Not Abel To Hear Cain’s Words

On Language

By Philologos

Published October 07, 2009, issue of October 16, 2009.
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Just what did Cain say to Abel before killing him? Every time we read the first portion of Genesis all over again on the holiday of Simchat Torah, I’m sure many of you ask yourselves the same question.

English Bible readers may traditionally have asked it too, but not quite with the same sense of bafflement. The King James Version tells us:

“And Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass when they were in the field that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him.”

This is not, however, what the Hebrew text of Genesis says. There, we read: Vayomer Kayin el Hevel aḥiv, vayehi bihyotam basadeh, vayakam Kayin al Hevel aḥiv vayahargenu, that is, “And Cain said to Abel his brother, and it came to pass when they were in the field,” etc. The word vayomer, translated by the King James as “talked,” is the past tense of the Hebrew verb amar, which is an exact equivalent of English “to say,” not of “to talk.” Unlike “talk,” which can be either transitive or intransitive, “say” is always transitive. You can’t just “say,” you have to say something — and this is equally true of amar. Yet the Hebrew text has no such thing in it. One has the sense in reading it as if words are missing.

And indeed, these missing words can be found in the world’s oldest Bible translation, the third and second century B.C.E. Greek Septuagint. In that Bible, we read: Kai eipe Kaïn pros Abel ton adelphon auton, dielthomen eis to pedion, i.e., “And Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’” The mystery, it would seem, has been solved. The original Hebrew text seen by the Septuagint’s translators must have had “Let us go out to the field” as well, which must later have been omitted by a careless scribe whose error was then passed on by other scribes.

But must it have? After all, there is another possibility also — namely, that the Septuagint’s translators, baffled by Hebrew, as we are, decided to add words that were not in it in order to make sense of it. “Let us go out to the field” could have been their own emendation.

Leading rabbinic commentators on the Bible have always assumed this notion to be the case — and, really, did they have any choice, since to allow the fact to come out that the Septuagint’s translators saw a different and more accurate Hebrew text from the one that has come down to us would be to admit that the latter is not an entirely faithful version of what was given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Inasmuch as all of rabbinic Judaism is based on the premise that the Torah in our possession is the unabridged word of God, such an admission would have been inconceivable. Thus, Rashi comments that vayomer Kayin means that Cain provoked Abel “with quarrelsome words in order to have a pretext for killing him,” while ignoring the grammatical problem entirely. Ibn Ezra, who generally delights in tackling grammatical difficulties, is also uncharacteristically silent about this one. Ramban shies away from it too, although interestingly, he writes that “What Cain said to Abel was, ‘Let us go out to the field.’” While Ramban could not have read the Septuagint in Greek, he was undoubtedly familiar with the Latin Bible, whose Dixitque Cain ad Abel fratrum suum egrediamur foras, “And Cain said to Abel his brother, ‘Let us go outside,’” was clearly influenced by the Septuagint.

Various midrashic accounts of what Cain said to Abel are more fanciful. The Midrash Rabba, for example, asks “What did the two of them talk about?” and answers:

“They said, ‘Let us divide the world up between us.’ One chose all the land and the other all movable objects. The first said, ‘The ground you are standing on is mine.’ The second replied, ‘The clothes you are wearing are mine. Take them off!’ ‘You get off my land,’ said the first. Between one thing and another, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and slew him.”

Modern Jewish translations of the Bible have taken different approaches to the verse. The 1917 Jewish Publication Society Bible twists the meaning of vayomer to give us, “And Cain spoke unto Abel his brother.” The revised 1985 JPS version translates vayomer correctly and acknowledges that words are missing by means of an ellipsis: “Cain said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.” Everett Fox’s 1983 translation of Genesis does the same. Robert Alter’s 1996 Genesis, on the other hand, chooses to follow the Septuagint with “And Cain said to Abel his brother, ‘Let us go out to the field.’”

What did Cain say to Abel? Your guess is as good as mine. We don’t need the Bible to tell us that almost anything can end in a murder.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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