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Issue #137 - 09/13
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Cain & Abel, Esau & Jacob meet the Hebrew Language

The Book of Genesis, which we will begin reading this week following the celebration of Simchat Torah, is a beautiful guide for us about relationships. Today we are going to discuss brothers -   אחים- achim. I was asked by a few webinar students to write about Cain and Abel. They were really interested in this story and for me it's always a pleasure to write for my students. Another set of brothers that we will focus on today are Esau and Jacob. 

Let's us start with the Cain and Abel story, which is full of gaps that we have discussed in other posts. This time let's take a look at the beginning of the relationship between them, as written:

"Now Adam had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, “I have gotten/created a man-child with the help of the Lord.”  Again, she gave birth to his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground"(Genesis 4:1-2)

"וְהָאָדָם יָדַע אֶת-חַוָּה אִשְׁתּוֹ; וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד אֶת-קַיִן וַתֹּאמֶר קָנִיתִי אִישׁ אֶת-יְהוָה.  וַתֹּסֶף לָלֶדֶת אֶת-אָחִיו אֶת-הָבֶל; וַיְהִי-הֶבֶל רֹעֵה צֹאן וְקַיִן הָיָה עֹבֵד אֲדָמָה."

Cain killed Abel

How can we see differences between the brothers? If you read the translation in English or other languages you might infer that Cain was the first born and Abel the second. You will likely notice the differences in profession between the brothers as well. You might suggest that the meaning of Cain’s name is explained whereas Abel’s isn’t. Some will even mention that even though Cain was born before Abel, Abel's profession (as well God’s reaction to the sacrifice) was more important than Cain's, since shepherds, not the workers of the ground, are often leaders in the Hebrew Bible (see also the fable of the shepherds in Ezekiel 34 or read Psalms 23 – there the true shepherd is The Lord).

Still, the translation can't give it all to you dear friends, since there are two more beautiful and important things that only reveal themselves in original Hebrew text. The first is Cain's name. The text explains it as someone who was created by God or with the help of God. Look closely at the Hebrew to see the beauty - the name is Cain- קַיִןand the verb that explains the name uses the same letters- קָנִיתִי.

The second is just a simple word that in English is translated as “was”, which I emphasized above. The author wanted to highlight the difference between the brothers, possibly as a clue about Abel’s fate, by using the verb “to be” in one way for Abel-וַיְהִיand a different way for Cain-הָיָה. The “from” used for Abel is called the Wayyiqtol form, which is the most common form in Biblical Hebrew. For Cain he used the Qatal form, which is less common than Wayyiqtol. When we look at the text in this light we can begin to understand why Abel was favored over his brother. Another observation one might make is that the meaning of his Cain’s name is “vanity” or “temporary” as suggested much later on in the Book of Ecclesiastes.

From this story we then move on to the beginning of Jacob and Esau’s story. This time we are speaking about twins. Note that another set of twins in the book of Genesis are the sons of Judah and Tamar (see Genesis 38:27-30.). We will discuss them another time. For now, let’s see how the Bible describes Jacob and Esau:

"Now the first came forth red, all over like a hairy garment; and they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came forth with his hand holding on to Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob ...When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the field, but Jacob was a peaceful man, living in tents. Now Isaac loved Esau, because he had a taste for game, but Rebekah loved Jacob." (Genesis 25:25-28)

"וַיֵּצֵא הָרִאשׁוֹן אַדְמוֹנִי כֻּלּוֹ כְּאַדֶּרֶת שֵׂעָר; וַיִּקְרְאוּ שְׁמוֹ עֵשָׂווְאַחֲרֵי-כֵן יָצָא אָחִיו וְיָדוֹ אֹחֶזֶת בַּעֲקֵב עֵשָׂו וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ יַעֲקֹב...וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד אִישׁ שָׂדֶה; וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים.  וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת-עֵשָׂו כִּי-צַיִד בְּפִיו; וְרִבְקָה אֹהֶבֶת אֶת-יַעֲקֹב.

Jacob and Esau

Esau and Jacob are a symbol of many relationships in history, but today I would like to focus on two specific differences between them. The first is that Esau was named by both of his parents, suggested by the plural form in the verb (“they called him”) while Jacob was named only by one of them, most likely Isaac (“he called him”).  Esau’s name was obvious - he came out hairy so that’s what they named him - the hairy one! Jacob’s, however, was a little trickier. He came out holding the heel of his brother. Perhaps it was a sign of things to come, suggesting that his name, lifestyle and job were all to come on “heels” of something else that laid before him.

When we delve further into this relationship we learn that Esau the firstborn was loved by his father for one reason and Jacob the second born by his mother without any real explanation. However, the translation shows that same word, "loved" , appears in different forms- for Esau the form is Wayyiqtol- וַיֶּאֱהַב and for Jacob it's the participle-אֹהֶבֶת.

That's just the tip of the iceberg of the beauty of understanding the Hebrew language. You are, as always, more than welcome to join us to begin to gain this incredible skill that will undoubtedly deepen your understanding of the text that belongs to us all – the holy Bible.

Have a great week,


Main phrases of the post + transcription + translation






















He loved




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