In her book The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism, Regina Schwartz says that the story of Cain and Abel, a story “that follows on the heels of the story of Adam and Eve, strikes me as especially appropriate for the violence that rends our world. . . . . The first brothers committed the first murder, and unhappily I do think that the devastating legacy of Cain is very much with us. We are the heirs of Cain because we murder our brothers.” Schwartz calls the murder of Abel the “original violence.”
Schwartz makes three important statements about violence. First, the murder of Abel is the first act of violence in the Bible. It is the “original violence,” a violence that explains and serves as the model for all human violence: “We are the heirs of Cain because we murder our brothers.”
Second, the legacy of violence that Cain left with the murder of his brother “is very much with us.” What Cain did, the reasons behind his violence, and what motivated him to kill his brother explain human violence in the Bible and in our world today.
Third, Schwartz says that the violence of Cain “follows on the heels of the story of Adam and Eve.” In my next post on Cain I will explain that human violence in general and Cain’s violence in particular cannot be understood without the story of Adam and Eve.
When Cain and Abel came to present their offerings to God, God accepted Abel’s offering but he did not accept the offering Cain brought. The text does not explain the reason God accepted Abel’s offering but rejected Cain’s offering. As a result of being rejected by God, Cain was very angry at God. Cain expressed his indignation by inviting Abel to go to the fields with him. Then Cain attacked his brother and killed him.
The text does not mention what kind of weapon Cain used to kill his brother. The text is also silent about how the murder occurred, but Cain’s violence against his brother reflects his inability to deal with his rejection and to be master over the sin that was seeking to have dominion over him. The violence that Cain used to kill his brother was the result of his inability to master the sin lying outside his door ready to attack him (Genesis 4:7).
Regina Schwartz’s explanation for Cain’s violence is monotheism. According to Schwartz, monotheism requires “scarcity,” that is, one God favors one nation, not many. One God favors one individual and does not favor “the other.” However, Schwartz’ view has one flaw.
Schwartz believes that the polytheism of ancient Israel was replaced by monotheism because of the work of a prophetic minority. This implies that the context for the story of Cain and Abel would be the religious reforms of Josiah in the seventh century B.C. Josiah and the reformers abolished the worship of Baal and Asherah and the places of worship dedicated to other gods.
After the death of Josiah, however, his son Jehoiakim brought back many of the practices that were eliminated by the reformers. Jeremiah mentions the worship of the Queen of Heaven (Jeremiah 44:17-18) and the sacrifices offered to Molech at the Topheth (Jeremiah 7:31–32). Ezekiel speaks about the women weeping for Tammuz at the entrance of the north gate of the temple in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 8:14) and about the men who were prostrating themselves to the sun between the porch and the altar of the temple in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 8:16). Polytheism did not become extinct in Israel until the rise of Judaism.
According to the biblical writer, monotheism was not the cause of Cain’s violence. In fact, the biblical writer places monotheism at the dawn of civilization, a time when there was no religion, no temples, and no mention of other gods. The text only mentions Cain and Yahweh. From the perspective of the biblical writers, the force behind Cain’s violence is to be found elsewhere.
Moberly’s explanation for Cain’s violence was Yahweh’s differential decision to accept Abel’s offering and not accept Cain’s offering. Yahweh’s differential decision made Cain jealous of his brother and angry at God because of his rejection. In anger, Cain killed his brother, the one whom God favored.
Moberly’s concept of Yahweh’s differential decision in the story of Cain and Abel is based on Yahweh’s differential decision to choose Jacob and reject Esau. After Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, became pregnant, the children struggled in her womb. In order to understand what was happening, Rebekah went to inquire of Yahweh. Yahweh said to her (probably through a priest or a prophet), “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:21–23).
I believe that the comparison Moberly makes between the acceptance of Abel over Cain with the acceptance of Jacob over Esau is not valid. The reason God selected Jacob over Esau was because God had a purpose for Jacob. Rebekah was to become the mother of nations, Jacob was to become Israel, the nation through whom God would carry his work of reconciling the world unto himself. In Jacob God would continue the promise he had made to Abraham. Esau would become the eponymous ancestor of the Edomites (Genesis 25:25; 36:1).
The selection of Abel over Cain did not result in anything because shortly after Abel was chosen, he was killed by his brother. If there was a differential decision to make Abel the favorite of Yahweh, his selection was without a purpose because nothing came out of this differential decision.
The proper understanding for Cain’s rejection is found in Genesis 4:7, a difficult text to interpret, but a text that, in my opinion, shows the reason Cain’s offering was not accepted.
“The LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 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” (Genesis 4:6–7).
There are two things that should be emphasized in God’s words to Cain. The first thing is the first occurrence of the word “sin” in the Bible. The Hebrew word for “sin” literally means “to miss a mark.” The verb carries the idea of a person’s failure to live up to expectations. In a religious context, the word designates a failure to observe God’s law. Thus, the word seems to indicate that Cain failed to live up to God’s expectation, whatever that expectation might have been.
Second, God told Cain: “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” (Gen 4:7). This means that Cain’s offering would have been accepted if he had done what was right (Hebrew “good”). In the Bible, the contrary of “good” is “evil.” God mentions Cain’s attitude, that something in his attitude or that something in his conduct was not right. This is the reason his offering was not accepted.
Although Genesis 4:7 is very difficult to translate into English and although the meaning of the Hebrew words is almost incomprehensible, the intent of the words carries a simple message: if Cain does what is right, his face will be lifted up, that is, he will be accepted. This means that unless God accepts a person, he cannot accept the offering that person brings.
Thus, Genesis 4:7 is emphasizing the fact that the determining element in the presentation of a sacrifice is the attitude of the person presenting the sacrifice. If the attitude of the person presenting the sacrifice is wrong, the sacrifice will not be accepted.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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.
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 email@example.com 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.
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