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David J. Zucker





Why Did Cain Kill Abel?



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David J. Zucker





Why Did Cain Kill Abel?






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Why Did Cain Kill Abel?

God rejects Cain’s sacrifice while accepting Abel’s, then in the next scene, Cain kills his brother. Does this mean that Cain killed Abel out of jealousy, or could other factors have been present? Ancient interpreters explore many possible motivations, from the simple to the bizarre.


Why Did Cain Kill Abel?

Cain leads Abel to death, (detail) James Tissot, circa 1896.

The Background: The Rejected Offering

Immediately after Cain and Abel’s birth announcement,[1] the Torah tells us the two brothers brought offerings to YHWH from their respective areas of specialization: animal husbandry and agriculture:

בראשית ד:ב ...וַיְהִי הֶבֶל רֹעֵה צֹאן וְקַיִן הָיָה עֹבֵד אֲדָמָה. ד:ג וַיְהִי מִקֵּץ יָמִים וַיָּבֵא קַיִן מִפְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה מִנְחָה לַי־הוָה. ד:ד וְהֶבֶל הֵבִיא גַם הוּא מִבְּכֹרוֹת צֹאנוֹ וּמֵחֶלְבֵהֶן
Gen 4:2 …Now Abel became a shepherd of flocks, and Cain became a worker of the soil. 4:3 It was, after the passing of days, that Cain brought, from the fruit of the soil, a gift to YHWH; 4:4 and as for Abel, he too brought, from the firstborn of his flock, from their fat-parts.[2]

A reader might imagine that Cain should be rewarded since bringing an offering to YHWH is his idea, while Abel just follows suit. Nevertheless, YHWH’s reaction to Cain is both negative and unexpected:

וַיִּשַׁע יְ־הוָה אֶל הֶבֶל וְאֶל מִנְחָתוֹ. ד:ה וְאֶל קַיִן וְאֶל מִנְחָתוֹ לֹא שָׁעָה וַיִּחַר לְקַיִן מְאֹד וַיִּפְּלוּ פָּנָיו.
YHWH had regard for Abel and his gift, 4:5 for Cain and his gift, he had no regard. Cain became exceedingly upset and his face fell.

The text does not state why YHWH accepts Abel’s offering and not Cain’s.[3] The most common suggestion is that Cain brought just some form of vegetation, while Abel’s offering was from “their fattest parts,” interpreted to mean “the choicest” (NJPS) of his animals.[4] The 12th century peshat commentator, R. Joseph Bekhor Shor, for instance, writes:

מפרי האדמה – ואין כת{ו}ב בקורבנו לשון חלב, דלא כתב מחלב כליות חטה (דברים ל"ב:י"ד), שלא הביא מן המוטב. ובהבל כתיב: חלביהן – שהביא מן המוטב.
“From the fruits of the soil”—the text does not use the language of “fat,” it did not write [something like] “along with the kidney fat [meaning “the very finest”—so NJPS] of wheat” (Deut 32:14), since he did not bring from the best. For Abel, though, it writes: “their fat-parts,” for he brought from the best.

His point is simple: Biblical texts have a way of saying choice vegetable offerings, and this is absent here. But it is not fully compelling, since burning the fat-parts is standard for animal offerings, not something unique or special. Others point out that Abel brings from his firstborn animals, while Cain just brings from some of his produce, not his first produce.[5] Cain, however, brought his offering first, making this point less persuasive.[6]

A third approach suggests that YHWH prefers animal sacrifices to that of plants.[7] Yet both grain and animal sacrifices were offered at the Temple in Jerusalem, so it is unclear that one is privileged over another. In this case, to quote the German Bible scholar Gerhard von Rad (1901–1971), the “shepherd sacrifices from his flock, the farmer from the produce of the earth—just as one would expect!”[8]

In short, the text is not clear about what is bothering YHWH here.

YHWH Speaks to Cain

When he somehow realizes that his offering is rejected, Cain, unsurprisingly, is despondent, and YHWH takes notice:

בראשית ד:ו וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל קָיִן לָמָּה חָרָה לָךְ וְלָמָּה נָפְלוּ פָנֶיךָ. ד:ז הֲלוֹא אִם תֵּיטִיב שְׂאֵת וְאִם לֹא תֵיטִיב לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ וְאֵלֶיךָ תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ וְאַתָּה תִּמְשָׁל בּוֹ.
Gen 4:6 YHWH said to Cain: “Why are you so upset? Why has your face fallen? 4:7 Is it not thus: If you intend good, bear-it-aloft, but if you do not intend good, at the entrance is sin, a crouching-demon, toward you his lust—but you can rule over him.”

These verses are enigmatic. Is YHWH speaking about the failed offering and explaining why he didn’t accept it? Is YHWH warning him about future challenges (“sin crouching at the entrance”) and offering encouragement (“you can rule over the sin”)?

Cain Kills Abel

If YHWH suspects that Cain is jealous of Abel or angry at him,[9] and that Abel is in danger of being killed, YHWH makes no mention of it. And yet, this is what occurs in the very next scene:

בראשית ד:ח וַיֹּאמֶר קַיִן אֶל הֶבֶל אָחִיו וַיְהִי בִּהְיוֹתָם בַּשָּׂדֶה וַיָּקָם קַיִן אֶל הֶבֶל אָחִיו וַיַּהַרְגֵהוּ.
Gen 4:8 Cain said to Abel his brother... But then it was, when they were out in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and he killed him.

Disturbingly laconic, the description passes over crucial sections such as what Cain said and whether Abel responded.[10] In contrast to the Masoretic text, which is missing Cain’s words, the Samaritan Pentateuch reads ‎נלכה השדה “let us go to the field.”[11] While it is clear that the Masoretic Text is corrupt, it is unclear that these two words were original; they may be an attempt to fill the lacuna, working backwards minimally from the next phrase “when they were in the field.” Even if this phrase is original, it tells us little about the motivation for Cain’s action.[12]

Interpreters over the centuries have struggled with the question of why Cain kills Abel. As the Torah never offers an explicit reason, rewritten accounts of the Cain and Abel story have felt the need to add details to make the story clearer. Some of these attempts are modest adjustments; others take more fanciful directions.

The Common Interpretation: Jealousy

The earliest and perhaps most natural answer we find in the second century B.C.E. book of Jubilees (4:2):

At the beginning of the third jubilee, Cain killed Abel because the sacrifice of Abel was accepted, but the offering of Cain was not accepted.[13]

The Bible explores the theme of jealousy between brothers in the Joseph story, in which Jacob’s favoritism for Joseph leads the brothers to throw him into a pit and sell him to the Ishmaelites/Midianites. It is possible that the Cain and Abel story is also making use of this trope. Josephus offers the same interpretation, but adds a strong value judgment against Cain as an unscrupulous individual (Judean Antiquities 1:53–55):

Now the brothers rejoiced in different pursuits. Abel, the younger, had regard for righteousness and, believing that God was present in all the things that were done by him, looked after virtue; and his life was that of a shepherd. On the other hand, Cain was both most wicked in other respects and, looking only to gain, was the first to think of ploughing the earth; and he killed his brother for the following reason.

It seeming best to them to sacrifice to God, Cain offered fruits from the cultivation of the soil and plants, while Abel offered milk[14] and the first-born of the grazing animals. God took greater pleasure in this latter sacrifice, being honored by things that grow automatically and in accordance with nature but not by those things that grow by the force of grasping man with craftiness. Consequently, Cain, provoked that Abel had been valued more highly by God, killed his brother and rendering his corpse unseen, supposed that he would escape notice.[15]

Josephus describes Cain’s choice of farming as “crafty,” because it requires human manipulation to work. He also calls him generally wicked and someone always looking for gain, which explains why YHWH rejects his offering. Is it any wonder that such a wicked person would go and kill his brother in a jealous rage? Josephus even erases Cain’s merit by saying that the brothers decided together, at the same time, to bring an offering.

Destined for Evil: Life of Adam and Eve

An extreme example of Cain-as-evil-incarnate appears in the retelling of the story in the Pseudepigraphic work, The Life of Adam and Eve, a Jewish apocalyptic work from the early to mid-first millennium C.E. We first learn of Cain’s evil disposition upon his birth (21:3a–c):

She gave birth to an infant and his color was that of the stars. He fell into the hands of the midwife and (at once) he began to pluck up the grass, for in his mother’s hut grass was planted. The midwife replied to him and told him, “God is just that he did not at all leave you in my hands. For, you are Cain, the perverse one, killer of the good, for you are the one who plucks up the fruit-bearing tree, and not he who plants it. You are the bearer of bitterness and not of sweetness.”[16]

Cain was able to pull out grass because he was born a man-baby (Eve names him Cain because she created “a man” with YHWH, Gen 4:1).[17] The midwife’s premonition is soon confirmed in a prophetic dream Eve has after the birth of Abel (Life of Adam and Eve 23:1–3):

At that time Eve told Adam, “My lord, Adam, in my sleep I saw that the blood of my son Abel was pouring into the mouth of Cain his brother, and he drank it without mercy. And Abel beseeched him to leave him (a little) of his blood, and he did not agree to hearken to him but he drank it completely … and it could not at all be removed from his body.”

Adam decides to try and separate his sons, but receives a message from God through the angel Gabriel that there is no stopping what will happen and he shouldn’t try.[18] The killing of Abel itself contains an unusual supernatural element:

And the time arrived when Cain and Abel had gone up toward their fields. Two demons resembling Cain and Abel came. Now, one demon reproached the other demon. He became angry with him and took a stone sword, which was of a transparent stone. He cut his throat and killed him. And when Cain saw the blood, he went quickly and took the stone in his hand(s). But when Abel saw him coming, he begged him, “Do not make me die, O my brother Cain!” He, however, did not accept his prayer and he spilled Abel’s blood in front of him.

While this text depicts Cain as hard-hearted against his brother, it also implies that Cain would not have killed him without being shown the idea and given the weapon. Moreover, God forbids Adam to intervene and protect his son. Destiny, then, is equivocal, since Cain is virtually forced to carry out the killing.

Premeditated and Gruesome: Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan

The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan, a sixth century Christian work (likely reworking a Jewish original), retells the story of Cain and Abel at great length. In this version, Adam rather than his sons give YHWH the first offering, and Cain does not even participate, whereas Abel encourages them.[19] Abel’s piety brings on Satan’s hatred, who then turns to the wicked brother to get him to kill Abel. Cain’s weak spot is that he wishes to marry his own sister instead of Abel’s,[20] which goes against his parents’ plan.

Adam takes note of Cain’s hatred for Abel, and pushes the boys to offer sacrifices to God. Abel brings from the fruit of the land—the farmer vs. shepherd positions are reversed in this text—and because of Abel’s piety, God accepts it (ch. 77).[21] The combination of the rejected offerings, the marriage disappointment, and Satan’s coaxing leads Cain to kill his brother.[22]

Cain enters Abel’s cave and asks him to join him in the field, which is filled with beautiful sites. Abel, in his innocence, agrees, and out the brothers go, Cain holding his staff (ch. 79):

And so they went on, until they came to a lonely place, where there were no sheep; then Abel said to Cain, “Behold, my brother, we are weary of walking, for we see none of the trees, nor of the fruits, nor of the verdure, nor of the sheep, nor any one of the things of which you told me. Where are those sheep of yours that you told me to bless?” Then Cain said to him, “Come on, and presently you will see many beautiful things, but go before me, until I come up to you.”… And Abel was walking in his innocence, without guile, not believing his brother would kill him. Then Cain, when he came up to him, comforted him with his talk, walking a little behind him. Then he hastened and smote him with the staff, blow upon blow, until he was stunned.

As in the Life of Adam and Eve, Abel begs for his life:

But when Abel fell down upon the ground, seeing that his brother meant to kill him, he said to Cain, “O, my brother, have pity on me. By the breasts we have sucked, smite me not! By the womb that bare us and that brought us into the world, smite me not unto death with that staff! If you will kill me, take one of these large stones, and kill me outright.” Then Cain, the hard-hearted and cruel murderer, took a large stone and smote his brother with it upon the head, until his brains oozed out, and he weltered in his blood, before him. And Cain repented not of what he had done.

Here the killing is slightly mitigated by Satan’s active involvement, but it is clearly presented as an entirely premeditated act, performed in cold blood.

A Theological Argument Gets Ugly: The Jerusalem Targums

Rabbinic exegesis also attempts to fill out the story by adding details. One approach, found in all three of the Jerusalem Targums (mid to late 1st millennium C.E.)[23] presents the fight as a theological argument turned heated:

והוה כד נפקו תרויהון לברא עני קין ואמר להבל מסתכל אנא דברחמין אתברי עלמא אבל לא כפירי עובדין טבין הוא מידבר ומסב אפין אית בדינא מן בגלל מה אתקבל קרבנך ברעוא וקרבני מני לא איתקבל ברעוא
And it was that when they two had gone forth into the field, Cain answered and said to Abel, “I perceive that the world was created in goodness, but it is not governed according to the fruit of good works, for there is respect to persons in judgment; therefore it is that your offering was accepted, and mine not accepted with good will.”[24]
עני הבל ואמר לקין ברחמין איתברי עלמא וכפירי עובדין טבין הוא מידבר ומסבאפין לית בדינא ועל דהוו פירי עובדיי טבין מדידך וקדמין לדידך אתקבל קרבני ברעוא
Abel answered and said to Cain, “In goodness was the world created, and according to the fruit of good works is it governed; and there is no respect of persons in judgment; but because the fruits of my works were better than yours and earlier than yours, my offering was accepted with good will.”

Angered by this response, Cain doubles down and denies God’s involvement in the world entirely, using a phrase (bolded) that holds an important place in Rabbinic Jewish theology:

עני קין ואמר להבל לית דין ולית דיין ולית עלם אחרן ולית למיתן אגר טב לצדיקיא ולית למתפרעא מן רשיעיא
Cain answered and said to Abel, “There is neither judgment nor Judge, nor another world; nor will good reward be given to the righteous, nor vengeance be taken of the wicked.”
עני הבל ואמר לקין אית דין ואית דיין ואית עלם אחרן ואית למיתן אגר טב לצדיקיא ואית למיתפרעא מן רשיעיא
And Abel answered and said to Cain, “There is a judgment, and there is a Judge; and there is another world, and a good reward given to the righteous, and vengeance taken of the wicked.”
ועל עיסק פיתגמיא האיליין הוו מתנציין על אנפי ברא וקם קין על הבל אחוהי וטבע אבנא במיצחיה וקטליה.
And because of these words they had contention upon the face of the field; and Cain arose against Abel his brother, and drove a stone into his forehead, and killed him.

Abel thus becomes the prototype of a martyr who dies for the profession of his faith, and “Cain the prototype of the heretic who persecutes the faithful.”[25] Even so, the Targum does not present the killing as premeditated; the two brothers engage in a theological argument, Cain loses his temper, unable to accept that God rejected his offering for a good reason.[26]

In a non-midrashic vein, the biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann offers the challenging thought that,

[The] trouble comes not from Cain, but from Yahweh, the strange God of Israel. Inexplicably, Yahweh chooses—accepts and rejects. Conventional interpretation is too hard on Cain and too easy on Yahweh … Essential to the plot is the capricious freedom of Yahweh. Like the narrator we must resist every effort to explain it.[27]

Brueggemann and the Targum, and to some extent the Life of Adam and Eve, point their fingers at YHWH as at least partially at fault in the killing of Abel.[28]

No Connection to the Offering: Genesis Rabbah

Genesis is silent about what happened in the field, We are never told whether Abel was entirely the victim of an aggressive brother or whether he himself may have done something to provoke the crisis. Moreover, nothing explicit in the Torah connects the killing of Abel with the previous story about sacrifices. Something else may have taken place to set Cain off.

Genesis Rabbah (22) imagines the brothers arguing about matters entirely unrelated to the sacrifice:

על מה היו הדינין אמורים, אמרו בוא ונחלק העולם, אחד נטל את הקרקעות ואחד [נטל] המיטלטלין, דין אמר ארעא דאת קאים דידי היא ודין אמר מה דאת לביש דידי הוא, דין אמר חלוש ודין אמר פרוח, מתוך כן ויקם קין אל הבל וגו',
What were they arguing about? They said, “Let’s divide up the world. One took the land and the other [took] the movable goods. This one said, “The land you are standing upon is mine.” This one said, “What you are wearing is mine.” This one said “Strip” [so you are not wearing my clothes]! and this one said “Fly” [so you are not on my land]! As a consequence, “Cain rose up against Abel…”
ר' יהושע דסיכנין בשם ר' לוי שניהן נטלו את הקרקעות ושניהם נטלו המיטלטלין, ועל מה היו אותן הדינין, זה אמר בתחומי בית המקדש ניבנה וזה אמר בתחומי....
R. Joshua of Sikhnin said in the name of R. Levi: They both took lands and they both took movable goods. What were they arguing about? One said “the Temple will be built in my territory” and this one said “in my territory…”

Note how in this source, it is only “one said… one said…” without specifying who said what. The argument and stubbornness was even—and at least in the first case, ridiculous—only that Cain turned to violence.

A Complex Reading of Cain

Cain’s “crime” is so well embedded in our consciousness that it is difficult to read this text with an open mind. What really happens in the field (v. 8)? Almost universally, Cain is maligned for committing first degree murder—but how would he have known what murder is?[29] The text is unclear about what leads Cain to kill his brother. Is he a villain, a monster, does he act in (real or perceived) self-defense, or as someone who loses control? Does the character deserve only our scorn, or perhaps also our sympathy?[30] After all, after Cain kills Abel, YHWH treats him with some sympathy (4:15) rather than punishing him with death.


October 16, 2020


Last Updated

April 15, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Rabbi David J. Zucker is an Independent Scholar. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Birmingham (UK), and Ordination and an M.A.H.L. from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He publishes regularly (see and his latest book is American Rabbis: Facts and Fiction, Second Edition.