Echoes of Cain in the Story of Jonah

There are few verbal connections between the story of Jonah and Genesis 4.
In Jonah 2:5, from the belly of the whale Jonah cries, “I am driven out from before your eyes!” (נִגְרַשְׁתִּימִנֶּגֶדעֵינֶיךָ). This echoes the complaint of Cain in Genesis 4:14: “Hey! You have driven me today from before the face of the land and from you I will be hidden!” (הֵןגֵּרַשְׁתָּאֹתִיהַיּוֹםמֵעַלפְּנֵיהָאֲדָמָהוּמִפָּנֶיךָאֶסָּתֵר). When Jonah sees that Nineveh has repented and God has relented from destroying the people, the text says, “It seemed an exceedingly great evil to Jonah, and he became angry” (וַיִּחַרלוֹ Jon 4:1ֹ, see also Jon 4:4, 9). After God rejected Cain’s sacrifice, the text says, “Cain became exceedingly angry” (וַיִּחַרלְקַיִןמְאֹד Gen 4:5). A few more: Just as God confronts Cain with a question after his crime (Gen 4:9), so also God confronts Jonah with a question in Jonah 4:4. In both stories God, at some point, confronts the antagonist with the issue of “doing good” (אִם־תֵּיטִיב Gen 4:7 ; הַהֵיטֵב Jon 4:4, 9). Finally, both Jonah and Cain “settled to the east of” (וַיֵּשֶׁבבְּאֶרֶץ־נוֹדקִדְמַת־עֵדֶן Gen 4:16 ; וַיֵּשֶׁבמִקֶדֶםלָעִיר Jon 4:5). What is the significance of making a connection between Jonah and Cain? Making the connection at the beginning of Jonah 4 casts another dark shadow over the character of Jonah. If you have entertained any notions—perhaps because of the prayer in chapter 2—that Jonah is the good guy, those thoughts are drowned by the recollection of Cain. Remembering Cain at this point in the story also foreshadows what is to come. Jonah doesn’t recover. Hatred and bitterness have their way with him (Jon 4:9).

I am not claiming that this connection was necessarily intended by the author of Jonah. Whether it was intended or not, making the connection produces a more colorful reading. After all, the characters (Jonah and Cain) are similar in the end.

For other reflections on how we might think of Jonah, see “Jonah the Pharisee” and “Jonah as Disciple“.

Echoes of Cain in the Prophecy of Isaiah

When I read Isaiah 1, I can’t help but hear echoes of the story of Cain. I’m sure this has everything to do with the fact that I have been thinking and posting about Genesis 3-4 lately. Hear me out, and let me know what you think. First the text, and then an explanation.

Doing and getting “good” (טוב, red text): The context of Isaiah 1:18ff. is similar to that of Genesis 4:6ff. In both passages, God addresses the guilty party. In both passages, the terms of law are stated similarly–the combination of the אִם conditional clause and the טוב root.

Spilling blood (דם, yellow text): In Isaiah 1, the hands of the people of God are said to be “full of blood.” Cain washed the blood off his hands, yet it cried out to the Lord from the ground.

Murder (הרג ,רצח, green text): This makes explicit that the bloody hands of Isaiah 1 are those of a Cain-like, murderous people.

How/Where (אי ,איכה, purple text): The connection here is more clear in Hebrew, but still, some might think it a stretch. To me, this expression resonates with Genesis 4 more loudly than any of the others, besides the טוב connection. In a previous post, I mentioned the similarity between Genesis 3:9 and 4:9. After Adam sinned, the Lord asks, “where are you (איכה)?” After Cain killed his brother, the Lord asks, “Where is Abel (אי הבל)?” So when I hear אי in Genesis 4, I think of איכה in Genesis 3. Though איכה is usually translated “how” in Isaiah 1:21, in light of the previously mentioned connections, when I read איכה in Isaiah 1, I recall the violence of Genesis 4.

What does all this matter? Hearing the echoes of Cain in Isaiah 1 adds another layer of richness and meaning to both Isaiah 1 and the story of Cain in Genesis 4.  Violence, no less than that of Cain, crouches at the door. You don’t have to slash someone with a knife to be in Cain’s predicament. Turning a blind eye to “justice and righteousness” will suffice (Isaiah 1:21-23).

Why Wasn’t Cain Accepted?

This is the question that arises in my mind as I read Genesis 4:1-16. Both Cain and Abel made an offering to Yahweh, but Cain wasn’t accepted. Here’s the text of Genesis 4:1-5:

והאדם ידע את חוה אשׁתו ותהר ותלד את קין ותאמר קניתי אישׁ את יהוה ותסף ללדת את אחיו את הבל ויהי הבל רעה צאן וקין היה עבד אדמה ויהי מקץ ימים ויבא קין מפרי האדמה מנחה ליהוה והבל הביא גם־הוא מבכרות צאנו ומחלבהן וישׁע יהוה אל הבל ואל מנחתו ואל קין ואל מנחתו לא שׁעה ויחר לקין מאד ויפלו פניו

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.

I’ve always assumed that the problem must have been with Cain’s offering. This interpretation goes back at least as far as the Septuagint (οὐκ, ἐὰν ὀρθῶς προσενέγκῃς, ὀρθῶς δὲ μὴ διέλῃς, ἥμαρτες; Gen 4:7). It’s an understandable reading. That is, if God rebukes Cain, then it must have been for something he has already done. This is how Nahum Sarna explains it in his JPS Torah Commentary.

The reason for God’s different reactions may be inferred from the descriptions of the offerings: Abel’s is characterized as being “the choicest of the firstlings of his flock”; Cain’s is simply termed as coming “from the fruit of the soil,” without further details. Abel appears to have demonstrated a quality of heart and mind that Cain did not possess. Cain’s purpose was noble, but his act was not ungrudging and openhearted. (Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, JPS Torah Commentary, 32.)

Another Reading

As I read over the text yesterday, I became convinced that there is a better explanation. The story itself doesn’t beckon us to look back at Cain’s sacrifice and speculate about his attitude in offering his gift.

We aren’t told explicitly what the issue was, but what we do know is the rest of the story. In the very next scene, Cain decided to have a chat with his brother. They ended up out in a field by themselves, and Cain killed Abel. We assume the anger he felt toward his brother was motivated by “God’s favoritism.” But could it not be the other way around?

After reading verse 5, I think we are supposed to feel like we have missed something, but perhaps we are right where the narrative intends us to be. We need to keep reading to find out what went wrong at the altar.

Here is 4:6-8, the rest of the story:

ויאמר יהוה אל קין למה חרה לך ולמה נפלו פניך הלוא אם תיטיב שׂאת ואם לא תיטיב לפתח חטאת רבץ ואליך תשׁוקתו ואתה תמשׁל בו ויאמר קין אל הבל אחיו ויהי בהיותם בשׂדה ויקם קין אל הבל אחיו ויהרגהו

The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.

Yahweh’s question in verse 7 points us forward. “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” I agree with Sarna. The issue is the state of Cain’s heart, but as Yahweh speaks with Cain, it sounds more like a confrontation at a the crossroads, rather than a rebuke.

God knew Cain’s heart was not right toward his brother. This was the issue at the altar, but more is at stake. Cain has not yet allowed his anger to turn to action. Sin is crouching at the door, and Cain must decide if he will let it have its way with him. The very next words reveal what Cain chose to do.


Cain wasn’t accepted because murder was already alive and well inside him. The sin for which he is renown was already conceived in his heart, and Yahweh therefore wouldn’t accept his worship.