Beginnings: The Overlooked Chapters (1)

When 2020 began, it seemed only natural to open the year with the series called “BEGINNINGS”. I wanted to discuss here in depth the primeval historythe first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis. As most of my readers probably know, these chapters form a separate, integrated unit: while from Genesis 12 onwards, Scripture deals with the nation of Israel only, these first chapters are concerned with topics that affect everyone, not just the Hebrews. We discussed already Genesis 1-3 – and today I would like to continue this discussion. Even though many unexpected things have already happened in 2020, and even though  we are definitely not in the beginning of the year anymore, I still want to go back to these BEGINNINGS: studying, discovering, maybe even getting from there some answers for today.

We are going to start discussing the “overlooked” chapters: while everyone knows the first three chapters (Genesis 1-3) and the story of Flood (starting from Genesis 6), people rarely address Genesis 4 and 5 – and yet there are many very important details in these chapters that can only be seen in the original Hebrew text.  I think this is true about many “overlooked” chapters: for instance, one of the most significant chapters in the book of Genesis is Genesis 38 – the story of Judah and Tamar – but it is completely overlooked by most people, since the really amazing details of this chapter can be only seen in Hebrew![1] So, let us pick our discussion up exactly where we left off: Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden.

 

Cain and Abel – Two Ways

We have all seen paintings portraying them leaving the Garden: sobbing, wringing their hands, desperate in their misery and sorrow. I shared here already, that incredibly simple thought that struck me years ago: with all these tears, with all this wringing the hands, they are going to the very same place where you and I now live – where humanity has lived ever since! Their misery is our misery, we live in the same dark place, the only difference is that we don’t know anything else – but they knew very well what they just had lost. From their sorrow and frustration upon leaving Gan Eden, and going to the only place you and I know, we can only imagine how different and how wonderful that lost place felt. In this sense, their first steps and actions, their very first words after their banishment, are extremely significant. When we read: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, and said, “I have acquired a man from the Lord” – we can see how strong her longing was for the lost place and for the return to this place. When God cursed the land and banished Adam and Eve from the Garden, He also gave them the promise that many read as the promise of a coming savior. Apparently, Eve connected the birth of her son with the immediate fulfillment of this promise; she really hoped that through her son they would get back to the Garden they had lost. Later on, when we look at Noah, we will see that this hope moved from generation to generation: by the time Noah was born, people were already extremely tired of the curse on the land and waited eagerly for the fulfillment of this promise. Noah’s father regarded his son as one who should bring deliverance from the curse – as one who should provide comfort and rest – but it started with the very first couple: naming her son Cain and claiming that she acquired him from the Lord, indicates that Eve was the first one to hope that her son would be this promised savior. Once again, it shows us clearly how deep her longing was.

As we all know, Cain was not the savior. Eve must have understood that very soon, because her second son was named Abel, that is “breath” or “fading away”: “Then she bore again, this time his brother Abel”. In its regular, very short and dotted way, Scripture tells us a bit about the history of the two brothers: “Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground”. Many different commentaries might be mentioned here regarding their different occupations. For instance, Rashi, a brilliant Jewish medieval commentator, notes that since the land was cursed, Abel refrained from working on it – while Cain was still willing to be a tiller of the cursed ground. Another “reading of the story suggests that the brothers represent man’s two original cultures in tension”[2]. Some think that Abel chose the wandering life, not willing to have his roots in this cursed land and fallen world, while Cain chose the settled life, enjoying the world as it was. The punishment that God gave to Cain later, confirms this idea: “When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth.”  In other words, you have no permission to dwell in one place, you will be a nomad – something that from the very beginning, Cain tried to avoid so hard by choosing the settled life of a farmer!

What Did Cain Say?

We next meet the brothers, each bringing an offering to the Lord:  Cain “of the fruit of the soil” and Abel “of the firstlings of his flock”. Only Abel’s sacrifice is accepted, and the acceptance was probably marked by some visible manifestation.   We don’t find any explanation of God’s choice in the biblical narrative, but most commentators try to find the key to God’s preference in the intent of the brothers: while Cain just brings “an offering”, Abel brings “the choicest” of his flocks. However, some commentators say that God’s rejection of Cain’s offering is inexplicable to human logic. Apparently Cain felt this way as well: he reacted angrily and violently to a rejection he could not comprehend! He says something to Abel – and we don’t know exactly what he says! In English, we read: “And Cain talked with Abel his brother”[3] – ­and it doesn’t sound like something is missing here; however, this verse renders, in fact, a very enigmatic Hebrew sentence: וַיֹּאמֶר קַיִן אֶל־הֶבֶל – and the literal translation of this sentence should be like this: “And Cain said to his brother Abel…”. What did Cain say?

We don’t know what Cain said to his brother before he killed him; but we do know what Cain said to God after he had killed his brother. Few biblical phrases have been quoted as often as Cain’s defiant question: “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” According to some Jewish sages, Cain says to God: “Am I My Brother’s Keeper? You are God! It is your task to watch him, not mine. If I ought not to have done what I did, You could have prevented me from doing it!”[4] Thus, Cain defies God himself. Adam had committed sin, Cain both sin and crime – and the Biblical chronicle of all the post-Eden human rebellions starts here…

[1]Some of these amazing Hebrew insights are shown in  my mini-book “Biblical Portraits: Judah”, you can get it here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B087QMT2RG?pf_rd_r=YMGYHWX5RXQZS8006F8Y&pf_rd_p=6fc81c8c-2a38-41c6-a68a-f78c79e7253f

[2] The Torah, A Modern Commentary,  NY, 1981 – p. 47

[3] Gen. 4:8

[4] The Torah, A Modern Commentary,  NY, 1981 – p. 47

The insights you read on these pages, are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion)  classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying  in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insightsI would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding  eTeacher courses[1] (juliab@eteachergroup.com) .

If you like the  articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,  you  can get  them   on my page

[1] At this point, we offer WTP course only in English, while DHB course is offered also  in Spanish and Portuguese.

 

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Rahel

    Thank you so much for these insights, Julia. I’m still following your posts regularly and enjoy them very much. I have been trying to reach you but am not sure if the email came through? May God be with you and give you the strength and wisdom you need for your work!

  2. Henrietta van Winsen

    Thank you very much for this very wonderful insight into an ancient story. I wish I could afford to buy your books, but I am a pensioner with very little to spend on ‘luxuries’ like books. Howeveer, onceagain, thank you very much!!

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you so much for your kind words Henrietta! As for my books, just for your information – all of them have Kindle edition as well, and they are much more affordable of course.

    2. Rahel

      Hi Henrietta, if you have a kindle, or use the kindle app, would you mind giving me your email address?

  3. Luis

    As always, thank you for revealing to us what the Hebrew scriptures actually say. My NIV states, “Now Cain said to his brother, Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’–quite a difference from the Hebrew!

    I was hoping your commentary would deal with Genesis 4:14, but it stopped short of it. Perhaps your next one will touch on this verse.

    Thank you again.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Luis, you are absolutely right: it is quite a difference! I am actually very surprised that NIV “tells” us what exactly Cain said to his brother, because in Hebrew, we have no Cain’s words in this scene. My modern Torah translation renders it as following:”Cain said to his brother Abel …” . It’s one of the first big question marks in the Torah: what did Cain say?
      As for Genesis 4:14, I am not covering in my next post either, so if you have a question regarding this verse , you can ask it here.
      Blessings!