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Mind the Gap: Ambiguity in the Story of Cain and Abel

From: Journal of Biblical Literature
Volume 133, Number 1, 2014
pp. 29-42 | 10.1353/jbl.2014.0005



Many scholars have pointed to the gaps in the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. Over time numerous answers have been formulated, each one seemingly more plausible than the next. This article will revisit the gaps in the story in an approach that concurs with Meir Sternberg’s vision of biblical ambiguity as the utmost realization of a literary universal. Starting from what is said and more particularly how it is said, this article will show that the ambiguity in Genesis 4 does not consist of mere omissions that would have been easily filled in by contemporary readers/listeners but would be difficult to understand for later audiences. The gaps create an opening in the story to reverse the set order. They allow Cain to kill the beloved youngest and take his place. This action seems justified in various ways. First, the very name of Abel—“nothingness,” “vanity”—suggests that Abel will die soon. Second, the order in which the brothers are mentioned changes throughout the story, implying that order is a flexible entity and inviting both Cain and the audience to influence the sequence. Third, the combination [’hyw hbl] changes into the more ambiguous [hbl ’hyw], relocating the emphasis from brother to nothing. This alienation allows one to go as far as murder. Therefore, Abel’s short appearance and the gaps that come along with it are essential to the story and to the reader in the quest for meaning. Abel was not in vain; possibly Cain’s efforts in fighting him were.

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