Read carefully through the story of the confrontation between Cain and Abel. As you will note below, we are going to focus on a single sentence in this story. In this sentence, we will see the midrash focusing on a number of different issues in the verse.
1. The Biblical Story Genesis 4:1-15
Things to Consider
- Read the Torah’s account of the slaying of Abel by Cain. What seems to be the reason that Cain killed Abel, according to the plain sense ( פשט ) of the story? Pay particular attention to verse 8.
- What about this verse serves as the impetus for a midrashic explanation of the reason for the murder?
- You will see three underlined sections of this verse. Try to identify the issue or issues in each which might prompt a commentator to develop an interpretation.
A Midrashic Explanation of the reason for the murder
Just as a reminder from our last lesson, Bereishit Rabbah is a midrash composed in Eretz Yisrael in the Talmudic Period (Amoraic 3-5th century CE) This midrash focuses on answering a particular question in the verse quoted.
*This reference refers to a midrash which attempts to account for the two different stories found in the Torah where woman was created, name, the story in the first chapter 1 of Genesis and the story of the creation of Eve found in the second chapter. According to this midrash, the first woman was created twice, the first time Adam rejected her because he saw her being created and was repulsed so that in the second account, the Adam and Eve story, God put Adam to sleep so that he would only see the finished product. (See Genesis Rabbah 18:4) Adam took Eve 2 as a wife, leaving Eve 2 open for Cain and Abel.
**The sages learned from the redundant use of the Hebrew word “et” which is normally used as a place server that there were female children born along with Cain and Abel. This helped them explain where the women came from needed to populate the world.
Guide Questions and Notes
- What has the author of this midrash attempted to do?
- This midrash takes account of three possible reasons for Cain’s murder of Adam. What are they? What is the purpose of these different accounts? Do they represent something?
- Read through the midrash. If you have answered the second question on the passage from the Torah successfully, then you are ready for this question. How has this midrash answered that question?
What is the message of this midrash?
A Midrashic Account of the Fight Between the Brothers
- What is the textual impetus for this midrash?
- What does this midrash say about the struggle between the two brothers?
- What point does the midrash want to make from this story?
- What purpose does this midrash assign to the story?
ר’ שמעון א’ בקנה הרגו וילד לחבורתי (בראשית ד כג) דבר שעושה חבורה,
רבנין אמ’ באבן הרגו כי איש הרגתי לפצעי (שם שם /בראשית ד’/) דבר שעושה פצעים,
ר’ עזריה ור’ יונתן בשם ר’ יצחק נתבונן קין מאיכן שחט אביו את הפר ותיטב לי”י משור פר (תהלים סט לב)
ומשם הרגו [ממקום הצואר] וממקום הסימנין.
With what did he kill him?
R. Simeon said: He killed him with a staff: And a young man for my bruising (Gen. iv, 23) implies a weapon which inflicts a bruise.
The Rabbis said: He killed him with a stone: For I have slain a man for wounding me (ib.) indicates a weapon which inflicts wounds.
R. ‘Azariah and R. Jonathan in R. Isaac’s name said: Cain had closely observed where his father slew the bullock [which he sacrificed, as it is written], And it shall please the Lord better than a bullock (Ps. lxix, 32), and there he killed him: by the throat and its organs.
- What question do these midrashin come to answer?
- How does each sage answer the question? (What is the method to his madness?)
- Where do the first two sages go for proof texts?
- Is there a message to be found in Rabbi Azariah’s answer?
Lesson 2 Some Conclusions
I thoroughly enjoyed your discussion on the conflict between Cain and Abel, if one can enjoy discussion on this topic. You have captured much of the angst and human tragedy in this event. Obviously, we have only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the midrashic treatment of this subject. We could spend 10 lessons on it alone. I brought only one of the many serious midrashim on the subject, in part, for the textual problem which provided the impetus for the midrash as much as for the midrash itself.
As many of you ascertained, the first midrash is prompted by an ellipsis or seeming gap in verse 8 where the brothers are having a conversation but then no conversation is recorded and them the verse launches into the tragic confrontation and murder. This ellipsis gives the sages an opportunity to fit in that gap, which they do oh so artfully and meaningfully.
What was the argument about? The sages came up with three possibilities. These three alternatives cover the gamut of why people do violent things: material things, ideology, and intimate relations. It seems to me that the sages wanted to take the story of Cain and Abel, which is a story expressing the etiology of murder and or fratricide and establish a similar etiology for the motives for murder or violence.
What is gained by this, it seems to me, is self awareness. Once people are aware of what prompts them to do these sorts of things, perhaps they will be able to curb their behavior.
Notice as well that the first midrash does not assign blame to a single party but rather sees the causes or motives as the cause of the violence.
The second and third midrashim deal with textual problems: The second why Cain had to stand up and the third what was the weapon used. These sorts of midrash take that which is abstract and try to concretize it by adding details which were not part of the original story. This is very characteristic of the sages.