Notes on Genesis (xxvi) Cain, his parents and God
In many ways the story of Cain and Abel looks back to the preceding narrative in Genesis. God’s assertion that Abel would have recourse to Cain, who would rule over him (4:7) reproduces his statement that after the fall Eve would have recourse to Adam, who would rule over her (3:16). Similarly, his question to Cain, who had just murdered Abel, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ recalls his question uttered shortly after the eating of the forbidden fruit, ‘Adam, where are you?’ (3:9), and like it can be seen as a device to elicit repentance: ‘God appeared to Cain with kindness, so that if he repented, the sin of murder that his fingers had committed might be effaced by the compunction on his lips.’ (Ephrem the Syrian; unexpectedly, Gregory the Great seems to have thought of the murder being committed with a sword.) But Cain responds with a lie (‘I do not know.’) and a question, worded in the Septuagint in a way to suggest that he anticipates a negative answer (‘Surely I am not my brother’s keeper?’), that suggests a frightening denial of responsibility. Yet the voice of Abel’s blood cries to God from the ground, presumably the ground to which it was predicted that Adam would return (3:19). Cain is thereupon cursed and told of difficulties in tilling the ground, ‘When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you’, language that yet again recalls what was said to Adam (3:18f). Finally, like his parents, Cain is expelled from where he had been living.
Moreover, just as in the case of his parents, while the fault for which Cain was punished was something done physically, the real problem was an interior one, for ‘whoever hates his brother is a murderer’ (1 John 3:15). Commenting on Christ’s teaching that ‘whoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment’ (Matt 5:22), John Cassian points out that some inferior manuscripts add after the word ‘brother’ the phrase ‘without a cause’, but that these words were added later, and indeed, while they are printed in the Authorized Version and the Orthodox Study Bible, they do not occur in the Greek Testament issued by the United Bible Societies (nor, for that matter, in the Vulgate). ‘The final cure for this sickness is to realise we must not become angry for any reason whatsoever, whether just or unjust.’ (John Cassian)