An 11th-century ivory relief from Salerno, Italy (now in the Louvre).
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 important point. In Genesis, Cain is described as a city builder and in the ancient world, city builders were rulers.
The descendants of Cain are described as metal workers. Cain’s association with metal work is indicated in Genesis 4:20-22 which speaks of 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's name could 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 killing 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 Horite Hebrew were his devotees. The Son's Akkadian name was Enki.
It is significant that in both stories there are three 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 three sons is important since in Genesis one of the three sons - usually the hidden or cut off son - represents the Son of God. Abel is a type or shadow of Jesus Christ, the one whose blood cries to the Father for justice. The context is secondarily Nilotic. The original context (minus the Talmuci elements of accepted and rejected sacrifices), is Akkadian. This is evident in the play on the Akkadian word kan which means both field and blood.
Note that God'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.
When people hear the names Cain and Abel, they rarely consider the other brother, Seth, yet Seth's descendants intermarried with Cain's descendants. 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.
Related reading: Cain as Ruler; The Killing of Abel; The Mark of Cain