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The Cry of Abel’s Blood

Abel’s blood, protesting to God from the earth, proves more powerful and influential in the human story than Abel himself was.

Cain and Abel

In Gen 1-3 God, man, woman, and a snake all have speaking roles; then in Gen 4 it is human blood that speaks, or cries out, from the ground. God, responding to Cain’s evasion after murdering his brother Abel, says, “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand” (Gen 4:10-11).

Abel has never spoken in his short life in the text of Genesis, yet his blood cries out against his murderer, Cain. Moreover, his blood exerts power even after death, in that it prevents Cain from ever settling again to farm the ground. Cain and Abel’s father, Adam, was created from the ground (adamah) to serve it (Gen 2:7, Gen 3:23), and Cain followed in his footsteps, serving the ground as well (Gen 4:2). But now this same ground has opened its mouth to take Abel’s blood, and the earth will not again yield its strength to Cain (Gen 4:11). Cain will be a wanderer and his descendants city dwellers (Gen 4:12-22). This blood of Abel’s proves more powerful and influential in the human story than was Abel himself.

A closer look at the language of Gen 4:10 helps us understand why this blood and its cry are so powerful. The blood that cries out from the ground to God is in the plural here, literally “your brother’s bloods are crying out to me from the ground.” When this plural of the word blood occurs elsewhere in the Bible, as in Isa 4:4, Isa 26:21, or Hos 1:4, it stands for violently shed blood that must be avenged, something like the phrase rivers of blood. Such blood in the Bible stains or even pollutes the land (for example, Num 35:33). In Gen 4:10, this violently shed blood cries to God. The word for cry (Hebrew tsa’aq) is used for human expressions of the most desperate, extreme need. Paraphrased, God tells Cain in Gen 4:10, “The rivers of your brother’s blood desperately cry to me from the ground for revenge.” This helps explain why Cain then is “cursed from the ground” which has “opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand” (Gen 4:11).

As Genesis tells it, this first human death, Cain’s murder of Abel, anticipates widening violence to come that will pollute the whole earth. Eventually the whole earth becomes “corrupt” and “filled with violence” (Gen 6:11), and God uses a flood to kill almost all living beings (Gen 7:7-23). Afterward, God makes a new start with Noah and his descendants, stressing, for the first time in human history, that humans may not kill one another (Gen 9:5-6). If someone murders another, as Cain did, God promises to “require a reckoning for” the blood of the slain (Gen 9:5).

Killing and human violence, however, do not stop in the biblical story, nor have they stopped in the contemporary world. Jewish and Christian interpreters across the centuries have seen in the Cain and Abel story a precursor to future murders of innocents up to the present day. For them, the plural of bloods in Gen 4:10-11 and the present tense of the verb, is crying out, in Gen 4:10 point to the blood of later generations still crying out to God in a desperate plea for a reckoning.

These ancient texts in Genesis stress how violence polluted the earth and caused the first major flood. Perhaps they contain wisdom about the impact of human behavior on the earth as humanity faces a potential new era of flooding and climate chaos. Some insist that human forces have played no role in the warming that threatens global disaster. The story of Cain and Abel, with its stress on the earthly consequences of human sin, suggests otherwise. 

  • David Carr

    David M. Carr is the author, most recently, of Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins (Yale University Press, 2014), which retells the story of the emergence of the Bible and of Judaism and Christianity as a story of survival of trauma. He is professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York and is the author of numerous other books, including The Erotic Word: Sexuality, Spirituality and the Bible (Oxford University Press, 2003) and Introduction to the Old Testament: Sacred Texts and Imperial Contexts of the Hebrew Bible (Blackwell, 2010).