It’s in the fourth chapter of Genesis, right after Adam and Eve sinned and got sent out of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve start having kids, and two of those kids are Cain and Abel. Cain is a farmer, but Abel tends to flocks.
God is very much around in the story, and these brothers naturally want to please Him. So they offer up sacrifices.
Cain gives fruit from the ground (which, considering that the ground had been cursed by God after he had kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, must have been no small feat).
Abel, on the other hand, sacrifices the firstborn of some of his flock to God.
God likes Abel’s sacrifice. He doesn’t like Cain’s.
So Cain, out of jealousy, kills Abel. When God finds out, he punishes Cain by making him a wanderer on the earth, instead of the comfortable farmer he had been, because the ground won’t produce fruit for him (in effect, God has cursed the ground twice now). Cain is afraid that this wandering and the fact that he killed his brother will cause others (which would include, presumably, Abel’s other brothers and sisters) to kill him on sight. He voices this fear to God, and God responds by putting a mark on Cain that will apparently keep anyone from harming him.
Now, the typical Christian interpretation of this story is that God liked Abel’s sacrifice more because Abel gave from the “firstborn” of his flock. Cain just randomly gave up some of his crops and called it good. So Abel gave the greater sacrifice.
From there, many preachers have encouraged their congregation to give their best to God.
Great sermon to preach before the collection plate is passed around for the pastor’s salary.
For proof, I Googled: “Cain and Able meaning” and the first link, after the Wikipedia article, stated this:
“God showed favor upon Abel’s sacrifice because it was an offering that came from the best Abel had to give.”
Except…the Bible doesn’t say that.
It doesn’t say that Cain brought second-rate fruit of his labor to God. It said he brought “some” of the fruits of his labor to God.
And, logically, if this was important enough to Cain for him to kill his brother over it, it seems logical that he didn’t bring God rotten fruit. He probably brought God the best of the best.
Seen this way, God’s judgment seems arbitrary. That’s the way I’ve seen it ever since I became an atheist. God’s bloodthirsty impulse was arbitrary and nonsensical.
Maybe this whole exercise is looking at the issue from the wrong angle.
Maybe I shouldn’t be asking why a God would do this – after all, God isn’t real.
Maybe it’s more productive to ask why someone would write that God did this.
When you do that, the answer presents itself.
You see, in the Early Bronze Age, when the Israelites were (allegedly) trapped in the desert for forty years or so, there was a rivalry. On the one hand, there were the settled farmers – the Canaanites, who God allegedly commanded the Israelites to slaughter, would be in this category.
On the other, there were the shepherds, the tenders of flocks and herds. The Israelites, wanderers of the desert and descendants themselves of the livestock-owning Abraham, would be in this category.
So the story may be as simple as this: The writer needed a God who was squarely on the side of the unsettled shepherds, the Israelites – represented by Abel. The writer also needed a farmer who would be seen as dangerous – perhaps dangerous enough to kill. This farmer is Cain.
However, the moment Cain stops being a farmer and begins being a wanderer due to God’s curse…God has mercy on him because the writer of the story (himself a member of a wandering tribe) can empathize with Cain’s new change of circumstances.
But…the root of the story is the same. Farmers are at odds with shepherds in this Early Bronze Age myth, and God is squarely on the side of the shepherds.
This myth, and others like it in the Bible, becomes a license to slaughter Canaanite men, women, and children who just so happen to be on the wrong side of this farmer-shepherd rivalry.
When you look at it this way – as a way to instill a God who protects a nationalistic sense of superiority and rather dangerous prejudices – suddenly the story makes sense.
I wish I could say that it’s a good thing that we don’t use the story this way today…but unfortunately I can’t, because we do.
In the 19th century, the Mark of Cain was associated with black skin in the US and became part of the rationale for slavery. The same myth that was originally intended to encourage slaughter of the Canaanites became the basis of slavery in those moments, as well.
This makes it even more obvious to me that this myth was written as a tool for creating a rationale that would make one people group inferior to another.
I think that the harm this myth has done in history holds a powerful lesson for us today, Christian, atheist, or otherwise. We have to examine stories that are told about other people – both in the Bible and outside of the Bible, no matter how revered – and figure out whether they are actually true, or merely meant to license injustice. Mythical lies told about Canaanites, or black people, or immigrants, or a member of the LGBTQ community, or any other group can only be exposed if we realize that they are stories people made up for their own reasons.
And in that way, the story of Cain and Abel speaks more to me now than it ever did when I was a Christian.
Thank you for reading.