Cain Kills Abel: the First Class War

Republicans are fond of throwing the charge “class warfare” at anyone who seeks to reverse the rapid division of modern society into haves and have-nots. But the ancient story of Cain and Abel is a cautionary tale about the violence that class stratification inevitably brings, writes Rev. Howard Bess.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

In America, there is a widening gap between the rich and the poor. The economic and social gap between employers and employees keeps widening. A similar chasm has opened between those whom we elect and the electorate. Extreme poverty and exorbitant wealth along with imbalances of power are stratifying our society.

Which leads us to one of the Bible’s most important stories about the dangers from class stratification, the violent death of Abel at the hands of his brother Cain. Though often misunderstood, the story and Cain’s question to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” form a central moral tenet of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Artist’s rendering of Cain’s murder of Abel

To understand the context of the Cain and Abel message, one must go back to the special story of Jews, which — according to the Bible — begins when God spoke to a man named Abram who lived in what is today Iraq.  God told Abram that he was to be the founder of a special people.

The Bible says that Abram left his home and went out not knowing where he was to go.  He acquired a new name, Abraham, and he and his clan became nomadic herders.  Abraham’s descendants through an extended series of events ended up in Egypt as slaves.

Over time, led by Moses, the Abraham clan rebelled and escaped Egypt.  Once again they became a nomadic clan of herders. In the process they became a warrior clan with a mission to take over Palestine, a fertile land northeast of Egypt. In the name of their God, they killed and conquered other clans that got in their way.

Eventually this warrior tribe controlled all of Palestine. The nation of Israel was established, with King David making Jerusalem the capital. The first Jerusalem temple was built under King Solomon, and Israel developed an extensive religious system.

The priests who controlled and operated the temple were the first group in Israelite history to become literate. They became the first writers of the stories which had been passed down as oral history for centuries. The priests collected the stories and put them in written form. But they told the stories not as actual history but to explain history.

By this point, Israel had acquired its territory through conquest, but now had a different problem: How were the Israelites to live together? Before the Israelites took ownership of Palestine, they were not farmers; they were herders who lived off the land. However, once the conquest was complete, some Israelites became farmers, while others remained herders.

In ancient societies like that of the developing Israelites, farmers rose into a higher social class than herders. In this context of Israel’s social evolution, a priest or a group of priests chose to put an old story into written form, the story of two brothers, Cain and Abel.

Tensions arose between the two brothers because of their choice of occupations. Cain chose to be a farmer. Abel chose to be a herder. So, Cain became a member of the social elite, but that did not win him favor with God.

In the story, Abel brought his finest lamb as an offering to God, who was pleased. Cain brought an offering of grain from his farm, but God rejected the grain offering. Cain was outraged that God had shown preference to his lower-class brother. So a furious Cain killed Abel. It was a homicide based on social class.

Then, along came God who asked Cain the whereabouts of his brother, Abel. Cain responded, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

In the mind of Cain, his question was legitimate. As a member of an elite class, could he not set the rules? However, God had a different perspective. God sentenced Cain to the lowest possible class, a landless wanderer dispatched to the land of Nod. Cain protested, “This is a punishment I cannot bear!” But it was too late. The sentence was put in force.

Thus, the story of Cain and Abel became a critical part of the development of the conscience of Judaism and later, Christianity and Islam. Out of this same seedbed grew the command to love your neighbor. In its earliest form, the command was probably, “love your neighbor as if he were a member of your own clan or your own class.”

But the current relevance of the story is that the violent death of Abel came out of class conflict and similar violence is the inevitable outcome as long as society is stratified by wealth and power, rather than unified by an ethos of caring for one another.

In modern times, the dynamic of the Cain and Abel story has gone global. The United States and other powerful nations have become the Cain in the story and the Third World has become the Abel. Americans are obsessed with being number one in most everything. However, we will never be a truly great nation through wealth and power. Greatness will be found in the embrace of a brother and the love of a neighbor.

Being my brother’s keeper and loving my neighbor may have formed the essential backbone of the moral and ethical mandate for Jew, Christian and Muslim. However, there is not much evidence that any of us is doing a very good job.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is [email protected].  

11 comments for “Cain Kills Abel: the First Class War

  1. January 8, 2012 at 02:32

    The idea was that Abel gave his best to God, his “first-fruits” of his livestock, whereas Cain only gave second best.

    See Genesis 4: “3 So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. 4 Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions.”

    The fat portions were considered to be the richest part because of their cooking value.

    It’s entertaining to read the above thoughts of those who read the Bible in flimsy English and have no other historical and lingual training in the study. ( :

  2. Stanley DeBose
    January 4, 2012 at 22:42

    The story of Cain and Abel,is provocative in the sense that, if God is all knowing, and see all things, why would he want grain or a lamb as an offering since God does not eat, he is not human? The almighty powerful God as portrayed in the story, does not seem like a God, but a king. I guess the metaphor was to instruct man not be selfish and greedy, and as human beings we should always look out for the well being of each other. Because the story as written does not make sense which ever interpretation you want to believe.

  3. January 2, 2012 at 15:15

    Also, not just a deflection, but always brazening it out instead of answering honestly, as a part of the community, no matter how obvious and public the offense. Remember the panel of tobacco companies? Remember too many times to remember, the powers behind war or land take-overs or pollution or health problems, and how they deflect and lie, brazenly, figuring they can just power their way out of their deserved penalties.

  4. January 2, 2012 at 15:10

    Me, I think God is just a bit screwy in the head here. I never got why the grain offering was a problem for God. God seemed downright inappreciative. Now admittedly Cain seems a mite hot-headed. And if he was going to do something he should have put God in a corner and asked, “What’s with that!? So maybe you could give me a better clue what I should be offering? Hello! Anyone up there listening?”

    Anyway, I am having a brain-stretch trying to figure which social class is really being considered elite. God’s non-acceptance of Cain’s offering would seem to devalue farming and raise up hunting – so which class is really telling the story. Or, what set of circumstances is this flight-of-fancy story supposed to explain or justify?

    If that I have to imagine that this is a version of “we are in the same boat, we are one community, regardless.” Otherwise Cain’s dissembling answer as a question, to throw God off track (can’t help it snark alert, sorry: must have been a republican or neocon) is shown as unacceptable in terms of being a member of a mutually supportive community of people. Cain tries to lie to God? Cain, who are you answering too again? But then is that not the same (not so snarky this time) response we get again and again from the controllers in our world, who refuse to answer to the 99% or even allow full expression? Never speaking to the direct question. Always parrying the question.

  5. Morton Kurzweil
    January 2, 2012 at 15:01

    Luckily for religious politicians texts can be manipulated to promote any interpretation. Propaganda was invented by the first ambitious polemist, not for instruction, but to destroy competition.
    The story of Genesis provides the class warfare of religious interpreters and society. God is the invisible authority behind the curtain. Behavior control is the lesson. Control through fear, not reason, is the means to political power.
    Cain represents disobedience to the arbitrary rules of absolute authority.
    The real lesson is that the Cains of this world live to build cities, invent tool, and remain aloof from the arbitrary dictates of belief.

  6. Mohsen Sharifi MD
    January 2, 2012 at 01:13

    Adam was composed of the unity of 2 opposite ingredients:the dust at its lowest form ( In Koran: Salsaal kal Fakhhar) and God’s spirit, the utmost high.Mankind, being Adam’s descendants have the choice of moving from minus infinity in morals and deeds to plus infinity, reaching a position higher than that of Angels. The first generation manifested the former with Cain killing Abel.Today’s mankind are the desendents of Cain with inherent greed,lust,jealousy and other vices. Throughout human-history messengers came from the Lord inviting mankind to rise to his all-high potential. Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammad came all conveying the same message. yet holders of power today are no different than those at the time of Abraham. The triangle of money- muscle and more importantly mind indoctrination is at full force.It would take enlightened minds and popular protests to encounter these challenges.Individuals who have departed from their inner Cain and embraced their Abel.
    Remember that El-Diablos has sworn to the Almighty himself to deviate the descendents of Adam from the Lord’s path.It appears that he is keeping his word.

    • charles sereno
      January 2, 2012 at 15:19

      In my experience, when I ask people who are only vaguely familiar with the Cain and Abel story — “Who was the farmer and who the herder?” — they invariably guess wrong. We generally associate farming with civilization. There is a simpler explanation for the story. The nomadic Israelites who invaded the sedentary Canaanites identified with the pastoralist Abel.

      • January 2, 2012 at 16:59

        Makes sense here. We still call our “congregation herders” Pastors.

        • charles sereno
          January 2, 2012 at 18:30

          Some even boast sheepskins although usually attired in suits.

  7. Barbara A. Smith
    January 2, 2012 at 01:06

    I’ve heard this story interpreted as propaganda against vegetarians and those whose offerings were not blood-based. Or as contemptuous of those who still make offerings of fruits and flowers (like the Hindus, who, by Judeo-Christian standards, are despicable pagans) that are not “true” offerings. It makes the Judeo-Christian god seem rather arbitrarily cruel and obsessed with violent death. (Didn’t this god also command Abraham to sacrifice his first-born Isaac and then change his mind at the last minute?) As well, you could ask yourself what kind of religion is it that orders its followers to slaughter the indigenous tribes of Palestine because they were “heathens”. And they’re still at it. Not that this kind of history is exceptional–did not the Europeans also decimate the First Nation peoples of the Americas?

  8. Carax
    January 1, 2012 at 16:31

    It seems like God was the instigator that started this chain of violence. Why would an offering of grain be rejected and a lamb not? Who would not be angry by this senseless rejection since both offerings were given in the spirit of good will and both could have been happily received by God. But of course no explanation is offered. The Sumarians, a highly developed civilization over five thousand years ago who invented the first writing system I’m sure knew about moral and ethical standards. On the off chance they ever encountered these desert late comers, they must have shook their heads in wonder.

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