The Cry of Abel’s Blood by David Carr

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, "Cry of Abel’s Blood ", n.p. [cited 23 Mar 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/related-articles/cry-of-abels-blood

Contributors

David Carr

David Carr
Professor, Union Theological Seminary

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).


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

Absence of order. In the ancient Near East, chaos was believed to precede and surround the order of the known world.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

An action or state of impurity that defiles sacred items and the land of Israel. (See impurity.)

Gen 1-3

Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face o ... View more

Gen 4

Cain Murders Abel
1Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.”2Next she bore his ... View more

Gen 4:10-11

10And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground!11And now you are cursed from the ground, which has o ... View more

Gen 2:7

7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

Gen 3:23

23therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken.

Gen 4:2

2Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.

Gen 4:11

11And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand.

Gen 4:12-22

12When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”13Cain said to the Lord, “My punish ... View more

Gen 4:10

10And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground!

Isa 4:4

4once the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spir ... View more

Isa 26:21

21For the Lord comes out from his place
to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity;
the earth will disclose the blood shed on it,
and will no lon ... View more

Hos 1:4

4And the Lord said to him, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingd ... View more

Num 35:33

33You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, ex ... View more

Gen 4:10

10And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground!

Gen 4:10

10And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground!

Gen 4:11

11And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand.

Gen 6:11

11Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence.

Gen 7:7-23

7And Noah with his sons and his wife and his sons' wives went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood.8Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clea ... View more

Gen 9:5-6

5For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will ... View more

Gen 9:5

5For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will ... View more

Gen 4:10-11

10And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground!11And now you are cursed from the ground, which has o ... View more

Gen 4:10

10And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground!

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