Cain and Abel, fraternal strife from hunter gatherers to farmers and shepherds

The story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve represents the transition from a hunter gatherer group to a farming and herding society.

From the end of the last ice age tens of thousands of years ago, the hunter gatherer lifestyle could not be sustained since the megafauna went extinct.

Megafauna- Mammoths, rhinos, saber-tooth tigers, etc.

Genesis 4:1 “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord. And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.”

Society in the Near East morphed from a migratory band of hunters into settlers with shepherds and farmers near river systems to support their new lifestyle.

Farmer vs Shepherd

“And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.”

Why did God favor Abel? Because he brought the best of his possessions as an offering while Cain had not brought the best of his possessions for an offering.

Cain brought fruit but Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof.

The sacrifice included burnt offerings and the light emitted from the flames represents the link between humanity and the divinity watching over them. Everyone casts a shadow under an examination from the light of consciousness. This metaphorical shadow of each person depicts the historical context, or the necessary conditions the person had to endure that explains their actions. The shadow symbolizes the passive unconscious background of the active characters.

Jealous Cain watches Abel’s sacrifice

“The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge… Closer examination of the dark characteristics – that is, the inferiorities constituting the shadow – reveals that they have an emotional nature, a kind of autonomy, and accordingly an obsessive or, better, possessive quality. Emotion, incidentally, is not an activity of the individual but something that happens to him. Affects occur usually where adaptation is weakest, and at the same time they reveal the reason for its weakness, namely a certain degree of inferiority and the existence of a lower level of personality. On this lower level with its uncontrolled or scarcely controlled emotions one behaves more or less like a primitive, who is not only the passive victim of his affects but also singularly incapable of moral judgement.” – Karl Jung. Aion (1951). CW 9, Part II: P.14

Smoke rises from Abel to Heaven, but smoke from Cain falls

The name Cain in the Hebrew language means “to get” or “possess” (קנה; qanah).

The older brother Cain felt that he was entitled to his birthright, he worked in more difficult conditions as a farmer toiling the land than the shepherd tending to the flock. This was his rationalization for not bringing the best of the fruit for an offering, he thought he was entitled to the best fruits because he worked harder for his possessions than Abel. The sense of self worth of manly Cain is wounded because his offerings of the fruit of his hard, grinding and physically tough labor as a tiller of the ground was not respected in contrast to the offering of the fat from a soft, effeminate caretaker and nurse of small domesticated mammals of his younger brother Abel.

The Greed and Anger of Cain

Genesis 4:6 “And the Lord said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? 7 If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.”

Adam and Eve, their parents had lost the blessing of God their maker, but Cain and Abel each had a chance to obtain the patriarchal blessing from God, to be blessed with a garden of Eden, to regain the eternal bliss of paradise.

The Patriarchal Blessing grants the privilege of rulership to chosen heirs. In the wilderness and in the natural world many species of animals have been observed to focus their limited resources towards the strongest offspring. A mother bird, for example, may ignore the weakest runt and let it die as a response to environmental pressure to save the favorite. Each of the siblings in a litter had to fight each other to seek the approval of their parents, as their chances of survival depended upon securing the favor and affection of their parents.

Cain falls into sin, the Jungian shadow of a savage beast, and plots a murderous betrayal, to take the patriarchal blessing from Abel by force and rule over him.

Genesis4:8 “And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.”

Cain in his anger raises his arms against his brother

In Hebrew, Abel (הבל; Hevel) means “vapor” or “breath” – something that is here today and gone tomorrow. Abel is only alive for 7 lines in Genesis.

According to Proverbs 21:6, “The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor (הבל; hevel) and a snare of death”.  

Psalm 39:5 states, “My lifetime is nothing before you. Surely all humanity stands as a mere breath (הבל)” (Ps 39:5 cf. 39:11; 78:33; 94:11; 144:4).

“I loathe my life; I will not live forever. Leave me alone, for my days are but a breath (הבל)” (Job 7:16).

Cain fulfills both his own namesake and his brothers by killing him.

Cain slays Abel in the field

Hebrew words shared by the name Cain, Etymologically: From the noun קין (qyn), spear [-Bearer], and from the verb קין (qyn), to fit together or forge, a Smith.

The invention of agriculture provides a bountiful harvest that needs to be stored away in a secure location. Unlike the nomadic shepherds moving their flock from one place to another depending on the seasons, the farmer was tied to the land and could not move from their homes. Foreign plunderers were a threat to the granaries of the farmer, so warriors in local forts were hired to defended the land.

The resentment of the lower status of farmers against the higher status of shepherds mirrors the envy of the warrior class towards the higher class priests. The warrior faced the higher risks of death from disease and violence while the priest resided in safety studying their traditional teachings. The caring work conducted by a keeper of flocks is similar to the work conducted by kindhearted priests towards members of a human flock, and the hard labor of farming is similar to the toilsome struggle of warriors. Primitive societies transformed into civilizations when people settled the land and this story reflects the pain and turmoil of emerging classes fighting for dominance of the state such as the sedentary vs nomadic lifestyles or the priesthood vs the warrior castes.

Cain kills Abel, by Gustave Dore

The lesson to be learned from this tragedy is that the purpose of our lives here on this earth is not to store up treasures and enjoy prosperity but to offer our best possessions, our unique talents to God and purify our hearts.

The Messiah warned about sinful possessive characteristics of Cain in Luke 12:15,

“And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”

In the wake of Abel’s tragic demise, the birth of Seth brought a glimmer of hope and renewal. Eve named him ‘Seth,’ which can be interpreted as ‘substituted’ (שַׁת; shat), signifying that God had provided another progeny in place of Abel (Gen 4:25-26). This ongoing cycle of human existence, marked by the struggle between material acquisition and spiritual evolution, continued through the descendants of Cain and Seth. The tension between earthly riches and spiritual growth would persist, challenging each generation to find balance and meaning in their journey.”