I sometimes try to think of the original story tellers of Ancient Israel. I imagine them sitting with their herds or gathered in small homes in tiny villages. I ponder their daily concerns (survival) and their polytheistic, pre-scientific world. Like all ancient people they wondered where we came from and why are we here. They sought answers to the Big Questions, too. They couched their answers in narratives and stories, sometimes with elements of mythic predecessors still to be found.
Without question, the primary context for their god-talk (theo-logy) was pagan. The older stories of creation and beginnings was the competitive narratives of various peoples who had inhabited the lands for thousands of years before Abraham. If we read Genesis with modern biology and cosmology as a framework, they did not. Their reference was Akkadian, Sumerian, Egyptian and they saw their stories as a corrective of their Egyptian and Canaanite neighbors’ myths.
(Genesis 4) The Man (adam) and Eve story present two sons: Cain and Abel. They seem to parallel the myths of the planter god vs. the herd god which Israel’s neighbors told. The Hebrew qanah (to get, to acquire, derived sense to make) and qayin (cain) are a pun. The name Cain literally means smith. The name Abel means breath, vapor, puff of air and is the Hebrew word for “vanity” in the famous “Vanity of vanity and all things are vanity.” While no explanation is given the short life snuffed out is an obvious reference.
Obviously, the ever-present social conflicts between two types of peoples (shepherds and farmers) is at work (Genesis is full of ‘foundation stories’ explaining where everything comes from). The deeper and more pressing issue is siblings. As you read notice the cadence of the verses is a chiasm. Cain-Abel-Abel-Cain; keeping with the constant literary style of the Biblical writers (check out this resource: http://carm.org/bible-literary-techniques ) Also notice the repetition of elements from the previous story of Adam and Eve (God’s question, “what have you done?” the word watch keeper—over the garden; am I my brother’s watchman/keeper—the cursing of the ground; and the exile). What jumped out at me was the reversal of the birth order. While the first born son had primacy, Genesis repeatedly reverses that (see also Ishmael, Essau, Reuben and later David and Solomon). I sense here a foretaste of the eschatological reversal found in Beatitudes (blessed are poor, mourning, hungry; woe to rich, happy, full). The paradox this creates undoes any ‘quick and easy’ explanations of God’s view on birth order! It is a reminder that any one verse must be seen in the context of others. The Law and the ‘Practice’ of God are in balancing tension.
A very interesting point made by Friedman is the role of the field. Cain invites Abel into the field, but as Friedman notes fraternal conflict, even fratricide, is a recurring theme of the Bible. Look at Jacob & Essau, Joseph and his brothers, Abimelech slew his brothers, Benjamin went to war with other tribes, Absalom and Amnon. In each case the word field appears. Such oddities are noteworthy and seem to imply that the story of Cain and Abel is really an archetypal description of human sin. The ancient Jewish scholar was keen to tie together disparate stories by a common word. The practice might have grown out of the actual practice of writing with this in mind!
So as it is tied to what went before (Eden) and what stretches ahead (fraternal conflicts and death) the story looms large as God’s revelation to us about what is wrong with humans. Our relationship to “the earth” is impacted by our sin. Our failure to heed God’s word (he warned Cain that sin was lurking at the tent entrance and to resist and master it) creates disaster. Our foolish jealousy of our kin (the author never clearly explains the motive for murder) produces violence. We are in exile… And the double meaning of the Hebrew words means that Cain’s lament “I cannot bare this punishment” can also be translated “my sin is too great to be forgiven.” Redemption is the return from exile, it is the reconciliation of warring ‘siblings’ of all sort, and it is setting right the balance of humans with God and one another.
Genesis does not explain where the other people came from. Cain builds a city and names it after his son. We do well to allow the text to speak, and not fill in the holes with theories (like Adam and Eve pumped out hundreds of babies). Be at peace and listen to the message revealed. Do not try to protect God’s word…obey it! That the first murderer built the first city may be the point--a warning about urban life and the endless problems produced by humans living in large collections of dehumanizing cities. (The vast majority of folks then and there were rural and small village types.)
One could spend a long time with Cain and Abel. I hope this brief time whets your appetite for more, If it did; Robert Alter and Richard Friedman both have Torah translation with commentary which provide a Jewish perspective on the texts—highly recommended. I also looked at McKeown’s Genesis in The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary by Eerdmans. Other credible commentaries also exist.