Cain and Abel
Why Does Murder Feature in One of the Torah’s First Stories?
Why does the Torah present this sad story of Cain and Abel right after the tragedy of the Tree of Knowledge? In this video, David Block and Immanuel Shalev uncover a common thread that weaves its way through the different stories in the beginning of Genesis. In doing so, they offer a compelling explanation of what Adam and Eve’s original sin in the Garden of Eden was really about, how it connects to Cain’s murder of Abel, and how these stories serve as an prologue for the rest of the Torah.
To dig deeper check out the course “A Brief History Of The World.”
Hi this is Ari Levisohn, Curator at Aleph Beta, and welcome to our section on Biblical stories. We’ve collected our best material for each story in the Torah in order to uncover the hidden lessons brought to life by the Torah’s narratives. You’re watching our video on the story of Cain and Abel in its broader context.
The story of Cain and Abel is a really tragic story about the first murder in the Torah, and it follows right after the tragedy of the Tree of Knowledge and Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Why does the Torah offer us these two depressing stories one after another? In a series called “The Parsha Experiment,” Imu Shalev and David Block make the case that the Torah is not meant to be read as a series of isolated episodes, but rather as a continuous narrative. These stories are placed in the beginning of the Torah because they serve as the prologue to everything that is yet to come. We need to study these early failures in order to appreciate how much of the Torah is focused on teaching us how to redeem them. In this video on Parshat Bereishit, Imu and David show how to read this story as part of that broader narrative.
To see the connection, we are actually going to start at the end of the Cain and Abel story. Something in the aftermath of the Cain and Abel story seems to clearly point to an earlier story in Genesis. It all starts in an uncomfortable conversation between God and Cain. David will begin by setting the scene.
What Was the Nature of Cain’s Sin?
David Block: Cain had just murdered his brother Abel and God confronts him. He asks a pretty straightforward question; Where's your brother, Abel – Ei Hevel achicha?
Immanuel Shalev: And Cain responds with an answer that would resonate for millennia; Hashomer achi onochi – am I my brother's keeper?
David Block: And God, who is now furious with Cain's glib answer, doles out punishments; V'atah orrur atah min ha'adamah – now you're going to be cursed from the land. Ki ta'avod et ha'adamah loh tosef tet kochah loch – when you work the ground it won't yield its strength to you.
Immanuel Shalev: Then, God says to Cain; Nah v'nad tiheye ba'aretz – you're going to be a wanderer, a nomad. He is exiled from his home.
David Block: And finally, Cain cries out in anguish at this final punishment; Hein geirashta oti hayom mei'al pnei ha'adamah u'mipanecha esater – today, You have driven me away from the face of the earth, and now I'll be hidden from Your face. It seems like Cain and God's relationship is pretty much over.
Immanuel Shalev: Now the story of Cain and Abel may seem like an isolated event in our Parsha, but does anything about the aftermath of this murder remind you of anything? Is there any other time in this Parsha where a human sins and God punishes in the form of curses?
David Block: The sin of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. After Adam and Eve eat from the tree; Vayitchabeh ha'Adam v'ishto mipnei Hashem Elokim – Adam and Eve hide from God.
Immanuel Shalev: We just saw hiding in Cain's story – Cain said that he is now hidden from God's face.
David Block: And then when God asks Adam; Ayeka – where are you? How did you get to this point? Adam hides from his responsibility and points fingers; It was Eve's fault! And then Eve does the same thing; It was the snake's fault!
Immanuel Shalev: But that word, "Ayeka" – we saw that word with Cain; Ei Hevel achicha – where is your brother Abel? And Cain's response to God where he said; Am I my brother's keeper, that was shrugging off responsibility, it echoes the response of his parents who pointed fingers.
David Block: And then God curses the ground using those same words He later uses with Cain; Orrurah ha'adamah ba'avurecha – the ground is cursed because of you, in sadness you will eat of it all the days of your life.
Immanuel Shalev: And finally; Vayegaresh et ha'Adam – Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden, their home. Cain would also be expelled from his home, forced to wander the land.
David Block: So it's pretty clear that there is a strong connection between these stories, but there's something odd about these parallels. They're not identical. For instance, when Adam and Eve point to others for the cause of their sin, they're really just quibbling with God about whose fault the sin was. Adam blames Eve, and then Eve blames the snake. But Cain doesn't even acknowledge the sin; he plays dumb that there's even anything wrong – with the Omniscient, All-Powerful God.
Immanuel Shalev: And the ground is cursed for Adam, and he'll have a hard time working it, but for Cain, he is cursed from the ground. And his curse is much, much worse – it won't just be hard for him to work the land, God makes it so that the earth won't even produce for Cain at all. The parallels are there, but they're darker, more severe. Almost as if things are getting worse in the generation after Adam.
David Block: So what are the connections telling us? Is it just that God is not very creative when it comes to His arsenal of punishments? Or, is there some deep way that these stories are connected?
Immanuel Shalev: Maybe, if the aftermath of these sins is similar, it would stand to reason that the thing that provokes them is similar too. Cain's sin must be connected to the sin of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
David Block: But what would that even mean? So it looks like the story starts with the sin of the tree, but we think that the story actually starts way at the beginning; Chapter 1, verse 1. Ready? Here we go.
Why Did Adam and Eve Sin in the Garden of Eden?
Immanuel Shalev: In Chapter 1 we are introduced to the character of God. All we really know about Him is that He existed before the world was created. And yet, He makes the decision to bring us, humanity, and everything we need to survive, into the picture.
David Block: And God really does seem to go out of His way for humanity. Each of the days of creation God declares about what He has made that it is good; Vayar Elokim ki tov.
Immanuel Shalev: And humanity stands to benefit from all that goodness.
David Block: Each day is another layer of creation that needs to be declared as good, Ki Tov, before God can introduce man into the picture.
Immanuel Shalev: And in Chapter 2, God declares that it is not good for man to be alone – Loh tov heyot ha'Adam levado. And He creates Eve.
David Block: So we see that God is the knower of what is good and what is not good for mankind. And that God seemingly creates the world for man, and tells him to be fruitful and multiply, and to conquer the earth – Pru u'revu u'mile'u et ha'aretz vekivshuha.
Immanuel Shalev: But why does God create the world for man? What is the meaning of life?
David Block: Great question. And like we said before, God doesn't come right out and tell us, but it does seem that God's creation of the world is a great act of kindness, like He wants to have a relationship with mankind. The first two chapters are all about what God gives to man, but there's only one restriction...
Immanuel Shalev: The tree of knowledge of good and evil. God says; Mikol eitz hagan ochol tochel u'm'eitz hada'at tov v'ra'ah loh tochal mimenu – eat from all the trees of the garden, just not from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
David Block: It sounds like such a strange command. Why create a tree that we're not supposed to eat from?
Immanuel Shalev: And what's even stranger is that it seems like a pretty easy one not to mess up. They have access to EVERYTHING except that one tree.
David Block: And still they eat from the tree.
Immanuel Shalev: So what's going on here? Why create the off-limits tree in the first place, and how did Adam and Eve so egregiously fail?
What Were the Consequences of Adam and Eve's Sin?
David Block: God wants to have a relationship with us, He created the garden as a place where man could live together with Him as a sort of paradise, a gift for humanity.
Immanuel Shalev: But, God wants us to understand that it comes from Him. When a parent gives their child a gift, they want their child to enjoy it, but in the context of their relationship. And if the child acts like they deserve the gift, when they forget the parent who gave it, it damages the relationship between parent and child.
David Block: So, God says, eat from all these trees, enjoy My garden, but I want you to know that it comes from Me because I want to have a relationship with you. And how are we going to show that we understand that and that we want to be in that relationship? By honoring the prohibition not to eat from God's one tree, that's how we convey our understanding that we're guests in the garden. We don't make the rules – God does.
Immanuel Shalev: And as long as Adam and Eve realize that, they can have that relationship with God. But they failed. The temptation was to see yourself as the owner of the garden. If I'm a guest I owe gratitude, I'm indebted to you. It's much easier if it's all mine; I make the rules – not God.
David Block: See, until that point God was the decider of good and evil; what was good for humanity, and what was not.
Immanuel Shalev: But when Adam and Eve broke God's rule and ate from the tree, they took good and evil into their own hands. The text says; Vateireh ha'isha ki tov ha'etz l'ma'achal – that Eve saw that the tree was GOOD to eat from. This is the first time a human declares that something is good.
David Block: But that was her perspective on good and evil, not God's. Eve meant it was good as in tasty, not good as in morally good.
Immanuel Shalev: And when people decide what's good, it's always tainted by desire. What we WANT becomes good, and what we don't like becomes bad. We're able to forget that we're guests in this world, and to think that we are the owners, that we should make the rules, that the rules should be about what I think is good – for me.
David Block: What happens next is incredibly tragic.
Immanuel Shalev: When Adam sins, God responds by cursing the ground that He had formed for man. Almost as if God's saying, I gave you the world to enjoy and it'll produce for you! But if you can't realize that it's from Me, if you want to pretend that you're the owner, so then let's see what you make of it on your own.
David Block: And they're kicked out of God's home. Yes, they can still live in the world that God created but that closeness with Him, that's gone.
Immanuel Shalev: And now we're back to the story of Cain and Abel.
David Block: Spoiler alert: instead of things getting better, they get much worse.
From Adam and Eve's Sin to Cain's Sin
Immanuel Shalev: When Cain saw that Abel's offering was accepted and his own wasn't, he gets really, really angry.
David Block: But God lovingly reached out to Cain. Hey, Cain, don't be so angry! Haloh im teitiv se'eit – if you do what's good, you'll be uplifted. There's that word again; Tov – good. Of course, God meant what's morally good – what God determines to be good. But Cain had another idea…
Immanuel Shalev: Yeah. Cain took God's advice – sort of. He did what was good – but good according to his own rules, according to his own desires. Just like Adam and Eve did. He ignored God, and took matters into his own hands, and ended up killing his brother.
David Block: Like we said, Cain falls further than Adam and Eve had fallen, totally denying awareness that anything was wrong, and his curses are all the more harsh and devastating.
Immanuel Shalev: And what started out as Adam hiding from God turns into God hiding from Cain. And that's the link that ties our Parsha together.
David Block: Our Parsha begins with a loving God, shaping a Universe of Good for mankind, but it ends with the broken relationships of humanity who are moving further and further away.
Immanuel Shalev: The final chapters of our Parsha list the genealogies from Adam to Noah, fast-forwarding over a thousand years of human history as they continue a downward spiral where things get even worse.
David Block: The Parsha began with seven Tovs – seven mentions of good, but it ends depressingly with the first time that God declares that something as Ra'ah – evil. Vayar Hashem ki rabah ra'at ha'adam ba'aretz v'kol yeitzer machshevot libo rak ra'ah kol hayom – God saw that the evil of man was great in the land and that all of his thoughts were only evil.
Immanuel Shalev: And the text tells us that God became sad and regretted having made man. In the span of just one Parsha, we are presented with an ideal world and its rapid decline into destruction.
Correcting the Sin of Adam and Eve in Our Own Lives
David Block: But the story has only just begun. In next week's Parsha, things get worse before they get better, but God has a plan to turn it all around. The themes we uncovered in this week's Parsha appear all over the Torah.
Immanuel Shalev: They present the challenges that future generations need to deal with. Challenges that maybe even we, in our time, need to deal with. And the Torah seems to be a book, a guidebook, that teaches us the way back to closeness in the relationship with God.
Hi, Ari again. The Torah begins with a series of sad stories, but these stories are all part of a continuous narrative that is setting the stage for the rest of the book of Genesis.
So much of the rest of the Torah is focused on redeeming these mistakes, and how we can learn from them.
Take a look at the rest of the book of Genesis and see as the themes unfold.
If you want to see how Imu and David continue to read this ongoing narrative check out the next installment of the “Parsha Experiment” here
or, if you are interested in a deep dive, listen to Rabbi Fohrman’s audio series called “A Brief History Of The World” where he explores the intertwining stories all the way from Adam to Abraham. A link is in the description.
Thanks for watching!