Midrash

Cain and Abel: The First Fight (More Midrash Ep. 1)

The Midrash

Bereishit Rabbah 22:7

“Cain said to his brother Abel…and when they were in the field…” (Genesis 4:8). What were they arguing about? They said: Come let’s divide up the world, one will take the land and one will take the moveable property. This one said: The ground you are standing on is mine. The other one said: What you are wearing is mine. This one said: Take it off! The other one said: Fly! Because of this “…Cain rose against his brother Abel and killed him.” (ibid.)

Rabbi Yehoshua of Sakhnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: They both took the land and the moveable property. What were they arguing about? One said: The Holy Temple will be built in my boundary. The other said: The Holy Temple will be built in my boundary. As it says “…when they were in the field…” (ibid.) and the field only refers to the Holy Temple. This is what it says “…Zion shall be plowed as a field…” (Micah 3:12) Because of this “…Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him.”

Yehudah bar Ami said: They were arguing about the first Eve. Rabbi Aivu said: The first Eve returned to the dust. Then what were they arguing about? Rabbi Huna said: An extra twin sister was born with Abel. This one said: I will take her because I am the first born. The other one said: I will take her because she was born with me. Because of this “…Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him.”

Understanding the Midrash

Our midrash picks up on a very conspicuous gap in the biblical text. Genesis 4:3-8 reads as follows:

In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. And the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin crouches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.” Cain said to his brother Abel…and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him. (NJPS Translation)

The text does not reveal what Cain said to Abel. Given the biblical context, we can assume that jealousy is at play. The plain sense of the story seems to be that Cain, confused, hurt, and angry about God’s preference for Abel’s offering, lures his brother into the field – a location associated with vulnerable isolation elsewhere in the Torah – and renders Abel incapable of ever offering anything again.

The midrash will approach the mysterious missing words with three alternatives to what was said. Intriguingly, none of the alternatives accord with the particular case of jealousy we see in the biblical text about making offerings to God. Instead, the midrash digs deeper and outlines the basic motivations for conflict in human history, read into the mythical first fight between humans.

While the biblical text only tells us that Cain said something to Abel, the midrash assumes they were having an argument, and that it got heated enough to lead to murder. The first interpretation focuses on possession.

What were they arguing about? They said: Come, let’s divide up the world, one will take the land and one will take the moveable property. This one said: The ground you are standing on is mine. The other one said: What you are wearing is mine. This one said: Take it off! The other one said: Fly! Because of this “…Cain rose against his brother Abel and killed him” (Genesis 4:8).

How does the midrash get to this interpretation? As far as I can tell, the location of the field sparks the idea of arguing about land. The argument is absurd. Cain and Abel, fueled by an acquisitive hunger all too familiar today, agree to divide the entire world between them. But instead of sensibly portioning out the territory (as their descendents the Israelites will upon reaching the Promised Land), these two brothers split up the land for one and everything that can be moved for the other. They quickly run into a problem. The one who owns the land tells the other – get off! In fact, fly!!!! I will not allow you a foothold in my domain. While the one who owns all of the movable property becomes outraged at his brother wearing clothes. He says – take it off! How dare you? You must give me the shirt off your own back.

Clearly, this scenario proves that it took a few generations before humans developed business sense. But while there is humor to the midrash, the point it makes shows how humans are not rational nor particularly humble when it comes to possession. They ask the impossible of the other (flying) and reveal an extreme lack of generosity. The drive to possess quickly turns into a drive to dispossess. Acquisitiveness ironically leads to loss of relationship and loss of life.

The second interpretation comes from Rabbi Levi. He teaches that they were not arguing about possessions, but rather about religion.

Rabbi Yehoshua of Sakhnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: They both took the land and the moveable property. What were they arguing about? One said: The Holy Temple will be built in my boundary. The other said: The Holy Temple will be built in my boundary. As it says “…when they were in the field…” (Genesis 4:8) and the field only refers to the Holy Temple. This is what it says “…Zion shall be plowed as a field…” (Micah 3:12) Because of this “…Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him.”

This midrash is slightly more complex than the first. For one, we have named sages. And second, we have a biblical citation to back up the interpretation. As with the previous interpretation, here the key word is again “field.” In essence, Rabbi Levi suggests that an attempt to “own” or use religion for one’s glory results in conflict and violence. Reading the context of the quote (Micah 3:9-12) reiterates this point.

Hear this, you rulers of the House of Jacob / You chiefs of the House of Israel,
Who detest justice / and make crooked all that is straight;
Who build Zion with crime, / Jerusalem with iniquity!
Her rulers judge for gifts, / Her priests give rulings for a fee,
And her prophets divine for pay; / Yet they rely upon the Lord, saying,
“The Lord is in our midst; / No calamity shall overtake us.”
Assuredly, because of you / Zion shall be plowed as a field,
And Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins, / And the Temple Mount a shrine in the woods.

Micah paints a picture of religious hypocrisy and corruption. Although the religious leaders believe that God “is in our midst”, calamity is coming. The story of Cain and Abel thus prefigures the destruction that results from ungodly religion. There are overtones of economic incentives in the midrash – having a Temple might be good for generating income – that are echoed in the Micah passage, where those with power and privilege in the religious system seek profit over truth and justice.

The third interpretation shifts from possession and religion to sexual dominance.

Yehudah bar Ami said: They were arguing about the first Eve. Rabbi Aivu said: The first Eve returned to the dust. Then what were they arguing about? Rabbi Huna said: An extra twin sister was born with Abel. This one said: I will take her because I am the first born. The other one said: I will take her because she was born with me. Because of this “…Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him.”

This interpretation involves a number of sages, organized into a conversation, as well as the invention of new details to the backstory that the biblical text does not suggest at all.

First, Yehudah bar Ami suggests the argument is about the first Eve. Who is she? Rabbinic tradition associates the woman created in the first Creation account (Genesis 1:1-2:4) with Lilith, sometimes referred to as the first Eve. Yehudah bar Ami might be suggesting some sort of competing Oedipal impulses between the brothers. Alternatively, he might be wondering who the brothers were supposed to marry, if the only people existing were their parents. Lilith, conveniently, is depicted as having been banished from the Garden of Eden earlier, and thus is an available female.

Rabbi Aivu corrects Yehudah bar Ami’s interpretation and tells us that Lilith had already died. Rabbi Huna shifts the object of sexual desire from the first Eve to a new female character, a heretofore unmentioned twin born with Abel. The argument, incestuous as it is, then becomes whether birth order or close affinity takes precedence in “possessing” Abel’s twin.

Sex, religion, land, property, money – all of these interpretations stem from a root desire, the desire to possess. Cain’s name in Hebrew means to create or to acquire, perhaps undergirding this series of midrashic interpretations. Abel’s name means vapor, vanity, nothingness, a comment on his murder and lack of offspring. But perhaps he can also represent a balance to the poison of possessiveness, an ability to give freely, to let go, to simply be or not be.

Money, religion, sex – the delusions of power. Divisiveness.

Abel, presumed innocent in the Torah, is complicit in playing the game of possessiveness. He is no innocent, although he will be the first victim.

One way to read this midrash leads to a realization that in discussing the first deadly conflict between humans, the rabbis are reflecting as well on their own conflicts, in particular the conflict over meaning in scripture. In other words, Torah is central to the sages, it is their primary possession (ki lekach tov), their portable locus of God’s presence, their fixation bordering on the erotic. The editor of Bereishit Rabbah strings these three teachings together in such a way that highlights an alternative to Cain and Abel, an alternative to automatic and irrational divisiveness. The first teaching proceeds simply, offering its lesson. But the second teaching introduces specific rabbis, one teaching in the name of the other, representing a chain of tradition. But this tradition does not simply offer an alternative reading to the first teacher – rather it repudiates it directly! “They both took the land and the moveable property. What were they arguing about?” The editor intensifies the feeling of conflict between interpretations, and does so again in the third teaching.

“Yehudah bar Ami said: They were arguing about the first Eve. Rabbi Aivu said: The first Eve returned to the dust. Then what were they arguing about? Rabbi Huna said: An extra twin sister was born with Abel.”

One rabbi offers a suggestion. Another rabbi shoots him down. Yet a third rabbi offers the opinion that will carry the day. So why the second rabbi? His only role in the midrash is to say “no,” to be a voice of conflict. The end result of this particularly intensified glimpse into a real or more likely imagined conversation is that we, the recipients and readers of the final edited midrash, see a world where conflict leads to richer meaning, rather than impoverishing violence. “One who kills a person, it is as if he had destroyed a whole world.” The opposite holds true here, as each rabbi or each interpretation builds multiple if parallel universes. This midrash, in its construction, demonstrates the rabbinic and midrashic project – to coexist, perhaps in occasional conflict, but in peace and for a larger wholeness, the mysterious and multifaceted grandeur of God’s word.

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