4:1 “Now the man had known his wife Eve,..” – The translation in the past-perfect follows Rashi, that the conception and birth of Cain had occurred before the sin and expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden.
“I have acquired a man with Hashem.” – As partners with Hashem. “My husband and I were created by God alone, but through the birth of Cain we are partners with Him” (Rashi).
Note: From the beginning of Genesis until 2:4, God is referred to exclusively as ‘God’, indicating His attribute of strict justice with which He initially created the world. From 2:4 until this verse, He is designated as ‘Hashem’ God (except for verses 3:1-5 where the conversation is with and by the serpent) indicating that He tempered His justice with mercy as implied in His name ‘Hashem’ so that the world could exist. From the birth of Cain, when the Evil Inclination increased, He is referred to only as ‘Hashem’ indicating that God discarded His attribute of strict justice and rules the world with mercy alone, for the world could not endure otherwise.
4:2 “Abel became a shepherd, and Cain became a tiller of the ground” – Because Abel feared the curse which God had pronounced against the ground, he turned to caring for sheep and herds (Midrash; Rashi).
Meat was prohibited to them (being permitted only in the days of Noah (see 9:3). Nevertheless, milk, butter, wool, and the skins of dead animals were permitted to them. Abel’s work consisted of shearing the sheep for their wool, and milking the cows (Mizrachi).
Like the Patriarchs, Moses and David, Abel chose a profession that permitted him to spend his time in solitude and contemplation of spiritual matters (HaK’sav V’HaKabbalah). Cain, however, chose an occupation that, though essential, can lead its practitioners to worship nature and enslave others to do the hard work of the fields in an effort to attain and develop property. Although Abel was younger, his occupation is mentioned first because he chose a more spiritual pursuit.
Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer notes that they would exchange with each other the products of their respective pursuits. Thus the system of bartering goods and services was instituted by God from the very beginning of creation.
4:3 “And after a period of time..” – Various interpretations of ‘days’ are offered by the Midrash and commentators ranging from ‘an indefinite period’ to ‘forty years’. Ibn Ezra and Radak cite various verses (Leviticus 25:29; Exodus 13:10) where ‘days’ means a full year.
Midrash Aggadah interestingly comments that it was the season of Passover and Adam said to his sons: “At some time in the future all the people of Israel will bring their Paschal sacrifices during this season, and they will be favorably received by God. This is therefore a beneficial time for you, too, to bring a sacrifice to God, and He will be pleased with you.”
…of the fruit of the ground;” – From the subtle contrast between the simple description of Cain’s offering and the more specific description of Abel’s offering in the next verse, the Sages derive that Cain’s offering was from the inferior portions of the crop, while Abel chose only the finest of his flock. Some say Cain’s was from the leavings, while there is Midrash which says it was flax-seed. His sacrifice was therefore not accepted (Ibn Ezra; Radak).
Note: Midrash Tanchuma relates that, according to the Sages, Cain’s offering consisted of (lowly) flax seed, while Abel’s consisted of wool. For this reason, the blending of flax and wool was later forbidden (Deuteronomy 22:11) because God said: It is not proper to mingle the offering of a sinner with the offering of the righteous.
Hirsch writes that Cain brought to God some of the produce of the earth, but without troubling to choose the finest. He is content with a minimum. Such a person devotes only spare time to God; donates only ‘the lame and the sick’, and whatever is expendable.
4:4 “..as for Abel, he also brought…” – Abel was not content to bring from his material substance. He was totally devoted to God; he was ready to offer all of himself in addition to his animals. Therefore, his sacrifice was so much more acceptable.
Hirsch writes – For Abel took of the very best firstlings of his flock. He who brings the first and the best, places his relationship to God in the foreground; for him this relationship is the first and most important. Everything else in life is secondary.
“Hashem turned to Abel and his offerings..” – A fire descended and licked up his offering (Rashi), which was the way that God showed His regard for pleasing sacrifices, as He did in the Tabernacle (Leviticus 9:24) and with Elijah ( I Kings 18:38).
The verse does not read ‘to Abel’s offering’, but rather ‘to Abel and to his offering’: Abel himself was pleasing and so was his offering; it was not merely the better quality of Abel’s offering that made his sacrifice more acceptable, and Cain’s less; it was their conduct that was decisive. Abel was accepted because of his lofty deeds, while his brother was rejected because of his despicable ways… Abel’s offering was in a spirit of humility while Cain’s was in a spirit of arrogance (Zohar).
4:5 “He did not turn. This annoyed Cain exceedingly..” – God detested both Cain and his offering, because Cain did not offer his sacrifice until he filled his own belly, and then gave of the leavings; whereas Abel gave of the firstlings, before enjoying any personal benefit (B’chor Shor; Tur). Cain was annoyed because he did not understand how he had sinned.
4:6 “And Hashem said to Cain..” – God addressed him in order to teach him and generations after him the way of repentance. A sinner can atone for his sins if he will but repent sincerely (Radak).
“Why are you annoyed and why has your countenance fallen?” – “Why are you annoyed” as though My acceptance of your brother’s sacrifice was arbitrary or unjust! “And why has your countenance fallen?” When a fault can be remedied, one should not grieve over what has passed, but rather concentrate on improving matters for the future (Sforno).
In this verse God tells Cain (in a theme later echoed by the Prophets) that He does not desire sacrifice but obedience..(Malbim).
4:7 “…sin rests at the door.” – If you succumb to your Evil Inclination, punishment and evil will be as ever-present as if they lived in the very doorway of your house (Sforno).
The Evil Inclination is like a guest…. At first he is shy and undemanding, then he will begin making requests and – unless he is controlled by his host – will continue to take liberties and impose until he becomes virtual master of the house. So, too, the Evil Inclination. He will never seek to drive man to major sins at first, for people will not obey. He begins with small sins and, unless held in check, develops in man a pattern of sin until he is powerless to stop (Me’am Loez).
“Its desire is toward you..” HaRechasim LeBik’ah, as well as several other commentators explain the subject of this phrase as being Abel, it reverts back to the beginning of the verse, which when rearranged would translate as such: Why are you downcast that I accepted the offering of Abel, your younger brother, while yours I did not accept? If you will better your ways, you will have pre-eminence above him as the eldest and you will be the object of his love and desire, and you will rule over him as a master over a servant. However, if you do not better yourself, your punishment awaits you at the door of your tent and you will not be absolved.
“..you can conquer it.” – You can prevail over it if you wish (Rashi), for you can mend your ways and cast off your sin. Thus God taught Cain about repentance, and that it lies within man’s power to repent whenever he wishes and God will forgive him (Ramban).
4:8 “Cain rose up against his brother and killed him.” – The Midrash relates that Abel was the stronger of the two, and the expression ‘rose up’ can only imply that Cain had already been thrown down and lay beneath Abel. But Cain begged for mercy, saying: ‘We are the only two in the world. What will you tell our father if you kill me?’ Abel was filled with compassion, and released his hold. Cain then ‘rose up and killed him.’
As the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37b) relates: not knowing which blow would be fatal, Cain pelted all parts of Abel’s body, inflicting many blows and wounds, until he killed him by striking him on the neck.
4:9 “Where is Abel your brother” – The question is rhetorical, for God knew full well where he was. He engaged Cain in a gentle conversation to give him the opportunity to confess and repent (Rashi; Radak; Sforno), but Cain misunderstood. He took God’s question to indicate ignorance about Abel’s whereabouts, so he denied knowledge. The reference to Abel as his brother was to allude to Cain, that he had a responsibility for Abel’s welfare but he denied that brotherhood imposed responsibility upon him.
Kli Yakar notes that since Cain had offered a sacrifice to God, he must have recognized that God is aware of human deeds and could not therefore have thought that God was oblivious to his act. This response to God is therefore not to be understood as an incredulous question. He attaches it instead to the previous statement and renders: ‘I was not aware that I was to guard my brother and protect him from murder. I had no idea that murder is sinful’.
Me’am Loez suggests that in those early days in the history of the world, people were as yet unaware of which blow could be painful and which could be lethal. Cain, in his jealous rage, attacked Abel and sought to hurt him, but he did not know that death would result from his blows (although he probably was aware that murder was sinful).
4:10 “..the blood..” – The Hebrew word is literally ‘bloods’. The word is in the plural, implying that Cain’s crime was not limited to one person; he had shed Abel’s blood and the blood of his potential descendants. Alternatively, this teaches that he bled from many wounds.
Seeing that Cain was being insolent, God challenged him forthright by revealing that He was aware of Cain’s crime (Midrash Aggadah).
4:11 For Cain was a farmer and his punishment was that the land would not yield its full produce and he would be forced to wander far away seeking more fertile farmland. Thus his curse came ‘through the ground’ (Ibn Ezra; Ramban; Sforno).
The Mechilta relates that when the Egyptians drowned, the Sea refused them and cast them upon the dry land, but the land, too, refused to harbor them and cast them back into the Sea saying: ‘For receiving the blood of Abel, who was but an individual, I was cursed. How then shall I receive the blood of this vast multitude?’ The land persisted in her refusal until God reassured her that He would not bring her to judgement.
You have killed your brother and covered his blood with the earth, and I will decree that it uncover the blood, ‘and she shall no more cover her slain’ (Isaiah 26:21) for the earth, together with all that is covered up in it, such as seed and plant will be punished. Bloodletting which ‘pollutes the land’ (Numbers 35:33) brings a curse upon its produce (Ramban).
4:12 There is a double curse here: That the earth would no longer yield its natural fertility for his benefit by making fruit trees productive; and that it would not even respond to his plowing and sowing as before (Ramban). For when man tears apart the bond between himself and God, then God tears apart the bond between man and the earth (Hirsch).
‘..you..” – Rav Eleazar said: ‘To you it shall not yield its strength, but to another shall yield it (Midrash). Therefore the curse was specifically directed to him, while in the case of Adam’s curse (3:17), which was meant to apply eternally to all mankind, the curse was directed to the earth (Radak).
This is the third curse: that he will be a vagrant and a wanderer in the world. In other words, he will always wander, without the tranquility to remain in one place, for the punishment of murders is banishment (Ramban).
4:13 Is my iniquity too great to be forgiven? My punishment is too great to bear!
4:14 ‘Can I be hidden from Your Presence? I will not be able, out of shame, to stand before You in prayer or bring a sacrifice,,” (Ramban)
‘Yet You in Your boundless mercy have not decreed death upon me … Behold, my sin is great and You have punished me exceedingly. Protect me that I should not be punished with more than You have decreed, for if I must be a fugitive and wanderer, unable to build myself a house and fence at any one place, and without Your protection, the beasts will kill me.’ Thus Cain confessed that man is powerless to save himself by his own strength, but only by the watchfulness of the Supreme One (Ramban).
If your protection were still upon me I would not worry. He Who commanded the earth to give its fruit will command the Heavens to sustain me. My fear is that bereft of Your presence and watchfulness I will be easy prey for anyone who wishes to molest me. Having no secure place, any creature could kill me and no one will avenge me. Thus, my punishment is truly more than I can endure…
4:15 “..whoever slays Cain before seven generations..” Rashi interprets this as ‘an abbreviated verse with an implied cause: Whoever slays Cain will be punished; as for Cain, only after seven generations will I execute My vengeance upon him, when Lamech, one of his descendants will arise and slay him.’
Harav David Feinstein explains that the postponement of the ultimate punishment of Cain is a manifestation of God as long suffering and patient. Nevertheless, Cain was punished to wander the earth. It is similar to a man who lends someone a large sum of money and accepts payment at the rate of a penny a day. He is patient and merciful, but he does not forget the right to payment. So, too, God is patient and merciful in deciding upon the mode of punishment, but he exacts it nonetheless. As a result of his minuscule daily suffering as a wanderer Cain’s punishment was deferred for hundreds of years.
“..Hashem placed a mark upon Cain..” – As far as how or what the mark was, the Torah nor the Talmud reveals what the mark was.
For more background on Cain and Abel, reference the blog “Ancient Book of Jasher 1 – Creation to Abel”