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Cain's Choice

The story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16) is a tale of sibling rivalry of archetypal significance. Have you ever stopped to consider what led to Cain’s murderous action in the field? Two brothers. Same parents. What went wrong that led to the death of Abel? The collective wisdom in Jewish tradition offers interesting insights. Let’s join some of the Torah scholars in their discussions: [1]

‘And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard’ (Gen. 4:4-5).

Why are Cain and his offering unacceptable? The text doesn’t say outright, but the creative reflections of the sages find a reason. According to Rashi,[2] the fruit of the ground brought by Cain in verse 3 was ‘from the poorest’ of fruits. Contrast this with verse 4: ‘the firstlings’ of Abel’s flock, ‘their fat portions’. Note too that Abel brings from ‘his’ flock, whereas Cain’s gift is ‘the’ fruit. Reading into this subtle difference the sages claim that Abel gives something closely identified with himself, whereas Cain makes no such personal sacrifice. See how a close reading of the text—attention to a single contrasting word—can affect our interpretation and draw us into the sacred story.

If we follow this line of reasoning, then, in relation to his brother’s gift Cain’s effort is shown up as inadequate. It is not a question of talent, but generosity, care, respectful effort. Where more was reasonably expected, Cain falls short, and this does not escape God’s attention. Cain, you could say, is ‘caught out’ by God. What should be the response of one who is ‘caught out’; whose poor behaviour is exposed by someone with the authority to make the judgment? Surely it should be to admit and correct the error according to one’s abilities. But Cain responds differently. ‘Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell’ (Gen. 4:5). He is consumed by a rage that is written all over his face.

‘The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen?’ (Gen. 4:5).

From a certain angle, God’s question appears as an ann