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Eliezer Finkelman





Cain’s (Im)Penitent Response to his Punishment



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Eliezer Finkelman





Cain’s (Im)Penitent Response to his Punishment






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Cain’s (Im)Penitent Response to his Punishment

Eight possible meanings of Cain’s response גָּדוֹל עֲוֹנִי מִנְּשֹׂא (Genesis 4:13) and what this tells us about his character as presented in the Torah


Cain’s (Im)Penitent Response to his Punishment

Cain by Henri Vidal, in the Tuileries Gardens, Paris, 1896

After Cain kills Abel, God tells him his punishment (vv. 4:11-12):[1]

וְעַתָּה אָרוּר אָתָּה מִן הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר פָּצְתָה אֶת פִּיהָ לָקַחַת אֶת דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ מִיָּדֶךָ. יב כִּי תַעֲבֹד אֶת הָאֲדָמָה לֹא תֹסֵף תֵּת כֹּחָהּ לָךְ נָע וָנָד תִּהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ.
Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.

Cain reacts with the cryptic phrase גָּדוֹל עֲו‍ֹנִי מִנְּשֹׂא (v. 13), three words whose meaning is ambiguous.

  • Should these words be read as a statement or as a question? Although Biblical Hebrew often includes a question marker (such as the hey interrogative), it does not always.[2]

  • The word ע.ו.נ has a semantic range of iniquity, guilt, or punishment of iniquity. Claus Westermann writes:
The dispute starts from the false presupposition that we are dealing with one word which has two different and self-contained meanings. A concept of sin is presumed which sees “sin” as an isolated phenomenon. It is characteristic of the Hebrew עון that it describes an event which can include “sin” and “punishment.” The word עון describes this complexity in which the stress is, according to the context, now on the one aspect, now on the other. [3]

But which one is being stressed here? Should עֲו‍ֹנִי be translated simply as “my sin” or “my guilt (for sinning)”, or should it be translated “my punishment.”[4] The latter, though less frequently used, fits especially well with Cain’s next words (v. 14), which imply that Cain is concerned about his future as opposed to his past:

הֵן גֵּרַשְׁתָּ אֹתִי הַיּוֹם מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה וּמִפָּנֶיךָ אֶסָּתֵר וְהָיִיתִי נָע וָנָד בָּאָרֶץ וְהָיָה כָל מֹצְאִי יַהַרְגֵנִי.
Since You have banished me this day from the soil, and I must avoid Your presence and become a restless wanderer on earth — anyone who meets me may kill me!
  • מִנְּשֹׂא, built from the preposition מן, and the infinitive verb [5]נשא, leaves the subject ambiguous: it translates literally as “beyond bearing.” But who is the subject—God or Cain? In other words, does it mean more “than I (=Cain) can bear,” or more “than you (=God) can bear”?[6]

There are, in short, eight possible permutations of this three-word statement;[7] each permutation yields a plausible reading. The reading we accept will have a great impact on whether we see Cain as an impenitent, arrogant sinner, or a broken-hearted penitent.

Eight Readings of Three Words in Two Punnett Squares

Here are the possible translations we take Cain’s utterance as a statement, with a brief sketch of Cain’s tone and meaning for each:

  The bearer is Cain The bearer is God
עון as “sin” “My sin is greater than I can bear” (Don Isaac Abravanel; Salomon Gessner)[8] “My sin is greater than you can bear/forgive” (Bereshit Rabbah 22:11)[9]
  Sketch: A penitent Cain, crushed by guilt, expresses his anguish or perhaps pleads for death. Sketch: In black despair, feeling the enormity of his sin, Cain suddenly understands that God should never forgive him.[10]
עון as “punishment” “My punishment is greater than I can bear” (NRSV, NJPS) “My punishment is greater than you can bear/forgo (because the sin was so serious)”[11] (Bereshit Rabbah 22:11; John Chrysostom[12]
  Sketch: Cain, somewhat humbled by God’s power, still not penitent, regrets his punishment, not his sin. Sketch: Cain, again in despair, suddenly understands that God should not reduce his punishment. He accepts it willingly and feels he does not deserve mercy.[13]

The following are the four possibilities if Cain’s utterance is a question (albeit a rhetorical one since he keeps speaking), with a brief sketch of Cain’s tone and meaning for each:

  The bearer is Cain[14] The bearer is God
עון as “sin” “Might my sin be greater than I can bear?” “Is my sin greater than you can bear/forgive?” (Bereshit Rabbah 22:11)
  Sketch: Cain, penitent, frightened, in doubt about whether he can continue living knowing how terribly he has behaved, pleads for reassurance from God. Sketch: Cain, penitent, pleads for a reduced sentence.
עון as “punishment” “Is my punishment greater than I can bear?” “Is my punishment greater than you can bear/forgo?” (Bereshit Rabbah 22:11)
  Sketch: Cain really does not know if he can continue to survive as a wanderer and outcast. Humbled and frightened, he pleads for reassurance from God. Sketch: Cain is not penitent, and arrogantly pleads for a reduced sentence, on the grounds that God is infinitely merciful.

Purposeful Ambiguity?

Interpreters of the Bible generally defend one or another of these readings. Writers, in retelling the story of Cain, do the same. Nevertheless, we must ask whether the Torah is purposefully using a word with a broad semantic rage [15](עון) and a grammatical construct which lacks a subject in order to keep Cain’s response ambiguous. In other words, is it just ignorance on the reader’s part that makes Cain’s meaning unclear, i.e., the author has one of the above meanings in mind but we do not know which, or does the Torah wish us to take more than one possibility into consideration when reading Cain’s response?

Many literary scholars see the ambiguity of passages such as this as part of the art of biblical narrative.[16] When a text is careful to preserve different possible meanings, the goal of “solving the problem” by “finding the right meaning” calls for clumsy under reading (Sternberg 222-229), and in Alter’s words, “reduces the biblical tale to a simple linearity that impoverishes it” (“Interpreting” 56).

Of such texts, Sternberg observes, “[t]he endless critical warfare about their interpretation misses (as well as, unwittingly, establishes) the poetic point. And so do attempts to resolve the quarrel by blaming the work itself…”(227). Alter agrees that this writing “might have been devised precisely not to yield a solution, or to yield multiple and contradictory solutions, and that this might be the very hallmark of its greatness” (“Interpreting” 56).

The Rabbinic Embrace of Narrative Complexity

Whereas medieval commentators generally gravitated to one model or another, the Sages embraced a more complex model. In the above chart, I listed four different interpretations as Bereshit Rabbah 22:11. This is because this text offers four different readings, which underscores the ancient rabbinic editor’s commitment to approaching the Torah as a polyvalent text.[17] Here is the entire text annotated:

An arrogant, impenitent Cain argues for leniency.

ויאמר קין אל י”י גדול עוני מנשוא לעיליונים ותחתונים אתה סובל, לפשעי לא תסבול.
And Cain said to God, “Great is my sin beyond bearing.” The higher creatures and the lower creatures you bear, and my sin you cannot bear?

A remorseful, despondent Cain expresses his understanding that he must receive a strong punishment.

[דבר אחר:][18]גדול עוני משלאבה, אבה על מצוה קלה עבר ונטרד מגן עדן, זו שהיא עבירה חמורה שפיכות דמים על אחת כמה וכמה גדול עוני.
[Another interpretation:] “Great is my sin beyond that of my father.” Father transgressed a minor commandment was driven from the Garden of Eden. This, which is a serious transgression, bloodshed, how much more great is my sin/punishment.

A bitter, impenitent Cain, in denial of his sin, speaks cynically to God, calling him a “one-trick pony.”

הן גרשתה אתמול גרשתה את אבה ועכשיו את מגרשיני, [מונוטונין את וצייר עלמא.][19]
Behold you have driven: See, you have driven Father away yesterday; today you drive me away! [You are a monotone and thus you design the world!]

An angry and hurt Cain taunts God, reminding God that even as an outcast God will still see him.

הן גרשת אותי היום שמא מפניך אסתר וגו’.
“You have driven me away today” – as if I will consequently be hidden from your face, etc.?

In this instance, as in many others, the authors of Bereshit Rabbah expand on the story by generating different, even contradictory, bodies of narrative. As they often generate these bodies of narrative from ambiguities in the Bible itself, their project can be seen as trying to expand upon biblical ambiguity, teasing out the polysemous implications of the Torah’s narrative style. Even when the added midrashic narrative seems fanciful, it might reflect an expansion of a precise reading of the biblical text.

Connecting Cain’s Response to God’s Warning

The ambiguity of מִנְּשֹׂא “beyond bearing” ties into another complicated phrase in the same story, since it shares the same root the word שאת a few verses earlier (Gen. 4:7), when God warns Cain to improve his behavior before sin overtakes him.

הֲלוֹא אִם תֵּיטִיב שְׂאֵת וְאִם לֹא תֵיטִיב לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ…
Surely, if you do right, there is se’et. But if you do not do right sin crouches at the door…

The reuse of the same verb implies a connection between God’s earlier warning and Cain’s eventual response, but what does God’s warning mean and how is Cain’s comment meant to connect to it exactly?

Again we are faced with (purposeful?) ambiguity. Here are some possibilities of what שאת might mean in context:

  • “Bearing” – It could mean bearing, i.e., forgiveness of sin. This seems problematic, since Cain has not committed an obvious sin yet. This leads to two possible approaches:
    • Cain’s unacceptable offering “of the fruit of the ground” (v. 3), not the best, or even of his own, is the sin.
    • The statement includes divine foreknowledge: God is offering to forgive him in advance for the sin he wishes to commit, i.e., murdering his brother.
  • “Ascendency” – God is saying to Cain, “You feel despondent over your brother’s ascendency,” i.e., you are upset about My accepting your brother’s sacrifice over your own. “However, if you do well,” God continues, “you will regain ascendency over your younger brother.”
  • “Forbearance” – God says to Cain, “If you do well, you will learn to tolerate setbacks and disappointments.”

Depending on which reading we choose, Cain may already be sinner or planning to become one. Alternatively, he is merely a jealous older brother, or even a frustrated adolescent unused to failure. Perhaps we do not need to pick only one reading, but can keep multiple options in mind when trying to understand Cain.

My Own Sketch of Cain: A Troubled Religious Genius

As is clear both from the linguistic analysis and even from Bereshit Rabbah, seeing Cain as an unrepentant evil doer is a defensible reading of the text. However, so is a reading that presents Cain as remorseful and tortured by his behavior.

Personally, I like to think of Cain as an errant religious genius, which I believe can be supported by his behavior both before and after the sin. He is the inventor of the sacrifice (v. 3), first to discover remorse (v. 13), first to plead for mercy from God (v. 14), and, finally, a tortured religious personality, doomed to wander the earth seeking the presence of God that he fears will be forever hidden from him.

Even though he is the first to build a city (v. 17), he never really settles. Cain is told that he will be a wanderer (na va-nad) and when he finally settles down, in is in the land of Nod (v. 15), which means wandering, a notation that underscores his status as a psychological refugee.

As such, he makes a particularly suitable model for many modern religious thinkers and we should not dismiss his character as simply a pure instantiation of wickedness.‍


October 28, 2016


Last Updated

March 11, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Rabbi Eliezer (Louis) Finkelman received semikhah at R.I.E.T.S. of Yeshiva University and earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at City University of New York, writing on the theme of Cain and Abel in the Romantic Period. He served as Hillel Director at Wayne State University and synagogue Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel (Berkeley). He currently teaches at Lawrence Technological University.