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Jewish World Review
The World’s First Murder: A Closer Look at Cain and Abel Echoes of Eden
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!
The third in a series
The story of Cain and Abel seems like a tale that could have happened at any point in history:
One day, two brothers bring offerings to G-d. G-d favors one over the other, and the spurned brother murders the favored one.
For most of us, that's all we need to know. Two brothers become rivals, and the rivalry ends in murder. It hardly seems to matter where in the Bible this story appears. It seems a mere point of trivia that Cain and Abel were the children of Eve; that this story immediately follows the Tree of Knowledge narrative; that not so long ago, Adam and Eve ate from the Forbidden fruit and were exiled from Eden. Yes, all that is true but it all seems incidental. When we read of Cain and Abel, we envision a blank slate, a new chapter in the history of mankind.
But slates are rarely as blank as they seem.
I am going to argue to you that the story of Cain and Abel bears the unmistakable imprint of the story that immediately precedes it, the Tree of Knowledge saga. The Biblical text, in a number of subtle and not so subtle ways, seems to go out of its way to connect these two very different stories. We can wonder why the Torah does this, what it is trying to tell us. We can debate that. But the fact of the connection is, I think, not debatable. For some reason, the story of Cain and Abel is suffused with the memories of Eden. That's just the way it is.
You don't have to take my word for any of this. You can see it for yourself.
Re-read the story of Cain and Abel. But don't just read it in a vacuum. Read it side by side with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden. At face value, the stories couldn't seem more different. One deals with talking snakes and forbidden fruit; the other, with a spurned offering and an act of murder. But look a little more closely. Hidden in the verses of Cain and Abel, you will find a curious abundance of parallels to the story of the Forbidden fruit. Certain key phrases, ideas or events appear in one story, then unexpectedly, re-appear in the next one. See if you can find them.
|THE RABBI RESPONDS|
|Following last week's installment we were again flooded by reader participatory mail! |
Please click HERE for a 20 minute presentation in which the rabbi highlights and responds to a sampling of your exceptionally smart and perceptive questions via Real Audio.
As this series was designed to be interactive, we encourage you to challenge the rabbi. Don't feel shy about doing so! Use the link in the bio at the bottom of this article to e-mail him.
I hope you've taken a few moments to look over both stories. In any case, you've had your chance; I've closed my eyes and counted to ten and ready or not, here I come. I'll tell you what I came up with, and you can tell me if it matches your list.
In the first few verses of the story, nothing obvious reminds us of Adam and Eve in the Garden. But don't get discouraged; keep reading ...
A MISSING PERSONS ALERT
Immediately after Cain kills his brother, G-d addresses Cain with a question:
And G-d said to Cain: Where is Abel, your brother?
One second. That part seems familiar, doesn't it? In the Eden story, there was a question like that, too no? After Adam commits his great misdeed after he eats from the Forbidden Fruit G-d addresses him with a question as well:
G-d called out to Adam and said to him: "Where are you?" (Genesis, 3:9).
In each story, G-d quests after a "missing person". And the quest itself is of a very particular kind. It takes the form of the question "ayeh" where is he? In our earlier set of essays on Adam and Eve in the Garden (the Serpents of Desire series of articles), we mentioned that there are two Hebrew words for "where". The more common one is eiphoh; the less common is ayeh. In each of these two stories, it is the less common, ayeh form of "why", which G-d asks.
What's the difference between eiphoh and ayeh? As I set out in our earlier discussion of Adam and Eve, eiphoh seems to be a more generic "where": A basic request for location. Ayeh, on the other hand, is used when the questioner is less interested in where something is than in why it is not here, where it ought to be. In Eden, it is the ayeh question that is asked: Not where is Adam, but where has Adam gone? What happened to him? And so too, in the story of Cain and Abel, the ayeh question is asked: Not where is Abel, but where has Abel gone? What happened to him?
HIDE AND SEEK
Let's go on. How do Adam and Cain respond to the ayeh question from the Almighty?
Adam, overcome with the consequences of his deed, aware of his newfound vulnerability, states that he has been hiding from G-d:
I heard your voice in the garden and was afraid because I was naked and I hid.
At first glance, we don't find anything comparable in the Cain story. We do not find Cain trying to hide behind any bushes, nor does Cain complain about being naked. But listen carefully to the following two verses, and see if you can't discern in them the echo of Adam's words:
And Cain said to G-d: 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; I will be a wanderer in the land, and everyone that finds me will kill me... (Genesis 4:13-14).
Just as Adam speaks of hiding from G-d, so does Cain: Tucked into Cain's response to G-d is a curious premonition that he is destined to spend his life hiding from the Almighty:
...and from your face I will hide...
Adam hides in the past tense: At a particular point in time, he hides from G-d and then explains to the Almighty that he has done so. Cain hides in the future tense. Having been banished to a life of exile, Cain intuits that he will spend his days in a continual state of isolation from his Maker.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
Besides Cain's premonition that he will hide from G-d, there are other reminders of Eden in the consequences that befalls Cain after he kills his brother.
After having eaten from the Forbidden Fruit, Adam is told that he and Eve must leave Eden, never to return. They are exiled from the only home they know.
But Cain, too, must leave home:
...a wanderer shall you be throughout the land...
Adam and Eve, in the wake of their sin, are forced to leave Eden and make a home for themselves elsewhere. Cain, in the aftermath of his sin, cannot find a home anywhere.
TO BE CURSED FROM THE GROUND
In addition to perpetual exile, the Almighty imposes one more curse upon Cain. Henceforth, Cain's efforts at farming will meet with frustration.
And now: Cursed are you from the ground that has opened its maw to take your brothers blood from your hand. When you work the land, it will not continue to give its strength to you...
Once, again, we seem to be transported back to the Eden story. It is not just Cain who experienced difficulty farming at the behest of the Almighty. Adam, too, in the aftermath of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, had found himself hearing very similar words from G-d:
Cursed is the land on your account; in toil will you eat form it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles will it grow for you, and you will eat the grass of the field. By the sweat of your brow will you eat bread... (Genesis 3:17-19).
Adam is told that he must wrest his sustenance from the ground; Cain is told that although he works the land, it will no longer give its strength to him.
So now let's add it all up.
- Both Adam and Cain hear the Divine question: "Ayeh?"
- Both Adam and Cain express fear, and hide from G-d.
- Both Adam and Cain suffer exile.
- Both Adam and Cain are condemned to experience difficulty in farming.
Clearly, the Cain story is filled with the imagery, language and ideas that animate Adam and Eve's banishment from the Garden. Somehow, Adam and Eve's experience in Eden is gone but not forgotten. Somehow, the silent presence or absence of the Garden continues to dominate and define the lives of those who have long since left its confines.
The mystery behind these connections goes a little deeper, though. For there is more to these connections than immediately meets the eye...
A GROWING INTENSITY
A pattern seems to weave itself into these four connections. The elements are not simply repeated from story to story; rather, each element expresses itself a little differently when it reappears a second time. There is a pattern to these differences. Can you find it?
- "Ayeh". In the Garden of Eden, G-d seeks the whereabouts of a temporarily missing person (Adam). In the story of Cain and Abel, the person He seeks (Abel) is gone for good.
- Hiding. In the immediate aftermath of his sin, Adam hides from G-d momentarily. Cain, on the other hand, intuits that he will spend his life hiding from G-d; that he will do so perpetually in the indefinite future.
- Difficulty Farming. After eating the Forbidden Fruit, Adam would have to wrest bread out of the ground "by the sweat of his brow". He would have to work to till the land, he would have to fight weeds and thorns but at the end of the day he would have his bread. Cain, on the other hand, is told that even if he works the land with mighty toil, "it will not continue to give its strength to you". Cain will experience a fundamental loss of agricultural potential. The land simply won't produce what it once did anymore.
- Exile. Before eating from the Tree, Adam and Eve called paradise their home. Now, they would have to leave these idyllic environs, to build a new home elsewhere. Cain, too, suffers exile, but of a different magnitude altogether: No matter where he seeks to build his home, the land will not graciously offer him shelter. Not only must he leave home, but he will never be able to call anyplace his home.
In each of these four examples, the response to Cain's wrongdoing seems to be a more intense version of Adam's experience. Whatever happened in the wake of Adam & Eve's eating from the Forbidden fruit, happens again after Cain murders Abel but when it happens a second time, it happens with greater force and impact. Each of these connecting elements intensify in the story of Cain.
What is the Bible telling us here?
A TENTATIVE THEORY
At the very least, it seems that these stories are connected. But the fact that the consequences intensify from story to story suggests more, I think, than some sort of mere casual connection between the narratives. It suggests that there is a progression going on. It suggests that failure in Eden sets the stage for Cain and Abel. It is as if you could place the two stories Adam and Eve in the Garden, and Cain and Abel on successive steps of a ladder. When you face the challenge of the Garden and fail, that sets up a new challenge a challenge that is a "next" step on the same ladder. The consequences for failure in the second challenge are rightfully the same as they were at the earlier level, only that they are felt more intensely.
All of this, of course, is easy to say but what does it mean in real life? Why would a story about eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil set up a story about sibling rivalry, spurned sacrifices, and murder? If the Cain and Abel story is about offering the wrong thing to the Almighty; if it is about the inability of two brothers to get along; if it is about the terrible fruits of jealousy what does this have to do with the choice to eat from a mysterious tree that G-d put off-limits? How, really, are the challenges faced in one story in any way similar to the challenges faced in the other?
Somehow, the questions which Cain faces what kind of offering to bring to G-d; whether to invite Abel for a menacing stroll in the field are born, somehow, of Adam's decision to eat the Forbidden Fruit. Our challenge will be to figure out how this is so.
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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
New at jewishexplorations.com: Listen to Rabbi Fohrman discuss the Book of Jonah! The first of his three lectures on this maddeningly perplexing story is now available, free of charge, in streaming audio.
The enigmatic genius of Cain,
A Closer Look at Cain and Abel
Sure, the Bible is holy, but does it really mean anything?
© 2005, Rabbi David Fohrman