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Paying Attention: The Genesis of Murder

by Tony M.

There is much to be learned from paying careful attention both to what is said and what is NOT said in Genesis 4, where Cain is the first murderer, destroying his brother Abel. Some facets of the passage might surprise you if you haven’t paid attention to the details.

First let’s revisit the text itself:

1Now 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.’

8 Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ 10 And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.’ 13 Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14 Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.’ 15 Then the Lord said to him, ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.’ And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

First thing to note is that the text does not actually say that Cain was Adam and Eve’s first child, but does strongly imply it. Certainly Augustine and other Fathers took him to be the first-born. Secondly, this particular version does say “next” in regards to Abel being born after Cain, but this can be misleading. Most other versions have it as “again,” as if to say Eve again brought forth a male child, but without the explicit sense that Abel was the very next child. At most, then, the nearness in age of Cain and Abel is implicit and probable, not definite.

Some authors find in the text an implicit condemnation of Cain on account of his being a husbandman, rather than (like Abel) a shepherd. This is, I fear, a kind of reverse-psychology on the text: because Cain went on to sin, everything he does must be accounted wrong. Not so: the text does not indicate why God did not respect Cain’s offering, but the later text allows us to read into it that God saw his heart and knew that Cain did not offer to God from a pure heart but from lesser motives. But that it was due to working the soil for its produce is reading too much into the choice of occupation. Certainly nowhere else does God disapprove of farming.

Implicit in these sentences is that it was ordinary to make offering to God. This is (I would argue) because worship of God is part of the natural law. Also implicit in these sentences is some definitive sign by which God received or accepted their offerings. This is not part of the natural law: there is nothing in nature which indicates that God must signify his acceptance of an offering. One can suggest – in light of later sacrifices – that the offerings were to be burnt so as to set them apart from man’s use. It may be, then, like with Ezekiel, that God himself brought down fire to burn the offerings that he “accepted” and not on the others. Hence this passage indicates clearly that God continues his direct and visible interactions with the human family after Adam and Eve were driven out of Eden. Note also that this is the first occurrence of God taking preference for the younger over the first-born, as he later does with Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his older brothers, David over his brothers, etc.

When Cain is upset with God’s response and his countenance falls, God speaks to him about it, warning him to overcome the temptation to do evil. What seems implicit in this is that God is in the habit of making visits to these first humans, both on account of the way their offerings are handled and because Cain is not shocked by God’s speaking to him about it. A further implicit meaning is what is behind God’s warning: that man has free will, and while temptations will come, man is capable of turning away from them, of overcoming them. Thus man is responsible for his evil choices.

Next, Cain lures Abel out in order to murder him. Clearly, then, Cain remains not only upset that God did not accept his sacrifice, but God’s warning to master temptation did not take, and furthermore Cain was envious of his brother’s good favor with God. In luring his brother out (presumably, away from the home(s) in which they lived with the others), Cain was getting Abel alone and unobserved. This clearly indicates that the murder was pre-meditated.

God again comes calling, and talks to Cain, asking where Abel is. As Jesus often asked questions not in order to discover the answer, but in order to have the human person realize the truth he already knows implicitly, so did God here. Actually, this is a repetition of what God does in chapter 3, when Adam sins: “Who told you that you were naked?” This represents a basic theme in Scripture: God expects man to THINK about his situation and his actions, not simply be told everything all the day long. Sirach has it that “God made man from the beginning, and left him in the hand of his own counsel.” But this implies TAKING counsel so that one’s choices are made from thought and not from mere fancy or sheer desire.

Cain lies to God, “I do not know”, because he is being prompted by Satan, who “was a liar and a murderer from the beginning.” Cain also tries to declaim responsibility for Abel, but God will have none of that: God says “your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.” God sees and hears what man does not see or hear. Which is why God also saw evil in Cain’s heart, and refused to accept his offering.

Next, because Abel’s blood defiles the ground (which is Cain’s “work place”), God curses the ground on which Cain works so that it will not produce. Thus the first layer of punishment is attuned to the circumstances of the crime. But that’s not all, Cain says “I will be hidden from your face”. Cain recognizes in the situation that he cannot presume to have ongoing communication with God, and feels that loss. Thus, Cain is not wholly insensitive to good and evil, and already begins to feel a kind of remorse for his action, a remorse prompted by punishment, but is by no means merely sadness at the punishment of the curse of the soil. Sadness at the loss of God is at the very heart of the beginning of real contrition. Therefore, God sees in Cain something redeemable: Cain can be brought to repudiate his sin and to be saved.

Now Cain says something about his condition that is, or should be, surprising: “anyone who meets me may kill me.” Why does he say this?

If this is the first murder then there can have been no possible tradition before this of murderers being put to death. Now, Genesis does not say that this is the first such occurrence of grave violence, but the tenor of the passage is that of an origin explanation: how such evils first began to appear. And, of course, there is the strong implication (accepted by the Fathers) that Cain and Abel were the first siblings.

Why does Cain say “anyone who meets me may kill me”? The obvious answer is that Cain is stating what springs from the natural law: it is NATURAL that the human family would rise up against a murderer and put him to death. He fears for his life because that is the natural outcome of being a murderer.

Does God reject this interpretation of the natural law? Or, at least, this prediction of how people will react? No. He does not say anything like “no, that’s not how people would act,” nor “where did you get such an idea?” as he did with Adam saying he was naked. That’s not how God responds. In setting a mark on Cain to protect him, God accepted as true Cain’s anticipation of how people will act: absent the special mark, people WOULD have put him to death. That is to say, when God says “not so” it is “not so, because I will protect you”, rather than “not so, they would have no basis for acting so” or “not so, they would not act that way”. God affirms Cain’s analysis, but does something about it. “True, so here’s what we will do to stop that…”

What does this mean, then? Why does God set the mark on Cain? This is actually two questions, disguised as one. First, why does God bother? Why is God even willing to protect Cain from others? (He did not protect Abel.) It is because of what was said above: God recognized in Cain the first movements of remorse, and so he intended to give Cain time to come to true repentance of his evil and be saved. God’s mercy is evident, he does not desire the death of the sinner for its own sake, but prefers repentance.

[St. Ambrose also assigns to God the motive of not allowing Cain to die as punishment until he had become the father of other men, so that the races of man should come forth. That is, for the sake of later generations. Ambrose also educes an intention of God to delay Cain’s punishment until after death, not because it is wrong to punish in this life, but for other reasons. My sense of Ambrose’s treatment is that he is offering various options (mostly, of an allegorical sort), not all of which are mutually consistent with each other, so we need not take them all with the same force.]

Secondly, why does God need to set a mark on Cain to protect him? What is it about the affair that requires that God intervene with a distinctive, supernatural sign of defense to ensure that Cain gets that time for remorse to do its work? What is it about the human family that said to God “unless I intervene, Cain will be killed?” Remember, the tenor of the passage is that of explaining the origins of violence of brother against brother, the first such murder. The only plausible account is that of the natural law. Cain knows what the people would do, in this first instance of murder, because it belongs to the natural law: it is right and proper to respond to evil with punishment that is proportionate to the crime. It is right and proper that human society put down, with force, that which would be a profound disturbance of social order and general welfare. God’s intervention, then, with a special mark, takes Cain out of the natural law handling and into an arena of special divine providence: God has asserted his right to supercede the natural law with a divine command.

God, then, does not rebuke Cain by saying “they would have no such right”, but almost the reverse (at least by implication): they WOULD have the authority if he did not intervene, which has the effect of saying “even though you people would normally have the authority to put Cain to death, in this instance I supercede the claims of natural law and by a special gift set Cain’s life outside the claims of nature.” Thus God insists that He is above the natural law, and has authority over it, he has the authority to set it aside. Apart from that special act of protection that is a supernatural act (i.e. unique to that specific occurrence), Cain truly would have been killed in the hands of human justice. And in that time and place – where people were used to God interacting and intervening in daily affairs – such a special mark apparently would be understood, and be understood as definitive and binding, so God’s threat of sevenfold vengeance is a terror that will be effective in keeping Cain alive. (Which is unlike the situation later, such as in Noah’s time, or that of Sodom.)

There are many who attempt to read into this passage that God is saying that the death penalty is in itself wrong. But if you pay attention to what is said, how it is said, and the context of the whole passage, this makes little or no sense. If the death penalty is contrary to the natural law, then where would people have gotten the notion of putting murderers to death? Where would Cain have gotten the idea? If the death penalty is contrary to the natural law, why would God not have denied Cain’s prediction being valid? If the death penalty is contrary to the natural law, and God is upholding the natural law itself here, then why would putting Cain to death merit seven times as much penalty as the original act rather than just the penalty for understandable-but-not-justifiable homicide? If the death penalty is contrary to the natural law, then why would God have needed a special mark rather than just reminding them via a general reminder of what they already knew: “you have no authority to kill Cain”? If God intended that his special mark on Cain would carry the sense that “you shall not impose the death penalty because the death penalty is wrong,” then why would he not need to keep on putting a special mark on all murderers?

No, the whole point of the mark is to set Cain aside as a special case. He’s an exception. There would be no need for the mark if there is no place for the death penalty in the natural law. The uniqueness of the mark (God does not go on putting it on other murderers) means that God’s protection is a special case, distinctive to that one event, not generic. God’s action is an intervention to the normal course of the law and just social order, it does not set the ordinary standard.

Therefore, Genesis 4 stands as general _support_ for the proposition that the death penalty is part of the natural law.

There are many who suppose very nearly the exact opposite, that God’s rejection of Cain being killed by others means that God was denying the moral validity of the death penalty as part of human justice. But I believe that they are failing to pay attention to the passage as a whole and to its individual parts. Yes, the passage can be read to say that God prefers repentance when it is possible. Yet carrying through to effect that preference with protection from the just punishment can (and should) be read to stand in recognition of exceptions to the normal rule of justice. God’s action is clearly exceptional and interventional, and thus what he does here does not determine the general norm of punishment.

Comments (11)

What I've always been curious about in the dialogue with God is this:

Suppose we imagine that Cain expects there to be other people (descendants of Adam and Eve and hence his relatives) out there in the world later on and in other places. If Cain wanders far enough and only gets together with his more distant cousins, how would they *know* that he had murdered Abel? He wouldn't tell them. How would just *seeing* him be enough for them to know that he was a murderer? Is he assuming that Adam and Eve will pass on the word throughout all other human beings he might encounter?

See, I remember the hullabaloo around Kemp (I think?) and the idea of Adam and Eve being ensouled out of an existing population of hominids. Some suggested that the 'anyone who meets me may kill me' were the untouched hominids.

Although it certainly makes the story weird

I don't think unsouled hominids *care* about whether you're a murderer or not. Presumably they have no moral theory, nor a death penalty. :-)

Callum, I would have to agree with Lydia about that. If one assumes that there were "true humans" in and around a population of hominids who looked similar but did not have that divine spark of rationality, it is hard to see how one attributes to the latter any interest in justice or in punishing wrongdoing, or even responding to any action long in the past.

Lydia, I would find it very odd indeed if Adam and Eve did NOT talk about Abel's murder with their other kids. Wouldn't you? They would want to warn them away from envy, from temptation, and certainly warn them about danger from Cain. (That's apart from talking about the mark, that is. Presumably they would also mention that mark and that "God will punish sevenfold" to everyone so that it was a known thing to all of society.)

As far as "just seeing him", for probably most of a hundred years or even more, every person would know every other person in their society, and therefore immediately know an outsider. It was, to start, a very small society, with the promise of a high growth rate, but at first the absolute increase would be very small and every birth would be noted, every child known intimately.

The discussion Cain has with God seems to assume a future with a wide-ranging and complex society that has settled locales and not-settled locales. I would guess that (regardless of any predecessor hominid population, which I don't think is necessary), by being rational Adam and Eve and Cain had foreseen large settlements, villages and the like, of their own offspring. The next few chapters identify Cain as building cities, so the idea was in the mind of the writer of Genesis even if it was not explicitly in the mind of Cain when he was talking to God. But I think it was there in his mind implicitly. Even though they had, at that point, seen one death by violence, they had seen no deterioration and death by old age, and thus they would not know how long they would live and how many children they would bring forth.

I see, so you take him to be talking about a kind of social information network when he says, "Everyone who sees me." I suppose that somewhere along the line I had gotten a vague idea of a more mystical meaning of it--as though he thought he'd carry a "murderer aura" around with him. But there's really no reason to think of it that way. And it's also a good thing to think of that as the *only* murderer thus far, he would stand out as utterly bizarre in the minds of Adam and Eve and their other children. We're so used to having criminals in our society and even thinking about rehabilitating them, that we'd probably be out there saying, "Well, just because he killed Abel doesn't necessarily mean he's going to kill anybody else. Let's see if we can mainstream him." But he would have seemed much more monstrous to people who had previously lived before the face of God in the garden.


What a wonderful and insightful post! I don't have anything to add other than the fact that as I was reading your analysis you reminded me of the careful, close Torah reading that I'm familiar with from the work of Leon Kass -- in other words, you are like W4's resident rabbi :-)

Keep up the good work!!

in other words, you are like W4's resident rabbi :-)

And here I shaved off my beard a year and a half ago! Oh no! I may have to join "Rabbis Anonymous" and start the 12 steps.

But he would have seemed much more monstrous to people who had previously lived before the face of God in the garden.

And who apparently continued to have conversation with God on a regular basis. Yes, I think that this murder would stand out as shocking and bizarre ("monstrous" is a good word, for pre-meditated murder really is that) that would not readily pass away with a few weeks of acclimation. The way people would continue to speak about Cain would cement in his ostracism (his being a "fugitive" as God calls it), so while the newness of the murder would wear off, the otherness of being monstrous might not have. Although, I have to wonder how conversion and repentance occurs if all people continue to treat him as monstrous. Also, in order for Cain to become the father of a race of men, he has to marry a woman, so perhaps his being fugitive from others was not quite absolute - which is the point of the protective mark on him, it allows him to still have some interaction with the rest of humanity. Perhaps we can say that by granting him that special protection, God tempers the punishment of being fugitive and banished, from absolute to relative, so that he can regain a human-type of life rather than living the life of a lone animal, subsisting solely on fruits and nuts that he can pick.

Fantastic post, Tony. Thanks for illuminating insights.

Also, in order for Cain to become the father of a race of men, he has to marry a woman, so perhaps his being fugitive from others was not quite absolute

Some girls find bad boys irresistible.

Interestingly, Dr. Jordan Peterson regularly points to this account when discussing how to think about murder in the present day. When people ask him what we are to make of mass shootings, say, he always said, "Read the story of Cain and Abel, and you'll have your answer." He even borrows some Catholic language when he talks about how the murderer comes to hate not merely beings individually but Being itself in the abstract:


*always says (sorry)

Masked E, I think Peterson is right about some people: that they have so re-written the story of reality inside their heads so much that they blame God for creation itself. They see so much suffering and evil, and that it extends everywhere on the Earth, and they leap to the notion that mere existence itself is a burden, even, an unnatural and unbearable burden. This state of mind is, of course, one that obtains through experiencing a complete lack of God, so that there is no possible meaning to any of the suffering beyond itself. It is easy to see despair and homicide coming out of that.

Fortunately, most people, even when given over to sin, are not so completely given over as to despair and to turn against all being in rage against God's creative act.

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