Alice C. Linsley
Several mid-20th century commentaries on Genesis pose the murder of Abel as a sociological conflict between shepherds (represented by Abel) and farmers (represented by Cain). However, this approach ignores an important point. The name Kayin (Cain) means metal worker. Cain’s offering of the fruits of the earth does not mean that he was a farmer. His association with metal work is further indicated in Genesis 4:20-22 which tells us that Jabal was the ancestor of tent-dwelling herdsmen, Jubal the ancestor of pipers and flautists, and Tubal-Cain the ancestor of metalworkers.
Today the metalworking clans of west central Africa perform all these tasks. For example, the tent-dwelling Inadan  keep herds and are responsible for metal work, circumcision, and music at special events. Their chiefs maintain two wives in separate households on a north-south axis (as did Abraham and his forefathers). This suggests that the author’s identification of Jubal, Jabal and Tubal with trades is about the role of a group of clans within a larger society, not about the origin of technologies or a conflict between shepherds and farmers.
What does the murder of Abel have to do with these early clans? The story must be understood in the context of the relationship of the 3 clans. In Genesis 4:2, we are told that Cain is a tiller of the soil, but his name means metalworker. Seth’s trade is not mentioned but his name is that of the jealous son who kills his favored brother in ancient Egyptian mythology. Abel is a shepherd and according to the rabbis, his name (hevel) means vapor or breath. However, his name could also mean El (God) is father, which aligns with the deeper significance of the Cain and Abel story and with the Egyptian myth of Seth and Osiris.
Cain's murder of Abel has parallels to Set's killing of Osiris, the preferred son who the Lord of Creation chose to be Pharaoh. Seth was condemned by the Lord for the murder of his brother. Osiris rose from the dead, married and had a son, Horus, who is called the "son of God". The Horites were his devotees.
It is significant that in both stories there are 3 sons: Seth, Osiris, Horus, and Cain, Seth, Abel. Seth kills the chosen son who rises to life and Cain kills the chosen son, who is the son of the father (ab El) . Abel might also be rendered as ha Bel, meaning “the God”.
That there are 3 sons is important since in Genesis one of the 3 sons - usually the hidden or cut off son - represents the Son of God. Abel is a type or shadow of Jesus Christ , the one who offers blood sacrifice and whose blood cries to the Father for justice. We note that the Father's punishment of Cain is mixed with mercy just as Jesus prayed that the Father would show mercy to those who put Him on the Cross. Abel is killed by his own brother outside the camp just as Jesus was killed by his own brethren outside the city.
When people hear the names Cain and Abel, they rarely consider the other brother, Seth, yet Seth's descendents intermarried with Cain's descendents. Abel is the son who was cut off from the earth. Likewise, when people think of Abraham and Nahor, they rarely remember that there was a third brother, Haran, who was cut off from the earth. Typically where two sons  are named, there is a hidden or cut-off third son. Cain's punishment of being cut off from his land reflects his crime of cutting off Abel from the earth.
1. The Inadan (blacksmith) are a sub-caste of the Taureg of the Sudan and Niger. The men and boys from the Inadan are the only persons permitted to work with fire and metals. The Inadan claim to be kin to King David. Read more here: National Geographic, Aug. 1979, p. 389.
2. For more on the theme of Christ in Genesis, go here.
3. To read more on the theme of 2 sons in Genesis, go here.