Cain was Adam and Eve’s first-born child. Abel was the second child recorded by the texts. At the beginning of the book of Genesis only the births of men are mentioned and except Eve women aren’t referred to at all, not even generically. For the first time, after Eve, women were mentioned when the sons of God married with the daughters of man. After the Flood, the situation changes and the women from Noah’s family are at least mentioned. Eve is the only notable woman in the stories of creation before the Flood. Because she isn’t regarded with contempt by the text of the book of Genesis, quite the opposite, the modern reader will hardly understand why the same attitude toward other women, Adam and Eve’s daughters, granddaughters, and so on, wasn’t also adopted. Probably that can be explained by the fact that the lines of heredity were constituted through males and the religious legacy was transmitted through them. Consequently, through them, genealogies were established.
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“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.’ 2 Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 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, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 6 The LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7 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.’ (Genesis 4; 1-7 NRSV)
I doubt very much the veracity of this story for many reasons. In the first place, why would Abel have been the keeper of sheep? In one generation of only one man and one woman and of their two sons, a new independent occupation was established – sheep keeper. This affirmation is hazardous and lacks any relation to reality. In the real world, at the beginning of history, human beings had been gatherers and hunters and raising animals was only a late occupation. If Adam was a tiller of the ground his sons were expected to work with him and to inherit his occupation which was seen by the book of Genesis also as a punishment for Adam. If Adam’s sin had been transmitted to all his offspring the punishment would have been conveyed also to the entirety of humankind. Notwithstanding, Abel didn’t suffer the same punishment as Adam even if he inherited the effects of Adam’s sin. Abel became a sheep keeper and didn’t need to till the ground. After Abel, many other men didn’t suffer the consequences of Adam’s sin, therefore the curse of the ground wasn’t really efficient.
All human beings have to suffer the punishment for sin, even until today, but that “punishment” wasn’t really retribution for Adam and Eve’s sins because it was established before the Fall of the first two human beings, according to the book of Genesis.
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“15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” (Genesis 2; 15 NRSV)
Work, of course, is not at all a punishment in real terms, it is the way in which mankind defines itself. Nevertheless, the book of Genesis brings confusion about this so-called punishment:
“17 And to the man* he said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it”, cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ (Genesis 3; 17- 19 NRSV)
It is true that Adam’s punishment is a bit strange. It wasn’t Adam directly punished, but the ground. The ground being cursed indirectly, Adam had to suffer the consequences. How could the ground be cursed if it is only matter, a much lesser entity than the tree cursed by Jesus? How does this curse function in our days? There are areas of the earth with fertile ground and other areas are infertile, but in general the earth is generous with human beings, not hostile, and would have been that way even when the humankind had appeared on Earth.
Did the curse lose its power over time and we cannot see its effects in our days? Could human beings with their technologies change God’s curse on Earth? The curse of the ground is a part of the fable about Adam and Eve with no connection to a real situation. The climate changes in time on Earth, therefore different geographical areas would have been more or less fertile and more or less suitable for crop cultivation over millennia. The quality of the land on Earth is a natural issue, not a supernatural one. If we conclude that the agricultural value of the land is a supernatural matter that would mean humankind through their technologies can change what would have been decided by God.
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Many geographical areas on our planet contained fertile ground in the past as it is remembered in recorded history. Adam normally would have eaten uncultivated green plants, according to Genesis chapter 1. Punishment for Adam was relative because he could eat fruits just as before the Fall, because the fruit trees didn’t disappear from Earth and according to Genesis chapter 1 they wouldn’t have been confined to the Garden. In what manner would have humankind been determined to eat only agricultural products? The idea is that in Genesis chapter 2 the fruit tree “that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” would have been planted only in the Garden of Eden and humankind being cast out from the Garden, they wouldn’t have had access to the fruit trees anymore and they would have been determined to eat only agricultural products. This is another discrepancy in the book of Genesis because Adam could have found fruits outside the Garden of Eden in accordance with Genesis chapter 1.
Any punishment ended when people were allowed to eat meat after the Flood, and by changing their diet they were not obligated to eat only plants any more, either cultivated or not. In Genesis chapter 1 people had to eat every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and of every tree with seeds in its fruits, in Genesis chapter 2 they had to eat fruits and in Genesis chapter 3 they were painfully destined to eat only cultivated plants. The jump from uncultivated to cultivated plants in the human diet after the Fall, according to Genesis chapter 3, doesn’t make any sense because it is hard to understand why Adam and Cain would start to cultivate plants if the uncultivated ones including fruits were still available, unless we consider that useful plants would have been created only in the Garden of Eden and outside would have been created only plants with thorns and thistles. Even if that was the necessary conclusion from Genesis chapter 2 and chapter 3, this is inconsistent with Genesis chapter 1 because in Genesis chapter 1 the entire earth put forth vegetation including fruit trees.
“11Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1; 11-12 NRSV)
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Between the earth putting forth vegetation and God planting a Garden, the difference is obvious and generates two different understandings of human history. Adam’s punishment apparently makes sense in Genesis chapter 2 but is totally nonsensical in Genesis chapter 1 where humankind could eat fruits from all over the earth even if they had been cast out from the Garden, and they didn’t need to cultivate plants for their nourishment.
Because the book of Genesis is not a realistic book but a collection of legends, the facts are not in concordance with one another. The people were allowed to eat meat and other animal products only after the Flood but they started to keep sheep straight after Adam’s Fall. A theological link was needed from the animal sacrifices prescribed by Moses’ laws back to the creation and Fall of humankind, and that is probably why the story of Cain and Abel ended in the book of Genesis.
Humankind did not eat meat until the Flood and keeping sheep would have been an occupation linked with meat consumption. Raising sheep could have been useful for providing animal skins but the skins of wild animals would have also been available, making sheep keeping useless. The first garments made for humankind by God were produced from animal skins and they couldn’t originate from animals which had been raised by Abel because he hadn’t yet been born.
In order to use animals’ skins as garments some skills were needed. Animal skins needed to be stretched, dried, and tanned and for that another division in human occupations which isn’t mentioned in the Bible would have been required.
If we take into consideration processing animals’ skins as the object of a craftsmanship, at the time on Earth there would have been more human occupations than population. Two men would have been tillers of the land, Adam and Cain, and one man, Abel, would have been a sheep keeper. If land farming and sheep keeping were mentioned as two different human occupations why wasn’t the craftsmanship of animal skins also mentioned as a distinct profession, and also the fourth one which is garment tailoring? This is an element of another great division of human occupations constituted by all craftsmen. The answer is because the stories from the book of Genesis don’t have anything to do with reality.
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Human garments were first fig leaves, and after that they were made by God from skins. Probably He taught humankind how to process animal skins. Nevertheless, keeping sheep only for skins was not practical as far as the skins could be found in nature and the need for skins had to cover, at that time, only the needs of four recorded persons – Adam, Eve, Abel, and Cain. One author writes about the issue of what reason Abel could have had to keep sheep:
“Abel was a keeper of the flock – some Bibles say sheep, but it could equally as well be goats since they are related. Recall that this murder took place after the Fall when they were required to wear clothes (Genesis 3:20), and sheep or goat hair was used to make clothes. That was one reason for “keeping the flock.” The second reason is that goat’s milk or even sheep’s milk was always the drink of pastoral peoples; moreover, milk tends to go sour quickly in hot climates but when converted to cheese it becomes a staple food for desert travelers. The third reason for “keeping the flock” was for the atonement sacrifice. The reasons for this and the instructions do not appear until Leviticus chapters 16 and 17. However, the atonement sacrifice was undoubtedly introduced by God to Adam just after the Fall. There is a brief reference to the atonement sacrifice when Noah received from God seven of each clean animal and seven of each clean bird as part of the cargo for the ark (Genesis 7:2). Since only males were used for the sacrifice, there would have been six males and one female of the animals and similarly of the birds.”
All the reasons invocated to answer why Abel was the keeper of a flock are meagre against criticism. Humankind had to eat only plants according to Genesis chapter 1, and after the Fall Adam had to eat the products of the ground, and that was presented as a limitation. No milk was authorised for human consumption if we have to take the texts of the book of Genesis seriously. Milk is an animal product and cannot be included in what Adam was allowed to eat, plants of the field. About the use of skins for garments, the problem is the discrepancy between the needs of a very small population, four people, and the efforts required for organising and keeping a herd of animals.
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“However, the atonement sacrifice was undoubtedly introduced by God to Adam just after the Fall.” This sentence isn’t justified by the biblical text because Adam didn’t make any sacrifice to God. Animal sacrifices offered to God weren’t prescribed by the Bible until late in Jewish history. Nevertheless, an important point of these sacrifices is eating the sacrificed animal. That was true for the Passover and for any other sacrifices of cattle in the O.T. in which the priests or the persons offering the animals were involved by taking for their consumption a part of the sacrifices. Abel being a vegetarian, he couldn’t have eaten the meat of his sacrifice and in this way his sacrifice couldn’t have been perfect. The eating of the sacrificed animal meant the identification of the sacrificed animal with the person making the sacrifice, and the animal being punished instead of the guilty person. This identification explains why Jesus asked His disciples to eat symbolically His “flesh” and to drink symbolically His “blood”.
The book of Genesis says that God had directly created domestic animals, but domestic cattle don’t differ genetically from wild cattle, unless they are genetically modified by man in our days. The domestication of animals started with wild animals and it wasn’t a question of “other kinds” of animals but of a process of changing animal behaviour.
We are again in front of a dilemma. All domestic animals created by God with the lack of a keeper would have been devoured by predators before Abel’s birth or would have become wild. Why did God create cattle, domestic animals as opposed to wild animals, without the presence of man to take care of those domestic animals? God wouldn’t have done that in spite of what the book of Genesis says.
To domesticate other animals from wild animals, Abel would have needed an important motivation and plenty of time. Abel would have already had garments for his use so he wouldn’t have been motivated by this purpose. Starting to domesticate animals only for sacrifice would have meant that he had anticipated years before that he would make offerings to God. In the context of the Bible this is improbable because Adam didn’t make any sacrifice and Abel couldn’t have known anything about such a requirement from his parents. If it was a spontaneous gesture of thanksgiving towards God, Abel wouldn’t have premeditated it many years in advance by raising animals for sacrifice.
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In other words, raising domestic animals to be sacrificed to God would have presupposed a system of established rituals in place but such tradition isn’t described by the Bible. Abel’s parents didn’t make any sacrifice to God and after his death no-one else is recorded to have made sacrifices until Noah.
In opposition, we have biblical texts from which we can conclude that there wouldn’t have been any sacrificial law until Moses. A sacrificial law would have been a necessary framework for Abel to raise animals with the precise purpose of ritual sacrifices. Not eating animal products, not needing skins on an industrial scale, and without norms about religious sacrifices, Abel wouldn’t have needed to be sheep keeper. On the other side, if ad absurdum domestic cattle wouldn’t have been eaten by predator animals, they would have needed a herdsman immediately after their creation, consequently the first sheep keeper would have been Adam and not Abel if the story is to make any sense.
Before Moses the law of sacrifices wasn’t there and before Noah God didn’t make any covenant with humankind. An entire theology is based on the idea that there was a period in human history without the existence of a law. We cannot contradict that theology by presuming that God would have asked Abel to keep a herd and to make animal sacrifices for his redemption but without a covenant and a law of sacrifices.
If the story was real Abel’s sacrifice would have been an occasional one, a thanksgiving from his work results, and we aren’t allowed by the texts to infer that he would have kept a herd of animals for normative sacrifices prescribed by God.
“13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law.” (Romans 5; 13 NRSV)
Taken into consideration Apostle’s Paul theology, Abel didn’t have any reason to offer any sacrifice to God for his sin because he wasn’t a sinful person, but even if he did unwillingly sin, his sin was not reckoned because there was no law. Even the original sin wouldn’t have been taken into consideration according to Paul’s theology.
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Being righteous, Abel didn’t need any sacrifice for sin and his offering doesn’t make any sense unless he would have made a voluntary offering for thanksgiving. The point is that Abel and Cain who are only legendary personages would have needed the law in order to know about the types of sacrifices to be offered to God, and any thanksgiving sacrifices would have been judged from their intention not from their form, in lack of precise norms which would have described them. God established precise rules for those sacrifices only after a certain period of time after Noah’s Flood.
“There are five main types of sacrifices, or offerings, in the Old Testament. The burnt offering (Leviticus 1; 6:8–13; 8:18-21; 16:24), the grain offering (Leviticus 2; 6:14–23), the peace offering (Leviticus 3; 7:11–34), the sin offering (Leviticus 4; 5:1–13; 6:24–30; 8:14–17; 16:3–22), and the trespass offering (Leviticus 5:14–19; 6:1–7; 7:1–6). Each of these sacrifices involved certain elements, either animal or fruit of the field, and had a specific purpose. Most were split into two or three portions—God’s portion, the portion for the Levites or priests, and, if there was a third, a portion kept by the person offering the sacrifice. The sacrifices can be broadly categorized as either voluntary or mandatory offerings.”
In order to make sacrifices Noah didn’t need to keep a flock, so Abel also wouldn’t have needed a herd in order to make an offering to God. Weren’t all animals under man’s dominion according to Genesis chapter 1? Noah just took some animals freely from under his dominion and sacrificed them. Why didn’t Abel proceed in the same way instead of becoming a sheep keeper? The answer is given by the inconsistent way in which the story is presented by the book of Genesis.
After the Flood, killing animals and eating them was allowed, but before the Flood eating them was prohibited. The problem is the context in which Abel was a keeper of sheep. Counting as human beings on Earth was him, his father, his mother, and his brother Cain. How many sheep did they need to raise in order to kill them only for skins used for their garments if they didn’t want to use wild animals’ skins? For skins, they didn’t need too many animals, probably four and not too often.
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Cain and Abel made offerings to God for the first time when the incident between the brothers occurred. Not too many sheep were needed for only one sacrifice. After this single time, Cain murdered Abel and nobody else was left to keep the sheep. It is strange, isn’t it? After Abel’s departure, an entire branch of professional occupations vanished with a lack of people to follow it. Adam and Cain had to toil the ground, they weren’t sheep keepers. This is a strong argument which shows that they wouldn’t have used animal by-products such as milk as their food, because if they had, they wouldn’t have renounced it at once. Adam was cursed to eat the products from the ground and drinking milk from the animals would have meant a negation of the curse. Raising animals when they were prohibited for eating is just another contradiction of the book of Genesis.
What happened with the herd of animals after Abel’s death? Adam and Cain continued to toil the ground and the animals were pushed to take care of themselves without any sheep keeper. They were forced to live in wilderness if no men were caring for them. In a realistic natural environment, sheep without a sheep keeper would have become prey for carnivorous animals. In this way, the new-born profession of sheep keeper would have disappeared shortly after its apparition on Earth.
The veracity of the story of Cain and Abel is threatened by the details it contains. When one tries to see the whole image of the drama, depicted sketchily by the book of Genesis, one understands that the entire picture is factually unbelievable and the details don’t fit with the background. This is only a legend and the few details that it contains are only ornamental and are not to be taken as facts. The story doesn’t stand precisely because of the details that it contains.
At the time the story of Cain and Abel would have happened, there would have been only one family on Earth and reasonably they would have had to work together in all categories of activities in order to survive. When the climatic conditions required or when the timing for certain agricultural work was suitable, they all had to work on the field and alternatively in the mornings and afternoons they had to feed their animals. A big division of work between sheep keepers and land farmers in the middle of the same small family is only a fantasy. Cain and Abel would have both been farmers and sheep keepers if they were brothers living in their father’s household. Their common farm would have included several activities attended to by all members of the family.
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The division of work in farming the land and raising animals appeared only later when the human population grew importantly and people started to interchange their products. In time, another division also appeared between commerce and craftsmanship. For any division of human activities more than four people on Earth were needed. Even if there were several sisters of Cain and Abel unrecorded by the book of Genesis, the situation wouldn’t have changed.
If Adam had been the father of the household formed by four members, according to the book of Genesis, he and only he would have decided what offerings were proper for God because he was the familial authority. Adam and Eve had seen God and spoke with Him and it is without any logic that they didn’t make any offerings to Him on record in the book of Genesis. What could have Adam offered to God if he made offerings? According to the book of Genesis, he was a tiller of the ground, as was Cain, and as a tiller of the ground Adam had to offer to God an offering of the fruit of the ground, as did Cain.
Both Cain and Abel offered to God the product of their work and basically there was nothing wrong with that. How could Cain offer meat to God if he did not have an animal herd, according to the book of Genesis? Cain could have taken some meat from the common household to be offered to God but in the context of the Bible the two brothers have worked separately, not as a team. In the narrative of the book of Genesis, meat wasn’t the product of Cain’s personal work and an expression of his effort. Cain had offered to God the only thing that he possessed. At the same time, cereals offered to God were not seen as an unsuitable offering in the Mosaic Law and they were also offered to Him together with animal sacrifices.
In order to balance correctly the biblical texts, a few quotations from the Bible are needed:
“16 You shall observe the festival of harvest, of the first fruits of your labour, of tiller hat you sow in the field. You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labour. 17 Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD.
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18 You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the fat of my festival remain until the morning. 19 The choicest of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the LORD your God.” (Exodus 23; 16-19 NRSV)
Cain was repelled for an action that later on was commended by God as an obligation for the Jewish people. Exodus 23, verse 19 prescribes as an obligation exactly what was considered to be unacceptable in Cain’s behaviour. “The choicest of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God.”
Cain brought to God an offering of the fruits of his ground. Why had he been frowned upon? Here we have a situation in which something was first considered to be wrong and afterwards was prescribed as an obligation. Maybe the quality of Cain’s offering wouldn’t have been the best but the ground being cursed, it was probably impossible to obtain a better quality. The consistency of the biblical texts is given also by the way in which they fit with one another during the entire O.T. There are two inconsistencies at this point. The same kind of offerings as Cain’s were later prescribed by God, and good quality couldn’t have been realised from cursed ground.
Was the absence of any offering an alternative for Cain? Such an attitude could have been interpreted as not being respectful toward God. Cain didn’t have any other choice but to offer to God the fruit of the ground as thanksgiving and this eliminates his responsibility in respect to the object of the offering. The Bible says that God asked Jewish people to do the same thing for which Cain was rejected.
“When anyone presents a grain-offering to the LORD, the offering shall be of choice flour; the worshipper shall pour oil on it, and put frankincense on it, 2 and bring it to Aaron’s sons the priests. After taking from it a handful of the choice flour and oil, with all its frankincense, the priest shall turn this token portion into smoke on the altar, an offering by fire of pleasing odour to the LORD. 3 And what is left of the grain-offering shall be for Aaron and his sons, a most holy part of the offerings by fire to the LORD.” (Leviticus 2; 1-3 NRSV)
The idea of bringing cereals as an offering to God is reiterated again in Leviticus:
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“9 The LORD spoke to Moses: 10 Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest. 11 He shall raise the sheaf before the LORD, so that you may find acceptance; on the day after the sabbath the priest shall raise it.” (Leviticus 23; 9-11 NRSV)
Why was God angry with Cain’s offering? The book of Genesis doesn’t explain that. A reason for God not being happy with Cain’s offering could have been that his offering wasn’t a direct symbol of the human redemption, in other words it was not bloodshed. The concrete manner in which the offering was made couldn’t have played a role in God’s rejection because as we know from the book of Genesis, there weren’t established rules for offerings at the time hence no rule was broken. Abel made an offering to God through faith and not through law. We know that Apostle Paul treated differently faith and law. If a law for the offerings wasn’t in place Cain made his offering also through faith, because there isn’t another alternative. It was either from obligation or through faith. Regarding this issue, any other interpretation about the difference between how Abel and Cain made their offerings is not based on the Bible.
If the offerings had been made through faith they weren’t required directly by God, and there was not a clear and precise form for them.
“4 By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable* sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith* he still speaks.” (Hebrews 11; 4 NRSV)
In John’s first epistle we find that Cain committed an evil deed when he offered to God. The offering couldn’t have been evil by any standards, only the killing of his brother was an evil action.
“11 For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him. Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.” (1John 3; 11-12 NRSV)
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Why didn’t Cain get approval for his offering if it was also made in faith? There isn’t any reasonable answer for that. One can be tempted to blame God for His reaction but that is a mistake because this is a fable, not a story based on reality, and we can know that from the lack of any sense in that narrative.
How would Cain have fallen under the devil’s influence? He was rejected by God because his offering was unacceptable even if such an offering was later prescribed by Him through Moses. The book of Genesis doesn’t allow us to conclude anything about Cain’s life. It is not about his life but about his offering. If it had been about the way in which he lived, the book of Genesis needed to explain that. God’s attitude toward Cain generated Cain’s behaviour with Abel. It doesn’t matter about the motives, God’s rejection of Cain’s offering is the reason why Cain would have taken the wrong path. God’s acceptance of Cain’s offering would have eliminated the concurrence between the brothers.
Even Jesus referred to Abel, according with Mathew:
“34 Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, 35 so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” (Mathew 23; 34-35 NRSV)
The word spoken by Jesus can be seen as a confirmation of Abel being a historical personage, but it isn’t such a thing. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, are mythological personages and their story appears to be very far from historicity, as far as any other myth. Could Jesus endorse a myth as a parabolic modality of expression? He used parables many times in His mission on Earth. Of course He could do that. It is well known that Jesus used many parables in order to get His message through and He could use the story of Cain and Abel as another parable to advance His argument.
Peter Galling pointed to three different reasons why Cain’s offering was rejected by God: the difference in the type of offering; the difference in the quality of offering; the difference in the heart of who offered.
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