This week’s question is a job for detectives. The question deals with solving a mystery from the very first murder. “What did Cain use to kill Abel? Was it a stone? A stick? His bare hands? And how did the body get so mangled that all the spilled blood cried out to God?”
The sketchy details of the first murder in the Bible is found in Genesis 4 where we read that the younger brother Abel found favor with God while Cain, the oldest child of Adam and Eve, did not. So, apparently from the motive of jealousy, Cain invited Abel to take a walk: “Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him” (Genesis 4.8). In the end, that’s really all we know about the details of the murder.
First, let’s deal with the issue of the “mangled body.” When we read about blood in the Old Testament, we’re reading about the substance that the ancients believed actually carried the life of the being. We read in Genesis 9.4-5 that the blood of all creatures is its “life” and that we may not eat an animal with the “life” still in it. Even today, blood is often used as a metaphor for one’s life. So, when we read that Abel’s blood cried out to the Lord, we need to keep in mind that it was the loss of life that cried out to God. The statement that his blood cried out could, at most, indicate that Abel’s death may have actually included a shedding of his blood, but that is not necessarily indicated. What we know for sure is that he was murdered, but the shedding of his blood as a clue to the murder weapon appears to be a dead end.
But where can we turn? The account of the murder is so brief that at first look there doesn’t seem to be any evidence at all.
When we read through the Bible, one of the things we may notice is the importance of names. In many cases, when someone experiences a significant, life changing experience, they are given a new name. Abram became Abraham. Jacob became Israel. And Simon became Peter. In each of these cases, the name change was made because the meanings of the new names indicated the new character of the person. For example, Abram, exalted father, became Abraham, father of a multitude—and Abraham became the common ancestor for both the Israelites and the Islamic peoples. Thus, names in the Bible tend to mean something and they are often are clues to help us understand the stories.
And so, we return to the mystery of Cain and Abel. The name Abel, most scholars agree, means “fleeting breath” or “transitory.” In other words, his name indicates his life may be cut short. An omen to the reader of the story.
And what does the name Cain mean?
Aha! Perhaps we’ve discovered the murder weapon. And if we have, it accounts both for a literal blood spill as well as the means to Abel’s death.
The reality of this sleuthing about, however, is that the writers of this account in Genesis didn’t really think it all that important for the readers to know the details of the crime. Certainly, there are other biblical accounts of murder and intrigue that are much more detailed. Jael, the wife of Heber, assassinated a rival king by driving a nail through his skull (Judges 4.17-22). In Judges 3.19-22 we read the details of another assassination: King Ehud, in the bathroom, with a knife. But in the case of Cain’s heinous deed, the details weren’t significant to the teachings of the story—which is we are indeed accountable for the well-being of our siblings (and by extension, to all our brothers and sisters across the globe). Getting hung up in the details of a biblical story often sidetracks us from the meaning God has in mind for us.
Which didn’t make it any less exciting to
dig up the clues to this mystery—it makes for
a great story. But our interest in the details
must never get in the way to the message from God.