The Death of Abel Genesis 4:8

From the position which the account of the death of Abel occupies, immediately after the narrative of the  sacrifice, it has been always considered that the murder of his brother by Cain arose out of the envy and ill-feeling which the Lord’s preference of Abel’s offering engendered. This seems to us also probable; but unless the circumstance had a natural and obvious connection, the allocation would not make this clear, seeing that in this most concise and rapid narrative, events closely joined to each other in description, are often separated by intervals of many years.

It would seem, however, that there was some short interval, during which Cain nourished his wrath in his heart, and awaited an opportunity of testifying his resentment, without allowing his brother to perceive how deeply he was moved. One day be invited Abel in a friendly manner to walk abroad with him into the fields, as they had no doubt been used to do. The original as it stands—“And Cain said to (not talked with) Abel his brother,” has no immediate grammatical connection with what follows, and in some of the Hebrew copies a blank space is left after these words, as if something had been omitted. This blank is filled up in the Samaritan copy and the Septuagint version, so that in them the text reads—“And Cain said to Abel his brother, Let us go forth into the fields. And it came to pass when they were in the fields, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.” Whether Cain premeditated the result, when he invited his brother to walk with him, or whether it was suggested during the walk, and that Cain’s smoldering passions were kindled into a consuming flame by something that passed between him and Abel, can never be known. The most natural and probable supposition is, that although he did intend evil, he had not contemplated the death of his brother; but as too often happens among men, the excitement of his ungoverned passions carried him far beyond his purposes, and ceased not until his brother lay dead at his feet. It may be even doubtful whether Cain intended or expected to slay his brother when he lifted his hand against him. Such an intention implies far more than it would express at this day. To us the idea of human death is familiar. Scarce a month  passes in which some one whom we knew—scarce a year in which some one whom we loved—has not died; and from day to day our ears are filled with the reports of the death of man from violence, accident, or crime. But it was not thus when Abel died. The death of man was not yet numbered among human experiences. The eye had not yet seen, and therefore the heart could scarcely yet conceive, that most awful sight—a human corpse. That, therefore, Cain should have premeditated Abel’s death, is scarcely to be imagined. If he did, it must have been like an invention to him. He knew indeed that man was to die; and he had seen animals dead. But it is open to question whether he even supposed man liable to death by violence. Considering man’s higher nature and endowments, and in the absence of all experience of the matter, it seems more than probable that Cain could scarcely have supposed that the life of man might be as easily extinguished as that of an animal—and indeed more easily than that of most of the inferior creatures.

It is remarkable that oriental tradition, which is always ready at inventions to supply the deficiency of knowledge, ascribes the death of Abel to the direct instigation of Satan. Cain was, according to the Moslem legend, filled with envy and hatred towards his brother, but did not know how he might destroy his life. But one day Iblis (Satan) placed himself in Cain’s way, as he walked with Abel in the fields, and seizing a stone, shattered therewith the head of an approaching wolf; Cain followed his example, and with a large stone struck his brother’s forehead, till he fell lifeless to the ground. Note: Weil’s Biblical Legends; D’Herbelot, Art. Cabil.]

The Jewish tradition recognizes the intervention of a dispute between the brothers; and this is in itself probable, though we may well question that it was at all of the character which is supposed. Cain and Abel, says this tradition, divided the world between them, the one to have the movable and the other the immovable things thereof. Upon this there arose a quarrel between them. Abel said to  his brother, “Take off the clothes thou wearest, for they are part of the movables, and belong to me;” whereupon Cain said to Abel, “Avaunt; get thee up into the air, for the earth thou treadest is mine.” And there arose a conflict between them, in which Abel was slain. Note: Midrash, 11. Tr. Amudeh Sheva.] This is simply puerile; and the Jerusalem Targum has a better legend—That Cain denied with warmth the doctrine of eternal life, of a just judge, and of a judgment to come—but that Abel affirmed and vindicated these points; whereupon his brother arose upon him and slew him. We may rely upon it, that had the legendist, who makes these high doctrines the subject of dispute, himself understood the greater doctrine of an atonement as expressed in the act of sacrifice, he would have made that the subject of their discussion.

We are not told what became of Abel’s body. Yet the first human death necessitated the discovery of some mode for the disposal of the corpse. This must have been a serious difficulty. No animals bury their dead; one species eats up the dead of another. But this mode of disposing of the dead revolts the feelings of an intelligent being. The mere idea of this, must have been most shocking to the person who stood before the first human corpse. It seems to us, that the first and most natural impulse must have been to protect the corpse from that common lot, by concealing it from the beasts of prey. Or if this did not in the first instance occur, the progress of decomposition would soon awaken the other natural feeling, of placing the remains of the dead out of sight. This might be done, either by placing the body in a cavern and closing up the entrance; by heaping up stones or earth over the body; or by digging a grave in which it might be laid. All these are natural suggestions, in which different forms of sepulture have originated; and it is hard to say which was most probably followed. It may farther be asked—Was the body buried by the murderer or by the parents? Poets, who delight in picturing human emotion of the deepest class, adopt the notion that the body was found  by the father, and laid by him in the grave. Oriental tradition takes another view. It states that Satan, having tempted Cain to slay his brother, changed himself into a raven, and having slain another raven, dug a hole in the earth with his bill, and laying the dead one into it, covered it with the earth he had dug up. Cain did the same with his brother. As for Adam, he long remained in ignorance of what had become of his beloved son; but one day his ploughshare struck against an obstruction in the field, and opening the ground he discovered the still distinguishable remains of his lost Abel. It is beautifully added, that “it was not until he thus fully learned what had befallen Abel, that he resigned himself to the will of God, and was comforted.” This, the current Moslem tradition, is founded on a Jewish one, which states that “Cain was not aware of the Lord’s knowledge of hidden things: he therefore buried Abel, and met the inquiry, ‘Where is Abel thy brother?’ by the bold question, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’” It certainly does seem to us, that both the inquiry and the answer become more emphatic on the supposition that Cain had actually concealed the body of his murdered brother.

There is, however, another Hebrew legend—not without beauty—which agrees better with the poets, and in which the Moslem raven appears: “The dog which had watched Abel’s flocks, guarded also his corpse, protecting it against beasts and birds of prey. Adam and Eve sat beside it, and wept, not knowing what to do. But a raven, whose friend had died, said, I will go and teach Adam what he must do with his son! It dug a grave, and laid the dead raven in it. When Adam saw this, he said to Eve, Let us do the same with our child! The Lord rewarded the raven, and no one is therefore allowed to harm their young: they have food it abundance, and their cry for rain is always heard.”