Eve’s Voice Is the Inclusio to the Cain and Abel Story – Maybe It’s Her Story Too
Abel’s Funeral as Pictured by William Blake
The Bible’s inaugural murder was carried out by Eve’s elder child, Cain, against her younger child, Abel, and thus its first interment—though missing in the text—was of a son by his parents. Artist William Blake (featured above) imagined this burial as mother, father, and Abel’s body on one side, and the lone murderer son on the other side of a precisely shoveled-out earthen grave.
His Adam looks at Cain, Cain looks out of the picture frame, Abel’s eyes are closed, and Eve’s face is hidden. We’re met with her naked back and the vulnerable nape, bared to us as she arches over Abel’s supine body, causing her hair to spill on his chest. Her hair is knit into Abel’s hair—she has literally tied herself to him.
Blake’s insight into the character is especially astute—she is suffering the death of her child, and he protects her in her moment of loss from our intrusion. She merits our empathy, not our gaze, because grief, Blake understood, when fresh and piercing, is private.
Blake’s Eve is consistent with the biblical text. There, too, frank disclosure of maternal loss is checked and must await comment from outside the text. However, if we look at Eve’s speech, which is restricted to a scant two verses, we notice that the verses appear at the very start of Genesis 4, when she named her first son, and at its end, when she named her third.
In between, the reader’s attention is deflected from Eve onto the murder of brother by brother, commonly called the Cain and Abel story. However, if Eve’s verses are read as an inclusio, a literary device in which a story is bracketed by similar language at its beginning and end, thus forming a frame for the material captured in between, we gain insight—through the character of maternal loss, and Eve’s expression of that loss—into the articulation of human grief.
Birth of the First Son
In Genesis 4:1, only one verse away from Eden, the place of their own origin, at the very start of life outside of YHWH’s garden, Eve and Adam initiate the cause-and-effect progression of sexual intercourse, conception, and birth that is the biological template for the proliferation of human life. It was now clear that “the crowd of future humanity resides in the parental body.” The replication of human life was not initiated when a male god delivered a bone from a surgical wound in the צלע, “side,” of Adam, and Adam declared it his, but when an infant engendered in the way of all mammals emerged from the body of humankind’s first mother.
When Cain was born (4:1), Eve crowed: קָנִיתִי אִישׁ אֶת יְ־הוָה. Translations have rendered the sentence differently: “I have gained a male child with the help of the LORD” (JPS); “I have got me a man with the LORD” (Alter); and “I-have-gotten/ a man, as has YHWH” (Fox). What is surely clear is Eve’s satisfaction in having conceived (v.1) and given birth. She named the boy for her success—qayin, a play on the verb ק.נ.ה, to gain or possess—and she credited the safe arrival of her child to YHWH, for YHWH’s benefit, as Fox would have it, and with YHWH, as JPS and Alter interpreted.
Eve’s acknowledgement of YHWH establishes a biblical template of human fruition as a threesome—woman, man, deity. Not only has Eve recognized YHWH’s help (v.1) in the coming of her child, she called the deity by name, the first character in the Tanakh to do so, and thus declared YHWH’s named presence in the galut “diaspora” east of the garden of Eden (3:24). At this moment, the character of Eve understood that Eden may be left behind, but YHWH abides everywhere. And YHWH, of course, will profit from fecund humanity, as progeny is crucial to YHWH’s plan.
Birth and Death of the First Son’s Brother
Quickly, Eve adds another boy, and the text turns from the mother and her sons to the contending brothers. For birth number two, there is no motherly boast or emblematic name, only an editorial report that this newborn was assimilated at once to his older brother: וַתֹּסֶף לָלֶדֶת אֶת אָחִיו אֶת הָבֶל, “And she [again] gave birth, to his brother, to Abel”—not her second אִישׁ, “man,” or male child.
From there, the word “brother” and its suffixed possessive pronouns are repeated six additional times between 4:2 and 4:12. In verse 8, Cain’s unrecorded comment אֶל הֶבֶל אָחִיו, “to Abel his brother,” that presumably started the fight, led to Cain’s killing of הֶבֶל אָחִיו, “Abel his brother.” Even YHWH uses the possessive, asking Cain where is הֶבֶל אָחִיךָ, “your brother Abel”?
YHWH’s question is a rhetorical snare, inviting Cain to use his own possessive: לֹא יָדַעְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵר אָחִי אָנֹכִי, “I don't know. Am I the one to watch over my brother?” (v.9). Cain’s “my brother” is Eve’s “his brother” and YHWH’s “your brother” made personal. Cain owns the deed; he killed the boy subsumed to him at birth, a child with no other identity in the text aside from fraternal kinship.
בראשית ד:י מֶה עָשִׂיתָ קוֹל דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ צֹעֲקִים אֵלַי מִן הָאֲדָמָה
Gen 4:10 He said, “What did you do? [A] voice of the blood[s] of your brother cries out to me from the ground.
ד:יא וְעַתָּה אָרוּר אָתָּה מִן הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר פָּצְתָה אֶת פִּיהָ לָקַחַת אֶת דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ מִיָּדֶךָ
4:11 Now you are more cursed than the ground that opened its mouth to take the blood[s] of your brother from your hand.”
This is a gruesome image well chosen, as its punch is immediate. Who hasn’t seen fluid absorbed by earth, how it bubbles and spreads its stain? Abel dead is weirdly alive, revivified by his blood that was taken from his brother’s hand, swallowed by the ground’s mouth, and cries out to YHWH. It advocated for Abel and became further evidence of Cain’s crime—it told on him.
The Hebrew is in the plural, דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ, “bloods of your brother,” and this has been interpreted in the midrash as דמו ודם זרעיותיו, “his blood and the blood of his seeds.” Cain’s murder of Abel denied life to Abel’s children and children’s children, and all his descendants to the end of generations destined to come from him. Abel dead is a genetic line eliminated. In addition to dereliction of brotherly duty, when Cain killed his parents’ child, he deleted the process by which life copies itself, and he denied also to YHWH the progeny of Abel, all in one rash act.
Cursed and Rewarded
For his crime, Cain paid dearly with loss of his home and, as Blake depicted, his parents. In the Torah, too, no reconciliation of the family is recorded. Further, Cain was cursed: אָרוּר אָתָּה מִן הָאֲדָמָה, “you are more cursed than the ground.” Recall that the now bloodied ground had already been cursed because of the actions of Cain’s father Adam. Ground, or soil, in the Hebrew is אדמה, adama, and the proper noun Adam is, like Cain’s name, emblematic: he is an adam from the adama, taken from it and animated by YHWH’s breath of life (Gen 2:7).
YHWH had cursed the adama as punishment for Adam’s eating the proscribed fruit (Gen 3:17), declaring it would yield for Adam but in a stingy manner, mostly inedible thorns and thistles. Adam himself wasn’t cursed. Cain is the cursed adam... but more cursed than the adama, YHWH said. Don’t try to work it, YHWH warns, it will no longer yield its strength to you (4:12).
Further, says YHWH, נָע וָנָד תִּהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ, “You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth” (JPS), back-and-forth here-and-there you will be on earth (v. 12). Cain understands immediately that if he is to be thrown off the אדמה, adama, his workplace, onto הארץ, the earth (4:12), this also means outside the locus of his god. Others lived beyond YHWH’s boundaries (4:15), and, Cain worries, beyond YHWH’s reach: וּמִפָּנֶיךָ אֶסָּתֵר, “and I will be hidden from your face,” he says, meaning out of reach of YHWH’s protection.
So, Cain the tiller, son of a tiller, was exiled and sent alone into the frontier of other persons and founded the first city (v. 17). As Adam knew his wife... and she conceived and bore Cain (4:1), so Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch (4:17), for whom Cain’s city was named. Sons and wives and more sons were named. They are the etiological sources of tent dwellers and herders, musicians, and metal-workers, a representative shortlist of homo faber (“man the maker”) in proto-urban life.
How ironic that Cain was granted what Cain denied his brother—a city in place of the adama, and a genealogy for the loss of his birth family. Cain regains ground and a future.
Eve’s Third Son: Life and Grief
Abel dead and Cain dispatched, Eve has a third son:
בראשית ד:כה וַיֵּדַע אָדָם עוֹד אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ שֵׁת כִּי שָׁת לִי אֱלֹהִים זֶרַע אַחֵר תַּחַת הֶבֶל כִּי הֲרָגוֹ קָיִן.
Gen 4:25 And Adam again knew his wife and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth “for Elohim made for me another in place of Abel for Cain killed him.”
Within that one restrained and compressed sentence, Eve told her family’s story. The editor, in putting these words in Eve’s mouth, allowed her to close the inclusio, on both sides of which she is impregnated, bearing, honoring YHWH, and naming. What falls within the literary embrace between the opening and closing verses is the well-known Cain and Abel story. What purpose does she serve in her appearance on either end? The answer is two-fold.
Childbearing / Child-rearing
Firstly, she provides a reinterpretation of Genesis 3:16, YHWH’s notorious threat הַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה עִצְּבוֹנֵךְ וְהֵרֹנֵךְ בְּעֶצֶב תֵּלְדִי בָנִים, that the woman, not yet called Eve, will suffer in childbirth, “I will make most severe/ Your pangs in childbearing/ In pain you shall bear children” (NJPS). Nevertheless, Eve gives birth to three children without mention of physical pain.
In her raising of them, however, surely Eve suffers “[e]motional anguish,” to borrow Carol Meyers’ expansion of the semantic range of the word עצבון (Gen. 3:16, עִצְּבוֹנֵךְ). In an earlier work on the same verses, Meyers wrote that the word עֶצֶב (Gen 3:16), translated as “pangs” (NJPS), indicating labor pains, can “work effectively in two directions,” indicating “physical toil or labor” and mental distress. Meyers translates 3:16 as “I will make great your toil and many your pregnancies / with hardship shall you have children.” This is Blake’s Eve, doubled over in sorrow. In this, not in physical pangs, was YHWH predictive.
What was Eve, sorrowful and afflicted with the loss of both children, to do? The editor gave her the power to name and, in naming, to explain. She named Cain, her first child, for her gain. For Abel, her character was kept silent while the story was handed over to YHWH and Cain.
As noted above, when Eve gave birth to Abel, he was distinguished as brother of Cain, not son of Eve. Her sons’ expressed kinship to each other sets up the reader for the familiar Cain and Abel story, a shocking tale of fratricide that burdens the already grave crime of murder with darkest consequence—a human being will spill even the blood of a brother, a baby brother, a brother to be watched over.
Eve wasn’t given words when Abel was killed. Mention of him waited until the birth of Seth, whom she said is זֶרַע אַחֵר, “another seed,” to grow in place of Abel, the uprooted son. Seth was named for her loss of Abel. Further, her language in naming Seth recalls Eden, her birthplace, and replicates YHWH’s insistence at the start of creation that agricultural growth sustains all life, that מַזְרִיעַ זֶרַע, “seeds seed,” as the earth brought forth vegetation (Gen 1:11).
Fecundity, a biological characteristic inherent in the germinating being, whether human or plant, accords with God’s first request of human beings, פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ, “fruit and bear many and fill the earth.” Her seed also serves the text’s prior explanation of humankind as of and from the same substance—adamim from the adama. Her uprooted son was taken from her when he bled out on the ground, and the murderer son when he was exiled from it.
Eve and Adam were denied generations through Abel’s death and Cain’s presumed disappearance. Again, she created life through or by the good graces of YHWH, who brought her another seed and who also benefitted from its growth. Seth’s seeds, in turn, produced ten generations to Noah, and through Noah’s son Shem the family tree leads to Abraham.
Development of Eve’s Character
Finally, there is an arc of character development from the opening of the inclusio to its closing, and that, too, is explained through Eve’s namings. Blake imagined Abel’s funeral, but there is no interment in the text to initiate grief and mourning after a death. In its place is the pattern of Eve’s birthings—joy and gain / loss and silence / renewal and memorialization. Seth is both her commemoration of life lost and her imprint on the future, life regained.
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October 13, 2020
October 25, 2020
Dr. Fran Snyder serves as Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Eugene Lang College, The New School University, in New York City. She holds a doctorate in Midrash and Scriptural Interpretation from the Jewish Theological Seminary and is on the faculty of the New York School of T’ai Chi Chuan, where she teaches T’ai Chi and Qigong.
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