The story of Cain and Abel is the story of the first act of violence in the Bible. The first act of violence in the Bible was not divine violence; it was human violence. Before there was divine violence there was human violence.
The story of Cain and Abel deals with the occupations of the two brothers and the sacrifices they presented to God. Abel was a keeper of sheep and Cain was a tiller of the ground (Genesis 4:2). It is customary for scholars to see in the work of the brothers a rivalry between two ways of life. In fact, René Girard said that rivalry is “the principal source of violence between human beings” (Girard 2001:11).
One of the main issues in the story of Cain and Abel is the offering the brothers presented to God. I have dealt with this issue in my post “Cain and His Offering.” The focus of the present post is on the violence of Cain.
The killing of Abel is unique in the Bible because it is the first act of violence among humans; it is an act of violence of a human against another human. Another unique feature of Cain’s murder of Abel is that this act of violence is “the only murder without a model.” The first murder “is not the violence of ‘all against all.’ Rather, the first murder . . . is the violence of ‘one against one’—violence without a model” (Belousek 2017:74).
If the first murder was violence without a model, where did Cain learn that violence was the solution to his problem? Or, to put in other words, what motivated Cain to kill his brother? It is in Cain’s murder of Abel that we find the origin of violence. The violence of Cain explains all acts of violence in the Bible, both human and divine.
I contend that the proper understanding of Cain’s violence is the proper place to understand violence in the Bible, both human and divine. In my book, Divine Violence and the Character of God, I provide a detailed study of human and divine violence. In this post I will focus on the violence of Cain. In my book I deal at length with God’s reaction to Cain’s violence.
The violence of Cain has been the focus of many books and articles. These works seek to understand what was behind the violence of Cain and what caused him to murder his brother. Due to the limitation of time and space, I will focus on the idea proposed by Regina Schwartz and on the proposal put forth by R. W. L. Moberly. Then, I will conclude the post by offering my view on the violence of Cain.
Regina Schwartz – The Violence of Cain
In her book, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism, Regina Schwartz blames the violence of Cain on monotheism. She writes, “Why did God condemn Cain’s sacrifice? What would have happened if he had accepted both Cain’s and Abel’s offerings instead of choosing one, and had thereby promoted cooperation between the sower and the shepherd instead of their competition and violence? What kind of God is this who chooses one sacrifice over the other? This God who excludes some and prefers others, who casts some out, is a monotheistic God-monotheistic not only because he demands allegiance to himself alone but because he confers his favor on one alone” (Schwartz 1997: 3).
To Schwartz, monotheism excludes multiple allegiances. That is, one cannot worship multiple gods. The monotheistic God of the Hebrew Bible has allegiance to one people, one nation, one person. God accepts Abel but rejects Cain. Because Cain was rejected, he killed his brother Abel. The reason for Cain’s violence against his brother was because Abel was accepted by God and he was not. Thus, in Schwartz’s view, violence is legitimized by monotheism.
Schwartz believes that monotheism requires “scarcity.” By “scarcity” Schwartz means the principle that everything is limited to people. Monotheism presumes scarcity. There is one God and there is one favored nation. God’s blessings and God’s favor are limited to a few persons: “There are some who are in and some who are out; there are winners and losers. The God who accepts Abel’s offering but rejects Cain’s, ‘who excludes some and prefers others, who casts some out, is a monotheistic God—monotheistic not only because he demands allegiance to himself alone but because he confers his favor on one alone” (Smith 1997:407).
Schwartz believes that the solution to the problem of violence is a return to polytheism. Schwartz says that “the prevailing polytheism of ancient Israel was beaten back by ‘a minority movement’” led by the prophets of Israel. She also said that “the Bible records the biased view of the victorious party.” Her conclusion is that “when the biblical text moves more explicitly toward polytheism, it also endorses a more attractive toleration, even appreciation of difference” (Schwartz 1997:31).
What Schwartz fails to understand is that the polytheistic nations of the ancient Near East were the most brutal and violent nations in antiquity. The Hittites, a people known as “a nation of a thousand gods,” had its problems with violence and a history of regicide. Assyria was a polytheistic nation, but Nineveh, their capital, was known as a city full of blood, full of deceits, and full of violent acts (Nahum 3:1). The Babylonian were a polytheistic nation, but they were ruthless, they conquered nations with much violence, taking “prisoners like the sands of the sea” (Habakkuk 1:6, 9).
R. W. L. Moberly and the Inscrutable God
Moberly believes that the violence of Cain was due to God’s differential decision to accept Abel’s offering and not accept Cain’s offering. As a result, Cain become angry at God’s differential decision and he sought to hurt his brother, the one whom God favored.
What caused the jealousy of Cain to escalate into violence? According to Moberly, it was God’s differential decision to accept Abel’s offering and to reject Cain’s offering. “Dismay at being unfavored or feelings of being wronged can easily grow and develop into deep resentfulness and bitterness.” This feeling of resentment and bitterness “are depicted as developing into ‘sin’” (Moberly 2020:138). Thus, Cain’s attitude led him to hurt his brother, the person whom God favored the most. Cain was resentful that God had favored his brother Abel and had rejected him and his offering.
I have dealt with Moberly’s views in my post The Inscrutable God. In Chapter 4 of his book, The God of the Old Testament, R. W. L. Moberly discusses the reason God rejected Cain’s offering. In Chapter 4, “The Inscrutable God: Divine Differentials and Human Choosing in Genesis 4,” Moberly said that God was the cause of Cain’s anger which eventually led to Cain’s murder of his brother. In my post, I wrote the following about God’s differential decision:
Moberly, however, believes that the assumption that Cain did something wrong when he offered his sacrifice or that there was a reason why God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s, must be reevaluated. Moberly believes that putting the blame on Cain is not the only or the best way to understand the reason God rejected Cain’s offering. God made a differential decision to accept Abel’s offering and not accept Cain’s offering.
Moberly’s view is based on the story of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:21-26). In the story of Jacob and Esau, the younger brother is favored over the older brother, “God made a differential decision that favored Jacob over Esau while they are still in their mother’s womb” (p. 133).
To Moberly “the issue at the heart of the story of Cain and Abel is not the avoidance of being half-hearted or only giving the second best to God, meaningful and important though that is. Rather, the issue is how to handle life in a world where some are more favored than others and, especially, how to cope with being, in a way or another, the one who is unfavored” (p. 135).
Cain and Violence
Cain could not cope with the fact that God had made a differential decision to favor his brother. Cain was also unable to deal with the fact that he was the unfavored one. As a result, Cain became very angry and was resentful of God’s choice. God’s rejection of Cain’s offering does not mean that God was the cause for Cain’s violence.
No one who reads the Bible can deny that there is violence in the Bible, both human and divine. Violence is the result of human rebellion against the original plan God has for his creation. This human rebellion is what we call sin. If people deny the reality of sin, they will never understand the problem of violence in the world.
The denial of sin does not diminish the consequences of sin in the world and the disruption sin brings into the lives of people. When Cain killed his brother, violence entered into our world. As a consequence of sin, violence appears in the world from the beginning of human history and it has increased with the growth of humanity, culminating with the violence we see in our day.
Human violence brings, as a result, violent consequences that affect nations and men and women, young and old. Although many people may not understand this truth, the fact is that human violence begets divine violence, human violence brings divine judgment. Time and space do not permit me to provide a detailed discussion of divine violence. A comprehensive explanation of divine violence can be found in my book, Divine Violence and the Character of God.
In my next post I will again deal with Cain’s violence and the concept of “original violence.”
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
My book Divine Violence and the Character of God will be published on February 1, 2022. The book deals with God’s violent acts in the Old Testament in light of God’s character as a gracious and merciful God. You can order a pre-publication copy of the book at a 40% discount. If you want to order the book at 40% discount, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and put Divine Violence in the subject line and I will send you information on how to order a pre-publication copy of the book at 40% discount. This discount will be available only on pre-publication orders. The 40% discount offer ends on January 31, 2022.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Belousek, Darrin W Snyder. “Violence and Vengeance, Mimesis and Murder, Conflict and Cross: A Critical-Constructive Engagement with René Girard.” Brethren Life and Thought 62 no 1 (2017): 60–74.
Girard, René. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001.
Moberly, R. W. L. The God of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.
Schwartz, Regina M. The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Smith, Brian K. “Monotheism and Its Discontents: Religious Violence and the Bible.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 66 (1998): 403–411.