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The Enigmatic Genius of Cain The World's First Murder, Part 2

May 9, 2009 | by David Fohrman

The story of Cain and Abel is not a simple scenario of sibling rivalry.

In considering the Bobby and Debbie scenario I outlined last chapter, some would argue that the Almighty made a "parenting mistake" here. Such a view is rather in vogue lately among contemporary interpreters. In Bill Moyer's nationally televised discussion of Genesis, for example, a fair number of participants were inclined to take this perspective. But the implications of this view are dramatic and harsh, and we might as well be clear about them.

First, it is a tricky business to ascribe errors in judgment to the Almighty. To do so is quite likely heresy from a theological point of view. But even if heresy doesn't scare you, from a simple rational perspective, it seems preposterous to suggest that the Creator of All lacks basic wisdom about parenting. It just is very hard to swallow that the Master of the Universe is less sophisticated about parenting than, say, Dr. Spock or the self-help guru who showed up last week on Oprah to hawk her book.

Evidently something is rotten with this comparison to Bobby and Debbie. Somehow God's acceptance of Abel's offering and His rejection of Cain's was not like mommy's preference of Debbie's pretty picture over Bobby's stick figures. Why?

Let's go back to Bobby and Debbie, for a moment, and try to isolate the parenting "sin" that takes place when Mommy tells her kids whose painting she likes better. What exactly is she doing wrong?

Why My Kids Hate Playing by the Rules of "Boggle"

The great sin, I think, lies in Mommy's stated or implied comparison of Bobby to Debbie. When Bobby and Debbie compete for Mommy's love, when they ask whose painting she likes better, that question is a trap. The question, even if asked in the spirit of childhood innocence or playfulness, pits two siblings against each other in a terrible battle for the love and approval of their creator. If the parent buys into this game; if he or she agrees to play referee in this great game of combat, he or she has failed before even saying a word. The terms of play are themselves rotten.

it is wrong to judge one kid using the other as a benchmark.

This is not to say that it is wrong for Mommy or Daddy to evaluate their kids, or to give or withhold approval -- only that it is wrong to judge one kid using the other as a benchmark. The essential point of illegitimacy here is the false sense of competition: the fact that Debby becomes the measuring stick by which Bobby is judged; the fact that, as a result, neither Bobby's nor Debbie's acts are really being seen as valuable in and of themselves, but only insofar as they measure up or outshine the accomplishments of the other.

There is a game we sometimes play around the table with our kids. It is a word game by the name of "Boggle." In Boggle each player looks at a grid of letters and has sixty seconds to identify a list of words that emerge from contiguous letters. There is a rule in Boggle that all my kids universally hate. The rule is that if all the players around the table have discovered the same word, no one gets any credit for it. Every kid is supposed to just strike those words from their list; they simply don't count.

Now from a strictly utilitarian point of view, this rule makes a lot of sense. It simplifies the process of keeping score. But it's the message behind that rule, I think, which draws my kids' ire. The message is, "What you found, what you discovered, doesn't count if your brother Bobby found it too." Your acts don't have inherent worth or value; they can be "canceled out" by what your siblings do or don't do.

Did Cain Get Compared to Abel -- or to Himself?

Now let's look at the story of Cain and Abel, this time, reading it a little more carefully. Ask yourself, Why did God reject the offering brought by Cain? Let's read the text and see what it tells us about each brother's offering:


And in the process of time it happened that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering to the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the first of his flocks and of their choicest ones. And the Lord turned to the offering of Abel, but to Cain and his offering He did not turn. (Genesis, 4:3-5)


Look carefully here. The text does say that Abel took "from the first of his flocks and from their choicest ones," whereas with Cain we hear no such detail, only that he brought "of the fruit of the ground." The implication is that Abel offered the best of what he had, whereas Cain simply offered some of what he had -- average produce, produce that didn't stand out as either the best or worst of what he had.

But ask yourself this deceptively simple question:

When measured against each other, which offering was of a higher quality?

Nowhere is there evidence to suggest that Abel's offering was worth more or was superior to Cain's.

You might be tempted to answer that it was Abel's -- Abel brought the better stuff. But the real answer is: We simply don't know.

Nowhere is there evidence to suggest that Abel's offering was worth more or was superior to Cain's. We know that Abel offered the best of what he had, whereas Cain offered simply some of what he had -- but we don't know how one offering stacked up against the other. It is entirely possible that Cain's offering was worth more; that his "average" stuff was of a higher quality than the best of what Abel had. We just don't know. The bottom line is: Abel brought the best he could; Cain didn't. Each brother is not compared to the other, but to himself. What he did is being compared to what he could have done.

If Bobby and Debbie both show up with pictures for Mommy's birthday, and Mommy discerns that Debbie did the best she could with the picture, while Bobby's picture looks like something he threw together while watching The Simpsons, it is entirely appropriate for Mommy to note this fact. It doesn't matter that Bobby might be the better artist; that, at an art auction, Bobby's absent-minded doodles might fetch a greater price than Debbie's carefully crafted sunset. All that is irrelevant. If Mommy senses that, relative to his own talents, Bobby presented her with something nondescript, she is entitled to feel that something is not right, and to make her feelings known.

All of which brings us to a very important question: Why did Cain do what he did? If you're going to bring an offering to God already, one would think that one would bring the good stuff. What exactly was Cain thinking?

The Enigmatic Genius of Cain

In our mind's eye, I think we often construct an inaccurate portrait of Cain. One tends to think of Cain as a grudging imitator of Abel. We imagine, perhaps, that Cain saw his brother bringing an offering to God and, not wanting to be outdone, Cain figured he would play along. His heart wasn't really in it though, so he didn't bring the best of what he had.

Cain was the originator -- the first person in the history of the world to bring an offering to God.

But in reality it didn't happen like that. It wasn't Abel who had the brainstorm to bring the first offering -- it was Cain. Cain was the originator -- the first person in the history of the world to bring an offering to God.

It seems strange to say so, but this fact alone qualifies Cain as a kind of spiritual genius. Whatever else one may think of the notion of offerings to God, one thing is sure -- the idea has stood the test of time. A wheel may seem simple and obvious, but its inventor is a genius. Cain, too, was a kind of genius -- he began something, and hundreds of religions representing millions and millions of people have followed suit.

All in all, this makes Cain a much harder figure to peg.

How are we to understand a man who introduces the idea of offerings to the world -- but then, when he actually brings this first of all offerings, brings nondescript, average produce? If you are an innovator, you are not likely to be the kind of person who does things halfway. Why does Cain, the bold inventor of offerings, not bring the best of what he has to God? Cain's genius is enigmatic indeed.

In broad terms, I think this is perhaps the central challenges the Bible puts before us here: How are we to decipher Cain? Like it or not, the story is not really about Abel. He just gets killed, and we know nothing more of him. It is Cain whose legacy endures. It is Cain whose acts and thoughts are the focus of our story. It is Cain the Torah is asking us to try and understand.

A Question of Placement

Our quest to make sense of this story can be helped, I think, by pulling back our zoom lens and getting a broad, landscape view of our narrative. Here's a bit of homework, if you will: Let's take some time to look at the broad context in which our story appears. Is there any meaning in the fact that the Cain and Abel story appears in the Bible precisely where it does?

On one level, there doesn't seem to be anything remarkable about the placement of the story. It comes right after the episode of Adam and Eve in the Garden, presumably because that's when it took place. The narrative appears here because that is its rightful place in the chronology of events. Right?

Well, yes. But sometimes, chronology isn't everything. The links between juxtaposed Biblical stories often run far deeper than the incidental fact that one story happened right before or after another. Stories that appear next to each other in the Bible often shed light on each other in surprising ways.

Is that the case with the Cain and Abel narrative? Is the story of mankind's first murder connected in any essential, meaningful, way to the events that precede it -- namely Adam and Eve's experience with the Forbidden Fruit, and their subsequent banishment from Eden?

Re-read the story carefully, and see if you can find any clues. We'll talk again next week.


1) It is true, of course, that the Bible itself speaks of God "regretting" having made mankind. But the Bible also speaks of the "outstretched arm" of God, and few of us are willing to concede that God has arms. The Bible uses anthropomorphism with reference to God now and then, speaking of the Almighty -- a Being whose essence we cannot begin to understand -- in human terms that we can understand. When the Bible does so, though, we are getting just a faint approximation of reality. Whatever God's "arm" means, it doesn't mean a structure composed of bone and flesh that God uses to eat his dinner with. And whatever God's "regret" means, it doesn't mean the fairly prosaic emotion that afflicts us mortals when we realize we've made a boo boo. The regret of an all powerful, all-knowing being is of a different nature altogether, and its true meaning is shrouded in mystery.




This series is excerpted from Rabbi Fohrman's new book, "The Beast that Crouches at the Door: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Beyond." To purchase a copy visit or visit

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