Cain and Abel’s clash may reflect ancient Bronze Age rivalries

Some historians speculate that this Biblical tragedy reflects tensions between resource-strapped farmers and shepherds thousands of years ago.

National Geographic explores notable biblical figures in our ongoing series People in the Bible, as part of our coverage of the history of the Bible and the search for sacred texts.

As soon as Adam and Eve’s son Cain grew up, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a farmer. Cain’s brother Abel became a shepherd. The occupations of Cain and Abel place the story squarely amid the growing tension between farmers and shepherds, between “settled” tribes and nomads, who were at odds in the dry climate of the Early Bronze Age Levant.

And then “in the course of time,” says Genesis, the two brothers presented their offerings to God. Abel’s offering was of the “firstlings of his flock, their fat portions,” while Cain’s was “of the fruit of the ground” (Genesis 4:3-4). This is the first time the Bible makes reference to animal sacrifice, which in later centuries would develop into the Israelite sacrificial cult, centered on the Temple in Jerusalem. Quite possibly, it reflects some of the earliest traditions of sacrifice, common in Sumer as well as in Syria-Canaan, to appease the gods and ensure a fertile harvest.

The Lord accepted Abel’s animal offering, but Cain’s fruit of the earth was not to his satisfaction (Genesis 4:3-5). The Bible does not offer an explanation for this; it may simply reflect the intense rivalry between farmer settlements and nomads over natural resources.

Cain was incensed. God warned him that “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” But Cain did not heed God’s counsel. He lured his brother Abel to a field and killed him. It is the first instance of homicide in the Bible. God then questioned Cain on Abel’s whereabouts, prompting the reply, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:7-9). (Discover how another Biblical murder saved Israel.)

To punish Cain, God cursed him from the earth, and cast him from the land where his family lived. He became a fugitive, stripped of his tribal protection.Though Cain was condemned to roam the world as an outlaw, God made sure that he would not be harmed. And so, Cain eventually settled in a land east of Eden named Nod, quite literally “the land of naught,” a place of aimless wandering. (Read about the living decendants of Caananites.)

This text is an excerpt from the National Geographic special issue 50 Most Influential Figures of the Bible, which was adapted from the book Who's Who in the Bible: Unforgettable People and Timeless Stories from Genesis to Revelation.

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