As we go to press, a group of clergy-protesters, including Dr. Cornel West, are in lockup in Ferguson: this morsel of biblical scholarship, dealing as it does with power, injustice, and the legacy of religious tradition, seems all the more timely. –the Eds.
Journalist Wesley Lowery, who recently tweeted his own arrest in Ferguson, Missouri, commented this week that Americans do not have a “good track record when it comes to recognizing systemic disadvantages from which they benefit.” The NY Times‘ Nicholas Kristof has referred, in the same context, to “smug white delusion” about race, and racism, in this country.
How much is our view of justice determined by how we ourselves have been treated?
This question is as old as the Bible, it turns out.
In Genesis, the story of Cain and Abel is not only the first account of human violence. It is also the first story that forces us to face the problem of unfair treatment, of outcomes not directly related to a person’s own choices. Here, it is not a question of unjust social structures, but inexplicable divine choice. In the biblical story, both brothers make an offering to God, but only one is accepted:
“In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” (Genesis 4:3-5)
This is the first of many moments in the Bible where God plays favorites. We are never told why God rejects Cain’s offering, just as we are never told why the younger brother Jacob—not his older twin Esau—is chosen to become the father of a nation. Indeed, the Bible does not clearly explain why Israel itself is God’s chosen people. None of these moments of favor or rejection seem to be deserved, or related to the deeds or character of the chosen or unchosen.
This is hard to swallow. Since antiquity, readers of the Bible have struggled to explain these troubling accounts—to discern some coherent, morally explicable reason for apparently arbitrary differences in fortune, and to redraw the world as a fair place after all.
In one account, the Talmud relates that God offered the Torah to all the nations, but only the Jews accepted it. This reversal has two effects: it keeps God unimpeachably even-handed, and it returns agency to the people—that is, it suggests it was the Jews who chose God, not the other way around.
As for Jacob and Esau, later interpretations embellish their characters to make sense of Jacob’s seemingly unmerited divine election: Esau becomes a bloodthirsty, violent savage, while Jacob becomes a morally upright and studious young man, worthy of both his father’s and God’s blessings.
Likewise, in many ancient retellings, God rejects Cain’s offering not because of divine caprice, but because of Cain’s reprehensible character—the first century Jewish historian Josephus, for example, adds that Abel was a lover of righteousness, while Cain was altogether wicked and greedy.
Some contemporary Christian preachers, for their part, have explained that God preferred Abel’s offering because it was better: surely the firstlings of a flock are a more impressive offering than mere plants! Cain had no right to be upset when Abel gave a superior gift.
These readings fulfill a deep need to believe that it is people’s characters and choices, their hard work, that determines their way in the world. If meritocracy is a myth people want to believe about American society, how important it is to see it confirmed in the Bible! But to retell the Cain and Abel story to fit this scheme is a tough sell. As with many biblical texts, easy moralizing does violence to the story, which presents us with a series of bewildering problems it does not solve.
One such problem is a gap in the Hebrew text—an unfinished sentence that probably resulted from a scribal error. After God inexplicably rejects Cain, the brothers go into a field, and we read, “Then Cain said to Abel.” But nothing follows. Instead, we read next that Cain rose up against his brother and killed him—a sudden display of violence, disproportionate and unprovoked.
Ancient translations into Greek, Syriac, and Latin include Cain’s speech, but only up to: “Let us go into the field.” We still don’t know why, in the next breath, we suddenly face the world’s first murder. Didn’t there have to be more to the story? As it stands, the act is shocking and extreme, and, it seems, premeditated.
Was Cain rejected by God because he was by nature a cold-blooded killer? That interpretation is difficult to support with the text. And here is the next problem with the story—God does not punish Cain the way we might expect. To be sure, Abel’s killing is squarely condemned: his blood “cries out from the ground,” and Cain is sentenced to a lifetime of exile. But when he protests that this punishment is too great to bear, and that he is afraid he will be killed when others find out what he did, God listens. Cain will be protected from harm. If anyone kills him, God says, he shall be avenged sevenfold.
Here again, a strange imbalance between deeds and divine response: typical ancient law demanded a life for a life, but the life of the first murderer would demand seven. God places a mark on Cain—we are not told any more about it—and he goes on his way to found cities and beget children.
Arbitrary divine choice, a sudden murder, a killer under God’s protection, a strange mark—all of this comes together into a bewildering sixteen verses. Attempts to tease a sanctimonious moral lesson out of the story fly in the face of its inexplicable twists and the things it leaves unsaid. Some ancient readers have tried to tie up some loose ends, not only painting Cain and Abel as righteous and wicked from the start, but also giving Cain the kind of ignoble death they felt the world’s first killer deserved: an early Jewish tradition claims his house fell on him and killed him, and a rabbinic midrash has him mistaken for an animal and killed in a hunting accident.
But other ancient interpretations amplify the story’s darker, more troubling notes, refusing to grant the reader an easy resolution.
One such tradition is the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, an Aramaic translation of the Hebrew text that dates from late antiquity or the early middle ages, but includes much earlier material.*
The first thing to notice about the way the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan retells the story begins with Cain’s conception: here he is not the son of Adam and Eve, but the result of a union between Eve and the fallen angel Sammael. From the beginning, then, Cain is half-demonic, which goes a long way to explaining some of the baffling aspects of the biblical story. (This may be a very old interpretive motif that the creator of this Targum has woven into his composition.)
But the motif is quickly dropped, and does not play a part in the rest of the story. The translator is not satisfied with dehumanizing Cain. In fact, the Targum presents us with a very human character, and actually deepens the story’s themes of injustice and violent anger. In fact, while the story has often been read as a warning against anger—condemning Cain’s anger, of course—the translator has added something remarkable: he has included Abel’s anger as well.
Why would Abel be angry? In this text, Abel’s anger flares when Cain suggests the divine favor he has experienced is unmerited.
At Genesis 4:8—“And Cain said to his brother”—the translator adds a long section of new material, an entire debate between the brothers:
And Cain said to his brother Abel: “Come! Let us go into the field!”
So they went into the field and Cain again said to Abel:
“I see that the world was created in love;
but it is not ordered by the effect of good deeds.
For there is partiality in judgment,
because your offering was accepted with favor.”
Abel answered and said: “The world was indeed created in love
and it is ordered by the effect of good deeds
and there is not partiality in judgment!
My offering was accepted with favor before yours
because the effect of my deeds was better than yours!”
In this first part of the conversation, Cain speaks for his own experience: he recognizes the goodness of creation, but observes that the world is not ordered according to good and bad deeds. “There is partiality in judgment,” he argues; God’s choice of Abel does not seem to be based on merit. But Abel rejects the idea that he has benefited from partiality. Outraged, he insists it is not so: the world is just, without bias. One’s lot in life is based on character and good deeds; Abel’s offering was chosen because it was better. Cain has no right to be upset.
At this point, the rhetoric escalates. Cain, whose complaint of injustice had at first recognized that “the world was created in love,” now responds with more radical claims:
Cain answered and said to Abel:
“There is no judgment and no Judge and no world to come!
No reward will be given to the righteous
nor any account given of the wicked!”
Abel answered and said:
“There is indeed a judgment and a Judge and a world to come!
The righteous will be given a good reward
and the wicked will be called to account!”
And because of these words, they fell to quarreling in the open field.
And Cain rose up against his brother Abel
and drove a stone into his head, killing him.
Cain and Abel’s remarkable argument is little known today, but it is not a mere blip on the radar of biblical interpretation. It exists in different versions in other Targum manuscripts, including fragments found in the Cairo Geniza, showing that it was discussed, revised, and transmitted across Jewish communities.
And it is representative of a concern with justice we can see in many other texts where Jewish interpreters grapple with the story—and usually refuse to give a neatly moralistic tale about a good brother and a bad one.
In this version, it is “because of these words” that they begin to fight, and that Cain finally kills Abel. Here Cain is not a cold-blooded murder who lures Abel into a field to kill him. Instead, we have a crime of passion, violence that erupts from a heated argument.
But it is important to pay attention to how the argument plays out, and to notice where the anger is born—not only Cain’s anger, but Abel’s as well.
The fight does not break out because of a philosophical disagreement about the nature of the world. The brothers argue because Cain has challenged the basis for Abel’s good fortune, and, Abel, in his anger, wishes to silence Cain’s experience. Cain is saying that God favored Abel for reasons unrelated to merit—in essence, that Abel benefited from injustice. Abel’s repeated insistence that he did deserve God’s favor also, of course, paints Cain’s efforts as unworthy.
Whether we read it as smug, defensive, or outraged, Abel’s rejection of the idea that the world might be unjust— that his own good fortune might be at least partly the result of a stacked deck—sounds very familiar to contemporary ears.
As we see every day, social and economic oppression can go unrecognized if it does not hurt us directly—and especially if we benefit from it. And when a person is confronted with the uncomfortable idea that they are the beneficiaries of an unjust system, even if it is not of their own making, they often become defensively angry.
People who have their privilege challenged often respond, in fact, like Abel in the Targum.
Those present injustices are not a matter of capricious divine choice. They are social structures, which are perhaps more long-lasting and less merciful. Surely the writer of the Targum was not predicting 21st century America, but perhaps we can read his words as a comment about privilege, and how the privileged interact with the marginalized. In this centuries-old text, we can see an uncomfortably familiar pattern where denying that injustice exists deepens and amplifies that injustice.
This is where the translator is far more than a pious interpreter—he refuses to rehabilitate baffling biblical narratives into edifying morality tales, where heroes, villains, and victims all perform their expected roles under a just God. Rather than tidying up a problem, he magnifies its scope and zeroes in on its most profound aspects.
One of the Targum’s innovations is to give Abel a voice, something he does not have in the biblical text. But this is not the voice we expect from Abel, if we are used to thinking of him as a paragon of meek virtue, killed by a ruthless murderer. Cain is angry when Abel repeatedly shuts down his grievance, and he is the one who strikes the final blow. But here Abel is angry as well, and he rejects his already-rejected brother all over again.
Abel, too, refuses to be his brother’s keeper.
We can read this double rejection—rejection by an unfair God, and then rejection by his more fortunate brother, who refuses to take his experience seriously—as the root of the tragedy. Cain’s frustration mounts to the point that he despairs of any justice at all, on earth or in heaven.
He kills Abel, whose blood cries out from the ground, and he is condemned.
But the translator isn’t quite finished with this striking portrait of a murderer he couldn’t bring himself to condemn entirely. In the final part of the story—when God promises to protect Cain from harm, and places a mark on him—the Targum identifies the mark: Cain is to carry inscribed on his face the holiest sign of all, the “great and honorable name of the LORD.”
*Aramaic had replaced Hebrew as the more commonly spoken vernacular after the Babylonian Exile, and scholars think that the practice of creating Targum—the Aramaic word for translation—began soon after, with new versions and additions continuing to appear for centuries. In the synagogue, scriptural readings in Hebrew would be followed by recitation of an Aramaic Targum, a practice that still continues today among Yemenite Jews. But many of the Targums are not straight translations. Instead, they contain changes, omissions, and embellishments—sometimes entire paragraphs of added material.