Cain & Abel in the Bible - Archeology of the First Murder

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Cain murders Abel, wood carving

Bible murder Cain/Abel

Adam's story

in the ancient world

Neolithic statue of fertility goddess

Eve's story

Noah, from the movie 'The Bible'

Noah: 1st farmer

Statuette of woman grinding grain

Work: what people did

Map of the lands of the Bible

Where it happened





Cain and Abel

Bible Study Resource

Obviously there are no archaeological artifacts that can be linked directly to Cain (the farmer) and Abel (the animal-herder), but the story in Genesis 4 mentions

  • a murder in which blood is spilt

  • farming

  • herding

  • the offering of gifts to God

and there are archaeological artifacts for all these things.

Finely made flint knife with ornate ivory handle; flint knives were common in prehistoric times

Finely made flint knife with ornate ivory handle, from prehistoric times

Weapons for Murder

The most important tool in daily use in the ancient world was probably the knife. It was used to prepare food, slaughter, skin and cut up animals, flay skins, cut hair and leather - and as a weapon. 

Knives could be status symbols (see the ivory-handled knife in the illustration at right) or purely functional.

In many cases the handle was attached to the blade by a nail, but sometimes the blade was wedged into a groove made in the handle.

One of the most common weapons in prehistoric times was the mace. It had a fairly short handle, onto which was fitted a stone or metal head.

The purpose of the mace was to beat and smash, so its head was heavy and blunt - as opposed to the axe, whose purpose was to cut or pierce, thus needing a sharp and light blade.

Both of these items (a knife or an axe) were common in the ancient world. Both would have been close at hand in any ancient settlement. Both of them could be used as a killing weapon that 'spilt blood' when Cain killed Abel.



Socketed axehead excavated at Khafajah

Socketed axehead excavated at Khafajah


In Neolithic (and more recent) hunter-gatherer societies, women collecting seed noticed that plants appeared where seeds had been dropped the previous year. In time the women began to drop seed deliberately and harvest it the following year when they returned. This was probably how agriculture started.

It may be why Eve, rather than Adam, was blamed for mankind's loss of the Garden of Eden. Food had been plentiful enough (in a good year) without much effort on people's part. Now, with the invention of the plough, things changed. Suddenly more land could be cultivated, and more people fed - but this required more work than hunter-gatherers were accustomed to. The 'Garden of Eden' was lost.

Egyptian wall painting: farmer with plough and draught animals

Egyptian wall painting: farmer with plough and draught animals

The plough was used from Neolithic times to loosen the ground before sowing. It seems to have been developed in Mesopotamia, for the first evidence of its use comes from pictographic inscriptions of Uruk and Elam. It is often shown in Egyptian wall paintings from the third dynasty onwards.

The process of food production in ancient EgyptPloughs had a sharp wooden ploughshare that dug into the soil. This was often wood, but the Egyptians also attached a flint blade to the ploughshare.

And ploughing was only the start. The Egyptian wall painting at right shows the long process of food production, which took up a good part of the year. As well, there was the constant need for water, and in many places this meant the construction and maintenance of intricate irrigation systems.

No wonder the herdsmen (like Abel) preferred to the old way of life. Whoever invented the plough changed our human world forever.


Sheep and goat breeding was one of the earliest occupations in ancient Israel. It was the best way to exploit the poorer soils of the hilly parts of the country, especially around Jerusalem and to the south. Goat herd The Hebrew word 'midbar' which is usually translated as 'desert' means poor pasture-lands unfit for intensive agriculture - but suitable for herds or flocks.

Throughout the early years of Israelite life, animal husbandry was a main source of livelihood for the people. In biblical times there were great numbers of cattle in Israel, and the extent of a man's wealth was measured by the number of heds he owned. Cattle were used for sacrificial rites, and for ploughing, threshing and transport.

Goats were especially valuable, because unlike other cattle they could exist in extremely arid areas. Goats were the only source of meat for nomadic tribes - meat from a kid being the most valued. Goats also supplied hair for tent and garment cloth, carpets and harnessing for horses and later camels. Goatskins were used for leather flasks for water, wine and oil.

Israel's sheep were of the fat tail variety, in which the tail may reach a weight of 10 or 11 pounds. This part of the beast was considered a delicacy, so the whole tail was burned when a sheep was offered as a sacrifice. The image at right shows a fat-tailed sheep on a stone bowl from the Uruk III period of Ur (c. 3000 BC).

Offerings to God

When the Hebrew people wished to worship God, they offered sacrifice. When they did so, they offered God the most perfect animal they could find. The animal was primarily a gift. This they believed would strengthen their relationship with God in the same way that gift-giving strengthened relationships between people.

The reconstructed 'horned' altar from BeershebaThe place of sacrifice was the altar. The animal/gift was placed and burnt on the altar, and the climax to the sacrificial ritual came when the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled there. Blood was an essential element of the sacrifice, since it was thought to contain the life force of the animal.

One sees immediately why Cain's offering (farming produce) was not as well-received as Abel's (a slaughtered animal).

So once again there is a coded message in the Cain/Abel story: God favoured an offering which involved blood sacrifice, and that idea underpinned a basic belief in ancient Judaism: that the truest form of worship was the offering of sacrifice in the Temple of Jerusalem.


The Shakeyeh, an ancient method of drawing water, photograph 1894

The Bible Text for the story of Cain & Abel

Genesis 4:1-16

1 Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, "With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man."
2 Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.
3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.
4 But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering,
5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
6 Then the Lord said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?
7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it."
8 Now Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let's go out to the field." And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
9 Then the Lord said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" "I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?"
10 The Lord said, "What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground.
11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand.
12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth."
13 Cain said to the Lord, "My punishment is more than I can bear.
14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me."
15 But the Lord said to him, "Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over." Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.
16 So Cain went out from the Lord's presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.


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Bible Study Resource for Archaeology 
Cain and Abel, violent murder, farming, herding, sacrifice to God. See the archaeological artifacts for all these.

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Copyright 2006 Elizabeth Fletcher