What’s In A Name: A Secret About Cain and Abel

by Rabbi David Zaslow

The cultural shift from shepherding to private property, farming, and ranching had immense ramifications for the rest of the world, and all this is all hinted at in the allegory of Cain and Abel. How do we know the Cain and Abel story is based on history rather than being a literal chronicle of a single historical event? The etymologies of their names give us a hint that this story may never have been intended to be taken as an historical account. Cain’s name in Hebrew is קַיִן Kayan (Strongs # 7014) comes from קָנָה (Strongs # 7069) kanah, meaning “possessing” or “acquiring.” Eve explicitly bases Cain’s  name upon the notion of acquiring: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, and said, “I have acquired1 (קָנִיתִי kaniti) a man from the Holy One.” In order to farm or ranch Cain needs to “acquire” tools, animals, and the land itself – a new concept in history.

Although Cain’s name has the primary meaning of “acquire,” the word that his name comes from (קָנָה kanah) also means “to erect, to found,” and “to create.” In Genesis 14:19 we see various translations describe God as either the “Possessor of heaven and earth” (King James Bible, New American Standard Bible, Webster‘s Bible Translation), or “Creator of heaven and earth (New Living Transation, New International Version). Both words “Posessor” and “Creator” are translations of the same word קֹנֵה konay, a cognate of Cain’s name Kayin. So, besides being the “acquiring” brother, Cain might also be thought of as the brother who “creates.” Abel is satisfied to experience the world as it is, whereas Cain wants to build, create, and change the world around him.

We can see anecdotal evidence of Cain’s ability to create after he is cast out of the Garden. The Torah tells us (Genesis 4:17) that Cain marries, then builds a city named after his son חֲנוֹךְ Hanoch (or Enoch in English). Enoch’s name is derived from the word חָנַךְ hanakh which means “dedication” (as in the Festival of Hanukkah), or “education.” Can we infer from this that when Cain named both his son and his city “Dedication,” he is rededicating himself to God? Or was he thinking that he would name his son and the city “Education,” to imply that God had offered him profound education after he killed his brother?

A fascinating aside is that almost two thousand years ago in the Talmud, the word קַיָּן kayan is descriptive of one who has “large testicles.” Using today’s vernacular we might say that Cain had “a lot of balls” because of his acquisitiveness and capacity to create. An entirely different interpretation is offered by Melissa Carpenter, who points out that Cain’s name might also be a cognate to the word קִינָה kinah, meaning “dirge” or “lamentation.” She writes: “After Cain kills his brother, his life is like a very long dirge. He is mourning the loss of his own innocent desire to make an offering to God, and the loss of his home and farming enterprise, as well as the unexpected death of his brother – which affects him all the more because he was responsible for it.”

Abel is הֶבֶל Hevel (Strongs # 1893) in Hebrew, and his name is derived from a root meaning “breath.” It has the associative meaning of “gentle breeze.” The Gesenius lexicon says it is “commonly used of anything transitory, evanescent, frail.” It may be used to mean “vapor,” implying that which is ethereal and impossible to grasp. The same word, hevel, embodies the central theme of Ecclesiastes, where we read about King Solomon’s aching desire to understand God’s purpose in his life. He writes, “הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים hevel havaleem…” which is commonly translated as “vanity of vanities.” This, however, is only one translational possibility in the multi-leveled language of Biblical Hebrew. An alternative translation could be “vapor of vapors” or “breath of breaths.” A richer translation might try to show that the our experiences in the physical world are impossible for the mind to fully comprehend, and that any attempt to do so leads to frustration, absurdity, meaningless assumptions, and some degree of ego-driven vanity. I prefer rendering King Solomon’s words into modern English as “Ethereal, the most ethereal…” or even “Transitory, oh so very transitory…”

Abel, Hevel, seems to represent that which is evanescent, frail, vaporous, ethereal, and transitory.  He has no conceit, but he is very vulnerable, someone who permits himself to be in a position where he will be taken advantage of. He is also, as the saying goes, “behind the times.” Abel represents the old economy of shepherds and foragers who were being pressured by the institution of land acquisition to step aside.  Abel’s world follows the natural rhythms of grazing sheep, rather than the more predictable cycles of planting and harvest. He lives in the old realm of kairos – a Greek word for non-linear thinking, holy time, with its concomitant spontaneous approach to life. Cain represents the invention of chronos – the ancient Greek way of describing the sequential, orderly, and precise measurement of time (another historical first). In our era, some have called this Industrial Time as opposed to Indigenous Time.2 Cain represents quantity, whereas Abel represents quality. Cain represents product, whereas Abel represents process. Cain represents doing, whereas Abel represents being. Cain wants to acquire and possess, whereas his ethereal, “spaced out” brother simply wants to be in the moment.

It seems clear that the Cain and Abel story can be reasonably interpreted as representing the two extant economies that historically did co-exist together in the Fertile Crescent for thousands of years during the early stages of civilization. But why does God accept Abel’s offering and reject Cain’s offering?

The Torah says that “Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain was a tiller of the ground.” Cain brought “of the fruit of the ground” as an offering to God, whereas Abel “brought of the firstborn of his flock and of the fat thereof.” What is the difference? The Torah is ambiguous, but it seems that Abel brought the best of his sheep. The word בְּכוֹרָה b’khorah, “firstborn,” symbolized the primogeniture birth-right, and therefore probably represented the best of his herd. Cain simply brought something he harvested, but not the first, or preferred, crops.3 This seems to be the reason that the Holy One did not accept Cain’s offering. Cain’s offering is like someone making a donation today only after he/she has calculated the tax deduction. God might accept that kind of donation from most people today, but regarding Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, God does not accept an offering that calculates personal benefit.

Abel, on the other hand, is innocent, pure, and guileless, and when he brings an offering to God only the best will do. Abel is not trying to possess land, or grasp at “the” ultimate truth. Abel is Hevel, an “evanescent, gentle breeze” of a man, and it is he who gets murdered. The story seems to imply that God favors the old way. Or, if God does not favor the old way, then God is cautioning humanity to proceed into the world of power and proprietary ownership with a good measure of caution.

Cain represents humanity’s first experiment at cultural advancement through the conquest of nature and the private ownership of land. The experiment didn’t go well for Abel. But by telling the story, we hand on an ancient object lesson about the importance of human responsibility and interdependence. Abel represents humanity in a more sublime, humble, and primitive state. He is a symbol for the earlier economy that did have a sense of land ownership, or the control nature. Tragically, he becomes the victim of his own naivety, and the story has been playing itself out with the genocidal decimation of indigenous peoples all around the planet over the past four thousand years.  Humanity is still trying to achieve the sense of brotherly, sisterly, and neighborly obligation implied by this story. Is Cain still asking God if he is his brother’s keeper? It certainly seems so. Does not Abel’s blood cry out from the ground today too? It certainly seems so.

God’s acceptance of Abel’s offering and rejection of Cain’s offering seems to tell us to hold onto what is emotionally and spiritually functional from the past, and not sacrifice our ethereal (spiritual) view of the world for one of acquisition (materialism) alone. Knowing that Cain and Abel are brothers, the Torah may also be teaching us that these two men are actually two ways of viewing reality (the material and the spiritual, or the acquisitive and the ethereal), and that they are forever “brothers,” interdependent upon one another from birth. Psychologically, Cain and Abel are two complementary approaches to life that seem to be hard-wired within each of us, and within every culture.
1 Also translated as “gotten.”
2 For centuries before the beginning of the common era, Jews tried to hold onto their indigenous Hebraic sense of time, in contrast to what has been called Hellenistic Time. They did this by refusing to discard their “old time” lunar calendar for the more accurate solar calendar that the Romans were perfecting. Measuring time and religious festivals by the moon more closely matched emotional and creative cycles for the Jews.
3 Some Christians retain the erroneous belief that Cain’s vegetable offering was of a lower order than the blood sacrifice that Abel brought.  This is inaccurate. There was no hierarchy in the order of Temple offerings. Atonement was procured through many mediums besides blood sacrifices. Additionally, even in the Temple system, it was the intent of the offerer that God judged, and not the value of the offering itself. This also seems to be the case regarding God’s acceptance of Abel’s offering.

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