The man had relations with Eve his wife and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “I produced a man with Adonai.” Then she gave birth again, to his brother Abel. Abel became a shepherd of flocks while Cain became a worker of the ground. (Genesis 4:1-2, TLV)
If we’ve read the story of Cain and Abel, we know their occupations, and we know they both made sacrifices to God. We know about Cain’s jealousy and uncontrollable rage that led to the murder of his brother Abel. We then can’t understand why Cain was spared and wonder about the mark given him.
But there are additional clues in the Hebrew that shape a backstory we might not have considered.
So the story begins with Adam knowing Havah (Eve), who becomes pregnant. Havah names the baby “Qayin” but there is one word she says – 0th – that doesn’t translate well, but nevertheless should be understood correctly in order for us to understand the implications on Adam and Havah’s family.
About half the Bible translations read something like “I have acquired a man from the LORD” (the oth is underlined) while the rest say “with the LORD” or even “with the help of the LORD”. The reason there are so many discrepancies is that the translators are all trying to capture the essence and relevance of oth.
The use of oth has an air of transformation about it, as it’s used in situations where one entity approaches another for a specific action, such as:
- parties approaching other parties and making war with them (1 Kings 16:22, 20:25)
- a people leaving an area to go and live among another group (Judges 1:16)
- a man approaching his wife to have children with her (1 Chr. 2:18)
- changing the state of gold into a specific shape (Exod. 39:3)
- the Almighty being with someone in power (Gen. 49:25, Josh. 14:12)
So in the case of Havah, she was also naming him with the expectation of Qayin’s transformation into manhood, as she never said ‘I acquired a ben’ (lit. “son” or “male-child”), but ish, the word for an adult “man”. She looked at her baby and believed he would transform one day into “a man before YHVH”. Havah didn’t just give Qayin a name, but a motto as well (i.e. Qayin: “a Man before YHVH”). In other words, from the time Qayin was born, he was groomed and expected to become a man that in the presence of YHVH would be favored in everything he did.
As we read further along, there appears additional clues hinting at this interpretation. The next clue happens when Havah bears another son. However, this time no inspiration for the baby’s name is offered. His parents call him “Hevel”, which actually means “vapor”, “breath”, “futility”, “uselessness”, “vanity”, “vanity of vanities” (as in the book of Ecclesiastes), or “worthlessness”. For whatever reason, their parents saw Qayin as a brute, but also saw Hevel as a figure of nothing, a vapor – maybe not even expecting him to survive. The differences between the two extremes makes me think that Qayin and Hevel were growth-discordant (unequal) twins. After all, the text shows us that Qayin was exceptionally strong – strong enough to till the ground that YHVH had cursed (Gen 4:12). The name given to Hevel seems to suggest that he was a “runt”.
We also know from the text that the family’s life revolved around Qayin, as “Hevel became a ruler of flocks, but Qayin became a tiller of the ground”. Of those two, whom do we suppose had the favor of their father Adam? The one who followed his father’s footsteps, that’s whom! Adam would have been the one to teach Qayin the fields, and therefore the first to verify Havah’s prophecy from birth at how gifted and favored they were to have such a strong son, as Qayin tore up the fields before his father Adam. Hevel, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to have the strength for farming, and also doesn’t appear to have the confidence of Adam. Instead Hevel filled a secondary and support role for the family, keeping “flocks” of animals (n.b. the Bible does not specifically say ‘sheep’), presumably for grazing Qayin’s fields free of thorns and weeds (cf. Gen. 3:18) and for skins for clothing (cf. Gen. 3:21; n.b.: according to the Bible it appears that men did not start eating animals until after the Flood – cf. Gen. 9:3).
I envision that Qayin was raised believing that he was special, and groomed to excel. He worked side by side his father. His mother thought he was exceptional from birth.
Then there’s Hevel, who was thought of as a fleeting “vapor”, maybe not even expected to live. When compared with his brother Hevel’s own name is an insult – you can “acquire” and do something with Qayin, but you can’t possess a “mere breath”.
As the story progresses, these nuggets of background information can help shape the narrative of “Cain and Abel”. Qayin was the mighty one, favored of his parents, while Hevel was weaker, perhaps a runt in a set of twins. And while the strong one was favored by Adam and Havah – there was a better favor to come that everyone missed. That is, everyone except Hevel, who exceeded in the favor of the Almighty more than his stronger, elder brother – you know, the one whom the world was supposed to revolve around.
Ain’t it funny how nothing ever changes?
And that backstory is what can really shed light to why everyone in this family reacted the way they did. And if you think you’ve seen this story before, all that means is that this backstory has weight and meaning even in the year of our Lord 2016. Ω