In the fourth chapter of Genesis, we encounter one of the most curious stories in the Blessed Old Leather-Bound Bible. This is the story of Cain and Abel, the divinely-inspired account of the first murder. Here are the first sixteen verses from the NRSV:
“Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying ‘I have produced a man with the help of the LORD.’ Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.’
“Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the LORD said, ‘What have you done? Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.’ Cain said to the LORD, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.’ Then the LORD said to him, ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.’ And the LORD put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.”
The remaining ten verses of the chapter account for the descendants of Cain, including Enoch, who built a city and named it for his son (also Enoch), Irad, Mehujael, Methushael, and Lamech, who by means of his two wives Adah and Zilla whelped Jabal (the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock), Jubal (the ancestor of harpists and oboists), and Tubal-cain, who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools. The chapter concludes with an account of the birth of Seth to Adam and Eve, declared by the latter to be a divinely-appointed replacement for the unhappy Abel, and the peculiar observation that “at that time people began to invoke the name of the LORD.” (Hadn’t they already been doing that?)
This curious chapter includes mention of several of the most salient features of the life of middle-eastern agriculturalists/pastoralists living in small villages during the Bronze and early Iron Ages. The age-old tension between those who farm the land and those who graze herds on it is probably captured in the story of Cain and Abel, as it is in “The Farmer and the Cowman”.
Like all the myths of Genesis, this one contains some gems of instruction and echoes of species memory but quickly turns ludicrous when people insist on reading it literally, as fundamentalists do. I’ll just point out a few of the many problems encountered by reading it that way:
1) Since the first manufacturer of bronze and iron tools lived seven antediluvian generations after Cain, what kind of tools did Cain use to till the soil? Sharpened sticks? (For that matter, what did Adam use to till the garden of Eden and keep it, as recorded in Gen. 2:15?)
2) Cain “brought to the LORD” an offering from his agricultural labors, and Abel an offering of “the fat portions” of the firstborn of his flock. “Brought to” is spoken from the perspective of the one to whom something is brought; for any other perspective we’d need to use the verb “took.” To where, exactly, did Cain and Abel take their offering? Were they already worshiping at a family shrine that the author of Genesis 4 neglected to mention? Did the priests of Yahweh who wrote this story overlook the fact that their priesthood, according to the story, had not yet been established? Isn’t God everywhere? Why the need to take an offering to him? Why not just kill it and let it lie where it drops, for Yahweh to do with as he will?
3) Speaking of that last: if sheaves of wheat and barley are “brought to” the LORD and left to sit overnight alongside “fat portions” butchered from young lambs, guess which one’s going to disappear by the time the sun rises. Is that the sign that “the LORD” has accepted one offering and not the other?
4) What kind of God would accept the best Abel had to offer but not the best Cain had to offer? Is that the kind of God that’s going to judge the world at the End of Days? Jesus Christ. I mean that literally.
5) What’s that opaque saying about “sin lurking at the door” supposed to be about? Is that a pious interpolation by a much later scribe who was troubled by his furtively hidden masturbatory tendencies or something?
6) For whose benefit did Cain’s son Enoch build a city, if there were fewer than a dozen people living on the whole planet at the time?
7) There are two glaring problems with the story of Jabal. On the one hand, if he was the ancestor of all those who live in tents and have livestock, why were people living in tents and keeping livestock after Noah’s flood, since all of Jabal’s descendants were drowned in that flood? On the other, how does one account for the fact that Abel was a keeper of livestock seven generations before Jabal?
8) A similar objection can be raised with respect to Jubal, the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe. I’m an oboist; does that make me a descendant of Jubal?
Notice that I didn’t even bother bringing up the shopworn conundrum of where Cain got his wife. Even without that enigma, everything about this story is patently made-up, and those who take it as history are deluded and intellectually stultified. I don’t find that a bit funny. I wish fundies would stop doing that. It’s embarrassing – and more: when I consider the sheer volume of human brain power squandered on nonsense, the awful scale of wasted human potential, I have to stifle the urge to burn as many gasoline-soaked Bibles as I can lay my hands on.
Understand, I speak hyperbolically. Like most atheists, I ain’t the book-burning type. That’d be monotheists.