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.

Literary Ties Between Genesis 3 and 4

Genesis 4 is essentially a reenactment of Genesis 3. There are plenty of significant differences between the two chapters, but here are the literary similarities, as I see it.
As is well noted, the only occurrences of the the word translated “desire” (תשׁוקה) are in these two chapters (3:16/4:7). Eve’s desire will be for her husband, but he will rule over (משׁל) her. Sin’s desire is for Cain, and he must rule over (משׁל) it. The structure of these clauses is almost identical:

3:16 – אל אישׁך תשׁוקתך והוא ימשׁל בך

4:7 – אליך תשׁוקתו ואתה תמשׁל בו

It appears to me that the same literary phenomenon is going on in 3:22 and 4:8. In 3:22 the narrator breaks off Yahweh’s speaking mid-thought. So also, in 4:8 the narrator stops mid-thought:

3:22 – פן ישׁלח ידוֹ ולקח גם מעץ החיים ואכל וחי לעלם וישׁלחהו

“Lest he stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat and live forever . . . [new thought]”

4:8 – ויאמר קין אל הבל אחיו ויהי

“And Cain spoke to Abel . . . [new thought]”

Concerning 4:8, the NET notes comment, “Perhaps the author uses the technique of aposiopesis, ‘a sudden silence’ to create tension. In the midst of the story the narrator suddenly rushes ahead to what happened in the field.”

3:9/4:9 – After Adam sinned, the Lord asks “where are you” (איכה)? In chapter 4, after Cain killed his brother, the Lord asks, “Where is Abel (אי הבל)?

3:13/4:10 – After Adam shifted the blame to Eve, the Lord said to her, “What is this you’ve done?” (מה זאת עשׂית) When Cain shirks his responsibility to love his brother, the Lord responds, “What did you do?” (מה אשׂית)

3:14, 17/4:11 – Both the snake and the land (האדמה) are cursed (ארור and ארורה, respectively). So also, Cain is “cursed from the land” (ארור אתה מן האדמה).

3:24/4:14 – Just as Adam and Eve were driven (גרשׁ) from the garden, so also Cain is driven (גרשׁ) from the land.

3:24/4:16 – Adam and Eve must now live “east of the garden of Eden” (מקדם לגן עדן). So also, Cain must now dwell in the land of Nod, “east of Eden” (קדמת עדן).

For one attempt to explain the theological significance of reading these chapters together, see this previous post.

Genesis 3-4 and the Double-Love Command

In Matthew 22, when an expert in the Mosaic Law approached Jesus and asked which commandment is the greatest, Jesus summed up the the Law and the Prophets with the double-love command:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. But the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

In Genesis 3, the man and woman proved that the first of the double-love command (to love God with all that we are) was too much for them. They loved things that were appealing to their eyes and appetite, things that were able to make them “wise,” more than they loved God.

In Genesis 4, Cain proved that the second part of the double-love command (to love our neighbor as we love our self) is out of our reach. Cain got mad. He was filled with rage and killed Abel. When the Lord asked, “Where is Abel,” just like his mother and father, he shirked his responsibility. “Am I my brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9) means “What? You expect me to look out for, take care of, and actually love my neighbor?”

According to Matthew, the Old Testament is summed up with the double-love command. But according to Luke 24, the OT can be summed up another way. Luke says the Law, Prophets, and Psalms point to Jesus himself. Half way through Genesis 4, the message of the Old Testament concerning Jesus and the double-love command is already clear. We’ve failed to love God and neighbor, and if we are to overcome the serpent and the effects of the fall, the “seed of the woman” (Gen 3:15) is going to have to come and crush both sin and the serpent.

Praise the Lord that he came, he finished the first part (John 19:30), and he is coming again to put an end to the serpent and the broken disorder in which we live.