Sign In
Forgot Password? Register - AS/A2 English Literature Study Guides - texts in context.


Cain and Abel

Cain kills Abel

Because it concerns the first murder in the Bible, the story of Cain and Abel is a particularly powerful one, which has strongly influenced literature.

According to Genesis (the first book of the Bible), Cain and Abel were the children of Adam and Eve, the first human beings. Adam and Eve had been banished from the Garden of Eden (see Big Cain and Abelideas: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam') for disobeying God, and their children shared in their exile and tendency to sin. Cain was a farmer of arable crops, while Abel tended sheep. Both brothers offered sacrifices to God. Cain's offering of ‘the fruit of the ground' was rejected by God while Abel's offering of the best meat from the first of his flock was accepted (possibly because it was more costly). God warned Cain to avoid sin but, in a jealous rage, Cain killed his brother.

When God challenged Cain, he pretended not to know what had happened to Abel, asking, ‘Am I my brother's keeper?' This phrase is frequently quoted today to imply that this attitude is wrong and that, on the contrary, we do have a duty to look after one another.

As punishment for the crime, God sent Cain into exile, but decreed that no-one else should exact vengeance. To show that Cain was not to be killed in revenge, God put a mark upon him.

Abel as a ‘type' of Jesus

Some Christian commentators have seen Abel, a shepherd who was an innocent victim, as foreshadowing Jesus Christ, a ‘type' of Jesus, who is described in the New Testament as the Good Shepherd and also as the Lamb of God (see Big ideas: Sheep, shepherd, lamb), who offers himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. Abel is also cited as an example of someone who trusted in God in Hebrews 11:4, while Cain became a symbol of brotherly rivalry, anger and violence.

Cain and Abel in literature

Shakespeare's Hamlet

The story of Cain and Abel was so well known that Shakespeare could readily assume a knowledge of it in his audience when he wrote Hamlet (especially since the introduction, shortly before Shakespeare's birth, of the Protestant faith in England, which allowed church-goers to listen to the Bible in English instead of Latin.) His contemporaries would have been well aware that it is the crime of Cain which Claudius is referring to when he says of the murder of his brother, ‘O my offence is rank; it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon't – a brother's murder!'

The crime of fratricide (killing a brother), was seen as particularly unnatural. The audience would also have realised that God's decree recorded in Genesis that no-one else but God should take personal revenge on the murderer raised many questions about the kind of Revenge Plays in vogue at the time.

Hardy's use of Abel

The nineteenth-century novelist Thomas Hardy also expects readers to be aware of the story of Cain and Abel. In Far From the Madding Crowd we are introduced to Cain Ball, whose ‘mother, not being a Scripture-read woman, made a mistake at his christening, thinking ‘twas Abel killed Cain'.

In The Mayor of Casterbridge, the name Abel has more serious significance, since Abel Whittle, who is seen as a victim and at times is ill-treated by Henchard, stays with his master until death because ‘I see things be bad with ‘ee, and yer wer kind-like to mother if you were ough to me, and I would fain be kind-like to you'.

Archer's Kane and Abel

In the twentieth century, Jeffrey Archer assumed knowledge of the story when he entitled a novel about rivalry and revenge Kane and Abel.

Related topics

Big ideas: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam'; Sheep, shepherd, lamb

Other cultural references

Shakespeare's Hamlet

Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge

Jeffrey Archer's Kane and Abel

  • King James Version
  • Today's New International Version
1Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. 2For by it the elders obtained a good report. 3Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear. 4By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh. 5By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God. 6But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. 7By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith. 8By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. 9By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: 10For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. 11Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised. 12Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable. 13These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. 14For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. 15And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. 16But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city. 17By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, 18Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: 19Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure. 20By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come. 21By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff. 22By faith Joseph, when he died, made mention of the departing of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones. 23By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid three months of his parents, because they saw he was a proper child; and they were not afraid of the king's commandment. 24By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; 25Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; 26Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward. 27By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible. 28Through faith he kept the passover, and the sprinkling of blood, lest he that destroyed the firstborn should touch them. 29By faith they passed through the Red sea as by dry land: which the Egyptians assaying to do were drowned. 30By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they were compassed about seven days. 31By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace. 32And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: 33Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions. 34Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. 35Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: 36And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: 37They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; 38(Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. 39And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: 40God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.
1Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2This is what the ancients were commended for. 3By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. 4By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead. 5By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: 'He could not be found, because God had taken him away.' For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. 6And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. 7By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith. 8By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. 13All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16Instead, they were longing for a better country - a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. 17By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18even though God had said to him, 'It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.' 19Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. 20By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future. 21By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph's sons, and worshipped as he leaned on the top of his staff. 22By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones. 23By faith Moses' parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king's edict. 24By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. 25He chose to be ill-treated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. 27By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king's anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. 28By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel. 29By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned. 30By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched round them for seven days. 31By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient. 32And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37They were put to death by stoning; they were sawn in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and ill-treated - 38the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. 39These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
The Christian Bible consists of the Old Testament scriptures inherited from Judaism, together with the New Testament, drawn from writings produced from c.40-125CE, which describe the life of Jesus and the establishment of the Christian church.
The firstborn son of Adam and Eve. His killing in jealousy of his brother Abel is the first murder described in the Bible, for which Cain was cursed.
The second son of Adam and Eve and first murder victim in the Bible.
According to Genesis (the first book of the Old Testament), Adam is the first human being, made in the image / likeness of God, placed in the Garden of Eden and given dominion over the earth.
According to the book of Genesis in the Bible the first woman, said to have been created by God out of Adam's rib, to be his companion.
The place described in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament, in which God placed his first human creatures, Adam and Eve.
The Bible describes God as the unique supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.
Disobedience to the known will of God. According to Christian theology human beings have displayed a pre-disposition to sin since the Fall of Humankind.
1. The giving up of something deeply valued 2. Offerings a worshipper gives to God to express devotion, gratitude, or the need for forgiveness. 3. In the Bible, the sacrifice is seen to take away guilt and blame.
An act of retaliation for a real or imagined injury, in which the revenger sees him or herself as entitled to carry out their own idea of justice and to take the law into their own hands.
Name originally given to disciples of Jesus by outsiders and gradually adopted by the Early Church.
The name given to the man believed by Christians to be the Son of God. Also given the title Christ, meaning 'anointed one' or Messiah. His life is recorded most fully in the Four Gospels.
Title (eventually used as name) given to Jesus, refering to an anointed person set apart for a special task such as a king.
A 'testament' is a covenant (binding agreement), a term used in the Bible of God's relationship with his people. The New Testament is the second part of the Christian Bible. Its name comes from the new covenant or relationship with God.
In the Gospel of John Jesus refers to himself as the good shepherd who cares for his sheep (the people), even giving his life for them.
Symbolic description of Jesus Christ.
1. The giving up of something deeply valued 2. Offerings a worshipper gives to God to express devotion, gratitude, or the need for forgiveness. 3. In the Bible, the sacrifice is seen to take away guilt and blame.
Disobedience to the known will of God. According to Christian theology human beings have displayed a pre-disposition to sin since the Fall of Humankind.
Christians whose faith and practice stems from the Reformation movement in the sixteenth century which resulted in new churches being created as an alternative to the Roman Catholic Church.
Belief and trust in someone or something.
1. Term for a worshipping community of Christians. 2. The building in which Christians traditionally meet for worship. 3. The worldwide community of Christian believers.
The Christian Bible consists of the Old Testament scriptures inherited from Judaism, together with the New Testament, drawn from writings produced from c.40-125CE, which describe the life of Jesus and the establishment of the Christian church.
The language of the ancient Romans which gradually became the language of the part of the Christian Church which owed allegiance to Rome.
The Bible describes God as the unique supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.
The first Book of the Bible, containing an account of God's creation of the universe, of earth and of humans, then his dealings with the family of Abraham.
The revenge play or revenge tragedy was a popular genre in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period which looked to the Roman poet Seneca for its origins.
Sacred writings. The New Testament uses the term to refer to the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). In time, the Christian Church recognised the Old and New Testaments as both containing God's authoritive written word.
Old English christen 'to make Christian'. Alternative term used for baptism.

The Creation; Fall of humankind and universal or original sin; Noah and the Flood; the call of Abraham (start of salvation history), followed by the stories of the other patriarchs, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.