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Cain versus Abel.

THE FRUIT OF THE FORBIDDEN TREE HAS LONG interested biblical readers and commentators. It is assumed that the fruit was an apple and a piece of this fruit got stuck in Adam's throat, hence the name Adam's apple for the larynx. The biblical translator who gave birth to the idea of the apple was St. Jerome, a Hebrew scholar who lived in Caesaria and Bethlehem about 400 C.E.

At this time Jerome had translated the Hebrew Bible into Latin and it came to be known as the Vulgate, for the vulgar, that is, the ordinary people. When Jerome encountered the Hebrew for the fruit as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], good, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and bad, he translated [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] into the Latin malum, hence words like malice and malevolent. Now it just happens that the Latin word for apple is also malum, so that medieval Italian painters, encountering the word malum, drew the inference that the forbidden fruit was the apple. A more attractive theory is that it was the banana, a (dangerous?) fruit foreign to the Middle East and growing originally in Africa and India. Banana leaves are longer than small fig leaves for making a genital covering. To this day in Israel bananas are sometimes called by the Hebrew [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the fig of Eve. In botanical terms the banana is the Musa sapientum, the fruit of wisdom.

Merely touching, eating the fruit (Genesis 3:3) of the tree of "the knowledge of good and evil" posed a threat to divinity (3:22) and if man put out his hand to take of the tree of life he might live forever (3:22). This much has come to pass: Homo sapiens as an evolutionary inheritor of Homo "primitivus" is already millions of years old and will live forever, until the end of life on earth. But what means the prohibition against handling and eating of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil? Was even Homo "primitivus"--before his sapient eyes were opened (3:7)--forbidden to know the difference between good and wicked conduct (2:17)? How can that be? No, the prohibition is not against knowing the difference between good conduct as compared with evil conduct ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) but between good and evil--([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and that encompasses something quite different. The threat is to the divine knowledge of just about everything: just as day and night, male and female are all encompassing, so good and evil knowledge encroaches on the breadth of divine knowledge, and hence the prohibition.

But there is also an alternative understanding of the tale of the forbidden fruit, generated by a scientific rather than a moralistic perspective, and it could conceivably throw some light on the later feature of the Cain-Abel clash. Knowledge is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and from this root we have [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], knew, and Adam knew (4:1) his wife as a result of which she birthed Cain, and again in the case of Seth (4:25); and Cain also knew his wife (4:17). Note, however, there is no mention of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in the case of Abel. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], knew, also means intimate knowledge, carnal experience, sexual knowledge; the tree of the knowledge of good and evil can also be translated and understood as the tree of the carnal experience of good and bad. For while [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] can mean evil, wicked (Genesis 44:4; Deuteronomy 1:39), it can also mean bad (Genesis 24:50, 31:24, 29; Leviticus 27:10, 12, 14, 33) which would include some toxic effect on pregnancy.

But consider that Abel was bad, physically, intellectually, socially, and perhaps genetically.

Cain is universally branded as the evil murderous killer of an innocent Abel; see especially the opinion in the New Testament: Matthew 23:25; Hebrew 11:4; 1 John 3:12. One can make out a better case for Cain as the innocent party who accidentally, not intentionally, killed Abel. Just about everything in the story of Abel brands him as the aggressor. Consider:

(1) The Lord is thanked for the birth of Cain (4:1) and Seth (4:25), but not Abel; he simply arrived (4:2).

(2) Neolithic agriculture preceded pastoral--sheep, goats, cattle--and Cain is the elder, called after stalks of grain ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 4:1, 41:5, 22) for baking bread. His name, supposedly given at birth, stems in fact from later experience. Abel, a herder of tamed animals, is not called a [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], shepherd. Strange! His name, at birth, is also an example of eisegesis, reading back into earlier times the experience of adult activities, and he was diagnosed by his parents as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Abel, being dis-abled, defective, handicapped (Deuteronomy 32:21; 1 Kings 16:13, 26; Ecclesiastes 1:1, 2). Parents happily experience the birth of a normal baby and expect the next pregnancy to bring equal joy, but no! often there arrives an offspring who is physically, intellectually, socially and perhaps genetically defective. What could have been the matter with Abel? It could be that the forbidden fruit, conceivably a generic term for other toxic materials or chemicals (e.g., alcohol taken by the pregnant mother) could have damaged the embryo or fetus, or a virus present on the fruit (such as the German measles virus) could have infected the growing embryo, or there might have been something sparking a genetic aberration such as Down's syndrome (earlier known as Mongolism), or more likely a chromosomal aberration called the XYY Syndrome which, although it generally features normal individuals, sometimes presents as tall strong men with limited intelligence and social instability. Surprisingly, Rabbi Yohanan (Midrash Genesis Rabba 22:7, 8) labels Abel as "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" bigger and stronger than Cain and hence well capable of attacking him. Did Abel have an XYY?

(3) Both Cain and Abel gave sacrificial gifts to God and Abel's was accepted above that of Cain. But this was not because of miserliness by Cain. It was because, as is usual, a kindly and sympathetic father (in this case God) makes special allowances for a handicapped child or adolescent and favors him (4:4).

(4) And lo, when they were in the field, Cain's field, with grain to be protected, Abel came with his sheep or goats to graze on the fields of Cain. And the result? "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ... And Cain said unto Abel his brother ..." (4:8). What did he say? It is not stated in the Hebrew text but there can be little doubt: "Get off my field!" Abel refused (4:8 implied). And the result? The aggressive and strong Abel attacked the smaller Cain. "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ... And Cain rose up...." How come? Because he had been knocked down (Midrash Genesis Rabba 22:7, 8).

(5) So Cain retaliated in some manner, for Cain rose up "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him, slew him." Note: not [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and murdered him, as in the sixth declaration (commandment: "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Don't murder!" Cain slew Abel, unintentional killing, manslaughter, in self defense.

(6) And God asked, "Where is your brother Abel?" And Cain replied, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (4:9). Has it been my duty all these years to care for a bully, a disturbed youngster?

(7) With Abel dead a replacement was needed, hence the birth of Seth, and this word means replacement. For what, the dead Abel (4:25)? No, the defective Abel, for it specifically states that Set was from [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (4:25), a different seed, genetic material, normal genetic constitution (karyotype, genotype) unlike that of Abel.

(8) And what punishment was meted out to Cain? After all, he had killed and others (from where?) might want to take revenge on him (4:14). God's punishment was no more than a slap on the wrist, no more than he inherited from Adam (3:17-19, 4:12). Cain was then banished to the land of Nod (4:16) where he built a town (4:17), perhaps a place of asylum, like the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the biblical towns of refuge (Numbers 35:6f) for those who inadvertently had killed someone. Moreover God guarded Cain and put a protective mark on him (4:15) and he continued his line in the birth of Enoch (4:17).

The fruit of the tree of the carnal experience of good and bad refers to the physically, intellectually, socially and genetically normal, good while bad here refers to the disabled. The fruit tree command is not to be translated and interpreted in moral or legal terms but in genetic and medical terms as the fruit of the tree of the sexual experience of good and bad.

Some toxic material may be transmitted from merely touching a potentially contagious and harmful substance (the forbidden fruit) and this includes the entry into the pregnant woman of various chemicals (the fetal alcohol--grape-derived syndrome), micro-organisms (notably the German measles virus), and the transmission of other viruses (chiefly the HIV AIDS virus) which may injure both fetus and mother and may indeed give some truth to the consequence that it may result in death (2:17). Also forbidden is the sexual transmission of known genetic or hereditary disorders such as hemophilia. Touching or eating a forbidden substance is a prophylactic warning focussed largely on the sexual transmission of multiple disorders that could indeed end in death, certainly of the fetus.


SCHNEIR LEVIN is a physician for children in Johannesburg, South Africa. He writes on medical and psychological aspects of biblical and religious issues. His review of "Mystic Tales from the Zohar," by Aryeh Wineman, appeared in the Winter 2000 issue.
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Author:Levin, Schneir
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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