Of the stories in the Old Testament, one of the most recognizable is that of Cain and Abel, the classic rivalry between the favored son and his less lauded brother, which resonates throughout history, becoming the archetype for countless stories of brotherly hatred. Those who quote it, however, may not realize exactly how thin the story actually is. We’re not really told why God favored Abel over Cain, or why Cain felt the need to kill Abel because of it, or what he hoped to gain from his actions. Despite the fact that Adam and Eve had acquired the knowledge of good and evil, and presumably passed this along to their sons, Cain doesn’t exhibit a great deal of remorse for his actions.
The story of Cain and Abel takes up the first part of Genesis, Chapter 4, and the remainder of the chapter deals with the aftermath. It is the first point in the Bible where a trend is established of God always favoring the younger son. We see it repeated with Jacob and Esau, and in the stories of Joseph, Moses, and David, as well as other places in the Bible. It’s also echoed in the story of the exodus, where first-born sons are targeted as part of the catastrophes god rains down on Egypt. It’s hard to tell if those who wrote the Bible meant to imply something specific about the Israelites and their place among the wandering tribes who settled in Palestine, or if the writers were simply deriving an “ought” from an “is” namely, since they claim descent from later sons, then God must have favored the later born.
One possibility is that the entity identified as the God of the Israelites, sometimes named Jehovah or Yahweh, may have been considered a lesser deity in the pantheon of the various gods worshiped by the tribes wandering around Palestine at the time. Evidence suggests every tribe had their own god or gods they followed, and this is borne out in the pages of the Bible, when mention is made of Baal, or Molek, among others. The admonition of the ten commandments states “I am the lord your God” not “I am the one and only God” and whenever the Bible lists conflicts between deities, often competitions are held to see which god is more reliable, with the God of the Israelites always prevailing, except for the occasional times some warlike power conquers the land and destroys its temple. I’ve read that the Gnostics, the chief rivals of the emerging Orthodox Christian church in the first and second centuries, regarded the Jewish God Yahweh as a demiurge, who imprisoned people in their earthly forms, and it was only through specialized knowledge (or Gnosis) that they could escape. Given that the people who worshiped this particular God are the ones whose histories have survived, we’ll probably never know the actual reasons behind why this God acts as it does. However, if we regard a god as the “parent” of a given tribe, it makes sense that a lesser god would favor the lesser son, but this is only speculation on my part.
If Genesis chapters 6 through 9 are to be believed, then the story of Cain and Abel is absolutely irrelevant to the history of anyone on earth, given that Cain’s descendants were those wiped out by the Flood, and Abel died without issue. Noah, whose family are the only humans said to have survived the flood, descended from Seth, a later son of Adam, as is detailed in Genesis 5. This leaves one to wonder why so much attention was paid to Cain’s descendants, naming one as the ancestor of those who live in tents (Jabal); one the ancestor of those who play stringed instruments (Jubal); and another as the one who forged tools of bronze and iron (Tubal-Cain). One would think such ancestors would be attributed to Noah’s sons, rather than those of Cain, for reasons already stated. Some may argue that the fate that befell Cain’s descendants serves as a warning to those who sin against God, but that didn’t stop Noah’s descendants from building Sodom and Gomorrah, and suffering a similar fate at the hands of God.
What’s to be derived from the story is that once again, God doesn’t display many godlike tendencies, favoring Abel over Cain, for no known reason other than the fact that Cain farms the land while Abel is a shepherd. It’s not stated specifically why one profession is placed higher in God’s estimation than the other, or why Abel’s offering of the fat of a lamb, is more welcome by God than Cain’s offering of the grains of the field, given that each was the product of Cain and Abel’s livelihood. We’re given so little information about the personalities of Cain and Abel, that we can only deduce from Cain’s actions that he must have been jealous, though Cain does not explain his actions, nor defend himself for what he has done. God does not consider the consequences of its actions in favoring one son over another, nor foresee what Cain is planning to do, and seems shocked that Cain would react to God’s treatment in the manner he does. Also, other than admonishing Cain for his actions, God does not do much to punish Cain, other than marking him and having him wander the earth.
It’s possible that this story was somehow meant to serve as the history behind why herders and farmers didn’t get along, but, if so, it’s not specifically stated, and if it was, then farmers clearly won out, given that Cain is the sole survivor. Also, no real lesson is derived from it, as is the case with other stories in the Bible. Cain is marked, so people can identify him, though, presumably everyone on earth at the time should already know him, since the only people still alive are Adam, Eve, and Cain. The Bible does state in Genesis 5 that Adam (and presumably Eve) had other children after Seth, but they’d have all been Cain’s siblings, and presumably knew of him and his story. Since we’re told in Genesis that all known people were descendants of Cain or Seth, it’s not clear why they would have cared that Cain killed his brother, so long as it wasn’t the brother from whom they descended. Some of the commentary I’ve read suggests that the story of Cain was actually the origin story of another tribe that merged with the Israelites at some point, bringing with them their myths and legends. If so, it was added to the origin stories that appear in Genesis without alteration, which leaves us with a wealth of unanswered questions, such as where Cain’s wife originated.