The World’s First Murderer Talks About Killing His Brother, Abel.
You read the Bible story of how I murdered my brother. Have you righteously concluded that I am an irredeemable criminal? Dear reader, I’m a murderer, the very first murderer in fact, but I’m not a monster. You don’t know me very well because you refuse to know yourself at all. I’m your mirror, and in the split second you condemn me to hell for my crimes you condemn yourself as well. Spare me your sanctimonious judgments, your blathering, self-appointed juries. Listen to me, for though I readily admit that I’m a fratricide, I’m also a long, complicated story…your story. I don’t tell you my tale so you’ll exonerate me, I tell you so you’ll understand me and yourself.
My brother and I were born into a damaged and traumatized family. Our parents, Eve and Adam, were born to no one, having been molded and brought to life by God Who in those early days of creation just wasn’t talking too much. They needed parents, and what they got from God was the onerous, impossible task of resisting the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge Of Good And Evil. It would have been easy for them to heed God’s warning to leave it alone, had God not practically handed it to them, lusty-ripe for the taking, like forbidden candy left on a table, a sweet seducer within a child’s grasp. Once they tasted the fruit, it became sugary and bitter in their mouths and exploded in their heads, an orgasm of consciousness, knowledge, sexual desire, and ambition. No wonder God turned them out of their first home in Eden. Once you taste desire and power in the same mouthful, you will consume everything in your path, God included.
East of Eden, I was born as my mother’s favorite, but inexplicably, an embarrassment to my father who mostly avoided me. Abel was born a year after me, receiving almost the opposite treatment from our mother and father, as if we were emotional negative after images. Consider how their trauma, passed down to us, was now exacerbated by a divisive favoritism toward their two sons; in a sense, neither Abel nor I ever had a chance to be brothers in any way more than name only. None of this is my excuse for killing the little bastard, whom I loved and hated. I murdered him, and the exile that I’ve lived through and passed on to you was more than fair punishment.
East of Eden, I farmed because Adam farmed. Our work was cursed, a dust bowl legacy handed down from God to father to son. I did it anyway, in the desperate hope that daddy would not love or even like me, but maybe, just maybe, pay me some attention, acknowledging my existence. Wordless, near-mute Abel took our sheep out to the fields far from the homestead, where he could be alone, out from under the eye of my growing, unsettling malice. How could I not feel malice? His flock of fat little ewes grew like the weeds in the back of our house, while my back broke over the thorns and thistles of the dead earth I plowed and my heart broke over the recognition that I was mostly dead to my father. When Adam urged us to give burnt offerings as gifts to God from our larders, I jumped at this rare offering of hope that Big Daddy In Heaven, if not daddy himself, would be proud of me, letting me know, “Good job, Cain.”
F**k, I forgot! God is a carnivore, not a vegan. I rushed first to the altar flame, throwing on it the best I could find from my paltry produce, picking it out from among the moldy and rotten yield that the earth had spat at me. The flame died out, as if doused by a downpour. After we lit the altar again, Abel sauntered up with a blood-juicy hunk of sheep that browned, sizzled, then singed into black ash on the roaring fire, utterly consumed by the flame tongues and God’s favor. In that ugly moment when I felt nothing but betrayal and abandonment, my face literally drooped from the oppressive weight of my humiliation and rage. God turned to me - passed by me really - in a way that would have felt almost conciliatory, had I not already felt so wounded. God – what, warned me?, reassured me?, worried for me?, berated me? , consoled me? – with words that no one totally understands even today:
“Why are you distressed,
And why is your face fallen?
There is uplift.
But if you do not do right
Sin couches at the door;
Its urge is toward you,
Yet you can be its master.” (Genesis 4:7)
It didn’t really matter what God’s words meant, I was so enraged and depressed I only half listened. I sat with my head in my hands, humming, rocking back and forth, swimming in rejection’s soup of pain and humiliation. All I heard were the last few words from God’s speech. Repeatedly, I moaned out loud, “You can be its master, you can be its master.” From the side, I barely noticed Sin, a strange-looking, crouching demon, maliciously ambling over to me. Sin nearly pounced on me from that position, then whispered in my ear the terrible thing that God had not meant: “Ah, Cain, look at what Abel took from you. He is not even a he, he’s an it, a dangerous insect. “You can be Abel’s master, Cain…You can be its master!”
Committing an atrocity is so much easier when you’ve convinced yourself that you, not the one you’re about to victimize, are the real victim. The crime reports and tabloids all recorded a strange elliptical statement in the transcript of God’s investigation at the crime scene:
And Cain said to Abel his brother…and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.” (Genesis 4:8)
What did I say that day in the killing field, as we killed time right before I killed my brother? The cops and lawyers on my case opined officiously, speculated wildly about what transpired between us. You want to know what I said? Trust me, I was there, I’m sure I told Abel this. Bloated with rage, self-loathing turned outward and self-pity, I picked up a sharp rock, perhaps meaning only to hurt him, maybe to scare him, maybe to kill him, I honestly don’t remember. While his back was turned toward me, I growled, “Brother, doesn’t God want the best? This time around, I’ll offer God the thing that pleases God the most.”
And then Abel lay silent.
Nothing I remember after that moment makes any sense. I recall seeing all of that blood, not being sure if it was mine or his, then thinking, “I hated him, but it’s all the same blood, isn’t it?” Then, the questions, the evasions, the confusion, my bereaved parents at he scene, moaning in anguish, God pinning me to the ground:
“Where is Abel your brother?
I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?
What have you done?
Your bother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:9-10)
What did I mean? Was I avoiding responsibility with rhetoric? Was I genuinely confused: “You mean, I was responsible for him? You, God, never told me that explicitly!”
The sentence, consignment to exile, a living death touching the liminal, marginal spaces of humanity such as it was back then. And my response, the ambiguous source of the question you, my descendants, have been trying to answer since my time; not the question about how we can prevent evildoing, but about whether or not a person can genuinely express remorse and repent for doing evil. Three Hebrew words, too much frustrating nuance in attempting a translation:
Gadol avoni min’so. (Genesis 4:13)
What did I mean? (Remember that I remember nothing at all, at least not what I meant.)
My sin is too great to bear! (Confession, remorse, repentance)
My punishment is too great to bear! (Narcissism, self-interest, whining)
Which was it?
I honestly believe that I was genuinely contrite that awful moment that God confronted me, because this is what I do remember with utter clarity. Decades after they buried Abel’s bloodied body, my elderly, devastated parents crawled away into more pain, and I was cast into exile, I “returned to the scene of the crime” like a guilt-ridden character in a bad noir novel. As I stood out there, weeping wildly alone for all that I had done, I went to sit in the shade of the trees and boulders, the ones that had caught all of Abel’s splattered blood as I punctured him repeatedly, mercilessly, in a stampede of rage. Still faintly red, they almost glowed with a tender warmth so unlike the evil they had witnessed. A wizened old man walked up and stood beside me.
It was my father.
“You are dead to me, no different from the living, walking deaths that your mother and I have been since you did it.”
“I know. I can’t, I won’t try to undo anything I did. I’m a murderer, I murdered Abel, I murdered our family. I won’t ask for your forgiveness. But I need you to know, for what it’s worth, I did teshuva, I repented, God and I reconciled.”
“Big goddam deal.”
Big goddam deal is right, in both senses of the phrase. Adam was right to scoff sarcastically at me. No amount of repentance or apologizing or punishment would ever bring Abel and our family back to life. Yet I heard, or maybe I wanted to hear, in Adam’s words a redemptive reassurance. God’s acceptance of my repentance –(“my sin is too great to bear!”)- was more than some self-soothing bromide into which I could escape when the anguish and the guilt got too nasty for me. When I repented and God forgave me as I pushed off to exile, we were exposing a truth inherent in the fabric of the universe that makes human experience more real than anything else could: if I could choose to do evil, I could also choose to try to repair what I had done and resolve never to do it again. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I would, only that I could: “You can be its master.”
None of this makes me less of a murderer, but it does make me more of a human being.
Perhaps now, as I hinted before, you dear reader understand why God punished me by consigning me to exile and eternal wandering instead of putting me to death. It wasn’t because I’d never experienced what murder is or because God hadn’t clearly warned me about my behavior. By placing me in exile to wander, God was giving me a chance to work off my debt to Abel and my family by being an example, a mirror, for you, following you wherever you go, insisting that you look deeply at yourself and at others, demanding accountability yet also accepting your deep, gashing flaws of imperfection and your potential to do right, to make something right. The ancient books tell us that my entire generation died in the great flood of Noah. You aren’t really my biological descendant, or Abel’s for that matter. You hail from Seth, my parents’ third child who comforted them in their miserable old age. But you are still mine. As long as you tell my story, as long as you are my story, I am your father and you are my child.
And just as God taught me when I was caught literally red-handed with my brother’s blood, I remind you:
“Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY and a Judaic Studies teacher at the Hebrew Academy of The Capital District. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, (The Jewish Publication Society, April 2020).
Rabbi Ornstein has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for the last several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted.
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