“And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground…”
Bible studies with Don Isaac Abravanel’s commentary (also spelled Abarbanel) has withstood the test of
time. For over five centuries, Abravanel has enlightened clergy and layman alike, offering enduring
interpretations of the Bible.
Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. In Genesis chapter 4, the Bible introduces Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve’s first two sons.
Though little is explicit concerning Cain’s motive for taking Abel’s life, Abravanel plumbs Cain’s psyche.
His observations build a case to help solve the murder mystery.
Abravanel asks: Why did Abel choose to become a shepherd even though his older brother Cain was a
tiller of the soil? Farmer Cain, logically enough, decided to tend crops so to put food on the table. Yet,
Abel raised livestock – at a juncture when early man was not permitted to eat beef or mutton. Raising
cattle or sheep that cannot be consumed piques curiosity.
Abravanel probes further. As for the two brothers’ diverse occupations, the Bible clearly favors Abel’s
form of livelihood. How do we know? It is because the verse gives Abel first billing, despite the fact that
Cain was his elder: “And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground…”
Now we turn to Abravanel’s answers that will expand the discussion. Cain committed fratricide because
he feared not God. In the aftermath of Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden, the Maker
pronounced Adam’s punishment: “Cursed is the ground for your sake.” Cain’s choice of vocation speaks
volumes. More than just insensitive to God’s pronouncement, Cain was nonchalant and defiant. On
future challenges and hardships associated with agriculture, God said: “Thorns also thistles shall it bring
forth to you.” Conceited, Cain cared not a fig about such utterances. He thought that his ingenuity and
resourcefulness would neutralize Heaven’s curse, rendering it irrelevant.
Abel, on the other hand, was a shepherd. Animal husbandry reveals a certain personality, one that
delights in controlling others; he governs them. In bio hierarchy, animals notch a rung higher or more
sophisticated than plant life. Readying himself to rule over man, Abel first honed his political acumen on
Thus far in Abravanel’s analysis of Cain and Abel, we have focused on their respective vocations. Both
choices – farming and shepherding – convey a deeper story vis-à-vis Abravanel’s understanding of the
verses. The main thing to takeaway is this: Neither Cain or Abel displayed interest or awareness of God.
Abravanel makes another important point about Cain and Abel. In Hebrew, Kain shares a cognate with
the verb liknot, meaning to acquire. Cain desired to grow wealthy and acquire things with the profits he
would turn from his farming business. Mammon can distract ethical pursuits.
Abel in Hebrew is ‘hevel.’ It conveys that which is fleeting and illusory. To be sure, Abel’s choice of work
portrays a man with grandiose notions, and political aspirations. Heaven frowns and disapproves of
upon such ephemeral focus.
In sum, Abravanel develops personality theory from the scant number of verses in our chapter. Neither
Adam or Eve’s first two sons showed a religious bent. Occupation with worldly affairs stoked their
passions. Hence, they and their descendants were expendable. When the great flood hit with a
vengeance, that line of Adam and Eve’s would be obliterated.
Seth was the couple’s third son. A truth seeker. Of noble bearing and upright character, his descendants
would, in time, carry God’s word and message to the world.
Based on Abravanel’s World of Torah, by Zev Bar Eitan
Genesis Chapter 4