“Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him” (Gen 4:8, NIV).
Upon rejection, Cain was very angry and his face “was downcast” (Gen 4:5) or, in the KJV, “fell.” The Hebrew word for “fell” is naphal, which refers to a descent from a place of height. Metaphorically, this can describe someone’s fall from pride. For example, Daniel uses this word, naphal, to describe the fall of the King of the North from his exalted position in the political heavens:
“After this, he will turn back toward the fortresses of his own country but will stumble and fall, to be seen no more” (Dan 11:19, NIV).1
Might naphal also describe Cain’s “downfall” from an exalted position within the first family’s hierarchy?
Prior to God’s rejection, Cain held the privileged position of Adam’s firstborn. Moreover, Eve had attached the phrase “even Jehovah” to Cain’s name, which il- lustrates her belief that God would, via her offspring, reverse the consequences of her own and Adam’s transgression, through a “coming Lord” or a Messiah — someone who would share the name of the Lord. As has been shown, Eve’s faith was based on the messianic prophecy God declared in the Garden, when He cursed the serpent:
“And I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman, and be- tween your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen 3:15).
Without any indication of when this prophecy would occur, Eve came to believe that this prophecy could refer to her immediate children, including Cain. Growing up with this prophetic name, Cain also came to believe that he was special — a man of destiny. Assuredly, he was ignorant of what the Genesis 3:15 prophecy actually meant; regardless, he was still proud of his name. This sense of ownership, and the grandiose notions he surely attached to it, puffed up his pride, blinding him to instruction from others: God, his parents, and perhaps even his brother Abel. His delusions of grandeur, along with his status as being the eldest, exalted Cain’s sense of self to a high position from which he would surely fall.
That fall occurred when God rejected him and his offering (Gen 4:5). Its effect was profound, for it not only cast him down from his status as that man of destiny, but he also lost his identity. Very quickly, Cain must have reached the conclusion that the person he thought he was had been little more than a chimera.
Abel: The usurper
To make matters worse, God favored Abel and his offering (Gen 4:4). Doubtless, Cain perceived this as grossly unfair. In his eyes, Abel was a usurper who had stolen his exalted status within the family.
How does one treat a usurper? We might be tempted to imagine that Cain’s violent reaction — killing his brother — was extreme, but consider the examples of Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers; two situations where one brother or group of brothers became jealous of the other or others, because there arose the perception that the younger brother was usurping the role of the elder brother or brothers.
Jacob: The usurper
Consider how Esau reacted when he realized that Jacob had stolen his birthright and then his blessing:
“Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, ‘The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob’ ” (Gen 27:41).
His initial reaction was to kill his brother.
Joseph: The usurper
Likewise, Jacob “loved” Joseph “more than any of his other sons” (Gen 37:3). If this wasn’t enough to cause jealousy among his other sons, Joseph shared with them two dreams where he was “reigning” over his brothers, including the older ones (vv. 5-11). Joseph’s sons’ reaction was similar to Esau’s:
“Here comes that dreamer!” They said to each other, “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams” (Gen 37:19-20).
As these two examples show, status in the hierarchical family structure of the ancient world, and the perceived or real theft of a blessing or birthright by a younger brother, causes feelings of jealousy, which are often intense enough to lead to fratricide. Thus, Cain’s violent reaction, although extreme, is not unique. Like Esau and Joseph’s brothers, Cain also felt the loss of status within the family hierarchy. Not only that, but Cain perceived that Abel had stolen his name — his identity, his sense of self. It was truly a shock to his system and, in addition to causing a sense of despondency, his state of being was complicated by powerful feelings of jealousy and anger. These feelings aroused in Cain a desire for murder, just as they had in Esau and Joseph’s brothers.
Creature of instinct
As has been shown, Cain’s identity was wrapped up in the idea of his unique status: he was the firstborn among humans; he was the eldest son; and he had been given a prophetic name, even Jehovah. But upon rejection, all that disappeared — at least that’s how Cain perceived it. His fall was all the more compounded because God favored his younger brother, Abel. And the thought of this undoubtedly aroused in Cain jealous and fratricidal thoughts.
This suggests that Cain’s murder of Abel was, in modern terms, a crime of passion — a violent act motivated by sudden, strong emotions. This type of crime is usually committed in the moment, however in Cain’s case, some length of time likely passed between the moment when Cain was rejected and his brother was favored, and when Cain said to Abel, “Come, let’s go out into the field” (Gen 4:8).
In spite of the apparent premeditated nature of Cain’s crime, it was still a crime of passion: the savage act of an ignorant and irrational “creature of instinct” (2Pet 2:12). We might wonder, from where did such a “savage” and “brutish” nature come from? — until we realize that this was just one example — albeit an extreme one — of a man who had, on prior occasions, demonstrated an unwillingness to control or “master” his emotions:
[God speaking to Cain] “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it” (Gen 4:7).
This metaphor likens sin to that of an animal, a creature that “crouches at your door.” The word “crouch” suggests a state immediately preceding the act of pounc- ing, as if to suggest that sin, like an animal, is ready to spring and devour its prey. In this example, Cain was unprepared to defend himself from this adversary, because he was unwilling to listen to the advice of others — a trait that he demonstrated on more than one occasion. (Recall that he ignored the tutelage of his parent’s spiritual instruction, which resulted in an unacceptable offering.)
Why did Cain reject the advice/wisdom of others? Because pride in his name blinded him to instruction. And without Godly wisdom, Cain was like unto an animal; a creature controlled by instinct and that reacts to stimuli without discern- ment. This is what turned him into that savage, brutish person, who emerged in the wake of rejection.
Love versus hate
That Cain was a savage and brute man is now clear. But we might still be asking ourselves, how could Cain murder his own brother? The short answer is: Cain hated Abel.
Now, nowhere does it say in Genesis or elsewhere in the Bible, that Cain hated Abel, but his hate of his brother can be deduced by the attitude of indifference which he expressed towards his brother, and which is evident in the Genesis account.
In the Bible, God presents a spiritual dichotomy concerning our coexistence with others: we can either love our neighbor or hate them, there is no middle ground. For as John writes:
“Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the dark- ness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him” (1John 2:9-11).
John continues this theme by suggesting that if you end up in the latter camp, (i.e. hating someone) you are the equivalent of a murderer, for: “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (3:15). Now Genesis 4:9 does not explicitly say that Cain hated his brother, but he was, at the very least, indifferent about him. For example, “[God asked] ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He [Cain] replied: ‘I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?’ ” — a statement of indifference, if there ever was one.
Likening indifference to hate might seem like an unreasonable comparison. However in God’s eyes, indifference is the opposite of love. Take for example, the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that parable, several leading Jewish men pass by a wounded man on the side of the road. They ignore his plight — not out of hate, necessarily, but of indifference. In response to their acts of indifference, what does Christ say?
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (Luke 10:36).
Notice that the word Christ uses is neighbor. That word, plesion (Greek) in the New Testament, has this association:
‘One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the command- ments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” ’(Mark 12:28-31).
This word, neighbor, is used in the context of the two greatest commandments. Moreover, it is used in relation to “loving” — first, loving God with “all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and secondly, “loving your neighbor.” In the parable of the Good Samaritan, what Christ is really asking his audience in Luke 10:36 is: “Which of these three do you think loved the man who fell into the hands of rob- bers?” Obviously, those who did nothing to help the wounded man did not love him. Thus, their indifference was a demonstration of their lack of love.
This demonstrates that indifference is likened to a lack of love, and therefore, in the dichotomy of love versus hate, it is equivalent to the latter, since with God, there is no middle ground — if you do not love, you therefore hate.
As such, Cain was able to murder his brother because he felt indifferent toward him. And his lack of love, was — in the spiritual dichotomy — equivalent to hate. Thus, when the situation finally arose, it did not take much on Cain’s part to murder his brother, because he did not love Abel. In the aftermath of the killing, we can imagine that when Cain looked upon Abel’s bloodied body, he, like those leading Jewish men in the parable of the Good Samaritan, felt nothing more than a feeling of indifference.
Matthew Harrison (Ottawa, QC)
1. All quotations are from the NIV, unless otherwise noted.