Kayin, Hevel, and Shet

  • Rav Amnon Bazak

Why Didn’t God Accept Kayin and his Offering?

            The story of Kayin and Hevel introduces the history of mankind following the exile from the Garden of Eden. This story poses many questions: Why didn’t God accept Kayin’s offering? Why did God’s response lead Kayin to kill his brother, Hevel? Why is it that mankind ultimately continued from Shet, the third son of Adam and Chava? Extensive discussion has been devoted to these questions over the generations and up until our times (including many shiurim on the VBM website). Nevertheless, it seems that there is still room to propose an interpretation of the story as a whole.

            The story appears to begin with a comparison between the two brothers. This explains the surprise that the reader experiences when the balance is unexpectedly upset:

And the man knew Chava, his wife, and she conceived and bore Kayin, saying, “I have acquired [kaniti] a man[-child] from the Lord.” And she again bore his brother Hevel. And Hevel was a keeper of sheep, but Kayin was a tiller of the ground. And in process of time it came to pass that Kayin brought of the fruit of the ground an offering to the Lord. And Hevel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat parts thereof. And the Lord had respect to Hevel and to his offering, but to Kayin and to his offering He had not respect… (Bereishit 4:1-5)

This unit follows an alternating structure, with the focus switching from one brother to the other: Kayin-Hevel-Kayin-Hevel. The equality between them is maintained up until verse 5, the last verse in this passage, where it is suddenly broken, with Hevel being mentioned first.

            Our surprise is compounded by the fact that up until the stage that God “had respect to Hevel and to his offering thereof, but to Kayin and to his offering He had not respect,” the text would seem to be leading in the opposite direction, with an emphasis being placed on Kayin’s apparent supremacy.

            The first context is the description of the birth of the two brothers. After Chava bears Kayin, the text records: “And she again bore [va-tosef la-ledet] his brother Hevel…” (v. 2), and in contrast to Kayin, no explanation is offered for the name “Hevel.” In the absence of such an explanation, the name seems to indicate weakness and transience, as hevel means vapor, or metaphorically, emptiness. The second context in which the text appears to suggest Kayin’s advantage is the description of the offerings brought by each of the brothers. Here, too, we read, “And Hevel, he also [gam hu] brought…” (v. 4). 

            Why, then, did God not have respect for Kayin’s offering?

            On the face of it, the difference between the two brothers lies in the fact that while Kayin brings his offering “of the fruit of the ground,” Hevel invests greater effort, bringing “of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat parts thereof.” However, this fails to explain why God will not accept Kayin’s offering, which is in fact the first offering to be brought by mankind.[1] We might therefore propose that the fundamental difference between Kayin and Hevel lies in the attitude and motivation behind their respective offerings.

            Kayin’s approach is evident already in the name given to him by his mother: “I have acquired a man[-child] from (kaniti ish et) the Lord.” What this expression means is, “I created a man together with God.”[2] The name expresses a sense of egalitarian partnership with God, as though there were two parties cooperating and investing in equal measure in order to create something. Accordingly, when Kayin brings “of the fruit of the ground,” it seems that he offers it as though giving his “partner” his due, with no regard for the hierarchical relations between the Creator and His creations.

            Hevel’s name, in contrast, expresses the fact that everything in the world is truly ephemeral, fleeting, and insubstantial: “Man is like a breath (hevel); his days are like a shadow that passes away” (Tehillim 144:4). Hevel lives with the awareness that it is God Who gives the land to mankind, and he therefore brings the “firstlings” of his sheep and the “fat parts thereof” as an offering to God.[3] He gives not as to a partner, but out of human gratitude and subservience, with the understanding that were it not for Divine aid, he would see no blessing in his labor.

            The difference between the two brothers, then, goes all the way back to their birth. Kayin was born in the Garden of Eden, as suggested by the past perfect tense: “And the man had known (ve-ha-adam yada et) Chava his wife” (4:1),[4] while Hevel is born only after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

            When Kayin was born, his parents apparently still entertained the aspiration of being “as gods, knowing good and evil” (Bereishit 3:5) – a desire that leads to sin, as becomes clear later on in relation to Kayin. Hevel, on the other hand, is born into a situation characterized by a sense of man’s transience in the world. This sense leads his parents and him to a more humble awareness of God’s ownership and mastery of the world.

            The distinction becomes even more pronounced in the brothers’ respective choice of occupation.[5] Kayin chooses to be “a tiller of the ground” because the ground gives man a sense of permanence and stability, as we see from many different narratives throughout the Tanakh.[6] Shepherding, in contrast, is an occupation that characterizes people who are not attached to any particular piece of land.

            It is specifically because of the sense of ownership that a person has towards the land that the Torah emphasizes the need to remember, every so often, that that land belongs to God. For example, concerning the commandment of the Jubilee year (yovel), we read:

The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine, for you are strangers and sojourners with Me. (Vayikra 25:23-24)

For this reason, it is important that a person give the first of the fruit of his land to God, thereby acknowledging that it is He Who gives him the strength and blessing to achieve what he does.

            Of course, none of this negates in any way the value of tilling the land – a value that is emphasized and reiterated throughout the Torah. However, to prevent the problems arising from a sense of entitlement and satiety, the Torah includes many commandments that involve giving from the field, precisely to inculcate the gratitude and subservience that Kayin lacked.

            Against this background, Hevel’s choice to be a landless shepherd is especially striking[7] and helps us understand his abundant, willing gift to God, expressing recognition of God’s ownership of his world.[8]

            We might sum up the contrast between the respective approaches of Kayin and Hevel by quoting from Kohelet:

I acquired (kaniti) male and female servants, and had servants born in my house; also I had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than all who were in Jerusalem before me. I gathered also silver and gold… Then I looked at all the works that my hands had wrought and at the labor that I had labored to do, and behold, all was vanity (hevel) and a striving after wind, and there was no profit under the sun. (Kohelet 2:7-11)

The Killing of Hevel

            Kayin reacts strongly to God’s rejection of his offering:

And Kayin was very angry, and his face fell. (Bereishit 4:5)[9]

Throughout Sefer Bereishit, we encounter many instances where the jealousy of an elder brother is aroused when a younger brother is awarded a higher status. Here the situation has a unique dimension in that preference is shown towards the younger brother not by the parents, but rather by God. It seems that Kayin took the rejection especially hard in view of the fact that he had been first to bring an offering, and Hevel had simply followed his example (“and Hevel – he also brought…”), upgrading the gift along the way.

            Obviously, this feeling is amplified in someone who is acquisitive to start off with. A connection is forged between acquisition (keniya) and jealousy (kin’a). The stronger a person’s sense of and drive for acquisition, the more powerful his jealousy towards someone else’s achievements and attainments, especially if that person is his younger brother.

Nevertheless, God offers Kayin the possibility of restoring the situation to its previous balance:

And the Lord said to Kayin, “Why are you angry? And why are you crestfallen? If you do well, shall you not be accepted? And if you do not well, sin crouches at the door, and to you shall be its desire, yet you may rule over it.” (Bereishit 4:6-7)

While the exact meaning of verse 7 is somewhat opaque, it is clear that God presents Kayin with two possibilities: “if you do well” and “if you do not well.” If he chooses the option of “doing well,” then the result will be “acceptance” or “bearing.” Among the various interpretations offered for this expression,[10] the one that would seem to reflect best the literal sense is that of Ramban:

If you do well, you will have greater bearing (yeter seit) over your brother, for you are the firstborn. (Ramban ad loc.)

His words allude to the expression that Yaakov uses in the blessing he gives before his death to Reuven:

Reuven, you are my firstborn; my might and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity (yeter seit), and the excellency of power… (Bereishit 49:3).

According to Ramban, then, what God is telling Kayin is that he is still capable of once again being honored and elevated over his brother.

In any event, the choice is in Kayin’s hands. If he does well, he can return to his natural superior status as the firstborn. If he does not do well, not only will he not return to his previous status, but he will be drawn down into more grievous sins.[11]

However, Kayin does not take God’s advice; in fact, he offers no reaction at all. His jealousy has deprived him of the capacity for objective, critical thought. As a result, God’s warning is realized. Since Kayin does not choose to “do well,” a terrible sin does indeed crouch at the door:

And Kayin said to Hevel his brother; and it was, when they were in the field, that Kayin rose up against Hevel, his brother, and slew him. (Bereishit 4:8)

The Torah does not tell us what it was that Kayin said to Hevel, perhaps thereby conveying the idea that it makes no difference. The point is that Kayin did not choose the possibility of “doing well,” and therefore what followed, predictably, was sin.

            After they go out to the field – the place where the difference between them stands out most prominently – Kayin can no longer restrain himself, and, like Esav and the brothers of Yosef, he is seized by the urge to kill his brother. Unlike them, however, he acts on the urge and actually commits the sin.[12]

            Later on, God offers Kayin the opportunity to assume responsibility for his act: “Where is Hevel your brother?” (4:9). But Kayin, already on a downward slide, lies and displays arrogance: “I know not. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (ibid.) Once again, we find evidence of Kayin’s problematic attitude towards God as a partner and equal, rather than as the Creator of the world Who examines the innermost recesses of the heart and from Whom nothing can be hidden.

Kayin’s Punishment

Kayin is punished “measure for measure,” in a manner that is closely bound up with the root of his sin – the land:

And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries to Me from the ground. And now, cursed are you from the earth, which has opened her mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground it shall not henceforth yield to you its strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shall you be upon the earth.” (Bereishit 4:10-12)

After the ground has already been cursed on account of Adam in the story of the Garden of Eden (Bereishit 3:17), Kayin is now told that he is “cursed from the ground.” He can no longer continue to till the ground, which led him to such a conceited sense of ownership and possessiveness, ultimately culminating in the killing of Hevel.

            In fact, the ground to which Kayin had attributed such great importance is presented as being party to the sin, as it were:

Cursed are you from the earth, which has opened her mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. (4:11)

Kayin’s tikkun will be to wander like a shepherd, with no fixed place. The decree of exile imposed on him is the result of the land losing its ability to give its strength to someone who is no longer worthy of receiving it.

This idea echoes in Moshe’s warning later on to Israel:

Then the Lord’s anger will be inflamed against you, and He will shut up the heaven so that there is no rain, and the land will not yield its fruit, and you will perish quickly from off the good land which the Lord gives you. (Devarim 11:17)[13]

Kayin views his punishment as a very harsh one, since he is now defenseless and, like the perpetrator of an accidental homicide, he may be killed by the redeemer of the blood:

And Kayin said to the Lord, “My punishment (literally, ‘my sin’) is too great to bear. Behold, You have driven me out this day from the face of the earth, and from Your face I shall be hid, and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth, and it shall come to pass that anyone that finds me shall slay me.” (Bereishit 4:13-14)

God therefore gives him a “sign” – a sort of parallel to the city of refuge – so that he will not be killed.

However, once again Kayin does not accept God’s verdict:

And Kayin went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelled in the land of Nod, to the east of Eden. And Kayin knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Chanokh, and he built a city and called the name of the city after the name of his son, Chanokh. (4:16-17)

Kayin’s response seems like an act of defiance. The expression “went out from the presence of the Lord” recalls the story of the prophet Yona, who “arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Yona 1:2).

            Moreover, while Kayin dwells in the land of Nod, he is not really a wanderer (noded). On the contrary – he builds a city, the symbol of a way of life that is the opposite of wandering.

Seemingly, instead of accepting God’s verdict, Kayin goes on to establish a dynasty that attempts to deal with God’s decree in a different way:

And to Chanokh was born Irad, and Irad begot Mechuyael, and Mechiyael begot Metushael, and Metushael begot Lemekh. And Lemekh took to him two wives: the name of the one was Ada, and the name of the other was Tzilla. And Ada bore Yaval – he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle. And his brother’s name was Yuval; he was the father of all who handle the lyre and pipe. And Tzilla – she also bore Tuval-Kayin, forger of every sharp instrument in brass and iron, and the sister of Tuval-Kayin was Na’ama. (4:18-22)

One of Lemekh’s sons, Yaval, continues the tradition of his great-uncle, Hevel; he is “the father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle” (their names are also somewhat similar). However, his other two sons pursue other paths: Yuval is “the father of all who handle the lyre and pipe,” while Tuval-Kayin is a “forger of every sharp instrument in brass and iron.” All three are cut off from the land from which they have been cursed, and they replace the tilling of the ground with other human pursuits.

            Something is missing from this description, and it is the name of God. This race to do and make and achieve arises from a secular approach that attributes achievement to man’s own ability. However, the end of this dynasty will soon come.

“Then Men Began to Call Upon the Lord by Name”

            As a contrast to the dynasty established by Kayin, the Torah presents the dynasty of Shet. The description of his dynasty concludes this chapter, creating a framework that extends from the birth of Kayin to the birth of Shet.

            From the very name given to Shet, it is clear that the entire orientation is the opposite of that which characterized Kayin:

“For God has appointed me (shat li) another seed instead of Hevel, whom Kayin slew.” (4:25)

Chava no longer speaks of a partnership with God; she now speaks with profound acceptance that all that man has is given by God.

It should be emphasized that the two dynasties include similar names,[14] and even two that are identical: Chanokh and Lemekh. Nevertheless, there are fundamental differences between the dynasties. In contrast to Kayin, who conveys a certain message to his son by naming a city after him, Shet guides his son in a different direction:

And he called his name Enosh; then men began to call upon the Lord by name. (4:26)

Likewise Chanokh, another descendant of Shet, is not represented by a city; rather, he is said to have “walked with God” (5:22).

            Of particular note is the difference between the two characters named Lemekh in the respective dynasties; these are the only characters in the dynasties whose speech is recorded in the text.

            Lemekh, the descendant of Kayin, announces to his wives:

“For I have slain a man for wounding me, and a young man for my hurt. If Kayin shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lemekh [shall be avenged] seventy and sevenfold.” (4:23-24)

Many commentators have gone to great lengths to explain Lemekh’s words, and we shall not quote them here. The general impression is that Lemekh prides himself on killing in retribution for some injury caused to him. Lemekh believes that his situation is far better than that of Kayin, and that the punishment meted out to anyone who harms him will be far greater than that awaiting whoever would harm Kayin. His mistaken understanding of God’s forgiveness towards Kayin for the actual act of killing his brother leads Lemekh to a state of moral blindness, which is the direct result of the path set for him by his ancestors.

Lemekh, the descendant of Shet, provides a sharp contrast. He names his son Noach, explaining:

“This one shall comfort us for our work and the toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord has cursed.” (5:29)

Lemekh recognizes the weakness of the ground and the power of God. Therefore, in contrast to the other Lemekh, who boasted, “truly Lemekh – seventy and sevenfold,” this Lemekh is granted a long life: “All the days of Lemekh were seven hundred and seventy seven years” (5:31).*

            The knowledge and expertise of the sons of Lemekh, descendants of Kayin – the fathers of the various branches of industry – were ultimately preserved only via Noach’s ark, but the dynasty that started with Kayin and ended with Tuval-Kayin was lost forever. The dynasty that began with Shet and Enosh and continued through Noach kept the world in existence. For it is by virtue of calling in God’s Name that mankind exists in the world.[15]

Translated by Kaeren Fish



[1]      Rashi understands the expression “of the fruit of the ground” as a reference to produce of poor quality, but the literal level of the text seems to offer little support for this interpretation.

[2]      The root “k-n-h” (to acquire, buy) is often used in the sense of “creating” or “making”, as in “Aquirer/Owner of the heavens and the earth [koneh shamayim va-aretz]” (Bereishit 14:19), paralleling “Maker of the heavens and the earth [oseh shamayim va-aretz]” (Tehillim 115:15), or “Is He not your Father Who acquired you (kanekha); as He not made you (asekha) and established you?” (Devarim 32:6). The inverse is also true; in the verse, “and the souls that they had made [asu] in Charan” (Bereishit 12:5), “asu” is used in the sense of “acquired”.

The word “et” is usually used in the sense of “with” (such as in Bereishit 12:4: “And Lot went with him [ito],” and many other examples.)

[3]      The bringing of offering of the first to God is a fundamental concept in the Torah, emphasizing the idea of God’s supremacy over man. Thus, there is a commandment to bring “the first (reishit) of the first fruits of your land” (Shemot 23:19); concerning the omer we read, “You shall bring an omer of the first fruits (reishit) of your harvest to the Kohen” (Vayikra 23:10); challah is “a cake of the first (reishit) of your dough for a gift” (Bamidbar 15:20); gifts are brought to the Kohen from “the first (reishit) of your corn, of your wine, and of your oil, and the first (reishit) of the fleece of your sheep” (Devarim 18:4), and so on.

[4]      Had the text sought to convey a continuous chronology, it would read here, “va-yeida ha-adam et…” Rashi (ad loc.) elaborates: “Ve-ha-adam yada – this [had transpired already] prior to what has just been recounted – before he sinned and was sent away from the Garden of Eden, and likewise the pregnancy and birth [of Kayin]. If the text had read, ‘va-yeida adam…’ then it would have meant that he had children only after his expulsion.”

[5]      For elaboration, see R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on our chapter.

[6]      This idea explains, for example, the request by the daughters of Tzelofchad to receive an inheritance that would perpetuate their father’s name (Bamidbar 27:4) and the refusal on the part of Navot to sell his inheritance to Achav (Melakhim I 21:2). It also explains the deeper significance of the fact that the Levi’im had no inheritance in the land (“Therefore they shall have no inheritance among their brethren; the Lord is their inheritance, as He has said to them” [Devarim 18:2]), and more.

[7] Interestingly, in ancient Syrian, the word “havla” refers to a shepherd, expressing the “nothingness” of this occupation.

[8]  R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch emphasizes that this idea is expressed more broadly in the fact that all the forefathers were shepherds and not tillers of the ground. Yaakov was a “dweller in tents,” as opposed to Esav, who was a “man of the field” (25:27); the sons of Yaakov are shepherds (Bereishit 46:32); and likewise Moshe (Shemot 3:1) and David (Shmuel 1 16:11 and elsewhere). The expression “man of the land” (ish adama), in contrast, appears in connection with Noach, in the context of his drunkenness (Bereishit 9:20). The foundation of Am Yisrael is therefore a foundation of shepherding, a foundation of nomadic wandering. While this nation eventually reaches the Promised Land, it must live with a constant awareness that the land belongs to God. Am Yisrael remains a nation of “strangers and sojourners.”

[9] The expression “his face fell” occurs nowhere else in all of Tanakh, perhaps indicating the degree of Kayin’s pain.

[10] Rashi derives the word “seit” from the expression “nesiat avon” – if Kayin does well, he will be forgiven. (Indeed, later on Kayin declares that his sin is “too great to bear/forgive [mi-neso].”) Ibn Ezra understands the expression as meaning that he will be able to “retrieve” his face after it had “fallen.”

[11] Regarding the closing words of God’s warning – “to you shall be its desire, yet you may rule over it” – we might offer two directions of interpretation: 1) Most of the commentators regard the phrase as referring to the “sin” that “crouches.” Unlike Chava, who was told in the previous chapter, “Your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you” (3:16), Kayin can rule over “sin” if he so chooses. 2) Chizkuni explains that God is talking about Hevel here in the same way as he referred to Adam when He spoke with Chava. According to this interpretation, God is telling Kayin that he has the power to restore the previous hierarchy, such that Hevel will perform the will of Kayin, the firstborn, and Kayin will rule over him.

[12] The verse emphasizes twice the fact that Hevel is “his brother,” and this is repeated in the verses that follow. In total, the word “achiv” (his brother) appears seven times, a pattern that often occurs with a key word. This serves to emphasize the significance and import of the act: Kayin kills Hevel even though – and perhaps because – he is his brother.

[13] The scope of our present discussion does not allow for in-depth attention to the question of why Kayin was not punished with death. There are several places in the Torah where death is specified as the punishment for willful murder – such as, for instance, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Bereishit 9:6). The reason may be related to the fact that there had not as yet been any explicit command in this regard. Some opinions maintain that the death of Kayin would have signified the eradication of mankind, and this eventuality therefore had to be avoided (in a similar manner to the parallel story of the woman of Teko in Shmuel II 2:14).

To my mind, the reason that Kayin was not punished with death is the same reason why Adam was not punished with death immediately after eating from the Tree of Knowledge, even though he had been warned not to do so. There, the leniency appears to arise from “extenuating circumstances” – the fact that Adam was led astray by the snake and by the woman. In Kayin’s case, there is similarly room to consider the “extenuating circumstances” brought about by God Himself, and it is perhaps for this reason that the Divine Attribute of justice is not applied in full.

[14]     Kayin - Kenan; Irad - Yered; Mechuyael - Mehalalel; Metushael - Metushelach.

[15]     The midrash offers an interesting message in this regard: “Na’ama was the wife of Noach. Why was she called ‘Na’ama’ (literally, ‘pleasant’)? Because her deeds were pleasant” (Bereishit Rabba 23:3). According to this interpretation, Kayin’s dynasty did in fact live on in some form in human history. This continuity may have contributed the creative talents of the children of Kayin, within an environment based on recognition of God’s mastery over the world.

However, the Sages debate this point: “But the Sages said: This was a different [woman named] Na’ama. Why was she called Na’ama? Because she would beat out pleasant rhythms in idolatrous worship” (ibid.). This view would seem to be teaching that there is no room for such creativity, which borders on idolatry. A whole new world of creativity had to be created from within Noach’s ark.

In any event, even the Sages agree that Noach’s wife was named Na’ama, and this in itself represents a continuation of the textual juxtaposition of the two dynasties.