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Jewish World Review
The World’s First Murder: A Closer Look at Cain and Abel
Rabbi David Fohrman
To sophisticated moderns, the Bible can sometimes seem like a collection of fairy tales. No longer.
Combining a careful reading of the text with ancient rabbinic analysis, the author takes us behind the scenes in Scripture, revealing a startling tapestry of meaning in stories that many have written-off as fiction.
As before, he has designed the series to be interactive. You are encouraged to pose questions and offer comments. Try to stump the rabbi he'll respond!
There are lots of legitimate questions we can ask about the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. But I'm going to begin this discussion of the episode by asking you a question that I consider to be wrong-headed and misleading. The question, I think, is based on a fundamental misreading of the text. But I'm going to ask it anyway.
Why would I do such a thing? To be perfectly frank, if I thought I could get away with ignoring the question, I would. But I don't think I can. The question is too obvious and too troubling. My guess is that most people who look at the Cain and Abel story are immediately bothered by some shape or form of this question. So we might as well talk about it. If we don't, you'll just think I'm avoiding it.
To see the question, we need to briefly summarize the story we are looking at. Here's a thirty-second snapshot of the narrative followed by my best, devil's-advocate-style rendition of a question I don't really believe in:
Cain and Abel, children of Adam and Eve, each bring offerings to the Lord. The Almighty expresses pleasure with the offering brought by Abel, but not with that brought by his older brother Cain. Cain becomes very upset. Shortly afterwards, he kills his brother Abel.
Well, class, there's more to the story than that, but why don't we stop here for the time being. Let's go around the room: Is everyone here happy with this story?
I see a lot of shaking heads.
OK. What's wrong with this picture?
To be sure, the story doesn't leave you with that warm and fuzzy feeling inside. But what's really jarring, though, is not Cain's act of murder. We know from experience that human beings are capable of doing really bad things. What's really jarring at least at first glance is the pattern of behavior embarked upon by the Almighty.
Cain brings an offering and G-d turns away from it to favor Abel's gift instead. Abel's gift was nicer and prettier, perhaps, than Cain's. The text suggests as much, telling us that Abel brought "from the first of his flocks and from their choicest", while we hear no such detail about Cain's offering. But a little voice inside us asks insistently: Why does G-d have to reject one and accept the other?
Imagine, for a moment, the scene: You're the mommy, and Bobby and Debbie, your sparkling, wonderful children, are both working on some surprise homemade birthday presents for you. They've got their colored pencils out, and are busy creating custom art projects for you. Soon enough, they are done, and each comes over to display their work. Debbie walks over first. She proudly shows you her colorful, detailed drawing. She points to the hills, to the sunset, to the little cabin by the stream next to the trees. And she presents the picture to you with a gleam in her eyes: "Here, Mommy ... its your birthday present!".
Next, its Bobby's turn. Bobby's drawing isn't as detailed. It hardly has much color, and the people who inhabit the landscape of his drawing are mostly stick figures. Bobby looks at you expectantly, and now its your turn to speak.
What do you do?
Every parent in the world knows what to do. You smile, you look at Bobby, you look at Debbie, and then you say: "My, what beautiful pictures you children have made for me!". And you smother them with love and appreciation.
And what happens if the kids are insistent? "No, Mommy, really!", they squeal, "tell us which painting you like better!". What do you do then?
Well, you know the drill: "I think they are both wonderful", you say, as convincingly as possible, as you shoo them off to bed; "they are each beautiful in their own way!".
And what do we think of the parent who doesn't take this approach? Imagine a parent who gently praises Debbie for her meticulously drawn houses, for the carefully chosen hues of green she used for the grass and flowers. But then she turns to Bobby and her expression changes as she surveys the choppy lines and scribbles. She exclaims: "Oh, Bobby! What kind of drawing is this? You call these people? They are barely stick figures. And that's a sunset? Please; I can barely see the sun. Come on Bobby, look at what Debbie made for me. Now there's the way to use your crayons!"
This is not what most of us would call good parenting. Its the kind of thing, we would worry, that's going to put Bobby on the psychiatrist's couch for many years later down the road.
So now let's look at the Cain and Abel story. Both Cain and Abel offer their "presents" to G-d. And G-d doesn't smile and say "my, they're both so wonderful!". Instead, G-d rejects Cain's offering and accepts Abel's.
But I thought parents aren't supposed to do that.
What's going on here? In the story of Cain and Abel, don't we have a classic case of Bobby and Debbie on our hands? What are we to make of the fact that G-d dismisses our intuitive parenting advice? Is the Bible trying to disabuse us of our "modern" notions of parenting in favor of something more stern and unforgiving?
BOBBY AND DEBBIE, REDUX
Before giving you my solution to this problem, allow me to make matters worse for a brief few minutes. Let's get back to Bobby and Debbie, for a minute, and ask: What happens next?
Imagine you were Bobby and Debbie's mother, and when your two children had each presented their respective gifts to you, you had inexplicably disregarded that basic rule of parenting, and had favored Debbie's gift over Bobbie's. Now, a half hour later, you walk by Bobby's room and find him weeping softly into his pillow. You ask him what's the matter and he turns to you and whimpers, "You told me you didn't like my present..." and then comes the kicker, something my child has tried on me one or two times. He says: "Mommies aren't supposed to say things like that to their kids ...".
How would you react to Bobby's plaintive cries?
Instinctively, most parents even those who had initially favored Debby's gift would be unable to resist the sight of a weeping Bobby. Most of us would recognize the error of our ways, would scoop Bobby into their arms and apologize for having turned our back on his gift. You're right, we'd tell him, Mommy loves you and I'm so sorry for not accepting your gift the way I should have. We'd apologize; we'd tell Bobby we'd had a hard day at work, we weren't paying enough attention; we'd tell him it won't happen again; we'd tell him just about anything in our desperate attempt to make things right.
But that's not how it happens in the Cain and Abel story.
Just after G-d rejects Cain's offering, and immediately before Cain murders his brother, the Almighty speaks to Cain. But G-d does not soothingly tell Cain that everything will be just fine, that his offering really was pretty good after all. Instead, G-d challenges Cain, asking him whether he really has a right to be angry:
Why are you angry and why has your face fallen? Is it not the case that if you do well, then lift up! And if you don't do well, then, sin lies crouching at the door....
What's going on here? What if the parent who had accepted Debbie's gift but not Bobby's had told the weeping Bobby that if he had done better everything would be just fine; that he should just get over it. Most of us would be ready to pick up the phone and call Social Services. But, how then, are we supposed to come to grips with the Almighty's words to Cain?
And now, dear reader, the ball is in your court. I mentioned before that I felt that the questions I am asking here are not really legitimate. Its my view that the analogy to Bobby and Debbie is faulty and misleading. If you re-read the story of Cain and Abel carefully, I think you should be able to spot the flaw; you should be able to see why Bobby and Debby's sorry plight actually has little indeed to do with the story of Cain and Abel.
You've got a week to think about it.
I'll see you then.
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Rabbi David Fohrman teaches Biblical Themes at the Johns Hopkins University, and directs the Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Studies. His intriguing talks on a wide array of Biblical themes are available on tape and CD at jewishexplorations.com
Sure, the Bible is holy, but does it really mean anything?
© 2005, Rabbi David Fohrman