The Story of Cain and Abel in the Bible Explained

The Story of Cain and Abel in the Bible Explained

Who are Cain and Abel in the Bible?

Cain and Abel are Adam and Eve’s first two sons, according to the biblical Book of Genesis. Cain, the eldest, was a farmer, and Abel, his younger sibling, was a shepherd. The brothers offered offerings to God, but God preferred Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s. Cain then murdered Abel out of jealously, and God punished Cain by subjecting him to a life of wandering. Cain then settled in the land of Nod (נוֹד, ‘wandering’), where he constructed a city and fathered the line of offspring that began with Enoch.

In the biblical book of Genesis, Cain and Abel are the sons of both Adam and Eve—the very first humans according to these stories. Adam and Eve having been created by God indicate that Cain and Abel are the very first humanely conceived beings.

The oldest prophet Cain would grow up to become a farmer while his younger brother Abel would become a shepherd. It’s understood that like most brothers, they had their fights and quarrels, but for the most part they loved each other.

Cain and Abel Choosing their Sacrifice to God

Cain and Abel Choosing their Sacrifice to God

One day Adam and Eve told that children to show gratitude to God they would need to perform a worthy sacrifice, something special that would please their Lord. Abel immediately chose one of his best newly born Lamb to offer up to God, and though it was important to him, he believed that giving it over to God was far more important than keeping it for himself.

When Cain learned about his brother’s selfless sacrifice, he was puzzled. He told Abel that he should sacrifice something far less significant, after all, he was going to sacrifice some old, dried fruit that he was planning on getting rid of anyway.

Other interpretations indicate that Cain was going to merely sacrifice some extra straw they had lying around—but Abel was insisting on offering up his most treasured lamb, something in which Cain scoffed at.

Why his brother was going to give away something so cherished was beyond him. But both brothers stuck to their guns and would go to present their respective sacrifices.

The Acceptance of Abel’s Sacrifice

The Acceptance of Abel’s Sacrifice
2-R41-B35-1860 (135792) ‘Die Opfer Cains und Abels.’ Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Julius 1794-1874. ‘Die Opfer Cains und Abels.’ 1.Mose 4,4-5 Holzschnitt, sp‰tere Kolorierung. Aus: Die Bibel in Bildern, Leipzig (Georg Wigand) 1860, Bl.12. Berlin, Slg.Archiv f.Kunst & Geschichte. E: ‘The Sacrifices of Cain and Abel’ Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Julius 1794-1874. ‘The Sacrifices of Cain and Abel’. (Genesis 4,4-5). Woodcut, coloured later. From: The Bible in Pictures, Leipzig (Georg Wigand) 1860, page 12. Coll. Archiv f.Kunst & Geschichte. F: ‘L’Offrande de CaÔn et Abel.’ Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Julius 1794-1874. ‘L’Offrande de CaÔn et Abel.’ 1∞ MoÔse 4,4-5. Gravure sur bois, coloriÈe post. TirÈe de : La Bible IllustrÈe, Leipzig (Georg Wigand) 1860, f. 12. Berlin, coll.Archiv f.Kunst & Geschichte

In the book of Genesis, God is stated to have lived with favour upon Abel sacrifice but did not look with favour upon Cain’s—well it doesn’t seem to appear to be a vivid description from the passage as to how God made it clear he was more satisfied with one offering than the other, some interpretation of the tale uses fire to represent this.

The idea is that Cain and Abel placed their offerings into a fire. Abel’s lamb burned up in the fire and the flames roared as the sacrifice was consumed, but when Cain placed his offering into the fire, the sacrifice merely smoldered and the fire itself died down. By this telling, it’s understood that Abel’s sacrifice was well received by God because of the magnificent way in which had burned.

On the other hand, Cain’s sacrifice did not burn in such a way. This implies that it was not as worthy as Abel’s.

Cain grew jealous. He couldn’t see the logic behind why God had preferred Abel’s sacrifice over his. He grew angry at his brother, and it would lead him to become consumed with venomous thoughts—those of which led him to sin.

Cain Killed Abel

Cain Killed Abel

Cain led his brother out into the fields one day and struck Abel, killing him. Immediately, Cain realized what he had done but he wasn’t so concerned with the loss of his brother but more so the consequences he might face. He buried his brother in the earth so that no one would find it and went about with his day as if nothing had happened.

It was around the same time that God appeared to Cain and asked him where his brother was. Cain lied to God, claiming he didn’t know before infamously muttering, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’. But God knew the truth about what had happened and challenged Cain, demanding to know how he could be so hateful and how he could take his own brother’s life.

Cain’s Punishment

Cains Punishment - Land of Nod
Cain fleeing before Jehovah’s Curse, by Fernand-Anne Piestre Cormon, c. 1880

The realization of what he had done struck Cain so much so that he fell to the ground sobbing. God would not be so lenient with his punishment though. He condemned Cain, making it that the grounds he worked would never yield crops

It’s possible that this was also a metaphor, that whatever Cain would attempt to do in his life from this point on would have resulted in failure, or that God specified farming as far being most Cain’s profession and perhaps his purpose. Without a purpose, Cain would have nothing.

God doesn’t stop there though, he further condemns Cain to be a restless wanderer of the earth, furthermore, denying him any peace for what he had done. Cain would declare that the punishment was too harsh, and he could not bear such a faith. He also expresses his concern that if he is to wander the earth, he would not be safe and possibly killed.

But God had an answer for that too and declared that none in the world would kill him because they would suffer vengeance seven times over. He marked Cain so that none would kill him, not to protect him but so that none could end his suffering of being outcasted, denied, and ultimately shunned from God’s divine glory.

The Moral of the Story of Cain and Abel

Cain, 1896, by Henri Vidal, Jardin des Tuileries, Paris

The story of Cain and Abel demonstrates the old idea that there cannot be good without evil—Abel being the good and Cain being the evil.

It subscribes to the idea that sin or wrongdoing is a part of life and serves to show us that even if we live our lives as honourably and benign as Abel, evil will always have an effect on us. Whether this is a gradual evil that inflames Cain to kill his brother or the evil act itself, which sees Abel become a victim too.

It takes a look at sibling rivalry, showing us how far jealousy and envy can push someone, that they would even murder their brother if only to console their feeling of unworthiness.

You might even say that this story shows us how ejection and betrayal can cause someone to become malevolent and hateful, in that Cain appears to have loved God as well, perhaps not as much as Abel but then after he bothered to sacrifice something in the first place.

He could have chosen to ignore God altogether, but his outrages at how God favoured Abel shows us that he must have cared what God thought. This rejection from God—a rejection that comes without reason in Cain’s eyes—is perhaps the catalyst that turns him toward his dark path.

Being rejected is disappointing in itself but being rejected without reason is perhaps even more maddening. However, you might also argue that Cain only sacrificed anything because he was told to by his parents and his outrage towards God’s favouring of Abel isn’t because he cares about God but because his younger brother outperforms him in this task or is seen as more worthy, thus causing him shame.

Some may even see a correlation between the tragic story of Cain and Abel and real-life relationships, at least in terms of jealousy. For example, Cain becomes angry that God favoured Abel and demonstrates clear signs of jealousy, similarly to how one might react if they were trying to impress someone, only to be overshadowed by someone else.

Jealousy is something we’ve all likely experienced at some point in time, whether romantically or otherwise. So, I think it’s accurate to say that all of us can at least understand Cain in this respect.

Whilst most of us would probably not kill the other person for outshining us or denying us what we believe was meant to be for us, we may at one point, or another have harboured some resentment for that third party or at least imagined killing them. Either way, Cain certainly acted wrongly in the killing of his brother, and we can see that in the magnitude of his punishment.

The mark placed on Cain by God that prevents him from being killed by another, not only ensures his suffering, but some might say serves to remind us that evil should not be repaid with evil.

Those who came across Cain might have wanted revenge—revenge for having gone against God and causing the pain that he had caused—but upon knowing that they’d receive God’s vengeance Sevenfold, it would spare them a moment to think about whether it was worth it until they perhaps realized that killing Cain would only cause more suffering for, they too would be judged.

But what do you think about the story of Cain and Abel? Can you relate to Cain’s outrage? Or do you think that he deserved what he got?

Art Credit: Rubendevela, AKGImages.

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