Genesis 4.1–16 relates the curious story of Cain and Abel. Cain (meaning perhaps “smith,” possibly related to the Kenites), is the firstborn of Adam and Eve, and Abel (meaning “emptiness”) is his younger brother or twin. As is generally the case among biblical siblings, they come into conflict. Cain, a farmer, offers a sacrifice of grain to Yahweh, while Abel, a shepherd, offers a sacrifice from the firstborn of his flocks. For no obvious reason, Yahweh rejects Cain's sacrifice; this appears to be a literary gap or blank. After some moral advice from Yahweh, Cain murders Abel in the field, which Yahweh discovers from Abel's blood “crying out” from the ground. Yahweh confronts Cain with Abel's absence, to which Cain feigns ignorance. As punishment, Yahweh condemns Cain to wander the earth, decreeing that the earth will no longer bear crops for him. In fear for his life, Cain pleads for mercy, which Yahweh grants by placing an unspecified sign on Cain so that no one will murder him. Cain finally departs to wander in a land called Nod (“wandering”), east of Eden.
Many themes appear in this story, including sibling rivalry, the attraction of sin, crime met with punishment, the futility of pretense before God, and the moral distinction between civilization and barbarism. Cain begins as a farmer, plying the fruitful earth, and because of his unchecked passion he commits a heinous crime, only to separate himself and be separated—morally, economically, and geographically—from the proper realm of civilized life. Only a plea for God's mercy (perhaps implying a degree of repentance) saves his life, signaling the small worth of life outside of civilization, where one is “hidden” from God's face.
In later interpretation, the cause of Cain's evil nature is frequently explored, with a tendency to identify Cain as the son of either Satan (1 John 3.12), the wicked angel Sammael (Targum Pseudo‐Jonathan on Gen. 4.1 and 5.3), or the serpent in Eden (4 Macc. 18.8). Other gaps in the story also receive much attention, such as the origin of Cain's wife (in Jubilees 4.9 she is his sister, Awan, meaning “Wickedness”) and the fate of Cain and his offspring (identified as demons in the Zohar and medieval legend). An early gnostic sect, the Cainites, may have regarded Cain as a savior figure.
Ronald S. Hendel