have some missing words here and they’re clearly missing. So it makes sense for someone to say, okay, look, I don’t have new information to add, but we can smooth this out. What did Kayin say to Hevel? Well, the next thing we know, they’re in the field, so Kayin said to Hevel let’s go to the field, problem solved. Now we have what he said, they’re now in the field and Kayin kills Hevel.

However, in the Hebrew Bible, this problem was not solved. The words are missing, and they stay missing: “And Kayin said to Hevel his brother. And it was when they were in the field and Kayin set upon his brother Hevel and killed him.” (Gen 4:8)

I’m going to add a little bit of the interpretation that is added later to try to fill in what’s missing.

What did he say? So we have, for example, rabbinic Midrash, which is a kind of interpretation that either explains words or sometimes fills in the missing pieces of the biblical text. There’s a very famous Midrash. The Midrash gives three explanations for what Kayin could have said to Hevel. It says, what were they talking about? One came to the other — remember these are the only two sons of Adam and Eve — so they can split the entire world.

So, they say, let’s split the whole world. One of them took all the land and one of them took everything that was on the land — the movable things. Well, once they split the world that way, one of them said, the land that you’re standing on is mine. And the other one says, yeah, well, the clothes that you’re wearing are mine. So, the second one says strip. And the first one says float! And they got into a fight and Kayin killed Hevel. 

Another explanation the Midrash gives is that they split the world, but the fight is about whose section the temple would stand in. And they got into a fight, ending in Hevel’s death. 

And then the third explanation of their argument that the Midrash gives is that there was a twin, a woman that was born with Hevel. They both wanted this woman, she’s the only available woman on earth. You know, they’ve got their mother and this woman who was born with Hevel, as his twin. And Hevel said, she’s my twin. I get her. And Kayin said, I’m the first born. I get her. So they get into a fight and Hevel got killed. 

And then Nechama Leibowitz, who explained many medieval commentators as well as Midrash, has this great explanation that the Midrash is actually making a broad statement about humanity through these different opinions regarding the argument that led to Hevel’s death. So in the first opinion they argue over land versus moveable property. In other words, they argued about possessions. Second, that they argued over in whose portion the temple would be built. And the third opinion is that they argued over a woman, Hevel’s twin, regarding who would be able to marry her.

So what’s the bottom line — what does this mean? What is the root of violence and murder in the world? The root is greed over property, religion, and lust. And these are the sources of violence in the world. 

I am now leaving the world of later commentators and coming back to the plain meaning of the text. So Kayin killed Hevel. And if we’re just reading the plain meaning of the text, we don’t know exactly why, but it seems that it’s because he was upset about Hevel’s sacrifice being accepted and that his wasn’t, and he hadn’t listened to what God said about calming down and being good. 

So the next thing we know: the Lord said to Kayin, where’s your brother Hevel? And he said, I do not know, am I my brother’s keeper? (Gen 4:9)

Now this is also supposed to ring a bell with us because in the ancient Near East, that was exactly what you were as an older brother. If you were an older brother, you were supposed to be responsible for the safety of your younger brother. So, in other words, the first listeners to the story, or the first readers of this story would say, “of course, you’re your brother’s keeper! Oh my God!” 

Just to give you an example, we’re all familiar with the Joseph story. And when Joseph is sold, his brothers come back and what do they do? They bring his coat soaked in blood and they show it to Jacob (Yaacov). They show it to Yaacov and Yaacov says, “oh, surely he has been eaten by a wild animal” (Gen 37:33). Joseph has been torn apart and eaten by a wild animal. What they’re doing is very similar to what the shepherd has to do in Exodus, Shemot 22:12, where a shepherd is responsible for the sheep in his care, but if the sheep is attacked by wild animal, it’s considered kind of an act of God — the shepherd wasn’t supposed to risk certain death in order to save the sheep. So he brings the bloody carcass, whatever’s left of the sheep, to the owner of the flock. And he shows it to him. And then the owner of the flock says “Oh, okay. I understand you are not responsible for this sheep.” 

That’s what Joseph’s older brothers were doing. They were saying, look at this coat, it’s soaked with blood. We are free of responsibility for Joseph’s death. And they have to do this because everyone knows that an older brother is responsible for the younger brother. So we’re kind of supposed to know that too. 

When Kayin says, am I my brother’s keeper? Am I my brother’s guard? We’re supposed to say, of course you are, you immoral jerk. But he’s essentially ignorant of this basic rule of ethics. 

So then God says to him: what have you done? The sound of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. (Gen 4:10)

The blood is soaked into the ground and the blood is crying out to God from this tremendous injustice.

Therefore, you shall be cursed from the ground or of the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. (Gen 4: 11) Here, we have a punishment that fits the crime because you forced the ground to soak up your brother’s blood. You will now be exiled from the ground. How can that even happen? It explains “for if you work the soil, it shall no longer yield his strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.” (Gen 4:12)

So how will Kayin be exiled from the land, from the ground that had to soak up his brother’s blood? Remember that he was a farmer. He can no longer be a farmer. Not only can he no longer be a farmer, he can’t stay in one place. Because he can’t be a farmer, he’s going to have to wander around. Now, we’re coming to another important statement for how we think about sin, and part of the reason it’s an important statement is because of how it’s interpreted later — not in the Second Temple Period, but later than that: 

Kayin said to the Lord, my sin is too great to bear. Since you have banished me this day from the soil, and I must avoid your presence and become a restless wanderer on earth, anyone who meets me may kill me. (Gen 4:13-14)

First, I will say that some of the early interpretations ask: what does this mean, my sin is too great to bear? They say in the Talmud and other rabbinic interpretations that this is Kayin repenting. This is him doing teshuva. He is repenting now. And because he’s saying my sin is too great to bear, he finally realizes the weight of his sin.

The reason that we have this interpretation, which says he’s doing repentance, is because it explains avoni, literally meaning my sin, avoni, is too great to bear. So what does that mean? Certainly the way we would think of sin later on is that I can’t stand the thought of my sin anymore. I am repenting of my sin. I can’t walk around with a sin on me. 

However, in the plain meaning of the verse as a whole, Kayin himself explains what he means. He says: you have exiled me. So what Kayin is saying is: You did not punish me with death. You punished me with exile. You exiled me from the face of the Earth and I have to hide from Your face. And apparently what that means is that God’s not really going to protect him. God’s not going to watch over him. And I’m going to be wandering the earth with no one at my side, either to protect me or to avenge my death. Anyone who meets me can kill me with impunity. 

In other words, Kayin is saying that the punishment from God is exile, but what it’s actually going to be is death. I can’t bear this punishment because I’m going to be killed. And what is the answer? So the Lord said to him, therefore, if anyone kills Kayin. (Gen 4:15) Now again, in the Hebrew texts, it’s “therefore,” lachen, but the Greek text translates as if the Hebrew were lo ken, not so, so if you see in your Bibles the phrase “not so” instead of “therefore” here, that’s because it’s relying on the Greek text. But either way, the basic meaning is going to be the same:

God says, “Therefore, anyone who kills Kayin, sevenfold vengeance shall be taken on him.” And the Lord put a mark on Kayin lest anyone who met him should kill him. Kayin left the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. (Gen 4:15-16)

(The question is, how can Kayin settle anywhere? We’ll talk about that a little bit later.) 

So what is happening here? In fact, we’re used to the idea that the mark of Cain is a terrible thing. But the mark of Cain in the verse is supposed to protect Kayin. He has a mark, so when people see it, they say, “Oh, that’s Kayin. And God promised sevenfold vengeance on anyone who kills Kayin. So I’m not going to kill him.” That way, Kayin’s punishment stays the way it is, as a punishment of exile and not death. Now some of you might wonder, well, why isn’t the punishment death? After all, later on in the Bible the punishment for killing on purpose is death. Yes, you have to prove that the killing was on purpose to deliver the death penalty. But in theory, the punishment for killing intentionally is death. So why isn’t Kayin killed? 

And the answer would seem to be, if we’re simply following the way the biblical story is constructed, that the punishment of death for killing a person is not decreed until after the flood. We’re going to read that later on, but it’s after the flood that this rule is set, that anyone who kills a person will pay with his life, and that law has not been established yet. So right now, Kayin’s punishment is that he’s just going to be wandering around, because he made the ground soak up his brother’s blood. So then Kayin “knew” his wife and she conceived and bore Chanoch, Enoch. This isn’t the famous Enoch of later, it’s a different Enoch. Just don’t get them confused. 

And he then founded a city and named the city after his son, Enoch. (Gen 4:17)

Why did Kayin start a city? Because he can’t work the land. If you’re not a farmer, what are you going to do? Well, you’re going to have to be in the city. 

And what’s interesting is that then his descendants do things that don’t have to do with working the land. His descendant (through Lamech) is Yaval, the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and have cattle (Gen 4:20) — that is, nomadic shepherds and cowherds, not farmers. And Yaval’s brother Yuval (4:21) is the ancestor of all who played the lyre and the pipe — musicians — and Tzillah, Lamech’s second wife, bears Tuval Kayin, who forges all implements of copper and iron (4:23). None of them work the land. They all find jobs that don’t have to do with working the land, because Kayin is no longer a farmer. That’s just an interesting aside. It’s interesting in terms of the way the text is presenting the choices when someone is exiled from the land: what can he possibly do?

Okay, so what have we seen here? We’ve seen an actual explicit statement about sin to Kayin (4:6-7), that is said to come from God Himself. God has made a statement about sin. 

Now what is interesting is that this statement about sin does not get picked up in Second Temple Literature. Now, when I say Second Temple Literature, we have to remember that what we have of Second Temple Literature is only a fraction of what there was. We have the Dead Sea Scrolls because they were lucky enough to survive in a fairly arid climate and some of the scrolls were very well protected, but there are surely many, many, many texts we do not have. Then we have the books of the Apocrypha, and the Pseudepigrapha, but we’re missing books that existed. 

So, it could be that there were books that didn’t stop talking about this statement to Kayin. This statement to Kayin does become a proof text in the later rabbinic literature (including in the Aramaic Targum) to explain sin and repentance, understanding the verse as saying that God says if you do good, then your sin will be lifted from you. And in rabbinic interpretation, the verse saying that you can control sin is referring to the evil inclination. So you can control your evil inclination, and you just have to repent and then you’ll be forgiven of your sin. And this is considered a major proof text about sin in rabbinic literature. But this statement is not picked up earlier in Second Temple literature, for example, in the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

One possible reason that God’s statement to Kayin is not used or interpreted in the Dead Sea Scrolls is that the people at Qumran considered themselves righteous, and a statement made to a sinner is not particularly relevant to them. Rabbinical literature frequently portrays Kayin as repentant when he says that “my sin is too great to bear” — his sin is too great to bear, he repented. And therefore, according to rabbinic literature, we can learn about repentance from Kayin. And because he repented, God mitigated his punishment a little. But at Qumran, they did not use this interpretation and had no reason to see Kayin as a penitent. Kayin is a murderer, so why learn from him about sin? 

Now there’s one or two places in the Dead Sea Scrolls where they use a similar construction to “sin’s desire is to you,” but instead sin’s desire is to X, and X is a sinner, a bad guy. There’s two places where you can find that construction in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and both times, they are using it for wicked people. In other words, sin’s desire is to wicked people. And so, it seems like they read this verse to be talking about how sin works for wicked people. And hey, if you’re righteous, why do you care how sin works for wicked people? We might care a little bit, because wicked people are annoying and maybe possibly dangerous, but in general what you care about is your sin, and how you fight your desire to sin. 

So we’re going to talk more next week about how the Adam and Eve story is interpreted in the Second Temple period. We find a bit of a hint to it in the book of Ben Sira, and then we find it very prominently in a couple of books that are written right after the destruction of the Second Temple. And we’re going to discuss those texts and why the idea of sin from Adam would become such a prominent idea of sin after the destruction, while during the Second Temple period itself it is almost ignored. So we’re going to be talking about that next week. 

Until then, thanks for listening, and please feel free to comment on my blog at UnderstandingSin.com!

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