Cain and Abel

Cain kills Abel

Because it concerns the first murder in the Bible, the story of Cain and Abel is a particularly powerful one, which has strongly influenced literature.

According to Genesis (the first book of the Bible), Cain and Abel were the children of Adam and Eve, the first human beings. Adam and Eve had been banished from the Garden of Eden (see Big Cain and Abelideas: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam') for disobeying God, and their children shared in their exile and tendency to sin. Cain was a farmer of arable crops, while Abel tended sheep. Both brothers offered sacrifices to God. Cain's offering of ‘the fruit of the ground' was rejected by God while Abel's offering of the best meat from the first of his flock was accepted (possibly because it was more costly). God warned Cain to avoid sin but, in a jealous rage, Cain killed his brother.

When God challenged Cain, he pretended not to know what had happened to Abel, asking, ‘Am I my brother's keeper?' This phrase is frequently quoted today to imply that this attitude is wrong and that, on the contrary, we do have a duty to look after one another.

As punishment for the crime, God sent Cain into exile, but decreed that no-one else should exact vengeance. To show that Cain was not to be killed in revenge, God put a mark upon him.

Abel as a ‘type' of Jesus

Some Christian commentators have seen Abel, a shepherd who was an innocent victim, as foreshadowing Jesus Christ, a ‘type' of Jesus, who is described in the New Testament as the Good Shepherd and also as the Lamb of God (see Big ideas: Sheep, shepherd, lamb), who offers himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. Abel is also cited as an example of someone who trusted in God in Hebrews 11:4, while Cain became a symbol of brotherly rivalry, anger and violence.

Cain and Abel in literature

Shakespeare's Hamlet

The story of Cain and Abel was so well known that Shakespeare could readily assume a knowledge of it in his audience when he wrote Hamlet (especially since the introduction, shortly before Shakespeare's birth, of the Protestant faith in England, which allowed church-goers to listen to the Bible in English instead of Latin.) His contemporaries would have been well aware that it is the crime of Cain which Claudius is referring to when he says of the murder of his brother, ‘O my offence is rank; it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon't – a brother's murder!'

The crime of fratricide (killing a brother), was seen as particularly unnatural. The audience would also have realised that God's decree recorded in Genesis that no-one else but God should take personal revenge on the murderer raised many questions about the kind of Revenge Plays in vogue at the time.

Hardy's use of Abel

The nineteenth-century novelist Thomas Hardy also expects readers to be aware of the story of Cain and Abel. In Far From the Madding Crowd we are introduced to Cain Ball, whose ‘mother, not being a Scripture-read woman, made a mistake at his christening, thinking ‘twas Abel killed Cain'.

In The Mayor of Casterbridge, the name Abel has more serious significance, since Abel Whittle, who is seen as a victim and at times is ill-treated by Henchard, stays with his master until death because ‘I see things be bad with ‘ee, and yer wer kind-like to mother if you were ough to me, and I would fain be kind-like to you'.

Archer's Kane and Abel

In the twentieth century, Jeffrey Archer assumed knowledge of the story when he entitled a novel about rivalry and revenge Kane and Abel.

Related topics

Big ideas: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam'; Sheep, shepherd, lamb

Other cultural references

Shakespeare's Hamlet

Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge

Jeffrey Archer's Kane and Abel

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