The First Murder

Why does God honor Abel over his brother Cain?

God rejects Cain, we often say, because Cain offers only the fruit of the ground. Abel offers the first of his flock, the more worthy sacrificial gift. And so it goes, God's rebuff of Cain is justice, in accordance with the quality of each man's offering unto the Lord. God's decision follows the law of retribution whereby discernible reasons give meaning to divine action. This is one reading of the story.

The story has other possibilities. Consider for a moment how the message of the story changes if we suggest that God's decision to honor Abel over Cain is arbitrary. What if Cain is well-intentioned and anxious to honor God with the bounty of his toil and labor in the fields? What if the "fruit of the ground" actually means the entire produce of Cain's harvest? He offers it all to God. As I read the story again, it occurs to me that it is difficult to judge what the quality of his offering truly may be. Is it possible that God, out of whim or caprice or just plain favoritism, chooses Abel? Or does God have something else in Mind? Here the story reaches into the struggles of human experience, for as any of us can testify, life is not always fair. We may work hard and do all the right things, but these acts alone do not mean that we will win the approval and respect of our parents or our bosses. In fact the reality of life is that we are sometimes passed-over or slighted without reason or attention to merit. And how do we respond? Well, Cain's response will be to strike back? To lose control. To rage.

A savvy God says to Cain, "If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?" At this moment in history, Cain fails to understand God's riddle. For one accurate answer to the question is undoubtedly "No," because acceptance is never guaranteed regardless of one's actions. Regardless of our will, no one is exempt from injustice; hardship befalls the innocent as well as the wicked. God goes on to say, "and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door." Doing WELL is more about our ability to handle the hardships and injustices, as we perceive them, without resorting to vengeance and brutal inhumanity. The biblical story warns us: "if thou doest not well" then RAGE "lieth at the door."

In a country where "rage" is becoming one terribly bizarre response to living with each other, we often resort to violent payback for any perceived infraction against our personal notions of who is "in the right." The story of the first murder scorns such self-righteous vendettas; yet many of us still see ourselves, it seems, as the unjustly wronged and therefore take on the role of the avenger, the incarnation of Cain. In fact we have become obsessed with Cain; we want to know more and more about the natural born killer. Within this cultural desire, we flirt with the insanity of homicide. We forbid the innocent shepherd to speak. And as it is in the Bible, Abel is silenced forever.

For a Jewish perspective on "The First Murder," see the short essay by Rabbi Shalom Carmy, Consulting Editor of Tradition. He recently edited Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations (Jason Aronson, 1996)