Cain and Abel

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This article is about the first and second sons of Adam and Eve. For other uses, see Cain and Abel (disambiguation).
"Abel", "Cain", and "My Brother's Keeper" redirect here. For other uses, see Abel (disambiguation), Cain (disambiguation), and My Brother's Keeper (disambiguation).
Cain slaying Abel by Peter Paul Rubens

Cain and Abel (Hebrew: הֶבֶל ,קַיִןQayin, Heḇel; Arabic: قابيل، هابيل‎‎ Qābīl, Hābīl) were sons of Adam and Eve.[1] Cain, the firstborn, tilled the soil, and his brother Abel was a shepherd. The brothers made sacrifices to God, each of his own produce, but God favored Abel's sacrifice instead of that of Cain. Cain murdered Abel. God punished Cain to a life of wandering, but set a mark on him so that no man would kill him. Cain then wandered in the land of Nod ("Land of Wandering"), where he built a city and fathered the line of Cain. The motive for Cain's crime is typically assumed to be jealousy, but the narrative never states this, nor does it provide a reason for God's rejection of his sacrifice, nor does it explain where he found a wife (later commentators decided she must have been his sister, although Genesis does not explicitly specify his wife's identity).[2]

Genesis narrative[edit]

Cain leadeth Abel to death, by James Tissot

The story of Cain's murder of Abel and its consequences is told in Genesis 4:1-18: (Translation and notes from Robert Alter, "The Five Books of Moses")[3]

And the human[Notes 1] knew Eve his woman and she conceived and bore Cain,[Notes 2] and she said, "I have got me a man with the Lord."[Notes 3] And she bore as well his brother Abel,[Notes 4] and Abel became a herder of sheep while Cain was a tiller of the soil. And it happened in the course of time that Cain brought from the fruit of the soil an offering to the Lord. And Abel too had brought from the choice firstlings of his flock, and the Lord regarded Abel and his offering but did not regard Cain and his offering. And Cain was very incensed, and his face fell. And the Lord said to Cain, "Why are you incensed, and why is your face fallen? For whether you offer well, or whether you do not, at the tent flap sin crouches and for you is its longing, but you will rule over it." And Cain said to Abel his brother, "Let us go out to the field," and when they were in the field Cain rose against Abel his brother and killed him. And the Lord said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother? And he said, "I do not know: am I my brother's keeper?"

The story continues with God's punishment of Cain: the soil which received his brother's blood will reject him, and he will be a wanderer on the earth. Cain objects that this is too harsh - "whoever finds me will kill me" - and so God adds a sanction against those who would seek to kill Cain:

And the Lord said to him, "Therefore whoever kills Cain shall suffer sevenfold vengeance." And the Lord set a mark upon Cain so that whoever found him would not slay him." And Cain went out from the Lord's presence and dwelled in the land of Nod[Notes 5] east of Eden. And Cain knew his wife and she conceived and bore Enoch. Then he became the builder of a city and he called the name of the city like his son's name, Enoch." (Then follows the list of the descendants of Cain).


The First Mourning (Adam and Eve mourn the death of Abel); oil on canvas 1888 painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Some scholars believe that Cain and Abel are symbolic rather than real.[4] Like many of the persons, places and stories in the Primeval history (the first eleven chapters of Genesis), they are mentioned nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible, a fact that suggests that the History is a late composition attached to Genesis to serve as an introduction.[5] Just how late is a matter for dispute: the history may be as late as the Hellenistic period (first decades of the 4th century BCE),[6] but the high level of Babylonian myth behind its stories (Cain and Abel are paralleled by Dumuzi and Enkidu) has led others to date it to the Babylonian exile (6th century BCE).[7][8]

The following family tree of the line of Cain is compiled from a variety of biblical and extra-biblical texts.

Enos (Enosh)
Cainan (Kenan)

In the Quran[edit]

Grave of Abel within the Nabi Habeel Mosque

The story appears in the Qur'an, in Surah 5, verses 27 to 31:[9]

[Prophet], tell them the truth about the story of Adam's two sons: each of them offered a sacrifice, and it was accepted from one and not the other. One said, 'I will kill you,' but the other said, 'God only accepts the sacrifice of those who are mindful of Him. If you raise your hand to kill me, I will not raise mine to kill you. I fear God, the Lord of all worlds, and I would rather you were burdened with my sins as well as yours and became an inhabitant of the Fire: such is the evildoers' reward.' But his soul prompted him to kill his brother: he killed him and became one of the losers. God sent a raven to scratch up the ground and show him how to cover his brother's corpse and he said, 'Woe is me! Could I not have been like this raven and covered up my brother's body?' He became remorseful.

— The QUR'AN (English translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem)

The story of Cain and Abel has always been used as a deterrent from murder in Islamic tradition. Abdullah ibn Mas'ud reported that Muhammad said in a hadith:

"No soul is wrongfully killed except that some of the burden falls upon the son of Adam, for he was the first to establish the practice of murder."[10]

Muslim scholars were divided on the motives behind Cain's murder of Abel, and further why the two brothers were obliged to offer sacrifices to God. Some scholars believed that Cain's motives were plain jealousy and lust. Both Cain and Abel desired to marry Adam's beautiful daughter, Aclima (Aqlimia' in Arabic). Seeking to put an end to the dispute between them, Adam suggested that each one of them present an offering before God. The one whose offering God would accept would marry Aclima. Abel, a generous shepherd, offered the fattest of his sheep as an oblation to God. But Cain, a miserly farmer, offered only a bunch of grass and some worthless seeds to him. God accepted Abel's offering and rejected Cain's—an indication that Abel was more righteous than Cain, and thus worthier of Aclima. As a result, it was decided that Abel would marry Aclima. Cain, on the other hand, would marry her less beautiful sister. Blinded by anger and lust for Aclima, Cain sought to get revenge from Abel and escape with Aclima.[11]

According to another tradition, the devil appeared to Cain and instructed him how to exact revenge on Abel. "Hit Abel's head with a stone and kill him", whispered the devil to Cain. After the murder, the devil hurried to Eve shouting: "Eve! Cain has murdered Abel!". Eve did not know what murder was or how death felt like. She asked, bewildered and horrified, "Woe to you! What is murder?". "He [Abel] does not eat. He does not drink. He does not move [That's what murder and death are]", answered the Devil. Eve, terribly shocked, burst out into tears and started to wail madly. She ran to Adam and tried to tell him what happened. However, she could not speak because she could not stop wailing. Since then, women wail brokenheartedly when a loved one dies.[12] A different tradition narrates that while Cain was quarreling with Abel, the devil killed an animal with a stone in Cain's sight to show him how to murder Abel.[13]

After burying Abel and escaping from his family, Cain got married and had children. Cain's descendants were debauched and indulged in fire worship. They died in Noah's flood among other tyrants and unbelievers.[14]

Some Muslim scholars puzzled over the mention of offerings in the narrative of Cain and Abel. Offerings and sacrifices were ordained only after the revelation of the Torah to Moses. This led some scholars, such as Said ibn al-Musayyib, to think that the sons of Adam mentioned in the Quran are actually two Israelites, not Cain and Abel.[13]

The Mausoleum of Abel in the Nabi Habeel Mosque

According to Shi'a Muslim belief, Abel (Arabic: "Habeel") is buried in the Nabi Habeel Mosque, located on the west mountains of Damascus, near the Zabadani Valley, overlooking the villages of the Barada river (Wadi Barada), in Syria. Muslims are frequent visitors of this mosque for ziyarat. The mosque was built by Ottoman Wali Ahmad Pasha in 1599.[citation needed]

In psychoanalytic theory[edit]

Freud’s theory of fratricide is explained by the Oedipus or Electra complex through Carl Jung's supplementation.[15] Indeed, in the Judaic, Midrash Rabba, and Islamic versions of the Old Testament, wherein Cain and Abel are not the only offspring of Adam and Eve, but born as twins with one sister each. In that regard, Abel and Cain were the first two sons, each of whom was born with a twin sister, and Adam decided that, to avoid incest, Abel would marry Cain's sister and Cain would marry Abel's sister. However, Cain refused because he wanted to keep his own sister, while Abel respected the paternal law. Adam suggested sacrificial offerings, and, in his absence, God accepted Abel's lamb rather than Cain's offering of grass. As a result of this preference, Cain killed Abel. However, this interpretation does not relate to the preference of the sacrifices by God, but rather to the acceptance or rejection of God's law. Abel obeyed this law while Cain did not, and, as a result, Cain killed Abel.[16]

Legacy and symbolism[edit]

Cain and Abel, 15th-century German depiction from Speculum Humanae Salvationis

Allusions to Cain and Abel as an archetype of fratricide appear in numerous references and retellings, through medieval art and Shakespearean works up to present day fiction.[17] A millennia-old explanation for Cain being capable of murder is that he may have been the offspring of a fallen angel or Satan himself, rather than being from Adam.[18][incomplete short citation][19][20]

A medieval legend has Cain arriving at the Moon, where he eternally settled with a bundle of twigs. This was originated by the popular fantasy of interpreting the shadows on the Moon as a face. An example of this belief can be found in Dante Alighieri's Inferno (XX, 126[21]) where the expression "Cain and the twigs" is used as a kenning for "moon".

In medieval Christian art,[dubious ] particularly in 16th-century Germany, Cain is depicted as a stereotypical ringleted, bearded Jew, who killed Abel the blonde, European gentile symbolizing Christ.[22] This traditional depiction has continued for centuries in some form, such as James Tissot's 19th-century Cain leads Abel to Death.

A treatise on Christian Hermeticism, Meditations on the Tarot: A journey into Christian Hermeticism, describes the biblical account of Cain and Abel as a myth, i.e. it expresses, in a form narrated for a particular case, an "eternal" idea. It shows us how brothers can become mortal enemies through the very fact that they worship the same God in the same way. According to the author, the source of religious wars is revealed. It is not the difference in dogma or ritual which is the cause, but the "pretention to equality" or "the negation of hierarchy".[23]

In Latter-day Saint theology, Cain is considered to be the quintessential Son of Perdition, the father of secret combinations (i.e. secret societies and organized crime), as well as the first to hold the title Master Mahan meaning master of [the] great secret, that [he] may murder and get gain.[24]

In Mormon folklore — a second-hand account relates that an early Mormon leader, David W. Patten, encountered a very tall, hairy, dark-skinned man in Tennessee who said that he was Cain. The account states that Cain had earnestly sought death but was denied it, and that his mission was to destroy the souls of men.[25][26] The recollection of Patten's story is quoted in Spencer W. Kimball's The Miracle of Forgiveness, a popular book within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[27] This widespread Mormon belief is further emphasized by an account from Salt Lake City in 1963 which stated that "One superstition is based on the old Mormon belief that Cain is a black man who wanders the earth begging people to kill him and take his curse upon themselves (M, 24, SLC, 1963)."[28]

There were other, minor traditions concerning Cain and Abel, of both older and newer date. The apocryphal Book of Adam and Eve tells of Eve having a dream in which Cain drank his brother’s blood. In an attempt to prevent the prophecy from happening the two young men are separated and given different jobs.[29]

The author Daniel Quinn, first in his book "Ishmael" and later in "The Story of B", proposes that the story of Cain and Abel is an account of early Semitic herdsmen observing the beginnings of what he calls totalitarian agriculture, with Cain representing the first 'modern' agriculturists and Abel the pastoralists.[30]

Cultural portrayals and references[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Hebrew has ha-adam, meaning that Adam is not a personal name.
  2. ^ Cain means "smith".
  3. ^ Cain is the first human to be conceived and born, rather than created; Eve is commenting on the role of "the Lord" in human proceation.
  4. ^ Abel means "breath" or "vapour".
  5. ^ Literally, the "land of Wandering".


  1. ^ Schwartz, Howard; Loebel-Fried, Caren; Ginsburg, Elliot K. (2004). Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism. Oxford University Press. p. 447. ISBN 978-0195358704. 
  2. ^ Byron 2011, p. 1-2.
  3. ^ Alter 2008, p. 29.
  4. ^ Blenkinsopp 2011, p. 2.
  5. ^ Sailhamer 2010, p. 301.
  6. ^ Gmirkin 2006, p. 240-241.
  7. ^ Gmirkin 2006, p. 6.
  8. ^ Kugler & Hartin 2009, p. 53-54.
  9. ^ Abel. "Abel - Ontology of Quranic Concepts from the Quranic Arabic Corpus". Retrieved 2015-12-17. 
  10. ^ Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim
  11. ^ Tafsir al-Qur'an al-adhim (Interpretation of the Holy Qur'an), Ibn Kathir – Surat Al-Ma'ida
  12. ^ Adapted from Ibn Abul-Hatim's narrative in Tafsir al-Qur'an al-adhim and Tafsir al-Tabari, Surat Al-Ma'ida'
  13. ^ a b Tafsir al-Qur'an al-adhim and Tafsir al-Tabari, Surat Al Ma'ida
  14. ^ The Beginning and the End, Ibn Kathir – Volume I
  15. ^ Jens de Vlemnick (2007). Psychoanalytische Perspectieven. Vol 25 (3/4). Cain and Abel: The Prodigal Sons of Psychoanalysis? Universiteit Gent.
  16. ^ Benslama, Fethi (2009). Psychoanalysis and the Challenge of Islam. U of Minnesota Press. p. 189. ISBN 978-0816648887. 
  17. ^ Byron 2011, p. 93.
  18. ^ Ginzberg 1998, pp. 105-109.
  19. ^ Luttikhuizen 2003, p. vii.
  20. ^ Byron 2011, p. 15-19.
  21. ^ Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, canto 20, line 126 and 127. The Dante Dartmouth Project contains the original text and centuries of commentary.
    "For now doth Cain with fork of thorns confine
    On either hemisphere, touching the wave
    Beneath the towers of Seville. Yesternight
    The moon was round."
    Also in Paradiso, canto 2, line 51.
    But tell, I pray thee, whence the gloomy spots
    Upon this body, which below on earth
    Give rise to talk of Cain in fabling quaint?"
  22. ^ a b c d de Vries, Ad (1976). Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company. p. 75. ISBN 0-7204-8021-3. 
  23. ^ Anonymous, Meditations on the Tarot: A journey into Christian Hermeticism, translated by Robert Powell 1985, 2002 ed, pp14-15
  24. ^ Moses 5:31
  25. ^ Letter by Abraham O. Smoot, quoted in Lycurgus A. Wilson (1900). Life of David W. Patten, the First Apostolic Martyr (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret News) p. 50 (pp. 46–47 in 1993 reprint by Eborn Books).
  26. ^ Linda Shelley Whiting (2003). David W. Patten: Apostle and Martyr (Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort) p. 85.
  27. ^ Spencer W. Kimball (1969). The Miracle of Forgiveness (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, ISBN 0-88494-444-1) pp. 127–128.
  28. ^ Cannon, Anthon S., Wayland D. Hand, and Jeannine Talley. "Religion, Magic, Ghostlore." Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from Utah. Salt Lake City: University of Utah, 1984. 314. Print.
  29. ^ Williams, David: "Cain and Beowulf: A Study in Secular Allegory, page 21. University of Toronto Press, 1982
  30. ^ Whittemore, Amie. "Ishmael - Part 9: Sections 9-11". Cliffs Notes. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Retrieved 2 January 2017. 
  31. ^ "Pop Culture 101: East of Eden". Retrieved 2014-04-11. 
  32. ^ "The Annotated "Mississippi Halfstep Uptown Toodleloo"". Retrieved 2015-12-17. 
  33. ^ Van Scott, Miriam (1999). The Encyclopedia of Hell. Macmillan. p. 74. ISBN 9780312244422. 
  34. ^ "lyrics: become you". lifeblood. Retrieved December 2, 2016. 
  35. ^ "background: become you". lifeblood. Retrieved December 2, 2016. the song that gives the album its name reflects the georgia-born ray's struggle to come to terms with her southern heritage and its racist identity. 
  36. ^ "Chapter Four by Avenged Sevenfold Songfacts". Retrieved 2014-07-14. 
  37. ^


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