Questioning Cain 


Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. (Genesis 4:8-10)

Scholar Leon Kass comments on the biblical story of Cain and Abel and God’s interaction with the murderer Cain. Kass allows the voice Cain hears to be either God or Cain’s own conscience.

God does not begin with an accusation or an assertion, but like both a good teacher and a good investigator, with a question, and with a question that requires Cain to confront himself in his brotherliness: Your brother, Abel, your young playmate, out of the same womb – why is he not at your side? Where is he?


Cain denies knowledge of Abel’s whereabouts. Though an analytic philosopher or a white house lawyer might try to argue that Cain’s speech was true – for where indeed was Abel’s soul now? – Cain to protect himself lies to God (or if you prefer, to his newly aroused conscience), but not to himself. Indeed, to keep the inquisitive voice from forcing him to fully confront the meaning of his deed, he answers the question with a question, no doubt tinged with indignation and even mocking: Why are you asking me? Am I supposed to be his guardian? You, you who liked his sacrifice, you who made him prosper – aren’t you his keeper? Why don’t you know where he is? And (implicitly) what kind of a guardian are you?


God (or conscience) is not deceived.  On the contrary, he treats Cain’s question, with its blatant disregard for brother Abel’s whereabouts, as tantamount to a confession. Fully understood, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” turns out, in fact, to be the maxim of a would-be murderer, an expression of fratricidal intent. For to deny responsibility for your brother is tacitly, to profess indifference to his fate. To care not at all about his existence and welfare is to be tacitly guilty of all harm that falls to him: in short, to say yes to his death and disappearance. Thus, taking Cain’s counteroffensive to be a tacit admission of guilt, God puts the well-timed question to Cain: “What have you done?” Of course I know where Abel is. I have heard your brother’s spilled blood crying out to Me from the earth. How could you have done such a thing to your brother?


Thanks to the awesome intervention of the transcendent voice, the enormity of his deed is now borne in on Cain (and on the reader). The manifest fragility of human life, especially, the image of the screaming blood of his brother awakens Cain’s horror, and ours; a protoreligious dread accompanies this picture of violent death. Very likely, guilt wells up in response to the accusation implied by the screams, as does pity for his fallen brother. Here, at last, the meaning of brotherhood is disclosed, but only through confronting the murdered brother’s blood: “thy brother’s blood” is the same as yours. Even the murderer cannot but be moved. Not just the will of Abel, but the cosmos itself has been violated; the crime is a crime against “blood” — against both life and kin … (THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM: READING GENESIS, p 142)


[If Cain thought he could ‘cover up’ his crime and bury the evidence, the ground itself speaks to God and God hears the voice of Abel’s blood. Creator and creation are still in harmony, even if the humans no longer are part of this unity. It is reminiscent of Christ telling the Pharisees on Palm Sunday that even if His disciples were silent, the rocks and stones themselves would cry out (Luke 19:39-40). God is still attuned to His creation. It is humans who are in need of syncing again with both Creator and creation. It makes one wonder what God heard when His Son’s blood was shed upon the cross for as it says in Matthew 27:51 at the moment of Christ’s death “the earth shook, and the rocks were split.” But of course, Christ had already forgiven his murderers (Luke 23:34), so maybe God heard only the voice of His Son praying for us sinners and on our behalf. And maybe Orthodoxy’s beating the drum in countless Holy Week hymns proclaiming the guilt of Christ’s enemies falls on deaf ears with God who has already forgiven them.]