Question 151, from George P, USA
Genesis chapter 4, verses 1-2 records the birth of Cain and Abel. I notice there is only one conception but two births. Were they twins?
There is no real tradition in either Judaism or Christianity that Cain and Abel were twins. However, a direct translation of the original Hebrew text would read as follows:
“And the man knew Eve his wife. And she conceived and bore Cain, and said, “I have gotten a man of Yahweh.” And she continued [yacaph] to bear his brother Abel.”
The use of the word ‘yacaph’ is interesting as it can also mean ‘to increase’ or ‘to add to’. This usage may support the idea that Cain and Abel were twins, with Abel added to Cain, his older brother almost immediately.
However, it’s worth remembering that after the birth of Abel, the narrative then immediately says that Abel became a shepherd, while Cain tilled the ground. Obviously an unspecified period of time must have elapsed, but this is not stated in the text. There could equally have been an unrecorded time lapse between Cain and Abel being born.
It would also be odd that the twin-ship of Cain and Abel isn’t mentioned, as later in Genesis a great emphasis is put on Esau and Jacob being twins. One of the main themes in the book of Genesis is the inharmonious relationship between brothers – Cain and Abel being just one such pairing. The sons of Noah are separated by Noah’s curse on Ham. Jacob cheated Esau out of his birthright. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, and so on.
Cain is also warned by Yahweh not to let his anger with his brother lead him into sin. After Cain’s crime is discovered he in banished in very similar language to that used to banish his father, Adam, from Eden. Like Adam, Cain is cursed to work for food and to live East of Eden. This story thus highlights an important element of Jewish, and later Christian, theology – that all human beings sin and therefore deserve to live under the curse of Adam.
Those who do not read the book of Genesis literally, see the tale of Cain and Abel as a symbolic explanation for the existence of antisocial crime, and possibly representing hostility between farmers and nomadic herders in prehistoric times.
Finally, although there is no clear reason given why Yahweh favoured Abel’s offering over Cain’s, this story may well have formed the root of the tradition of animal sacrifices in the worship of Yahweh in ancient Israel. While grain offerings were made by the Israelites, these were regarded as inferior to the sacrifice of animals, perhaps because of this ancestral story that indicated Yahweh’s pleasure with Abel’s sacrifice. Among evangelical Christians, the ‘reason’ God favoured Abel is often attributed to Abel’s worshipful attitude, but there is no evidence for this in the text.