Sin and the City: Cain and Abel, and the Tower of Babel


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

In Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve’s children, we see the pattern of rebellion against God continue; but this time the rebellion begins to have direct inter-human implications, not simply implications for the divine-human interaction. An additional aspect is how the beginning of cities and community in the Tower of Babel is seen as a challenge and a threat to God.

A sketch showing Cain and Abel offering their sacrifices.
God’s choice of Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s leads to the first murder. (Image: Gustave Dore/Public domain)

The Story of Cain and Abel

The basic story here is simple: The surprising choice of one brother over another by God provokes wrath in passed-over brother, and this wrath leads the passed-over brother (Cain) to murder his brother, (Abel), whose blood then cries from the ground to God. God discovers Cain’s crime and exiles him, making him what the scriptures call a “restless wanderer” over the face of the earth.

This is in some ways a story about the dangers of resentment. As God says to Cain in their exchange about where Abel is:

If you do well, you can hold up your head; but if not, sin is crouching at your door; it seeks to master you, but you must master it.

The danger of resentment here as a motivator is quite clear: It warps our vision of what is important and, in fact, comes to “master” us.

Ironically, this is visible in Cain’s reply to God when God asks him where Abel is. Cain says, famously, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Since Abel was a shepherd and Cain was a farmer, Abel is the one who is a “keeper”, which is another word for “shepherd” here. Cain is saying, “I’m a farmer, I’m not a shepherd; I shouldn’t care about my brother’s place.”

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Beginning of Cities

It’s a very interesting kind of angry retort to God; it’s not just a naïve question on Cain’s part. The lesson here is that sin is now perpetually part of our lives, and humans are engaged in a grim twilight struggle against it; and much of the time we will fail. Cain gives in to his sin and suffers the consequences.

A painting of Cain and his family wandering the world.
Cain is forced to wander the world after he murders his brother. (Image: Theodore Chasseriau/Public domain)

Eventually, Cain’s wandering comes to a sort of an end, and he settles down and he founds a city; the first city in history (at least in the Bible).

The first murderer is also the first founder of a city. Because of this connection between cities and sin, even here in Genesis, we’re going to turn to cities as sites of rebellion against God, and the classic case of this, of course, is the Tower of Babel.

Learn more about Cain and Abel.

Babel: Political Rebellion Against God

The Tower of Babel exemplifies rebellion in an explicitly political way. The logic of the decision to build the tower is in the 11th chapter of Genesis: The people say,

Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name; lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.

Here, rebellion against God is now overt and collaborative; this is political rebellion. Humans are now working together in concert—which in itself is a good thing—but against God. God’s response to this, of course, is to render the world fractured among many different languages, many different people. There’s a deep thought here about sin and politics, and a profound suspicion that begins to emerge here that carries forward even today.

Unity as Rivalry with God

The late medieval depiction of the construction of the tower.
The building of the Tower as a community act, as depicted in this medieval illustration, was seen as a challenge to God. (Image: Meister der Weltenchronik/Public domain)

The problematic unity of all mankind against God is explicitly named as a danger by God. God sees what they’re doing and he says:

Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

God fears the community of humans when it is separate from the right worship of God and from obedience to God precisely because it is so powerful. Human communities turn out to be an exceptionally problematic thing in the early book of the Hebrew Bible.

Interestingly, there’s no report of the tower’s toppling in the text. The suggestion is that the people simply stopped working on it and walked away.

This made for an especially vivid moment in the Bible, because, by the time this text is written, civilization in the Ancient Near East was already millennia old, and so the ruin of the tower might have been something that one would have expected to see, somewhere out there on the far horizon, as you were herding your sheep somewhere on the plain of Shinar, somewhere like that.

Learn more about the Babylonian ideas of evil.

Babylon and Babel

Also, calling this tower “Babel” is not simply a matter of referring to Babylon; it refers also to babel, to a language of chaos and incoherence. It suggests that the fracture of humans into multiple languages and cultures is itself a sign of the human decline.

Two large-scale memories come out of this story: on the one hand, the idea that humans working together is something that is feared by unless they are working under God’s control; on the other, the idea that the plurality of cultures and languages in the world, our “multitudinousness” in this world, is itself a further sign of sin.

But, of course, the fundamental point here is that ‘Babel’ is also a place where many people try to live; if not together, at least in proximity to one another. This is one of the first moments when vast cosmopolitan human political organizations—the sorts of things we call “empires”—begin to be associated in the Jewish and then Christian traditions in a particular way with human depravity and corruption.

There’s a complicated ambivalence, and possibly hostility, to large-scale human endeavors; a certain kind of concern about cities and empires emerges here.

Common Questions about Cain and Abel, and the Tower of Babel

Q: What is Cain’s punishment?

God discovers Cain’s crime of the murder of Abel, and exiles him, making him what the scriptures call a “restless wanderer” over the face of the earth.

Q: Why is Cain’s sin connected to cities?

According to the Bible, Cain’s wanderings finally came to an end, and he founded the first city in the world.

Q: How is building the Tower of Babel a political act?

The building of the Tower of Babel is a rebellion against God. It is an overt and collaborative act and a political rebellion.

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