Cain and Abel as Symbols in the Bible

What Do Cain and Abel Symbolize in the Old Testament?

CainkillshisbrotherAbelThe narrative of Cain and Abel, found in chapter four of the Book of Genesis, was symbolic of the entrance of violence into society. Cain murdered his brother Abel because Abel’s sacrifice to God was acceptable to God and Cain’s was not. It is important to note that the sacrifices were symbolic of the brothers. Abel was the second-born and gave God the “firstlings of his flock.” Cain was the first-born child and he did not give God the first fruits of his harvest. As the first-born son Cain’s offering should have been acceptable because Cain ranked higher than his brother Abel.

Cain then lied to the Lord when he was asked where is brother was. The Lord called Cain out on both of his sins (the murder and the lie), “What have you done? Your brothers blood is crying out to me form the ground?” The Hebrew word used for the sound the blood made was sa’aq. Sa’aq is much more than just the shedding of a few tears. Sa’aq is the sound of sobbing caused by pain. It is the sound that someone makes when they are wounded. Abel’s blood crying out from the ground was a symbol of violence entering the world. The blood of Abel that cried out from the ground was symbolic of all the lives that had been lost when violence entered creation.

The narrative of Cain and Abel was also symbolic of the forgiving nature of God. The Lord told Cain that he would be “a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain begged the Lord to spare his life. Cain knew that once he left the protection of his land and his family he could easily be murdered. The Lord was merciful to Cain and placed a symbol of protection on him so that no one would murder him. The Lord also stated, “…Whoever kills Cain will suffer a seven fold vengeance.”

The narrative of Cain and Able was symbolic of the entrance of violence into creation. Cain and Abel’s parents had committed the first sin in the Garden of Eden and their son had committed the sin of murder. This progression was also symbolic of what happened, from the eyes of the writer, when a society failed to obey the commands of God.

1 Genesis 4.4 (New Revised Standard Version)2 4.10 (NRSV)3 4.12 (NRSV)4 4.15 (NRSV)