Abel: Murder or Sacrifice?
By Don C. Benjamin
Philosophical & Religious Studies
Arizona State University
The Stories of Cain and Abel (Gen 4:3--5:32) celebrate the founding of a new world, where humans can create. When the land fails, Cain sacrifices Abel to bring it back to life. These stories do not indict Cain for cursing humanity with murder, but rather celebrate his household for blessing humanity with cities, tent making, herding, music, metal work, Yahweh worship and a system of justice seventy-seven times more efficient than the mark with which Yahweh tattooed Cain to protect him from his enemies.
In response to widespread human complaints about farming and childbearing, creation stories ask “What does it mean to be human?” Their audiences want to live in an Eden where farming is effortless and only the divine create children. They want to be immortal and infertile.
Parallel to “When Elohim began to create…” (Gen 1:1) and “When on high, no heaven had been named….” (Enuma), the Stories of Cain and Abel open with a sterility affidavit: “When the days of grazing were done, and the days of farming came to an end” (Hebrews: qes hayyamim). A new season is beginning.
The sacrifices of Cain and Abel ratify the covenants negotiated for seed to plant and animals to breed. Both bring appropriate offerings, and both expect that their offerings will guarantee a good year. "An offering of the fruit of the ground..." and "...the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions..." are standard expressions for the sacrifices of farmers and herders.
A standard harvest in early Israel produced 10-15 times the grain needed to plant. The quality of the land, the number of farmers available, and how they worked could increase the harvest, yet the land failed altogether in 3 years out of 10.
The crisis is not that Yahweh, on a whim, curses Cain and blesses Abel, but that the herder had a good year, while the farmer had a bad year. Although audiences in the world of the Bible saw little difference between their divine patrons and their land, using the word "Yahweh" instead of the word "land" makes an important difference in how audiences today understand the stories. Good years and bad years make sense; divine caprice does not. In fact, the Stories of Cain and Abel themselves read "land" and "Yahweh" as synonyms. Cain says: "Today you are driving me away from the land, and I shall be hidden from your face…” (Gen 4:14) When Cain leaves the land, he leaves Yahweh as well.
Crop failure makes Cain resent his fertility. Both the stories of Adam and Eve and the stories of Cain and Abel encourage humans to embrace their ability to have a child and to have a harvest despite the labor both require. The fertile know the good of having a child and having a harvest requires the evil of labor. Cain accepts Yahweh’s encouragement to resume his life as a farmer and turns his attention to the challenge of fertilizing the soil.
Human sacrifice was an established social institution in Mediterranean cultures.Some sacrificed to process the guilt which hunters experienced in killing fellow animals. Sacrifice deified their victims to ask forgiveness for hunting them and to reaffirm their common bond as animals. Others sacrificed to control the competition that consistently threatened to destroy communities. Human sacrifice allowed the community to vent its hostility and survive.
Here human sacrifice is ritual of both self-degradation and an imitative ritual. Arrogance prevents human fertility: only the humble prosper. Cain alters the status of his household by sacrificing the herder, whose livestock are its insurance when crops fail and places his household in complete dependence upon Yahweh.
In the world of the Bible, death comes, not when the heart stops beating or the brain stops transmitting. Death comes when things are dry. In the Creation of a New People from Dry Bones (Ezek 37:1-14) Ezekiel sees a battlefield carpeted with the dry, unburied bones of soldiers. As dawn comes, a breeze warms the dew collected overnight on the bones. The resulting mist recreates living shapes symbolizing their resurrection.
Burials also demonstrate that only the dry are dead. Primary burial allows the bodies of the dead to dry. Until all the wet parts have decayed, the dead are still present. Once the bones are dry, they are harvested and placed in chests or stacked in piles.
At the beginning of the growing season, Cain offers a grain sacrifice expecting that it would bring a grain harvest. It did not. The seed was good, but the soil was dry. The link among the farmer, the land, and blood was broken. Cain restores that link by wetting the land with the blood of Abel, inviting rain to moisten the land and conceive crop children. Rain, semen, tears, blood, and saliva are interchangeable thinners in the Bible. Mixing something solid – clay, with something liquid – rain, semen, tears, blood or saliva, creates life.
In the Atrahasis Stories, Nintu-Mami creates lullu workers who will care for the earth by thinning her clay with the blood of We-ila. The sacrifice of We-ila becomes the life of the lullu.
One telling of the Stories of Tammuz and Ishtar appears on a stele erected in the great room of a Bronze Age sanctuary at Arad. Arad’s farmers carved two stick figures with human bodies and ears of grain for heads. One is lying down, the other standing up. The divine gardener Tammuz waters the parched land of Ishtar, Mother Earth. His rain sperm fathers crop-children who rise like the dead from the body of their mother to stand straight and tall on the land.
In the Stories of Tlaloc, Aztecs eat the produce of their godmother Tlaloc, and Tlaloc eats the children of the Aztecs during Atl Caualo celebrated to end the dry season. They sacrificed their children at significant places in nature – water sources, fertile fields -- where Tlaloc sacrificed her children.
In the stories, Quetzalcoatl takes Tlaloc’s right hand and left foot; Tezcatlipoca takes her left hand and right foot and tear her in two. They use her hands and feet to create earth and heavens. From her hair, they make trees, flowers and plants; from the hair on her skin, plants and flowers; from her eyes, springs; from her mouth, rivers and caves; from her nose, valleys and mountains. Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca are not dismembering Tlaloc, they are midwives who hold her arms as her legs split and she gives birth to creation.
Azteca cultures also parallel rain, blood, and tears. Rain is the blood which brings Tlaloc to life. Tears shed for children sacrificed were a sympathetic ritual to bring rain.
In the end, Yahweh does not sentence Cain for a crime, but explains the labor which his creativity demands. Labor is life, not a life sentence. Labor is the self-sacrifice of people primeval who lay down their lives so that others may live.
Yahweh first proposes Cain survive by foraging. Cain protests that farmers hunt foragers like animals. Yahweh concedes. So Cain is placed under divine protection with a tattoo warning all that Yahweh is his divine patron.
Finally, the stories inventory everything the sacrifice of Abel made possible. Cain's wife births a child and Cain's son, Enoch, builds a city. Like the seven apkallu teachers in Mesopotamia, the household of Cain endows humanity with all the skills of civilization. Jabal invents tent making and herding; Jubal string and wind music; Tubalcain and Naamah bronze and iron working; Enosh the worship of Yahweh
For five generations, the new world has a stable, but not an expanding population. Then Lamech marries twin wives: Adah and Zillah. These twins give birth to twins. The population blooms.
Then like Hammurabi Lamech promulgates a new legal code. In marriage covenants, husbands promise to protect and provide for their wives. Lamech promises protection eleven times greater than that which Yahweh promised Cain.
There are two classes of men in every village: elders who use experience to resolve internal conflicts and warriors who confront external dangers with courage. Lamech promulgates his covenant before these elders and warriors and promises his women that they will be safe from both legal and physical injury.
The Stories of Cain celebrate the evolution of human beings from living to life giving. They argue that only by laying down lives can humans create life. Mortality enters the world either through the self-sacrifice of Eve or through the human sacrifice of Abel. Without death, there is no life. It was a teaching to which Jesus and Jewish and Christian martyrs would return.