"Cain Rose Up against Abel": Murder, Mystery, and Paradise Lost

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The originating text for the story of the first murder in Judeo-Christian history would initially appear to prohibit the development of any aura of mystery around the fratricide. The Genesis text straightforwardly states that "it came to pass when they were in the field that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him" (4:8). Furthermore, in the very next series of verses the killer is promptly apprehended, interrogated, tried, judged, and condemned to exile (4:9-16). While it is obvious that the biblical version of Abel's murder does not develop as a whodunit, many readers nevertheless share Elie Wiesel's sense of the story: "No other Biblical situation contains so many questions or arouses so many uncertainties" (40). Among those questions and uncertainties are several traditional concerns of the literary mystery. Even the earliest readers, for example, noted with curiosity that Cain's murder weapon is never identified, nor is the site of the fatal blow incurred by Abel. The crime scene, vaguely yet suggestively described in Scripture as "the field," has also continued to prompt thoughtful inquiry and theorizing. These uncertainties, in addition to weightier concerns about Cain's motive as well as God's role in the murder, were first voiced by the early rabbis quoted in the Midrash Rabbah, but those same enigmatic elements have also compelled consideration in the many subsequent literary treatments of this primal story of crime and punishment. (1)

While something of a literary mystery, then, Cain's slaying of Abel is simultaneously a theological mystery, as the human drama of brother against brother is entangled with and within the inscrutable ways of God. Karl Rahner begins his discussion of mystery as religious truth by establishing "mystery" as "one of the most important key-words of Christianity and its theology" (1000). Christian truths such as the Trinity, Incarnation, divine foreknowledge, and grace are theological mysteries; they are incomprehensible, that is, to human reason and are available to those of faith only through divine revelation, as St. Paul explained to the Ephesians: "By revelation [God] made known unto me the mystery" (Eph. 3:3). Within the story of fratricide in Genesis 4, however, theological mysteries must somehow be made to engage with the human drama so as to shape the presentation of God who is, after all, the major character in this murder mystery. As literary mystery Abel's murder necessarily poses a series of narrative problems that challenge the creative insights of all the story's redactors; as Christian mystery, however, Abel's murder poses theological problems that most seriously challenge those writers who acknowledge "the incomprehensible God who comes to us as mystery" (Rahner 1000). In the tableau that begins Adam's vision of the future before his expulsion from the Garden, John Milton achieves in Book 11 of Paradise Lost one of the most profoundly integrated of all the literary attempts to present the mystery that is the death of Abel. When Adam witnesses history's first ritual of worship sink into violent death and implores, "Is Piety thus and pure Devotion paid?" (11.452), he pronounces a question to which only mystery can truly respond (cf. Quinones 17-19).

To the simpler question of what Cain used as a murder weapon, the authorized rabbinical answer is either a staff or a stone, although several rabbis also contend that Cain strangled Abel (Midrash 188), as does Rogier Van Aerde in the 1941 Dutch novel titled Cain (109). The apocryphal Books of Adam and Eve record that Cain first beat Abel with a staff and then hit him with a stone "until his brains oozed out" (58). In Beowulf Cain, who is Grendel's ancestor, is reported to have "ingan briber, / faederen-maege" ("felled his own / brother with a sword" [89]). In the Genesis section of the early-thirteenth-century Histoire Ancienne, Cain wields a baston or truncheon as he kills Abel (Joslin 88). The weapon of choice in the several medieval English miracle plays presenting Abel's murder rather curiously becomes a jawbone. …