Legends of the Patriarchs and Prophets – Cain and Abel, by Sabine Baring-Gould

detail of the painting 'Cain and Abel'; 18th century by José Vergara Gimeno; Museu de Belles Arts de València, Spain; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsChapter

After that the child given to Satan died, says Tabari, Adam had another son, and he called him Seth, and Seth was prophet in the room of his father, after the death of Adam.

Adam had many more children; every time that Eve bore, she bare twins, whereof one was male, the other female, and the twins were given to one another as husband and wife.

Now Adam sought to give to Abel the twin sister of Cain, when she was old enough to be married, but Cain (Kabil, in Arabic) was dissatisfied. Adam said to the brothers, Cain and Abel, “Go, my sons, and sacrifice to the Lord; and he whose sacrifice is accepted, shall have the young girl. Take each of you offerings in your hand and go, sacrifice to the Lord, and he shall decide.”

Abel was a shepherd, and he took the fattest of the sheep, and bore it to the place of sacrifice; but Cain, who was a tiller of the soil, took a sheaf of corn, the poorest he could find, and placed it on the altar. Then fire descended from heaven and consumed the offering of Abel, so that not even the cinders remained; but the sheaf of Cain was left untouched.

Adam gave the maiden to Abel, and Cain was sore vexed.

One day, Abel was asleep on a mountain. Cain took a stone and crushed his head. Then he threw the corpse on his back, and carried it about, not knowing what to do with it; but he saw two crows fighting, and one killed the other; then the crow that survived dug a hole in the earth with his beak, and buried the dead bird. Cain said, “I have not the sense of this bird. I too will lay my brother in the ground.” And he did so.

When Adam learned the death of his son, he set out in search of Cain, but could not find him; then he recited the following lines:

Every city is alike, each mortal man is vile,
The face of earth has desert grown, the sky has ceased to smile,
Every flower has lost its hue, and every gem is dim.
Alas! my son, my son is dead; the brown earth swallows him!
We one have had in midst of us whom death has not yet found,
No peace for him, no rest for him, treading the blood-drenched ground.

This is how the story is told in the Midrash: Cain and Abel could not agree, for, what one had, the other wanted; then Abel devised a scheme that they should make a division of property, and thus remove the possibility of contention. The proposition pleased Cain. So Cain took the earth, and all that is stationary, and Abel took all that is movable.

But the envy which lay in the heart of Cain gave him no rest. One day he said to his brother, “Remove thy foot, thou standest on my property: the plain is mine.”

Then Abel ran upon the hills, but Cain cried, “Away, the hills are mine!” Then he climbed the mountains, but still Cain followed him, calling, “Away, the stony mountains are mine!”

In the Book of Jasher the cause of quarrel is differently stated. One day the flock of Abel ran over the ground Cain had been ploughing; Cain rushed furiously upon him and bade him leave the spot. “Not,” said Abel, “till you have paid me for the skins of my sheep and wool of their fleeces used for your clothing.” Then Cain took the coulter from his plough, and with it slew his brother.

The Targum of Jerusalem says, the subject of contention was that Cain denied a Judgment to come and Eternal Life; and Abel argued for both. The Rabbi Menachem, however, asserts that the point on which they strove was whether a word was written zizit or zizis in the Parascha.

“And when they were in the field together, the brothers quarrelled, saying. “Let us divide the world. One said, “The earth you stand on is my soil.’ The other said, “You are standing on my earth.’ One said, “The Holy Temple shall stand on my lot;’ the other said, “It shall stand on my lot.’ So they quarrelled. Now there were born with Abel two daughters, his sisters. Then said Cain, “I will take the one I choose, I am the eldest;’ Abel said, “They were born with me, and I will have them both to wife.’ And when they fought, Abel flung Cain down and was above him; and he lay on Cain. Then Cain said to Abel, “Are we not both sons of one father; why wilt thou kill me?’ And Abel had compassion, and let Cain get up. And so Cain fell on him and killed him. From this we learn not to render good to the evil, for, because Abel showed mercy to Cain, Cain took advantage of it to slay Abel.”

Saint Methodius the Younger refers to this tradition. He says: “Be it known that Adam and Eve when they left Paradise were virgins. But the third year after the expulsion from Eden, they had Cain, their first-born, and his sister Calmana; and after this, next year, they had Abel and his sister Deborah. But in the three hundredth year of Adam’s life, Cain slew his brother, and Adam and Eve wailed over him a hundred years.”

Eutychius, Patriarch of Alexandria, says, “When Adam and Eve rebelled against God, He expelled them from Paradise at the ninth hour on Friday to a certain mountain in India, and He bade them produce children to increase and multiply upon the earth. Adam and Eve therefore became parents, first of a boy named Cain, and of a girl named Azrun, who were twins; then of another boy named Abel, and of a twin sister named Owain, or in Greek Laphura.

“Now, when the children were grown up, Adam said to Eve, “˜Let Cain marry Owain, who was born with Abel, and let Abel have Azrun, who was born with Cain.’ But Cain said to his mother, “˜I will marry my own twin sister, and Abel shall marry his.’ For Azrun was prettier than Owain. But when Adam heard this, he said, “˜It is contrary to the precept that thou shouldst marry thy twin sister.’

“Now Cain was a tiller of the ground, but Abel was a pastor of sheep. Adam said to them, “˜Take of the fruits of the earth, and of the young of the sheep, and ascend the top of this holy mountain, and offer there the best and choicest to God.’ Abel offered of the best and fattest of the first-born of the flock. Now as they were ascending the summit of the mountain, Satan put it into the head of Cain to kill his brother, so as to get Azrun. For that reason his oblation was not accepted by God. Therefore he was the more inflamed with rage against Abel, and as they were going down the mount, he rushed upon him and beat him about the head with a stone and killed him. Adam and Eve bewailed Abel a hundred years with the greatest grief…. And God cast out Cain whilst he was still unmarried into the land of Nod. But Cain carried off with him his sister Azrun.”

The Rabbi Zadok said, “This was the reason why Cain slew Abel. His twin sister and wife was not at all good-looking. Then he said, “˜I will kill my brother Abel, and carry off his wife.'”

Gregory Abulfaraj gives this account of the strife: “According to the opinion of Mar Theodosius, thirty years after he was expelled from Paradise, Adam knew his wife Eve, and she bore twins, Cain and his sister Climia; and after thirty more years she bore Abel and his twin sister Lebuda. Then, seventy years after when Adam wanted to marry one of the brothers with the twin sister of the other, Cain refused, asking to have his own twin sister.”

The Pseudo-Athanasius says, “Up to this time no man had died so that Cain should know how to kill. The devil instructed him in this in a dream.”

Leonhard Marius on Genesis iv. says, “As to what instrument Cain used, Scripture is silent. Chrysostom calls it a sword; Prudentius, a spade; Irenæus, an axe; Isidore says simply, steel; but artists generally paint a club, and Abulensis thinks he was killed with stones.” Reuchlin thinks, as iron was not discovered till the times of Tubal-cain, the weapon must have been made of wood, and he points out how much more this completes the type of Christ.

Cain and Abel had been born and had lived with Adam in the land of Adamah; but after Cain slew his brother, he was cast out into the land Erez, and wherever he went, swords sounded and flashed as though thirsting to smite him. And he fled that land and came to Acra, where he had children, and his descendants who live there to this day have two heads.

Before Cain slew his brother, says the Targum of Jerusalem, the earth brought forth fruits as the fruits of Eden; but from the day that blood was spilt upon it, thistles and thorns sprang up; for the face of earth grew sad, its joy was gone, the stain was on its brow.

Abel’s offering had been of the fattest of his sheep, the Targum adds, but Cain offered flax.

Abel’s offering, say certain Rabbis, was not perfect; for he offered the chief part to God, but the remainder he dedicated to the Devil; and Cain offered the chief part to Satan, and only the remainder to God.

The Rabbi Johanan said, Cain exclaimed when accused by God of the murder, “My iniquity is greater than I can bear,” and this is supposed to mean, “My iniquity is too great to be atoned for, except by my brother rising from the earth and slaying me.” What did the Holy One then? He took one letter of the twenty-two which are in the Law, and He wrote it on the arm of Cain, as it is written, “He put a mark upon him.”

After Abel was slain, the dog which had kept his sheep guarded his body, says the Midrash. Adam and Eve sat beside it and wept, and knew not what to do. Then said a raven whose friend was dead, “I will teach Adam a lesson,” and he dug a hole in the soil and laid his friend there and covered him up. And when Adam saw this, he said to Eve, “We will do the same with Abel.” God rewarded the raven for this by promising that none should ever injure his young, that he should always have meat in abundance, and that his prayer for rain should be immediately answered.

But the Rabbi Johanan taught that Cain buried his brother to hide what he had done from the eye of God, not knowing that God can see even the most secret things.

According to some Rabbis, all good souls are derived from Abel and all bad souls from Cain. Cain’s soul was derived from Satan, his body alone was from Eve; for the Evil Spirit Sammael, according to some, Satan, according to others, deceived Eve, and thus Cain was the son of the Evil One. All the children of Cain also became demons of darkness and nightmares, and therefore it is, say the Cabbalists, that there is no mention in Genesis of the death of any of Cain’s offspring.

When Cain had slain his brother, we are told in Scripture that he fled. Certain Rabbis give the reason: He feared lest Satan should kill him: now Satan has no power over any one whose face he does not see, thus he had none over Lot’s wife till she turned her face towards Sodom, and he could see it; and Cain fled, to keep his face from being seen by the Evil One, and thus give him an opportunity of taking his life.

With regard to the mark put upon Cain, there is great diverging of opinion. Some say that his tongue turned white; others, that he was given a peculiar dress; others, that his face became black; but the most prevalent opinion is that he became covered with hair, and a horn grew in the midst of his forehead.

The Little Genesis says, Cain was born when Adam was aged seventy, and Abel when he was seventy-seven.

The book of the penitence of Adam gives us some curious details. When Cain had killed his brother, he was filled with terror, for he saw the earth quivering. He cast the body into a hole and covered it with dust, but the earth threw the body out. Then he dug another hole and heaped earth on his brother’s corpse, but again the earth rejected it.

When God appeared before him, Cain trembled in all his limbs, and God said to him, “Thou tremblest and art in fear; this shall be thy sign.” And from that moment he quaked with a perpetual ague.

The Rabbis give another mark as having been placed on Cain. They say that a horn grew out of the midst of his forehead. He was killed by a son of Lamech, who, being shortsighted, mistook him for a wild beast; but in the Little Genesis it is said that he was killed by the fall of his house, in the year 930, the same day that Adam died. According to the same authority, Adam and Eve bewailed Abel twenty-eight years.

The Talmud relates the following beautiful incident.

God had cursed Cain, and he was doomed to a bitter punishment; but moved, at last, by Cain’s contrition, he placed on his brow the symbol of pardon.

Adam met Cain, and looked with wonder on the seal or token, and asked, –

“How hast thou turned away the wrath of the Almighty?”

“By confession of sin and repentance,” answered the fratricide.

“Woe is me!” cried Adam, smiting his brow; “is the virtue of repentance so great, and I knew it not! And by repentance I might have altered my lot!”

Tabari says that Cain was the first worshipper of fire. Eblis (Satan) appeared to him and told him that the reason of the acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice was, that he had invoked the fire that fell on it and consumed it; Cain had not done this, and therefore fire had not come down on his oblation. Cain believed this, and adored fire, and taught his children to do the same.

Cain, says Josephus, having wandered over the earth with his wife, settled in the land of Nod. But his punishment, so far from proving of advantage to him, proved only a stimulus to his violence and passion; and he increased his wealth by rapine, and he encouraged his children and friends to live by robbery and in luxury. He also corrupted the primitive simplicity in which men lived, by the introduction amongst them of weights and measures, by placing boundaries, and walling cities.

John Malala says the same: “Cain was a tiller of the ground till he committed the crime of slaying his brother; after that, he lived by violence, his hand being against every man, and he invented and taught men the use of weights, measures, and boundaries.”

The passage in Genesis “Whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold,” has been variously interpreted. Cosmas Indopleustes renders it thus, “Whosoever slayeth Cain will discharge seven vengeances;” that is, he will deliver him from those calamities to which he is subject when living.

But Malala renders it otherwise; he says it is to be thus understood: “Every murderer shall die for his sin, but thou who didst commit the first homicide, and art therefore the originator of this crime, shalt be punished sevenfold; that is, thou shalt undergo seven punishments.” For Cain had committed seven crimes. First, he was guilty of envy; then, of treachery; thirdly, of murder; fourthly, of killing his brother; fifthly, this was the first murder ever committed; sixthly, he grieved his parents; and seventhly, Cain lied to God. Thus the sin of Cain was sevenfold; therefore sevenfold was his punishment. First, the earth was accursed on his account; secondly, he was sentenced to labor; thirdly, the earth was forbidden from yielding to him her strength; fourthly, he was to become timid and conscience-stricken; fifthly, he was to be a vagabond on the earth; sixthly, he was to be cast out from God’s presence; seventhly, a mark was to be placed upon him.

The Mussulmans say that the penitence of Cain, whom they call Kabil, was not sincere. He was filled with remorse, but it was mingled with envy and hatred, because he was regarded with disfavor by the rest of the sons of Adam.

Near Damascus is shown a place at the foot of a mountain where Cain slew Abel.

The legends of the death of Cain will be found under the title of Lamech.

“Half a mile from the gates of Hebron,” says the Capuchin Friar, Ignatius von Rheinfelden, in his Pilgrimage to Jerusalem, “begins the valley of Mamre, in which Abraham saw the three angels; the Campus Damascenus lies toward the west; there, Adam was created; and the spot is pointed out where Cain killed his brother Abel. The earth there is red, and may be moulded like wax.” Salmeron says the same, “Adam was made of the earth or dust of the Campus Damascenus.” And St. Jerome on Ezekiel, chap. xvii., says: “Damascus is the place where Abel was slain by his brother Cain; for which cause the spot is called Damascus, that is, Blood-drinking.” This Damascus near Hebron is not to be confused with the city Damascus.

MLA Citation

  • Sabine Baring-Gould. “Cain and Abel”. Legends of the Patriarchs and Prophets, 1881. CatholicSaints.Info. 21 April 2015. Web. 9 December 2016. <>