Midrash on Genesis 4:2-15

by Rachel Smith Cobleigh

When Cain brought his offering of citrons and vegetables to the altar of God, he did so with ulterior motives in his heart. He had seen his father talking with God, and desiring such conversation, something that Abel did not have either, he determined in his heart to show God his deep piety. If he could but be able to speak with God, he could have something that Abel did not have. Ever since the day of his birth, he had been regarded warily by his parents, for his mother had received a vision that he would one day kill his brother. He wanted to demonstrate to them all that he was not the dangerous creature that they all treated him as.

As a youth, their father had separated them, fearing the meaning of their mother's dream. He had favored Abel, the second son, with the tending of the flocks, and the gathering of wool for clothing. Abel was in communion with the animals, and they loved him dearly, while they avoided Cain whenever he came near. He therefore found himself an outcast throughout his whole life, looking for acceptance, but always seeing the fear behind the eyes of all those who looked at him. He reviled himself, never satisfied with his produce because no one else was satisfied with him.

So Cain purposed in heart to show God, the one who had given the vision to his mother, that he was not a dangerous and evil person. Boldly announcing his intentions over dinner one evening, he set out to the fields. He went to the old rock-heap where he had thrown all of the stones during his plowing, and built it into a respectable altar to God, upon which he might place some sacrifice. But what should he sacrifice? He looked around the fields of dirt beside him, and finding nothing pleasing enough-they were the work of his hands, and therefore not good enough for anything of import-he decided to go back to the tents and ask his father.

Adam was resting on his bed when Cain came to ask what he should sacrifice to God, and because he was tired after a long day of hard labour, Adam mumbled something in his answer about "a lamb" and rolled over. Cain took this advice to heart and went to his brother Abel. Abel was combing the burrs out of a baby llama's coat.

" you have any lambs that I could sacrifice to God?"

"You want to kill a lamb for God? Why not just give him some of your pomegranates?"

"None of them are good enough. They're not. Dad said I should sacrifice a lamb."

"He told you to kill one of my lambs?" Abel looked angry, and he yanked out a burr. The baby llama bleated. He patted it to soothe it. Cain reached out his hand to pet the llama's velvety nose, but it shied away from him and started bleating loudly.

"Go away," Abel said. "You're just scaring him. He's nervous enough, you shouldn't upset him."

"I didn't mean to upset him!" Cain said, scowling at them both. "So? Do you have one?"

"No," Abel said. "You should give God something of your own, not something of mine."

"But God doesn't want what I have."

"How do you know?" Abel asked, continuing his ministrations. The llama had quieted down and was watching Cain with wide brown eyes. "You haven't tried giving it to Him."

"Because I do. Because nothing is ever round enough or plump enough or sweet enough to please Mom and Dad, so why should God want it?"

"I like your fruit. If it weren't for you, we would all be eating the nuts and bitter herbs that Mom finds around the bushes." Abel made a face. Cain shook his head and stared at the ground. Nothing that Abel said would make him feel better. He wanted to feel bad, and he wanted to show them all that he could be just as good at what he did as they were at their jobs. He got up angrily, and looked down at Abel, watching with growing anger as a number of small animals came near his brother, perching on his knees and chittering excitedly, bringing him nuts and small twigs. Abel was soon caught up in tending to each of them, and Cain, forgotten, left the scene with a sour taste in his mouth.

If Abel wasn't going to give him a proper lamb, then he was just going to give his fruit to God, just to prove that God didn't want it, and to show them all how wrong they had been about him. He wanted to do right, and it was their fault that he couldn't. Muttering angrily to himself, he went through his fields, gathering a few pieces of each kind of citron and vegetable, and brought them to the pile of stones that he had made. The night had come, so he left the food there, deciding to offer the sacrifice in the morning, and went to his tent.

Meanwhile, Abel had begun to think about what Cain had said, about giving a sacrifice to God. After considering this for some time, he decided to bring a young lamb to God, as a thank-offering for his prosperity in his flocks (they had grown tenfold since Abel had formed the first herd). He selected out the strongest male lamb without a blemish on his wool, and tied it to a stake outside of his tent. Then he, too, went to sleep. He rose early the next morning, found a flat stone some ways from their camp, and killed the lamb cleanly, performing the first kosher slaughter. After offering a prayer to God, he stood back to see if the Almighty would accept his sacrifice.

Cain stepped out of his tent and stretched in the morning light. Yawning and swallowing back the morning-taste in his mouth, he looked across the landscape. He saw his brother standing before a large slab of stone, a dead lamb laid on the rock, and anger welled up in his heart. How dare his brother take his idea and use it as if it were his! Suddenly, to his great astonishment, a whipping column of fire shot down out of the clouds and consumed the lamb, leaving nothing-not even the blood-behind on the stone slab. Abel dropped to his knees and bowed three times, putting his face to the dirt.

For a short time after Cain set out from his tent to the altar that he had made of ground-stones, all anger towards Abel and his parents was driven from his mind, so eager was he to see what God did when he presented his own sacrifice. Excited and hoping for a bigger show of light and fire than that Abel's (for the idea was his), he arranged the citrons and vegetables carefully around the stones. He was never completely satisfied with the set- up, so he kept moving things. The sun rose higher in the sky, and Abel, excited and charged, came up to him, a small coterie of animals trailing behind him.

"Cain! Do you know what happened to me this morning? You'll never believe this! God Himself came down out of heaven and accepted my sacrifice! It was incredible! The light!-and the fire!-and the booming crash!-and there was nothing left! Nothing left, Cain! Not even a drop of the lamb's blood! I told Dad and Mom, and they said that God blessed me! Can you believe that Cain? God blessed me! It was so loud, and incredible, and bright, and the heat singed my eyebrows! Cain, come here and look at my eyebrows! Mom said you can see where the fire of God burnt the hairs! Look!" At this point in his excited narrative, Abel pushed his face close up to Cain, pointing his fingers at his eyebrows. When Cain didn't look up-he was busy re-re-rearranging the food-Abel pushed himself closer, getting in between Cain and his view of the stones. "Cain, look!"

"NO!" Cain yelled, turning suddenly and pushing Abel away. Abel, who was leaning over, was off-balance, and he fell down, scraping his elbow on the stones. The animals all darted away, frightened. Abel was too surprised to make a noise. Cain stepped back from his makeshift altar and looked at the sky.

"There! That's as good as it's going to get! Do you want it? TAKE IT!" He shouted, throwing up his arms.

Nothing happened.

"TAKE IT! I don't want it! It's yours!" Cain shouted at the empty sky. A cloud drifted overhead, but the sky was silent.

Cain dropped his arms, feeling the full weight of frustration and failure, again. His face fell, his whole body sagged, and his eyes dropped to look at the pitiful collection of citrons and vegetables sitting on the uneven rocks. Having sat in the cold night air, and then in the sweltering warmth of the midmorning sun, the food had lost its luster, and had even begun to smell a little. It was not good enough for God, and it never had been. He never had been. He could never do it right. Abel was always the perfect one, the best one, the favoured one, the one that God blessed. Abel was always right.

A still, quiet voice broke into his dark thoughts, and it said: "Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin couches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master."

Cain's head snapped up, and he spun, looking for the source of the words, but there was nothing, and no one. Abel sat on the ground, holding his elbow and looking up at Cain angrily.

"You didn't do it right, Cain. That's why He didn't answer." He scowled and looked down at the scrape on his elbow. A cold certainty came over Cain, and he took sure steps over to his fallen brother. He held out his hand to help his brother to his feet. The animals all around backed farther away, and one of the baby llamas started to whimper and bleat. Abel looked at the extended hand for a moment, then took it, and Cain pulled him up.

"Let me show you where I got the citrons; maybe you can help me pick out the best ones, and then I can do it right, with your help. After all, you're blessed, so you'd know." Cain said this thickly, smiling at his brother through vision that had narrowed to a darkness centered around his brother's now-smiling face. Abel said something about being happy to help, and Cain nodded. He felt the blood starting to pound in his ears, and the funnel of darkness around his brother narrowed still more, blocking out all else around them.

"Come with me," he heard himself saying, and he was surprised at the smoothness of it. "Let's go over there..." He pointed at some shrubbery in a citron tree grove, and they walked over to the spot, each moment moving faster than the last. Abel bent to examine the nearest citron, and began to say, "Cain-when the blood-rush pounded like thunder in Cain's ears, and with a feral cry, he fell upon his brother. In the blindness of his anger, and the blurred vision of the tears streaming from his eyes, Cain pounded his fists into his brother again and again, letting his madness fly through his hands and down into the soft flesh beneath him. Abel had always been blessed! Abel had always been loved! Abel had always been the best! Abel had always been happy! Abel had always been--!

Exhaustion suddenly came upon Cain, and his arms went limp, his hands fell away from his brother's body. He looked down at the blood on his fingers and the disfigured mass before him. Abel's head was split open, and the matter within had spilled out and run down his broken neck. A cold fear suddenly clutched at Cain's chest, and a chill ran through him. His breath caught in his throat, and he felt ill. He began to shake, and he fell, trembling, away from straddling his brother's body. Abel didn't move, but his eyes were open in silent horror, and bloody dirt clung to the edges of his lips, open in a voiceless scream. The expression imprinted itself forever upon Cain's soul, and he shook uncontrollably.

His mind would not offer anything up, and so he began to claw wildly at the ground, tearing his fingernails and scraping his fingers raw. He grabbed at fistfuls of dirt, throwing it out, and after digging a shallow hole, he dragged his brother's body to the edge, folded it into the space, and hurriedly kicked the dirt over it, until he could see nothing of the body beneath. Then he stumbled away into the shrubs and retched until his stomach ached and his throat was raw. He dropped to the ground in a pile of bruised limbs and bloodied scrapes. Every moment, his brother's face was frozen in his mind, and his stomach continued to heave. He coughed into the ground and inhaled dirt, coughed again. He couldn't breathe.

Then the still voice came again, in the whisper of the citron leaves overhead: "Where is your brother Abel?"

Cain's breath caught in his throat, and a terrible shiver ran through him, for he suddenly knew who had spoken to him before. It had not been Abel. It had not been Abel. Where was Abel? Where had Abel gone? Cain knew only that Abel was not in the ground a few feet away. Abel had gone, he had terribly, terribly gone, and he would never come back to laugh or talk or shout or cry. Abel was not there.

" not know," Cain replied, brokenly, his voice a ragged, pain- filled whisper. "Am I my brother's keeper?"

But the voice did not answer him, it only asked another question: "What have you done?" In a horrifying way it whispered to him, each syllable chilling his frame. "Hark, your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground!" The very dirt that he lay upon was quivering, its form and substance quaking underneath him. He huddled tighter, frozen in fear, as it shook, and he shook with it.

The terrible voice continued, never ceasing: "Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand."

The earth quaked, shivered. Clouds swirled overhead, blocking out the light of the sun, and Cain grew cold and shivered more violently. The voice whispered: "If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth."

Cain broke into tears, clutching at the dirt that sifted uselessly through his fingers, knowing that the only thing he had ever clung to, the only thing that he had ever known even a moment of happiness in, was being torn away from him forever. He cried out from his soul in agony, "My punishment is too great to bear! Since You have banished me on this day from the soil, and I must avoid Your presence and become a restless wanderer on earth-anyone who meets me may kill me!"

The terrible whispering of the voice ceased, and the ground stilled, and the clouds slowed their mad swirling overhead. There was a quiet, and then the wind blew through the trees, the sun was allowed to shine through, though only faintly. When the voice spoke again, the horror of it had gone, and what was there was something almost described as gentle. Cain cried.

"I promise," it said softly, "that if anyone kills Cain, sevenfold vengeance shall be taken on him." And there was a gentle touch upon him, a touch that seared to his very soul, and infused him with enough strength to pull himself up off the ground. Still weary past description, Cain stood and stumbled through the grove of trees, following the lines of the field until they disappeared into uncultivated lands, and those lands to the distance, and that distance to an oasis in the lands east of Eden.

October 24, 1999

Copyright 1999 Rachel Smith Cobleigh