from sin.ā Furthermore, the root $br, while referring to a demon, is also two-
sided: It is not necessarily meant in a threatening sense. The root $br signals
an animal in repose, referring mostly to domestic animals but also to wild
animals.11 Wild animals are potentially harmful but are of little immediate
threat while lying down in their lair.12 Similarly, the potent impulse to sin is
subject to the commands of its master, albeit requiring a ļ¬rm hand in control.
The impulse to kill is also described in terms of the sexual urge.13 Sexual
desire can be powerful and capricious and can dominate the object of desire
if allowed to; it can be controlled by a stronger will. In short, the impulse to
kill may be capricious, it may be irrational, it may be powerful, but it can
be reined in. In other words, although the impulse to kill someone may be
sudden and overwhelming, the killer nonetheless bears responsibility for his
action because human beings have the capacity to control this impulse.
Attention is paid to homicide because it is an event of the utmost grav-
ity. Without a doubt, the most heinous violation of the social bond between
human beings is homicide. The story of Cain and Abel highlights the serious-
ness by emphasizing the relationship between the brothers and by placing
homicide as the ļ¬rst crime by a human being against another human being.
Although there is no indication that the most heinous occurrence of homicide
is fratricide, the relationship is foregrounded by the emphasis on the frater-
nal relationship between Cain and Abel: The word ābrotherā is repeated
RLA 7.449ā“455; M. L. BarrĀ“ , āRabisu,ā in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (2nd
edition; ed. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst; Leiden: Brill, 1995),
10 G. E. Closen, āDer ā˜Damon Sunde,ā™ā Bib 16 (1935), 436ā“440.
11 John Van Seters, Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis (Louisville,
Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 138.
12 Cf. Gen 49:9; Ezek 19:2, 29:3; Ps 104:22.
13 The word hqw`t appears three times in biblical Hebrew, Gen 3:16, 4:6; Song 7:11. Its meaning
in Song 7:11 is clearly āsexual desire; sexual urge,ā which would work well in Gen 3:16.
However, it is unclear what sexual import this word would have in our passage, Gen 4:6.
Appeal to other languages yields nothing since there are no cognates. The appearance of this
rare word may be due to the construction of a parallel narrative, as we shall see, to Genesis 2ā“3
in Genesis 4 by the use of verbal reminiscences.
A FIRST CASE: THE STORY OF CAIN AND ABEL
seven times within the episode, six of which are within the description and
aftermath of the murder (Gen 4:2, 8 [twice], 9 [twice], 10, 11).
The killing of Abel is presented in the Bible as the ļ¬rst crime in human
society.14 The heinous nature of the slaying of Abel is intensiļ¬ed by the
way the story is shaped. The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 and the
story of the Garden of Eden in Gen 2:4bā“3:24 have been composed to form
parallel narratives about human sinfulness. The narrative of Cain and Abel
has an almost complete verbal parallel with the previous story: Gen 4:7b,
ātoward you is its desire, but you control it,ā echoes Gen 3:16b, āToward
your husband is your desire, and he will rule over you.ā There are also strik-
ing reminiscences of the story of the Garden of Eden in the story of Cain
and Abel: Gen 4:9, 10, 11 (āWhere is . . . What have you done . . . You are
cursed . . .ā), in parallel language to Gen 3:9, 13, 17 (āWhere are . . . What
have you done . . . You are cursed . . .ā). Both narratives possess the same
sequence of sin, investigation, and punishment, the equivalent use of dia-
logue at the climax of the narrative, and attention to psychological analysis.
The ātrialā takes place face to face. The pronouncement of punishment is
expressed in the form of a curse. The punishment itself is expulsion, and
the sentence is mitigated: God is responsible for the action that protects the
transgressor from the full consequences of the crime. The intention of the
author/compiler is unmistakable ā“ to construct in Genesis 4 a narrative of
crime and punishment corresponding to Genesis 3. Cainā™s deed is as serious
a transgression as Adam and Eveā™s violation of Godā™s command.
Killing is serious because the harm done cannot be undone. An amount
stolen can be repaid. Embarrassment, medical fees, and lost work time can
be compensated in a case of assault. But Cainā™s deed leaves behind permanent
harm whose repair is difļ¬cult. The !ymd, blood, of Abel cries out from the
ground. Although a casual reader might take this as a compelling metaphor
invented by a gifted writer, the image plays on a technical legal term for
responsibility for homicide, !ymd, ābloodguilt.ā This term is derived from
14 John Van Seters argues that Gen 4:1ā“16 assumes an earth populated with many people, not
the second generation of humanity, and therefore the story of Cain and Abel does not have a
primordial valence as does the story of the Garden of Eden (Prologue to History: The Yahwist
as Historian in Genesis, 136). By contrast, the narrative of Gen 2:4bā“3:24 assumes a tone of
primeval time and origins. Enmity, for example, is established between the descendants of Eve
and the descendants of the serpent (Gen 3:15). Genesis 4 appears ambivalent in comparison to
Genesis 2ā“3, and it possesses both nonprimordial and primordial elements. The nonprimordial,
on the one hand, is reļ¬‚ected in the assumption of the institution of offerings to God in two
varieties, grain and ļ¬rst-born animals (Gen 4:3ā“4). The text does not present the punishment of
Cain as the practice to be established for all time (Gen 4:11ā“12). The occupations of Cain and
Abel as farmer and shepherd appear as typical, not prototypical (Gen 4:2). On the other hand,
this is in sharp contrast to Gen 4:20, where Jabal is explicitly named the ļ¬rst shepherd. Other
elements, the founding of a city and naming it after a child (Gen 4:17) and the designation of
individuals as the ancestors of people with certain occupations (Gen 4:20, 21, 22), suggest the
initiation of institutions of human society.
18 HOMICIDE IN THE BIBLICAL WORLD
the sense that the spilled blood of the victim has a concrete existence of its
own and cannot be ignored.
The text uses other technical legal terms and institutions in the interroga-
tion and sentence of Cain.15 Cain denies that he is the rmw`, the guardian, in
equivalent English legal terminology, of his brother. Cainā™s sentence is ban-
ishment from his home, a punishment homologous to a forced stay in a city
Cainā™s punishment is mitigated because of the assumption that all who
commit homicide are liable to be killed by whomever they meet and, there-
fore, killers like Cain need protection. In biblical law, in fact, the number
of people who have the right to kill a killer is severely limited. The statutes
on homicide in the Bible give the general impression that there is anxiety
over what constitutes appropriate punishment. Indeed, Godā™s protection of
a killer in Genesis 4 seems at odds with the heinous nature of the offense
committed and the gravity of the punishment, yet as we shall see, it is in
consonance with the treatment of the punishment of the killer elsewhere in
the Bible, where protections are established for killers.
A literary text like Genesis 4 opens up the issue of the nature of literature.
The presence of legal elements, such as legal institutions, technical terminol-
ogy, and factors taken into account in the judicial process, in a literary text
poses questions about law in literature. Is it even valid to focus on the legal
elements in a literary text since it is not the intention of a literary text to
describe law per se? Even if it is deemed appropriate to interpret the legal
elements in a literary text, it must be asked to what extent the law and legal
practice are accurately portrayed when legal elements might be exaggerated
or attenuated for the sake of plot or character development or theologi-
cal exposition. Furthermore, Genesis 4 poses historical questions. Genesis 4
comes across as having a historical valence for the biblical author because it
purports to tell about what occurred in the most ancient of times. The issue
with Genesis 4, thus, is not simply a question of how accurate it is about
ancient practices but whether it is legitimate to use a literary text like this
one as a document to reconstruct history.
In sum, Genesis 4 is emblematic of the issues involved in the treatment
of homicide in the Hebrew Bible. The attention paid to the inner life of Cain
and to the understanding of sin reļ¬‚ects a preoccupation with determining the
responsibility of the slayer. This is expressed in Cainā™s story by the exposition
on the impulse to sin and on Cainā™s psychology, while in other biblical texts,
the intent of the killer is extrapolated from the manner of killing or from the
15 David Daube, āLaw in the Narratives,ā in Studies in Biblical Law (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1969), 13ā“15. Daube also recognizes that being another personā™s guardian was
not part of the social ethics enshrined in the Bible, but he proposes that the word rmw` was being
used in a metaphorical sense derived from the legal status of being a guardian of property or of
a city. Cf. Paul A. Riemann, āAm I My Brotherā™s Keeper?ā Interpretation 24 (1970), 485ā“486.
A FIRST CASE: THE STORY OF CAIN AND ABEL
prior relationship between victim and killer. The seriousness of homicide is
reļ¬‚ected in its selection as the ļ¬rst crime and in the amount of space devoted
to it elsewhere in the Bible. Abelā™s blood crying out to God is not simply
a vivid phrase conjured up by an imaginative author for the tale of Cain.
It is something palpable that has an existence of its own, a problem that is
addressed by the biblical adjudication of homicide. And Godā™s protection of
Cain belies an anxiety over the appropriate punishment of a killer, an issue
taken up by other biblical texts. Lastly, the question of the nature of literature
and the debate over law and literature as well as the reconstruction of history
ļ¬nd their touchstone in Genesis 4. The adumbration of these critical issues
is not surprising considering the placement of this narrative at the beginning
of the ļ¬rst biblical book, which orients it into a myth of origin, providing a
cognitive map of sociopolitical norms.
Blood Feud and State Control
EACH OF the legal sources in the Pentateuch refers to homicide and assumes
that the life of the manslayer was in grave danger. The Priestly law stipulates
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 10 Speak to the Israelites and say
to them: when you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 you
shall make accessible1 for yourselves cities to serve as cities of refuge
for you, to which a slayer who strikes down a person by mistake may
ļ¬‚ee. 12 The cities shall be as a refuge from the avenger, so that the
1 The use of the root hrq in Hiphil in this passage is problematic. Ibn Janah and Ibn Ezra associate
it with hryq, ācity,ā and Ibn Ezra renders the verb as āyou shall build (cities).ā Saadiah connects it
with a-r-q, āto name,ā understanding it as āyou shall appoint.ā The Targums and Rashi render
it with @xĀ·z, translating it apparently as āyou shall provide/prepare.ā (So Rashi understands Gen
27:20.) BDB deļ¬nes the verb as āto cause cities to occur rightly for yourselves, i.e. select cities
as suitableā (899). Although the other occurrences of the root in Hiphil in Gen 24:12; 27:20
are generally rendered āto cause/grant success,ā the verb in these verses more likely indicates a
chance or unanticipated occurrence. Gen 24:12 would, therefore, read: āThe Lord, God of my
master Abraham, I beseech you, make it appear before me.ā In Gen 27:20, Esau explains his
quick return from hunting: āfor the Lord, your God, made it appear before me.ā The Hiphil
hrqh, therefore, has the connotation of easy accessibility. See Baruch A. Levine, Numbers 21ā“36
(AB; Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 2001), 554.
BLOOD FEUD AND STATE CONTROL
slayer shall not die before he has stood2 trial before the assembly.
The cities which are appointed shall be six cities of refuge in total.
Three you shall appoint beyond the Jordan, and three you shall
appoint in the land of Canaan: they shall be cities of refuge. 15 The
six cities shall be as refuge for the Israelites and the resident alien
among them, so that anyone who kills unintentionally may ļ¬‚ee there.
If a person strikes another with an iron tool so that [the victim]
dies, he is a murderer3 ā“ the murderer shall surely be put to death.
If a person strikes another with a stone tool that can kill so that
the victim dies, he is a murderer ā“ the murderer shall surely be put to
death. 18 If a person strikes another with a wooden tool that can kill
so that the victim dies, he is a murderer ā“ the murderer shall surely
be put to death. 19 The blood avenger himself shall put the murderer
to death: whenever he meets him he shall put him to death. 20 If a
person pushed him in hatred or aimed something at him on purpose,
or struck him with his hand in enmity, so that the victim dies, he is
a murderer ā“ the blood avenger shall kill him when he meets him. 22 If
he pushed him suddenly without enmity or aimed an object at him
unintentionally, 23 or without4 looking dropped an object of stone
that can kill, so that the victim dies ā“ though he was not his enemy
and did not seek his harm5 ā“ 24 the assembly shall judge between the
slayer and the blood avenger according to these rules. 25 The assembly
shall protect the slayer from the blood avenger, and the assembly shall
return him to the city of refuge to which he ļ¬‚ed; he shall remain there
until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the sacred
oil. 26 If the slayer ever goes outside the limits of the city of refuge to
which he has ļ¬‚ed, 27 and the blood avenger comes upon him outside
the limits of his city of refuge, and the blood avenger kills the slayer,
there is no bloodguilt. 28 For he must remain in his city of refuge until
the death of the high priest: after the death of the high priest, the slayer
may return to his ancestral land. 29 These shall be as your ordinance
of procedure throughout the generations in all your settlements. 30 If
anyone strikes down a person, the killer shall be killed only on the
2 The verb appears to be a legal term for trial (Num 27:2; Deut 19:17; Josh 20:6; Isa 50:8). See
Jacob Milgrom, Numbers (The JPS Bible Commentary; Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication
Society, 1989), 331.
3 The normal order of a verbless clause is predicate-subject. Cf. Waltke-Oā™Connor, An Intro-
duction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 132ā“134. The order is reversed here to emphasize the word
4 The negation of an inļ¬nitive construct is ytlb as in Gen 3:11. Here, the negation a l is part of
an unusual preposition a lb, āwithout,ā which is also found in Prov 19:2. Cf. GKC, Ā§152.
5 The usual negation of nominal clauses, especially with a participle, is @ya (e.g., Deut 4:12) ā“
the use of al here is apparently inļ¬‚uenced by the circumstantial character of the verse. Circum-
stantial clauses are negated by al.
22 HOMICIDE IN THE BIBLICAL WORLD
testimony of witnesses: a single witness shall not be sufļ¬cient for a
sentence of death. 31 You shall not accept compensation for the life
of a killer who is guilty of a capital offense, for he shall surely be
put to death. 32 You shall not take compensation from one who has
ļ¬‚ed to a city of refuge to return to live at large before the death of
the high priest. 33 You shall not pollute the land in which you are
in, for the blood itself pollutes the land: expiation cannot be made
on behalf of the land for the blood that was shed in it except by
the blood of him who shed it. 34 You shall not deļ¬le the land which
you are inhabiting, in which I dwell, for I the Lord dwell among the
The book of Deuteronomy declares (Deut 19:1ā“13):
When the Lord your God has cut down the nations whose land