Volume 38 - Issue 2

Cain and Abel in Text and Tradition: Jewish and Christian Interpretations of the First Sibling Rivalry

by John Byron

John Byron is associate professor of New Testament at Ashland Theological Seminary. His other books include Slavery Metaphors in Early Judaism and Pauline Christianity (2003) and Recent Research on Paul and Slavery (2008). Focusing this time on the history of traditional exegesis of the well-known story of Cain and Abel, Byron’s new study situates this primeval narrative in the historico-theological context of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. It emerges that Byron opts for the first sibling rivalry as a case study of an ominous Hebrew text that has multiple exegetical difficulties taken over by Jewish and Christian interpreters. This study therefore aims to trace the various exegetical techniques and interpretations attached to the story of Cain and Abel throughout antiquity.

Cain and Abel in Text and Tradition consists of a brief introduction (pp. 1–9) and seven chapters:

  1. Like Father, Like Son (Genesis 4:1–2)
  2. Rejecting Offering-Dejected Person (Genesis 4:3–7)
  3. Crime and Punishment (Genesis 4:8–10)
  4. Far as the Curse Is Found (Genesis 4:11–16)
  5. Raising Cain (Genesis 4:17–26)
  6. The Blood of Righteous Abel
  7. The Way of Cain

Finally, the book is furnished with a bibliography and indexes of Jewish, Christian, Greek, and Latin texts. In the introduction, Byron sets the stage for the forthcoming analysis of the history of exegesis as follows:

The purpose of the present volume is to trace the interpretative history of the Cain and Abel in the first millennium CE. Rather than focus on critical questions like historicity, cultural background and manuscript evidence, I examine how the story was understood by Jewish and Christian interpreters. Because the Hebrew version of Genesis 4 contains a number of linguistic ambiguities and narrative gaps, it raises more questions than answers. Ancient exegetes expanded the story in ways that helped to fill in the gaps as well as to answer some of the more important questions. The focus of the book is not so much on analysis of Genesis 4 as it is making the Cain and Abel traditions available to a wider audience. (p. 6)

The primary sources are well-documented insofar as the book provides valuable insights into numerous Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and Latin extrabiblical sources, including the Apocrypha, Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Targums, Midrashim, Talmud, Gnostic texts, and Patristic literature. As such the story of Cain and Abel is read through the lens of different religious perspectives that developed against the backdrop of rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity. Byron’s Cain and Abel in Text and Tradition allows the reader to consider new solutions to old exegetical problems embedded within Gen 4. For example, the fact that Cain’s death is not recorded in Genesis brought about new interpretations of divine retribution. In antiquity, some biblical exegetes believed Cain’s death was accidental. Others filled the gap in the narrative by recounting Cain’s death as a result of Lamech killing him or a divine punishment in the flood (see a summary of this question on p. 164). Another fascinating discovery is the hamartiological comparison of Cain’s deadly sin with Adam’s transgression in Eden. In some early Jewish and Christian literary settings, the prototypical sinner is neither Adam nor Eve but Cain (e.g., Wisdom of Solomon, Philo, Clement, and Irenaeus of Lyons). Byron readily admits that this interpretation of the original sin might be at odds with Pauline hamartiology (see especially the hamartiological discourse in Rom 5); however, even from a cursory reading of Gen 4 it becomes clear that the first death actually occurs with the murder of Abel. Moreover, it is an irrefutable fact the Hebrew noun ‘sin’ (חטאת) appears for the first time in Gen 4:7 (see pp. 219–25).

Apart from the apparent strengths of this book, two typos are spotted in the book: (1) “In an unexplainable error, Augustine attributes Eve’s statement in Gen 4:6 to Adam (City of God 15.15)” (p. 14n9). Eve’s statement is actually found in Gen 4:1. (2) “But in 4:2 there is a double occurrence of the את, once before את־אהיו, ‘his brother,’ and again before the name ‘Abel,’ את־הבל” (p. 25). Here the Hebrew word אהיו is misspelled; the correct form is אחיו (“his brother”).

To sum up, I warmly recommend Cain and Abel in Text and Tradition as a solid historico-theological study of Gen 4 for readers interested in the pre-modern history of Genesis hermeneutics. There is no doubt that this book will spark further debate in the field of Wirkungsgeschichte. John Byron should be commended for producing a fine monograph that allows students and scholars from different faith communities to fruitfully converse with one another. Biblical scholars, historians, and theologians will certainly benefit by using this book in research and teaching.

Igal German

Igal German
Wycliffe College, University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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