Cain slaying Abel, by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1600

In the biblical Book of Genesis, Cain[a] and Abel[b] are the first two sons of Adam and Eve.[1] Cain, the firstborn, was a farmer, and his brother Abel was a shepherd. The brothers made sacrifices to God, but God favored Abel's sacrifice instead of Cain's. Cain then murdered Abel, whereupon God punished Cain by condemning him to a life of wandering. Cain then dwelt in the land of Nod (נוֹד, 'wandering'), where he built a city and fathered the line of descendants beginning with Enoch.

In the Qur'an, Abel and Cain are known as Hābīl (Arabic: هابيل) and Qābīl (قابيل) respectively. The events of the story in the Qur'an are virtually the same as the Hebrew Bible narrative: Both the brothers were asked to offer up individual sacrifices to God; God accepted Abel's sacrifice and rejected Cain's; out of jealousy, Cain slew Abel – the first ever case of murder committed upon the Earth. In Islam, the story of Cain and Abel serves as an admonition against murder promoting sanctity of human life.

Genesis narrative

Cain leadeth Abel to death, by James Tissot, c. 1900

The story of Cain's murder of Abel and its consequences is told in Genesis 4:1–18:[2]

[i] And Adam knew Eve his woman and she conceived and bore Cain, and she said, "I have got me a man with the Lord."[ii] And she bore as well his brother Abel, and Abel became a herder of sheep while Cain was a tiller of the soil. And it happened in the course of time that Cain brought from the fruit of the soil an offering to the Lord. And Abel too had brought from the choice firstlings of his flock, and the Lord regarded Abel and his offering but did not regard Cain and his offering. And Cain was very incensed, and his face fell. And the Lord said to Cain,

"Why are you incensed,
and why is your face fallen?
For whether you offer well,
or whether you do not,
at the tent flap sin crouches
and for you is its longing,
but you will rule over it."

[iii] And Cain said to Abel his brother, "Let us go out to the field," and when they were in the field Cain rose against Abel his brother and killed him. [iv] And the Lord said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother? And he said, "I do not know: am I my brother's keeper?" [v] And He said, "What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the soil. And so, cursed shall you be by the soil that gaped with its mouth to take your brother's blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it will no longer give you strength. A restless wanderer shall you be on the earth." And Cain said to the Lord, "My punishment is too great to bear. Now that You have driven me this day from the soil I must hide from Your presence, I shall be a restless wanderer on the earth and whoever finds me will kill me." And the Lord said to him, "Therefore whoever kills Cain shall suffer sevenfold vengeance." And the Lord set a mark upon Cain so that whoever found him would not slay him.

And Cain went out from the Lord's presence and dwelled in the land of Nod east of Eden. And Cain knew his wife and she conceived and bore Enoch. Then he became the builder of a city and he called the name of the city like his son's name, Enoch.

Translation notes

  1. ^ 4:1 – The Hebrew verb "knew" implies intimate or sexual knowledge, along with possession. The name "Cain", which means "smith", resembles the verb translated as "gotten" but also possibly meaning "to make". (Alter 2008:29).
  2. ^ 4:2 – Abel's name could be associated with "vapor" or "puff of air". (Alter 2008:29).
  3. ^ 4:8 – "Let us go out to the field" does not appear in the Masoretic Text, but is found in other versions including the Septuagint and Samaritan Pentateuch.
  4. ^ 4:9 – the phrase traditionally translated "am I my brother's keeper?" is Hebrew "Hă-šōmêr 'āḥî 'ānōḵî?" "Keeper" is from the verb shamar (שמר), "guard, keep, watch, preserve."
  5. ^ 4:10–12 – Cain is cursed min-ha-adamah, from the earth, being the same root as "man" and Adam.



Cain and Abel are traditional English renderings of the Hebrew names. It has been proposed that the etymology of their names may be a direct pun on the roles they take in the Genesis narrative. Abel (hbl) is thought to derive from a reconstructed word meaning 'herdsman', with the modern Arabic cognate ibil now specifically referring only to 'camels'. Cain (qyn) is thought to be cognate to the mid-1st millennium BCE South Arabian word qyn, meaning 'metalsmith'. This theory would make the names descriptive of their roles, where Abel works with livestock, and Cain with agriculture—and would parallel the names Adam (אדם, 'dm, 'man') and Eve (חוה, ḥwh, 'life-giver').[3][4]

Context of the story

Cain and Abel also appear in a number of other texts apart from Genesis, and the story is the subject of various interpretations. Abel, the first murder victim, is sometimes seen as the first martyr; while Cain, the first murderer, is sometimes seen as an ancestor of evil. Some scholars suggest the pericope may have been based on a Sumerian story representing the conflict between nomadic shepherds and settled farmers. Modern scholars typically view the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel to be about the development of civilization during the age of agriculture; not the beginnings of man, but when people first learned agriculture, replacing the ways of the hunter-gatherer.[5] It has also been seen as a depiction of nomadic conflict, the struggle for land and resources (and divine favour) between nomadic herders and sedentary farmers.[6][7][8]

The Academic theologian Joseph Blenkinsopp holds that Cain and Abel are symbolic rather than real.[9] Like almost all of the persons, places and stories in the Primeval history (the first eleven chapters of Genesis), they are mentioned nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible, a fact that suggests that the history is a late composition attached to Genesis to serve as an introduction.[10] Just how late is a matter for dispute: the history may be as late as the Hellenistic period (first decades of the 4th century BCE),[11] but the high level of Babylonian myth behind its stories has led others to date it to the Babylonian exile (6th century BCE).[12][13] A prominent Mesopotamian parallel to Cain and Abel is the Sumerian myth of the Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzid,[12][13][14] in which the shepherd Dumuzid and the farmer Enkimdu compete for the affection of the goddess Inanna,[15] with Dumuzid (the shepherd) winning out.[16] Another parallel is Enlil Chooses the Farmer-God,[17] in which the shepherd-god Emesh and the farmer-god Enten bring their dispute over which of them is better to the chief god Enlil,[18] who rules in favor of Enten (the farmer).[19]

Christian interpretation

Main articles: Cain and Abel

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The author of the letter to the Hebrews, in Hebrews 11:4, makes a brief reference to the Cain and Abel story:

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks.[20]

Islamic interpretation

A depiction of Cain burying Abel from an illuminated manuscript version of Stories of the Prophets

Main articles: Cain and Abel in Islam and Al-Ma'ida

The story appears in the Quran 5:27-31:[21]

[Prophet], tell them the truth about the story of Adam's two sons: each of them offered a sacrifice, and it was accepted from one and not the other. One said, 'I will kill you,' but the other said, 'God only accepts the sacrifice of those who are mindful of Him. If you raise your hand to kill me, I will not raise mine to kill you. I fear God, the Lord of all worlds, and I would rather you were burdened with my sins as well as yours and became an inhabitant of the Fire: such is the evildoers' reward.' But his soul prompted him to kill his brother: he killed him and became one of the losers. God sent a raven to scratch up the ground and show him how to cover his brother's corpse and he said, 'Woe is me! Could I not have been like this raven and covered up my brother's body?' He became remorseful.

— The Quran, translated by Muhammad Abdel-Haleem

The story of Cain and Abel has always been used as a deterrent from murder in Islamic tradition. Abdullah ibn Mas'ud reported that Muhammad said in a hadith:[22]

No soul is wrongfully killed except that some of the burden falls upon the son of Adam, for he was the first to establish the practice of murder.

Muslim scholars were divided on the motives behind Cain's murder of Abel, and further why the two brothers were obliged to offer sacrifices to God. Some scholars believed that Cain's motives were plain jealousy and lust. Both Cain and Abel desired to marry Adam's beautiful daughter, Aclima (Arabic: Aqlimia'). Seeking to end the dispute between them, Adam suggested that each present an offering before God. The one whose offering God accepted would marry Aclima. Abel, a generous shepherd, offered the fattest of his sheep as an oblation to God. But Cain, a miserly farmer, offered only a bunch of grass and some worthless seeds to him. God accepted Abel's offering and rejected Cain's—an indication that Abel was more righteous than Cain, and thus worthier of Aclima. As a result, it was decided that Abel would marry Aclima. Cain, on the other hand, would marry her less beautiful sister. Blinded by anger and lust for Aclima, Cain sought to get revenge on Abel and escape with Aclima.[23][24]

According to another tradition, the devil appeared to Cain and instructed him how to exact revenge on Abel. "Hit Abel's head with a stone and kill him," whispered the devil to Cain. After the murder, the devil hurried to Eve shouting: "Eve! Cain has murdered Abel!". Eve did not know what murder was or how death felt like. She asked, bewildered and horrified, "Woe to you! What is murder?". "He [Abel] does not eat. He does not drink. He does not move [That's what murder and death are]," answered the Devil. Eve burst out into tears and started to wail madly. She ran to Adam and tried to tell him what happened. However, she could not speak because she could not stop wailing. Since then, women wail broken-heartedly when a loved one dies.[25] A different tradition narrates that while Cain was quarreling with Abel, the devil killed an animal with a stone in Cain's sight to show him how to murder Abel.[26]

After burying Abel and escaping from his family, Cain got married and had children. They died in Noah's flood among other tyrants and unbelievers.[27]

Some Muslim scholars puzzled over the mention of offerings in the narrative of Cain and Abel. Offerings and sacrifices were ordained only after the revelation of Tawrat to Musa. This led some scholars, such as Sa'id ibn al-Musayyib, to think that the sons of Adam mentioned in the Quran are actually two Israelites, not Cain and Abel.[26]

Gnostic interpretation

In the Apocryphon of John, a work used in Gnosticism, Cain and Abel are Archons, being the offspring of the lesser god or Demiurge called Yaldabaoth, placed over the elements of fire, wind, water and earth. In this narrative their true names are Yahweh and Elohim, but they are given their earthly names as a form of deception.[28][29]

Legacy and symbolism

Cain and Abel. Plaster cast after bronze (1425-1438) by Jacopo Della Quercia (1374-1438), Bologna, Italy. National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
Cain and Abel, 15th-century German depiction from Speculum Humanae Salvationis
Cain and Abel, 16th-century painting by Titian

Allusions to Cain and Abel as an archetype of fratricide appear in numerous references and retellings, through medieval art and Shakespearean works up to present day fiction.[30]

The serpent seed explanation for Cain being capable of murder is that he may have been the offspring of a fallen angel or Satan himself, rather than being from Adam.[31][32][33]

A treatise on Christian Hermeticism, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, describes the biblical account of Cain and Abel as a myth, in that it expresses, in a form narrated for a particular case, an "eternal" idea. It argues that brothers can become mortal enemies through the very fact that they worship the same God in the same way. According to the author, the source of religious wars is revealed. It is not the difference in dogma or ritual which is the cause, but the "pretention to equality" or "the negation of hierarchy."[34]

There were other, minor traditions concerning Cain and Abel, of both older and newer date. The apocryphal Life of Adam and Eve tells of Eve having a dream in which Cain drank his brother's blood. In an attempt to prevent the prophecy from happening the two young men are separated and given different jobs.[35]

Cultural references

Like other prominent biblical figures, Cain and Abel appear in many works of art, including works by Titian, Peter Paul Rubens and William Blake.

Multiple plays alludes to the story. In William Shakespeare's Hamlet, the characters King Claudius and King Hamlet are parallels of Cain and Abel.[36] Lord Byron also rewrote and dramatized the story in his own play Cain (1821), viewing Cain as symbolic of a sanguine temperament, provoked by Abel's hypocrisy and sanctimony.[37] The 2008 Danish stage play Biblen discusses and reenacts various Biblical stories, including Abel's murder by Cain.[38]

Many novels feature the characters, or are closely based on them. Miguel de Unamuno's 1917 novel Abel Sánchez: A Story of a Passion is a re-telling of the Cain and Abel story.[39] John Steinbeck's 1952 novel East of Eden (also a 1955 film) refers in its title to Cain's exile and contains discussions of the Cain and Abel story which then play out in the plot.[40] James Baldwin's 1957 short story, "Sonny's Blues", has been seen as alluding to the Cain and Abel story.[41][42] Author Daniel Quinn, first in his novel Ishmael (1992) and later in The Story of B (1996), proposes that the story of Cain and Abel is an account of early Semitic herdsmen observing the beginnings of what he calls totalitarian agriculture, with Cain representing the first 'modern' agriculturists and Abel the pastoralists.[43]

They have also featured in TV series and, if allegorically, on the big screen. In Dallas (1978), Bobby and J.R. Ewing have been described as variations of Cain and Abel.[44] More direct references include the appearance of Cain and Abel as characters in DC Comics since the 1950s. In 1989, Neil Gaiman made the two recurring characters in his comic series The Sandman.[45] In Darren Aronofsky's allegorical film Mother! (2017), the characters "oldest son" and "younger brother" represent Cain and Abel.[46]

The Bruce Springsteen song "Adam Raised a Cain" (1978) invokes the symbolism of Cain and Adam.[47] It is also the title of a season 2 episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.[48]

American heavy metal band Avenged Sevenfold has a song called Chapter Four (2003) which is based on the story of Cain and Abel.[49] American heavy metal band Danzig has a song named Twist of Cain which lyrically is inspired by the story of Cain and Abel.[50]

See also


  1. ^ /kn/; Hebrew: קַיִן Qayīn, in pausa קָיִןQāyīn; Greek: Κάϊν Káïn; Arabic: قابيل/قايين, romanizedQābīl / Qāyīn
  2. ^ /ˈbəl/; Hebrew: הֶבֶל Heḇel, in pausa הָבֶלHāḇel; Greek: Ἅβελ Hábel; Arabic: هابيل, romanizedHābīl



  1. ^ Schwartz, Loebel-Fried & Ginsburg 2004, p. 447.
  2. ^ Alter, Robert, trans. 2008. "Genesis 4." In The Five Books of Moses. p. 29.
  3. ^ Benner, Jeff A. "Cain & Abel". Ancient Hebrew Research Center. Retrieved July 3, 2023.
  4. ^ Zaslow, Rabbi David (30 October 2014). "WHAT'S IN A NAME: A SECRET ABOUT CAIN AND ABEL". Rabbi David Zaslow. Retrieved July 3, 2023.
  5. ^ Kugel 1998, pp. 54–57.
  6. ^ Schnurer, Eric (3 August 2017). "The Age-Old Urban-Rural Conflict". U.S. News & World Report.
  7. ^ "Cain & Abel". World History Encyclopedia.
  8. ^ "Cain and Abel's clash may reflect ancient Bronze Age rivalries". Culture. April 10, 2019. Archived from the original on March 14, 2021.
  9. ^ Blenkinsopp 2011, p. 2.
  10. ^ Sailhamer 2010, p. 301.
  11. ^ Gmirkin 2006, pp. 240–41.
  12. ^ a b Gmirkin 2006, p. 6.
  13. ^ a b Kugler & Hartin 2009, pp. 53–54.
  14. ^ Kramer 1961, p. 101.
  15. ^ Kramer 1961, pp. 101–03.
  16. ^ Kramer 1961, p. 103.
  17. ^ Kramer 1961, p. 49.
  18. ^ Kramer 1961, pp. 50–51.
  19. ^ Kramer 1961, p. 51.
  20. ^ "Hebrews 11:4 NRSVUE - - Bible Gateway". Hebrews 11:4 NRSVUE on BibleGateway. Retrieved 23 May 2023.
  21. ^ Abel. "Abel - Ontology of Quranic Concepts from the Quranic Arabic Corpus". Retrieved 2015-12-17.
  22. ^ Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim
  23. ^ Ibn Kathir. "Surat Al-Ma'ida." In Tafsir al-Qur'an al-adhim [Interpretation of the Holy Qur'an].
  24. ^ Benslama, Fethi (2009). Psychoanalysis and the Challenge of Islam. U of Minnesota Press. p. 189. ISBN 978-0816648887.
  25. ^ Adapted from Ibn Abul-Hatim's narrative in Tafsir al-Qur'an al-adhim and Tafsir al-Tabari, Surat Al-Ma'ida
  26. ^ a b Tafsir al-Qur'an al-adhim and Tafsir al-Tabari, Surat Al Ma'ida
  27. ^ The Beginning and the End, Ibn Kathir – Volume I
  28. ^ Marvin Meyer; Willis Barnstone (June 30, 2009). "The Secret Book of John". The Gnostic Bible. Shambhala. Retrieved 2022-01-28.
  29. ^ "Gnosticism - Apocryphon of John". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2022-01-28.
  30. ^ Byron 2011, p. 93.
  31. ^ Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, Vol. 1, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, ISBN 0-8018-5890-9, pp. 105–09
  32. ^ Luttikhuizen 2003, p. vii.
  33. ^ Byron 2011, pp. 15–19.
  34. ^ Powell, Robert, trans. [1985] 2002. Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism. pp. 14–15
  35. ^ Williams, David. 1982. "Cain and Beowulf: A Study in Secular Allegory." p. 21. University of Toronto Press.
  36. ^ Hamlin, Hannibal (2013). The Bible in Shakespeare. p. 154. ISBN 978-0199677610.
  37. ^ de Vries, Ad (1976). Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company. p. 75. ISBN 978-0-7204-8021-4.
  38. ^ "Bibelen (Nørrebro Teater)". 5 October 2008. Archived from the original on 2008-10-05. Retrieved 10 September 2018.
  39. ^ Quinones, Ricardo J. (14 July 2014). The Changes of Cain: Violence and the Lost Brother in Cain and Abel Literature. Princeton University Press. p. 176. ISBN 978-1-4008-6214-6.
  40. ^ "Pop Culture 101: East of Eden". Archived from the original on 2016-04-06. Retrieved 2014-04-11.
  41. ^ Stahlberg, Lesleigh Cushing; Hawkins, Peter S. (2017). The Bible in the American Short Story. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 43. ISBN 978-1474237185.
  42. ^ McKenzie, Barbara (1974). The Process of Fiction: Contemporary Stories and Criticism. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. pp. 45. ISBN 978-0155719866. Baldwin establishes such a verbal clue when the narrator remembers his mothers warning.
  43. ^ Whittemore, Amie. "Ishmael – Part 9: Sections 9–11". Cliffs Notes. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Retrieved 2 January 2017.
  44. ^ Mitchell, Jolyon P.; Marriage, Sophia (2003). Mediating Religion: Studies in Media, Religion, and Culture. A&C Black. ISBN 978-0567088079. Retrieved 2 September 2017 – via Google Books.
  45. ^ Hughes, William (2015). The Encyclopedia of the Gothic, 2 Volume Set. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1119064602. Retrieved 2 September 2017 – via Google Books.
  46. ^ Adam White (September 23, 2017). "Mother! explained". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 2022-01-11. Retrieved September 30, 2017.
  47. ^ Margotin, Philippe; Guesdon, Jean-Michel (2020). Bruce Springsteen All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track. London: Cassell Illustrated. p. 112
  48. ^ Calvert, Bronwen (2017). Being Bionic: The World of TV Cyborgs. I.B. Tauris.
  49. ^ Parillo, Michael. "DRUMMERS, FEATURE STORIES James "The Rev" Sullivan". Modern Drummer. Retrieved 26 October 2022. We have a song called "Chapter Four" that's about the first murder ever, which is a story in the Bible. Matt [Shadows] writes all the lyrics, and he just thinks the first murder is a cool story.
  50. ^ Gitter, Mike (October 1987). "Glenn Danzig: Resurrection of a Misfit". RIP magazine. Archived from the original on October 17, 2011. Retrieved September 19, 2023.


Further reading