Notes on Genesis 4

Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground…

And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?

The word “keeper” in the passages is two different Hebrew words, and scripture often uses them separately but sometimes synonymously. We can consider them both as synonyms and not.

As synonyms. 

In this sense, Cain is asking whether Abel is his sheep. The sense here is double: on the one hand it is either a dehumanization of Abel or an exaltation of himself; on the other hand it is a mocking jab at God, since if we read Cain’s resentment at God as tracing back to God’s favoring Abel’s sacrifice, his comment reads as “So is Abel one of those sheep that you like so much?”  This is a particularly diabolic jab to make after what Cain had done to this “sheep”.

Again, Abel was killed out of envy of his religious practice and so died as a martyr. In a triumph of theodicy, death is allowed to enter the world only as martyrdom. Seen from this angle, when the Eucharistic prayer asks God to “accept [our sacrifice] as once you accepted the gifts of Abel the just” it is speaking both of the sacrifice of his sheep and of Abel himself.  Abel was thus the first agnus dei. 

As distinct.

Both terms denote being mindful of something or tending it, but the second tends to be more abstract, and can mean something like “to watch”. In this sense Cain misses that he should be one who cares and defends his brother and turns into one who watches for him, i.e. he has taken the character of the sin that “lieth at the [your] door, and his desire is for you”.

In other words, the whole problem turns on whether we watch out for others as those who care about them or as hunters and prey watch out for each other. Cain even seems to feign the first way of watching out for others in order to prey on them: “Cain talked with Abel his brother [i.e. feigned friendliness or intimacy]: and it came to pass, when they were in the field [i.e. the place they needed both for shepherding and tilling], that Cain rose up* against Abel his brother, and slew him.”


*The word for “to rise up” seems idiomatic here – it usually means “to establish” and is the normal way of speaking of making covenants. Cain thus set himself or even covenanted himself to the murder.


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