Friday, September 18, 2009

Did God Neglect Cain? And Why Was Cain Angry Enough to Kill?

Last night, some friends and I were talking about Cain and Abel. I said I thought Cain got the raw end of the deal. I just didn't understand what the big deal was. This morning, one of my friends asked me what light the Hebrew might shed on story.

It shed some light. It was a fun translation and I knew a lot of the words, which always excites me. The following gives an interpretation in light of the Hebrew from the BHS. Although I get a little technical with some of the Hebrew, you can easily pass over what I don't explain and I hope you can still understand the translation process. For example, it doesn't matter if you know what "waw consecutive" or "Qal" means. But, pay attention to what I say about "perfect" and "imperfect" verbs.


Genesis 4:3 opens with a very general term used in narratives. It is often left untranslated. I usually translate it something like, "and it came to pass" or "and it was." It is the conjoining waw and a form of the word "to be" (Qal imperfect, 3ms with the waw consecutive). Again, it starts lots of narratives and books of the Bible. Very popular, that word.

The next two words are something like "at the end of days." My dictionary says one of the words generally connotes "at the end of a definite time." But our "definite time" is the plural "days," which is not a very definite time. The word "day" can be ambiguous as well, sometimes meaning a day and sometimes meaning time in general, as expositors of Genesis 1 love to remind us. So, although we are unaware of how long, it sounds to me like the story's way of telling us, "so, the two boys grew up and we aren't going to talk about what happened then, let's just go on to this next part of the story." (It also gives me a sort of "at-the-end-of-the-season," as if it is time for harvest? But I am unsure if you would have animals birthing and grains and fruits harvesting at the same time.)

"And Cain caused to bring in an offering of fruit of the land to YHWH." "Caused to bring in" is a pretty rough translation ... the verb form has the sense of causation and agency and the word has the sense of bringing in, entering, and coming in. This verb in this form can connote gathering a harvest and simply bringing. So, perhaps, "And Cain brought an offering of fruit of the land to YHWH." Oh, but get this. It is in the imperfect, which often connotes an incomplete action. So, "And Cain was bringing an offering of the fruit of the land to YHWH." (Or, more simply "Cain brings ...", but we don't tell stories that way in English.)

Which brings us to verse 4 which could be translated to begin "And Abel" or "But Abel." Then same verb in a similar form is used, but in the perfect, which generally connotes a completed action. However, the difference in the two forms isn't so straight forward. The perfect doesn't always mean a completed action and the imperfect doesn't always mean an incomplete action. In fact, the "vav consecutive + imperfect" often connotes a completed action, which means the same verb form--imperfect--can connote the opposite of what it normally connotes simply by adding the word "and" on front of it.

Maybe the story is relating events of the past as if all are past, but with varying verb forms for novelty's sake (which is a practice not terribly dissimilar from English story-telling and writing habits). Or, it could be saying Cain went to offer his offering, but Abel was already offering his. In the following translation, I translated the imperfect and perfect sense of the verbs differently, in order to tell the story in this latter possible interpretation (Note, both offerings are in the singular, although "fruit" is a collective noun, I believe):

(4) But Abel, also he brought from a (female) first-born of his flock and her fat. And YHWH gazed on Abel and his offering. (5) But on Cain and his offering, YHWH was not gazing. And Cain was burning exceedingly [with anger], and his face was falling.

I translated "gaze" instead of "regard," like some translations, (although, my dictionary gives both options). Here we have the possibility that the younger sibling came before the older, perhaps reflecting a biblical tradition of preference for the younger. The younger in this case seems to earn the preference by offering his offering first. Then we have the possibility that Abel offered the first-born, whereas Cain offers fruit, not the first-fruit [see note 1].

Furthermore, Cain could feel ignored, because when he is ready to give his offering, God is busy paying attention to Abel and Cain cannot wait. Cain is the first-born, but God is gazing/regarding the first-born of some animals from the second born of Adam and Eve. Cain cannot wait his turn and thinks he deserves priority and, full of himself, gets angry. And his face or countenance falls

And you know the rest of the story.


My translation of Genesis 4:3-5:

[And an end of times came to pass. OR: And it was at an end of days that] Cain was bringing an offering of the fruit of the land to YHWH. But Abel, he also brought from a (female) first-born of his flock and her fat. And YHWH gazed on Abel and his offering. But on Cain and his offering, YHWH was not gazing. And Cain was burning exceedingly [with anger], and his countenance/face was falling.

Note 1: Deut. 26:2 says "first of all fruit" with the same word for fruit, but, well, also with the words for "first of all." In Deut. 18:4 the word translated "firstfruits" in the KJV is the word for "first."

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