Cain killing Abel is a painting by Unknown 19th century

Deciphering the Subtext in The Cain and Abel Story

Many Christians have pored over even the slightest details in the Cain and Abel story trying to discern the meaning of the more confusing parts of the narrative. One of the most confusing parts is the fact that the narrative highlights that one brother was a farmer and one was a shepherd. Moreover, for seemingly no reason, God rejects Cain’s sacrifice of produce while accepting Abel’s offering of livestock. What exactly is significant about their occupations and why was Cain’s sacrifice rejected? Additionally, is there any significance in the birth order of the two?

Here in the introduction I will provide the TL;DR version for those who are not interested in all the details. The rest of the article should provide a robust amount of detail and explanations from archaeology, ancient texts, and the Bible itself.

Cain and Abel TL;DR

The short answer to the question of the brother’s occupations is that Cain and Abel are representations ancient feud between farmers and shepherds. Two careers that might seem similar today were two very different professions in biblical times and they often quarreled among each other both physically and mentally. Additionally, the brothers embodied the long feud between the northern state of Israel and the southern state of Judah. In fact, much of the Genesis family lineage is nothing more than commentary on existing people groups (at the time of writing).

In the story of Cain and Abel, Cain is personified as the wayward people of Israel who wished to have king and build cities and worship foreign gods like their neighbors in the east. The comparing of Israel with Babylon was a common theme in the biblical texts. The Babylonians were city building people who valued farming and civilized living over the dirty and rustic ways of the nomadic herders. Abel is a representation of Judah, a smaller younger nation who was faithful to YHWH and idealized the simplistic idea of a simple life of tent dwelling herders. Judah retained the nomadic herdsmen life style much longer than that of their neighbors in the north and the pro-Judea/pro-Davidic biblical texts tends to idolize the shepherd life style and the great shepherd king from Judah, David. Some have even made the case that Saul and David are another representation of the “younger son” or “Judah over Israel” motif but the link is harder to establish.

Terminology to Know

Before reading this article it might be helpful to understand a few terminologies that might not be recognized by those who are not familiar with the Near East. When referencing the ancient Near East there are some generic locations that should be known as generalized regions. The Levant is typically everything on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea up to the Syrian and Arabian deserts. Nations such as Israel, Lebanon, Edom, and Syria are all located in the Levant. Going east from Syria one will enter into what is generally labeled Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia was where nations like Assyria, Babylon, and Sumer were locations. These nations can cause some confusion as they were named after the cities that were the center of the empire. While Babylon was an ancient city, it was also a part of the Babylonian Empire. On the map below. Israel is in blue, the Levant in red, and Mesopotamia in Green. These regions make up what is usually called the Fertile Crescent.

Levant, Israel, Mesopotamia in the Fertile Crescent

Levant, Israel, Mesopotamia in the Fertile Crescent

Smaller regions within these larger ones will be shown on subsequent maps.

A few words should be defined for accuracy.

  1. Nomads: Refers generically to people who moved often as opposed to settles in the location.
  2. Pastoral Nomads: Nomadic people who were specially moving to find suitable grazing land (pastures) for their flocks.
  3. Semi-Nomad: People who only move periodically and would stay in locations for longer stretches of time than regular nomads.
  4. Peripatetic nomads: Semi-nomadic people who often lived for long periods near cities that they have trading partnerships with.
  5. Antediluvian: Simply refers to events before a flood. (The great flood in ancient contexts)

Life as a Nomadic Herdsman

Before mass farming in the Levant was common most people were assembled in family tribes and lived semi-nomadic lives in tents. They migrated often, chasing grasslands for their livestock to feed on and trying to avoid territorial conflicts. They were considered a rugged, outdoorsy, and barbarous people. They often lived in the hill country or pastures along rivers where fresh running water could be found coming down the mountains. Some dwelt in the wilderness of the desert places where wells were available and some foliage could still grow. For the most part they were left alone to live in peace with the exception of inter-tribal feuds and conflicts such as the one between Lot and Abram in Genesis 13. The southern portion of the Levant was not necessarily better lands for herding but they were much harder to farm. As such farming in Judah and the Negev developed much later than it did in the northern portion of the Levant. The rocky hill country and deserts of Mesopotamia also developed farming later than the more fertile regions, but even their less fertile regions were developed long before their neighbors in the Levant. [1]John W Flight, “The Nomadic Idea and Ideal in the Old Testament”, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 42, No. 3/4 (1923), pg 165-168. This short narration describes a nomadic life quite well.

Now Lot, who was moving about with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents. 6 But the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together. 7 And quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s. The Canaanites and Perizzites were also living in the land at that time.

8 So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives. 9 Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.”

10 Lot looked around and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt.
(Genesis 13:5-10)

The diet of the herding tribes was naturally more meat-heavy but they still needed grain and carbohydrates to survive. They often found wild fruit and berries to eat such as figs or dates, and they bartered with farming communities for grains such as barley and wheat.[2]What Did Ancient Mesopotamians Eat?” History on the Net, Accessed: September 15, 2020 <> Given the fact that the herdsmen were often the suppliers of wool, they were also often the sources for textiles made from the livestock. Often the nomads could trade their goods for grain or other food.

The religious life of the nomadic people groups was also vastly more simplistic than one who might have lived in a city or farming community. Often deities were considered patrons of certain families. Each family or tribe might have their own patron deity. In this respect, one can easily see in the biblical texts that the Abrahamic tradition falls into this category. The religion of the patriarchs was indeed a religion their “father’s God”. This theme is clear in the Old Testament but probably most notable in Exodus 3:13-15.[3]Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, Chapter on the Gods of their Fathers.

13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
15 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’
(Exodus 3:13-15a)

This type of religious duty makes perfect sense for a people who had no permanent homes. In this model, the deity is not tied down by location. However, the ancients still believed that each deity had their own dwelling. While a particular deity might transcend space to a degree, they were still considered to have homes, usually in the heavens. These homes were believed to be on high mountain tops where the tips reached into the clouds and literally connected heaven and earth. (Entire books have been written on the significance of mountains as dwellings for the ancient gods so I won’t go into great depth here but I do suggest interested readers review the list of references and further reading at the end of this article.) The biblical scene of Moses meeting with God on the mountain top should come as no surprise. Hence why Sinai (or Horeb) was called הַר הָאֱלֹהִים, “the mountain of the gods”.

Alternatively, the mountains were also places where deities could descend to the earth or even humans could climb to the heavens. This is certainly true of the story of the Tower of Babel. Certainly, when this ancient story says that God “came down to see the city and the tower the people were building“, it meant it literally. God also “came down” before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This was not a foreign concept to the patriarchs as they did not conceive of deities being omnipresent.

Thus, much of the religion of the early nomads was based around making offerings at the top of a mound or a “high place” which was next to the mountain dwelling of a deity. The Bible speaks of the these high places often, as they were condemned by Israel’s God as pagan altars many times.

Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods.[4]D.O. Edzard. “Mesopotamian Nomads in the Third Millennium B.C.”, in “Nomads and Sedentary Peoples”, Ed. Jorge Silva Castillo Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burntheir Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places.
(Deuteronomy 12:2-3)

It was not until the Israelites became a mighty nation, with advanced cities, that worship at the high places was shifted. Once a people group began to multiply and grow large, the need for cities, temples, and kings arose. This shift was clear in the biblical text.

The people, however, were still sacrificing at the high places, because a temple had not yet been built for the Name of the Lord. 3 Solomon showed his love for the Lord by walking according to the instructions given him by his father David, except that he offered sacrifices and burned incense on the high places.
(1 kings 3:2-3)

The growing clans of the nomads also made it difficult to share land. Those that grew large enough and formed agreements with other tribes eventually became sedentary herdsmen who lived in the hill country and arid deserts. This was characteristic of the patriarchs and eventually of the Israelites. However, this way of life would be challenged as Israel would grow and adopt customs from it’s neighbors who were largely based on farming and city life.

Life as a Farmer

While nomadism was the primary mode of existence the Levant, portions of the population did eventually create sedentary lifestyles for themselves. Mesopotamians and northern Israel migrated to a city life before many their neighbors like Edom and Judah, in the southern Levant. When Abraham was first called by God, Mesopotamia had already developed large cities in Uruk, Sumer, Akkad, Kisch, Babylon, and other places. Mesopotamian nomads became sedentary, built large tribal clans, started farming, grew even larger, and then started building cities. This was also true in Egypt. The Egyptians and Mesopotamians largely viewed the nomads from the Levant as uncivilized barbarians….not all that uncommon for how a yankee would have viewed the Appalachian farmers during the civil war era.

The city life in the ancient world was similar to today’s in that they had access to more technology. They had access to water from canals and water ducts that carried it into the city. They had open markets where trade and commerce could take place. They housed the best artisans and craftsmen and as a result the city life contained a higher amount of luxury items and a much higher standard of living. They usually had small schools for the elite and elaborate religious rituals.

The diets of the city dweller was much higher in fruits and grains which were both grown and stored locally. They were more likely to enjoy beverages of wine or beer depending on their locations. The city was also home to some of the best food markets. The necessity of farming to the city life cannot be underestimated. In order to sustain such a complex civilization grain needed to be farmed, processed, and then stored in bulk. The city housed not just the grain but also people to protect and guard it. They also kept a tight order on grain rations for the poor and during times of famine some wealthy cities would even provide grain for other cities and for foreigners seeking refuge from the famine. Certainly, this should remind one of the multiple famines in the Old Testament that caused the patriarchs to seek help in Egypt.

Now there was a famine in the land; so Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.
(Genesis 12:10)

When the seven years of plenty which had been in the land of Egypt came to an end, and the seven years of famine began to come, just as Joseph had said, then there was famine in all the lands, but in all the land of Egypt there was bread.
(Genesis 41:53)

Now it came about in the days when the judges governed, that there was a famine in the land.
(Ruth 1:1)

The city life also enjoyed parades, festivals, and allowed people have mass rituals dedicated to their deities. Religion in the cities was modeled after the religion their ancestors practiced except they now had temples the imitated the mountains and the gardens below them. Every major city had their own mountain-like temple where their patron deity could descend and visit with the people. These temples (sometimes called Ziggurats) were places where heaven and earth could be connected. This was reflected in the naming of their temples. One temple in Babylon was named “Temple of the stairway to pure heaven”. Another one at Larsa was called “Temple that links heaven and earth”.3

The idea that a deity would now dwell in a temple at the center of a city meant that most gods became territorial deities. Each city had their own patron deity. In Uruk it was Inanna and in Babylon it was Marduk. However, some deities were known to posses patron-ship over multiple cities, such as Inanna who was known as Ishtar by later cultures but had a whole system of temples in various cities dedicated to her. Religious life demanded sacrifices so animals and livestock were bred but often outside of the main city. The Israelites were known to keeping livestock in the bottom story of their homes but this practice was not common in Mesopotamian culture and seen as barbaric. They had large city walls to protect them against nomadic invaders who sought to steal crops and livestock. However, there was a substantial period in history where these walls were not yet engineered and the feud between the farming city dwellers and the nomadic herdsmen were very intense. Even after civilization grew so large that most people lived people lived in or near a major city the age old feud between the farmers and herdsmen continued, just with less violence and more philosophical arguments. A sample of the violent feuds and the later philosophical ones are below.

The Ancient Conflicts Between Farmers and Herders

The problem with urbanization is that it creates territorial issues. The two groups were often caught up in armed conflicts over resources. Eventually, civilization grew large enough that most major cities house a number of sedentary (non-nomadic) herdsmen. These herdsmen lived side by side with the farmers and it led to the second factor in the conflict between farmers and herdsmen, which is the philosophical debate between which occupation was the most beneficial and the most noble. In reality both were necessary for ancient kingdoms like Babylon, Akkad, and eventually Israel but the rivalry between the two life styles would live on well into the time period of the Old Testament prophets.

There is no shortage of texts from the ancient world that describe nomadic tribes invading the cities. This was a problem in ancient China just as much as it was Mesopotamia and Egypt. However, for the sake of brevity I will only be supply some of the most notable examples.

Mesopotamians vs the Gutians

There are a number of instances where the Mesopotamian cities were invaded by the nomadic herdsmen from the hill country. As discussed previously, the hill country lends itself more towards herding than farming so this should be expected. Early in Mesopotamian history (2,500-2,300 BCE) there are records of trouble between the Mesopotamians and a group called the Gutians. The Gutians were generally described as aggressive barbarians from the Zagros mountains. The Zagros mountains lined the northern boundary of Mesopotamia.

Zagros Mountain Zone

(CC) Wiki commons

In the early days of the Mesopotamian empire the Gutians actually invaded and ruled over the Sumerians for a period. This was recorded in the Sumerian King List. It’s brief description fits our model of nomadic herdsmen. Unlike Sumerian kings who often ruled between 10 and 40 years, the Gutian kings are listed as just a few years each, suggesting a possible tribal leadership rotation. This went on in increments of 3-7 years for roughly 70 years before the Sumerians regained control. At the beginning of Gutian rule it is stated that the army of Gutium was not commanded by a known king. Many believe it’s because the people group had no need for one as they were nomadic herdsmen just like the Israelites were before acquiring a king. However, other texts predating the Sumerian King list do mention Gutian kings, just not by name. The Sumerian king who saw the end of Gutian control referred to them as the “Fanged snake of the mountain ranges” and described their rule over Sumer as evil and debouched.[5]RIME, Victory Stele of Utu-Hengal The Gutians would eventually be driven away by local Babylonians.

Uruk was defeated and the kingship was taken to the army of Gutium.
The army of Gutium, a king whose name is unknown.
Nibia became king; he ruled for 3 years.
Then Ingišu ruled for 6 years.
Ikukum-la-qaba ruled for 6 years.
Šulme ruled for 6 years.
Silulumeš ruled for 6 years.
Inimabakeš ruled for 5 years.
Ige’a’uš ruled for 6 years.
I’ar-la-qaba ruled for years.
Ibate ruled for 3 years.
Yarla ruled for 3 years.
Kurum ruled for 1 year.
Apil-kin ruled for 3 years.
La’arabum ruled for 2 years.
Irarum ruled for 2 years.
Ibranum ruled for 1 year.
Hablum ruled for 2 years.
Puzur-Sin, son of Hablum, ruled for 7 years.
Yarlaganda ruled for 7 years
Si’u ruled for 7 years.
Tiriga ruled for 40 days.
Twenty-one kings ruled for 91 years and 40 days.

Then the army of Gutium was defeated and the kingship was taken to Uruk
(Source: Sumerian King List, Livius, ANET 266)

The Gutians, however, were just one group of predatory nomads. There were a number of groups that participated in these types of invasions. Sagon I (c. 2270) of Babylon lists a number of nomads that we went to battle against. Among them are the Amorites, Elamites, the Gutians, and another groups that cannot be made out due to the fragmentary nature of the tablet.[6]Frayne, Douglas. Sargonic and Gutian Periods (2234-2113 BC): RIM The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia, Early Periods Vol II, (University of Toronto Press, 1993), 183-184. We know from additional records that Mesopotamians also had a great deal of trouble with a group called the Martu.

Mesopotamians vs the Martu/Mardu (later became a city named Mari)

There is another more generalized group of nomadic herdsmen that quarreled with the city dwelling peoples of Mesopotamia. They are usually know as the Martu or Amaru. This people group was known as a Semitic speaking people and were described as having periods of mass-migration but more importantly, the Martu and the 3rd century BCE Mesopotamians are said to be the first example of conflict between nomads and city dweller in Mesopotamia. They are typically describe in similar fashion to the Gutians.

The Martu know neither towns nor houses, nor grain. [7]Dietz Otto Edzard, Mesopotamian Nomads in the Third Millennium B.C.: Nomads and Sedentary People, Ed. Jorge Silva Castillo (International Congress of Human Sciences in Asian and North Africa, 1981), … Continue reading

They are also described as living in tents, not burying their dead, and had no place dedicated to such things.[8]Markus Hilgert, Drehem Administrative Documents From The Reign of Sulgi. Oriental Institute Publication 115. These people lived north east of the Levant and are likely related to the people group from which Abraham came. While this article is not about Abraham is it a helpful reference since most are familiar with his life style as a wondering herdsman. Abraham was said to settle in Haran (just north of Mari) after leaving Ur. In the time period which Abraham lived the Semitic language had reached Ur but it’s likely that the Semitic language was his primary language which would make him quite comfortable in Semitic speaking Haran. Haran’s location was nearly in the northern Zagros mountains and from the biblical account it’s probable that they were also semi-nomadic herdsmen. The account of Laban’s family from Genesis was shows him as a herdsman for which Jacob worked and became a herdsman as well.

Mari and Haran

Nevertheless, texts from the 3rd dynasty of Ur detail skirmishes between Mesopotamians and the Martu people in which the Martu people are sacked and the booty collected. The booty consisted of only livestock, no grain or urban goods. Additional texts from the reign of Sulgi of Ur records booty from multiple campaigns to the nomadic lands of Mardu/Martu. Of the booty some 250+ of the records are livestock and the others are servants and slaves.[9]Postgate, J. N. 1992 Early Mesopotamia : society and economy at the dawn of history London ; New York : Routledge. In military records one can gather the nature of the town being sacked by what goods are taken from it. More advanced civilizations typically has more diverse types of booty including silver and gold from the temple and objects belonging to rulers.

Mesopotamians vs the Amorites

Similar to the Martu peoples, the Amorites, another Semitic speaking group, were well known in Mesopotamia and the Biblical narrative. They lived in and around the Amurru region. The Amorites were also quite close to Haran (a Hurrian city) where Abraham settled. Of the nomadic people groups, they were perhaps the most well-known invaders of Mesopotamian cities and villages. They invaded the city of Ur so many times that the so-called “Great Wall” of Mesopotamia was built during the 21st century BCE. This Amorite Wall was placed on the northern end of the Akkadian empire, just south east of Haran and north of Kisch. However, the wall was largely unsuccessful and the Sumerians were eventually invaded by both the Amorites and Elamites. Eventually, the Amorite nomads were able to setup a period of Amorite dominion over the Sumerian people. The famous king Hammurabi was an Amorite but eventually the Amorite reign would be toppled, ironically, by another nomadic group, the Hittites.[10]King Hammurabi of Babylon, 3-14.

The empire of Sargon, late 24th century BCE.

The empire of Sargon, late 24th century BCE.

There are a lot more documented cases we could examine but the purpose of this section is to merely highlight the ancient rift. The catalyst for the majority of these conflicts, on both sides, was often climate or territory related. When the rain did not fall and droughts gripped the lands, there were limited crops as well as places to feed the herds. It created problems for the cities and the nomads. In summary, the violent feuding between the two groups was a tale as old as civilization. However, it would only be a matter of time before violent incursions turned into merely philosophical ones. Once a land was sufficiently urbanized such conflicts were decreased and the two life styles were somewhat integrated into urbanized dwelling. The philosophical feuds which arose over the two professions are captured vividly in ancient Mesopotamian texts.

Philosophical Battles Between Farmers and Herders

The long-running debate in ancient near eastern culture, about whether or not farming or shepherding is the superior profession, is one of multiple great philosophical debates. In fact, there were seven “great disputations” in ancient Sumerian culture. The seven are listed below.

  1. Grain or Sheep (Farming or Herding)
  2. Bird or Fish
  3. Millstone or Gulgul(hammer) stone
  4. Pickaxe (hoe) or Plough
  5. Silver or Copper
  6. Summer or Winter
  7. Tree or Reed

We have extant texts that define the nature of the argument as well as the main points of the argument. The first text is accessible from the ETCSL library. The basis of the debate is founded on the fact that both professions were necessary for civilized society. The Sumerian text that best defines the argument starts building herding up from the beginning of time, before either profession existed.

The people of those days did not know about eating bread. They did not know about wearing clothes; they went about with naked limbs in the Land. Like sheep they ate grass with their mouths and drank water from the ditches.

(The Debate Between Grain and Sheep, ETCSL t.5.3.2)

The beginning of the text points to the main value of the industries, clothing and bread. As the text continues, the grain and the sheep become personified as siblings and argue between themselves. In the end, grain wins the argument which is no surprise for urbanize Mesopotamia. The god Enki settles the dispute by declaring grain to be superior to the sheep. Not only that, but sheep must submit to the yoke of the grain.

Grain called out to Sheep: “Sister, I am your better; I take precedence over you. I am the glory of the lights of the Land. I grant my power to the saĝursaĝ (a member of the cultic personnel of Inana) — he fills the palace with awe and people spread his fame to the borders of the Land. I am the gift of the Anuna gods. I am central to all princes. After I have conferred my power on the warrior, when he goes to war he knows no fear, he knows no faltering (?) — I make him leave …… as if to the playing field.”

“I foster neighbourliness and friendliness. I sort out quarrels started between neighbours. When I come upon a captive youth and give him his destiny, he forgets his despondent heart and I release his fetters and shackles. I am Ezina-Kusu (Grain) ; I am Enlil’sdaughter. In sheep shacks and milking pens scattered on the high plain, what can you put against me? Answer me what you can reply!”

Thereupon Sheep answered Grain: “My sister, whatever are you saying? An, king of the gods, made me descend from the holy place, my most precious place. All the yarns of Uttu, the splendour of kingship, belong to me. Šakkan, king of the mountain, embosses the king’s emblems and puts his implements in order. He twists a giant rope against the great peaks of the rebel land. He …… the sling, the quiver and the longbows.”

“The watch over the élite troops is mine. Sustenance of the workers in the field is mine: the waterskin of cool water and the sandals are mine. Sweet oil, the fragrance of the gods, mixed (?) oil, pressed oil, aromatic oil, cedar oil for offerings are mine.”

“In the gown, my cloth of white wool, the king rejoices on his throne. My body glistens on the flesh of the great gods. After the purification priests, the pašeš priests and the bathed priests have dressed themselves in me for my holy lustration, I walk with them to my holy meal. But your harrow, ploughshare, binding and strap are tools that can be utterly destroyed. What can you put against me? Answer me what you can reply!”

Again Grain addressed Sheep: “When the beer dough has been carefully prepared in the oven, and the mash tended in the oven, Ninkasi (the goddess of beer) mixes them for me while your big billy-goats and rams are despatched for my banquets. On their thick legs they are made to stand separate from my produce.”

“Your shepherd on the high plain eyes my produce enviously; when I am standing in stalks in the field, my farmer chases away your herdsman with his cudgel. Even when they look out for you, from the open country to the hidden places, your fears are not removed from you: fanged (?) snakes and bandits, the creatures of the desert, want your life on the high plain.”

“Every night your count is made and your tally-stick put into the ground, so your herdsman can tell people how many ewes there are and how many young lambs, and how many goats and how many young kids. When gentle winds blow through the city and strong winds scatter, they build a milking pen for you; but when gentle winds blow through the city and strong winds scatter, I stand up as an equal to Iškur (the god of storms) . I am Grain, I am born for the warrior — I do not give up. The churn, the vat on legs (?), the adornments of shepherding, make up your properties. What can you put against me? Answer me what you can reply!”

Again Sheep answered Grain: “You, like holy Inana of heaven, love horses. When a banished enemy, a slave from the mountains or a labourer with a poor wife and small children comes, bound with his rope of one cubit, to the threshing-floor or is taken away from (?) the threshing-floor, when his cudgel pounds your face, pounds your mouth, like crushed …… your ears (?) ……, and you are …… around by the south wind and the north wind. The mortar ……. As if it were pumice (?) it makes your body into flour.”

“When you fill the trough the baker’s assistant mixes you and throws you on the floor, and the baker’s girl flattens you out broadly. You are put into the oven and you are taken out of the oven. When you are put on the table I am before you — you are behind me. Grain, heed yourself! You too, just like me, are meant to be eaten. At the inspection of your essence, why should it be I who come second? Is the miller not evil? What can you put against me? Answer me what you can reply!”

Then Grain was hurt in her pride, and hastened for the verdict. Grain answered Sheep: “As for you, Iškur is your master, Šakkan your herdsman, and the dry land your bed. Like fire beaten down (?) in houses and in fields, like small flying birds chased from the door of a house, you are turned into the lame and the weak of the Land. Should I really bow my neck before you? You are distributed into various measuring-containers. When your innards are taken away by the people in the market-place, and when your neck is wrapped with your very own loincloth, one man says to another: “Fill the measuring-container with Grain for my ewe!.””

Then Enki spoke to Enlil: “Father Enlil, Sheep and Grain should be sisters! They should stand together! Of their threefold metal …… shall not cease. But of the two, Grain shall be the greater. Let Sheep fall on her knees before Grain. Let her kiss the feet of ……. From sunrise till sunset, may the name of Grain be praised. People should submit to the yoke of Grain. Whoever has silver, whoever has jewels, whoever has cattle, whoever has sheep shall take a seat at the gate of whoever has grain, and pass his time there.”

Dispute spoken between Sheep and Grain: Sheep is left behind and Grain comes forward — praise be to Father Enki!

The Sumerians, Akkadians, and Babylonians all favored grain over sheep. It was the one thing that made city life possible. Moreover, city dwelling was considered to be the pinnacle of human achievement and was thought to be a gift of the gods. This is seen over and over again in ancient near eastern texts. Below are a few more examples of ancient Mesopotamian literature espousing the benefits of the city.

Pure are the cities — and you are the ones to whom they are allotted. Pure is Dilmun land. Pure is Sumer — and you are the ones to whom it is allotted.
(Enki and Ninḫursaĝa, ETCSL 1.1.1)

An old text usually known as The Eridu Genesis, the gods are seen trying to get people back into the cities and remove them from scattering. The goddess Ninture desires mankind to get from their scattering and build great cities and temples so that she can take shade. From a biblical view, this desire of Nintura is the complete opposite of the desires of YHWH. Nintura and appoints a king which was quite offensive to the early Israelites who were nomads and followed a theocracy.

let me lead the people back from their trails.”
“May they come and build cities and cult places,
that I may cool myself in their shade;
may they lay the bricks for the cult cities in pure spots,
and may they found places for divination
in pure spots!”

(Song of the Hoe, COS [1.157)]) [11]William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, The Context of Scripture (Leiden;New York: Brill, 1997–), 513.

In an ancient prayer to Shamash usually called the “Diurnal Prayers of the Diviners” one can clearly see the religious philosophy of ancient Mesopotamia in action.

O Shamash, I hold up to you seven and seven sweet loaves,
The rows of which are ranged before you.
O Shamash, lord of judgment, O Adad, lord of divination,
Seated on thrones of [gold], dining from a tray of lapis,
Come [down to me] that you may eat,
That you may sit on the throne and render judgment.
In the ritual I perform, in the extispicy I perform, place the truth!
(Diuenal Prayers of the Diviner [COS 1.116]) [12]William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, The Context of Scripture (Leiden;New York: Brill, 1997–), 417.

May …… restore your city for you. The ……, the prince (?), the king …… has no rival. May he bring back for you the scattered people of Sumer and Akkad. Making manifest …… and perfection, may he lift his head high. May he prolong life and bounty for him (i.e. for the king) , may he create life for him. His golden emblem is truly outstanding and its form is praiseworthy. He has …… you to continue the offerings to Father Enlil — may his days be prolonged for you.
(An adab to Nanna for Gungunum, ETCSL

As indicated by the last snippet of Sumerian text, the very thing that the Sumerians feared was being overcome in battle, being scattered from their city, and not having the patronage of their city’s deity. There was an interdependence between the gods and the city. The gods needed the cities and the people of the cities needed the gods. It should be not wonder that in the Tower of Babel narrative God destroys the tower and the city and then scatters the people.

In nearly all of the Sumerian and Mesopotamian literature the city was a gift of the gods but also made for the gods. In the cities towers could be built without the deities having to work because the people would do the work. They could then rest if the shrines and temples and take pleasure in the cool shade and eat the offerings given to them by the people. In Mesopotamian culture the deities need mankind to service them and make their existence easier. In Yahwistic worship, God had no need to be fed nor did he require shade. The more one reads literature from the ancient Near East, the more one realizes that the texts of the Old Testament are a rebuke to their lifestyles and their religious system. In fact, the debate between grain vs sheep is engrained in the Old Testament as a debate between the early Israelite way of life and that of other cultures like the Sumerians.

The Biblical Preference

Dr. John W Flight, professor of biblical literature at Haverford College, wrote the following about nomadic life in the Old Testament.

So complete a picture of nomadic life does the Old Testament give in its stories of the early Hebrews, and to such an extent has the desert survived in the life which followed, that had we no other sources of information con-cerning nomadic life, we should be able to reconstruct it from the Old Testament down to almost the last detail.[13]John W Flight, “The Nomadic Idea and Ideal in the Old Testament”, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 42, No. 3/4 (1923), pg 59.

The preference in the Hebrew Bible towards nomadism as opposed to city dwelling is both obvious and subtle. On the obvious side, the patriarchs and the early Israelites dwelt in tents. Even the dwelling made for the Lord was a mobile tent. Both necessary for the nomadic life. Some time after Israel has settled the land and begun to build cities, the Lord commends the Rechabites for preserving their nomadic life through obedience to their forefathers, as opposed to Israel.

But they replied, “We do not drink wine, because our forefather Jehonadab[a] son of Rekab gave us this command: ‘Neither you nor your descendants must ever drink wine. 7 Also you must never build houses, sow seed or plant vineyards; you must never have any of these things, but must always live in tents. Then you will live a long time in the land where you are nomads.’ 8 We have obeyed everything our forefather Jehonadab son of Rekab commanded us. Neither we nor our wives nor our sons and daughters have ever drunk wine 9 or built houses to live in or had vineyards, fields or crops. 10 We have lived in tents and have fully obeyed everything our forefather Jehonadab commanded us. 11 But when Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon invaded this land, we said, ‘Come, we must go to Jerusalem to escape the Babylonian and Aramean armies.’ So we have remained in Jerusalem.”

12 Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, saying: 13 “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go and tell the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘Will you not learn a lesson and obey my words?’ declares the Lord. 14 ‘Jehonadab son of Rekab ordered his descendants not to drink wine and this command has been kept. To this day they do not drink wine, because they obey their forefather’s command. But I have spoken to you again and again, yet you have not obeyed me. 15 Again and again I sent all my servants the prophets to you. They said, “Each of you must turn from your wicked ways and reform your actions; do not follow other gods to serve them. Then you will live in the land I have given to you and your ancestors.” But you have not paid attention or listened to me. 16 The descendants of Jehonadab son of Rekab have carried out the command their forefather gave them, but these people have not obeyed me.’
(Jeremiah 35:6-16)

Even at the time of the prophet Jeremiah, people dwelling in Canaan were wrestling with the two differing life styles. However, by this time nomadism was a fond memory more than a reality. However, the OT is full of markers that are indicative of a nomadic life. A number of them are listed below.

  1. Lack of a political hierarchy
  2. Emphasis on hospitality and care of the sojourner
  3. Mobile dwellings such as tents
  4. Lack of and organized religion with decentralized worship at “high places” rather than temples
  5. Sacred rituals consisting primarily of animal/animal products
  6. Marrying within family lines rather than for political or economic gain
  7. Deities tied to family and ancestors rather than towns or land
  8. Sacrifices and religious duties done in family and tribal units (Exodus 12:21)
  9. Animal sacrifices eaten by the person/family that offers it rather than given completely to a higher preisthood
  10. Worship of a deity with mobility
  11. Places of worship housing only small outdoor altars without sophistication (Deuteronomy 27:4-7)

Less obvious markers of a biblical preference towards the simple life of the patriarchs exist as subtexts in many of the stories in the OT. Heroes are often shepherds or nomads and bad people are associated with cities and farm life. One passage showing such subtext is in the creation account. God created the animals and appointed man over the animals. There was no mention of agriculture. The only mention of produce in Genesis 1 & 2 is of plants that naturally bear its fruit. Furthermore, farming was a curse.

Antediluvian Views (Genesis 1-11)

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
(Genesis 1:28-30)

The “alternative” creation account in Genesis 2 is often considered a later account of creation, however, for roughly 20 years now I have held to the conclusion that it’s an addition to Genesis 2, not an alternate account. In this later account we see that in addition to taking care of the animals, mankind was intended to “work” the garden they were placed in. However, no mention of actual farming or toil is mentioned. Rather, it’s clear that the produce was a natural phenomenon.

Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth[a] and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, 6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. 7 Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

8 Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9 The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.
(Genesis 2:5-9)

The first mention of farming was actually part of the curse. It comes alongside painful child-bearing.

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”

(Genesis 3:17-19)

The very next thing God did was kill an animal and create garments for the sinful couple, even though they had already sewn leaves together to cover themselves. Where the plants failed, the product of animals prevailed. Was this a commentary on superiority of animal products? After the murder of the shepherd Abel by his farmer brother the Genesis narrative tells of Cain’s offspring. Interestingly, Cain’s lineage is credited the first city building enterprise.

Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch.
(Genesis 4:17)

The connection with cities and wickedness continues to grow as Genesis moves on. After the flood we learn that Nimrod was a great city builder as was Canaan…. both great enemies of Israel. Nimrod is credited with building the cities that were known to Israel’s greatest enemies to the east, namely Babylon, Akkad, and Nineveh.

Cush was the father of Nimrod, who became a mighty warrior on the earth. 9 He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; that is why it is said, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.” 10 The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon, Uruk, Akkad and Kalneh, in Shinar. 11 From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah 12 and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah—which is the great city.
(Genesis 10:8-12)

Not to be outdone, Canaan is credited with founding some of great enemies of Israel during the conquest period, as well as Sodom and Gomorrah. There is, however, one major difference between Canaan’s offspring and that of Nimrod. Most of Canaan’s offspring are listed as people groups, not great cities.

Canaan was the father of Sidon his firstborn, and of the Hittites, 16 Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, 17 Hivites, Arkites, Sinites, 18 Arvadites, Zemarites and Hamathites.
Later the Canaanite clans scattered 19 and the borders of Canaan reached from Sidon toward Gerar as far as Gaza, and then toward Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim, as far as Lasha.
(Genesis 10:16-18)

After the genealogies conclude in Genesis, chapter 11 dives into the greatest example of anti-Babylon propaganda in all of Genesis. The tower of babel narrative can be considered nothing less than an argument against the Mesopotamian way of life. It’s religious philosophy and it’s city building is rebuked in the highest manner by God. They build a tower to reach heaven and gain immortality and God destroys the tower, their city, their culture, and their language. After that the are scattered which is the opposite of what the Mesopotamian deities wanted. The God of the patriarchs was not found in a tower and did not dwell in man made structures.

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
(Genesis 11:1-8)

Post-diluvian Genesis Views

The rest of Genesis seems to also indicate that the nomadic life of the simple herdsman was superior to that of the city-dwelling farmer. Esau whom the Lord hated (Malachi 1:3) was a hunter and man of the field while Jacob preferred to remain among the tents.

So the boys grew. And Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field; but Jacob was a complete (I.E. mature) man, dwelling in tents.
(Genesis 25:27)

The view of Jacob and Esau we see in the Bible is that Jacob was elected to lord over his brother and their descendants would do the same. There is an interesting subtext to the narrative which is that Esau was like the famed Nimrod, the great hunter who was associated with Babel the it’s tower (Genesis 10-11). On the other hand, Jacob was a mature man who dwelt among the tents, as a semi-nomadic herder would do. Herdsmen naturally dwelt in the tents and stayed close to the community of tents so they could keep watch over the herds. Going out to hunt was not typically a task that was done by a shepherd as they would be required to leave the flock. An alternate family member could go hunt game for eating but it is notable that the two tasks are specifically divided between the two brothers rather than shared and that the brother who the Lord loved just happened to have the preferred profession.

Views in the Historical Era and the Prophets

The Deuteronomist and Jeremiah both detail dealings with a tribe in the south who found favor with the early Israelite tribes called the Rechabites. The Rechabites were descendants of the Kenites which were nomadic peoples from the southern Levant and also the clan from which Moses’ father-in-law came from. When we are introduced to their later descendants it appears that they adopted the Yahwism of Moses. They are credited with helping the righteous king Jehu in II Kings and preserving the old way of Yahwism in Jeremiah. It is clear that by the time of Jeremiah, farming even in Judah had grown along side of the expanding city of Jerusalem. The faithfulness of the Rechabites to their father’s traditions and instructions is commended by the Lord and used as an example for Judah.

Now when he had departed from there, he met Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him; and he greeted him and said to him, “Is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart?” And Jehonadab answered, “It is.” Jehu said, “If it is, give me your hand.” And he gave him his hand, and he took him up to him into the chariot. 16 He said, “Come with me and see my zeal for the Lord.” So he made him ride in his chariot. 17 When he came to Samaria, he killed all who remained to Ahab in Samaria, until he had destroyed him, according to the word of the Lord which He spoke to Elijah.
(II Kings 10:15-17)

The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, saying, 2 “Go to the house of the Rechabites and speak to them, and bring them into the house of the Lord, into one of the chambers, and give them wine to drink.” 3 Then I took Jaazaniah the son of Jeremiah, son of Habazziniah, and his brothers and all his sons and the whole house of the Rechabites, 4 and I brought them into the house of the Lord, into the chamber of the sons of Hanan the son of Igdaliah, the man of God, which was near the chamber of the officials, which was above the chamber of Maaseiah the son of Shallum, the doorkeeper. 5 Then I set before the men of the house of the Rechabites pitchers full of wine and cups; and I said to them, “Drink wine!” 6 But they said, “We will not drink wine, for Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, commanded us, saying, ‘You shall not drink wine, you or your sons, forever. 7 You shall not build a house, and you shall not sow seed and you shall not plant a vineyard or own one; but in tents you shall dwell all your days, that you may live many days in the land where you sojourn.’ 8 We have obeyed the voice of Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, in all that he commanded us, not to drink wine all our days, we, our wives, our sons or our daughters, 9 nor to build ourselves houses to dwell in; and we do not have vineyard or field or seed. 10 We have only dwelt in tents, and have obeyed and have done according to all that Jonadab our father commanded us. 11 But when Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up against the land, we said, ‘Come and let us go to Jerusalem before the army of the Chaldeans and before the army of the Arameans.’ So we have dwelt in Jerusalem.”

12 Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, saying, 13 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Go and say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, “Will you not receive instruction by listening to My words?” declares the Lord. 14 “The words of Jonadab the son of Rechab, which he commanded his sons not to drink wine, are observed. So they do not drink wine to this day, for they have obeyed their father’s command. But I have spoken to you again and again; yet you have not listened to Me. 15 Also I have sent to you all My servants the prophets, sending them again and again, saying: ‘Turn now every man from his evil way and amend your deeds, and do not go after other gods to worship them. Then you will dwell in the land which I have given to you and to your forefathers; but you have not inclined your ear or listened to Me. 16 Indeed, the sons of Jonadab the son of Rechab have observed the command of their father which he commanded them, but this people has not listened to Me.’”’ 17 Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Behold, I am bringing on Judah and on all the inhabitants of Jerusalem all the disaster that I have pronounced against them; because I spoke to them but they did not listen, and I have called them but they did not answer.’”

18 Then Jeremiah said to the house of the Rechabites, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Because you have obeyed the command of Jonadab your father, kept all his commands and done according to all that he commanded you; 19 therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “Jonadab the son of Rechab shall not lack a man to stand before Me always.”’”
(Jeremiah 35)

View of the Author(s) of the Cain and Abel Story

It is likely an impossible feat to know how many authors and editors wrote and redacted the story concerning Cain, Abe, and the earliest parts of Genesisl. However, there are some hints in the story that can assist us in determining their views. When Adam and Even “fall”, they are found wearing fig leaves to cover their nakedness but these were deemed insufficient by the Lord and God, himself, created the very first animal skin clothing for the couple to wear. Clearly, the view that animal-based clothing is better than more primitive cloths is being employed here.

The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.
(Genesis 3:21)

Another feature of Genesis is that is peculiar is Adam’s relation to the animals. They are initially intended to be companions of Adam but eventually deemed insufficient, thus, woman was created. The fact that Genesis views animals in such a high steam really only makes sense from the view point of a nomadic shepherd who essentially lives in the outdoors with their flocks. While they may provide some level of defense against loneliness they are obviously not enough to make sure man was “not alone”.

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

But for Adam no suitable helper was found.
(Genesis 2:18-20)

Another feature which is found in the Cain and Abel story is the theme of blood revenge. While it might not seem obvious on the outset what this has to do with nomadism, the idea of blood revenge is essentially an artifact of tribal culture. If one tribe or person from that tribe is responsible for the death of a member from another tribe, the matter was settled by taking revenge against a member of the offending tribe by means of killing.[14]John W Flight, “The Nomadic Idea and Ideal in the Old Testament”, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 42, No. 3/4 (1923), pg 183-186. However, the system of blood revenge disappears in more civilized cultures as they have laws and judges to carry out justice. Moreover, the tribes that one made up nomadic life are no longer discernible after a few centuries or more of urban life. Taking such revenge may prove to be impossible in may cases.

It seems somewhat likely that the hand(s) that shaped the early chapters of Genesis was incredibly sympathetic to the life of the nomads and could have possibly been one himself.

The Great Shift Towards Urbanism

In the early days of the conquest, before Israel divided into two nations, the Hebrew people are primarily herdsmen. This was to be expected as they had not yet taken possession of the land and it took close to 300 years to do so according to the biblical text itself (Exodus 23:29-31, Deuteronomy 7:21-25, Joshua 13:1-5). Yet city building did eventually get underway and it caused major conflicts in the culture. City-dwelling people were less likely to be fruitful and multiply as they were limited by their confinements but the nomadic people could indeed multiple and subdue the land. The life style of the city made it difficult for religious life in early Israel as most of the religious life took place on top the sacred high places, outdoors, where a person could approach their deity as opposed to cities that built towers and idols in an attempt to bring bring the deity to them.

During the transition period, the children of Israel, presumably, were primarily engaged in tending flocks, as in patriarchal days. The Song of Deborah yields no trace of extensive occupation with agriculture, even though the soil was tilled. The tribe of Reuben is described as living “among the sheep-folds, to hear the pipings of the flocks” (Judg. 5:16). Scripture also testifies to the existence of broad grazing lands in Gilead, and Bashan in Transjordan, the areas settled by the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh, all of whom owned much livestock (Num. 32; Deut. 3:19; Josh. 1:14). Although the Bible does portray the land of Canaan as “flowing with milk and honey” (date syrup), no conclusions can be drawn from this expression as to the relative importance of grazing land (“milk”) as opposed to soil cultivation (“honey”). Livestock was raised to a limited extent in the border grassland regions and deserts, or was fed on the stubble of the grain fields and the stalks of the vegetable gardens. During the period of the conquest, sheep and cattle were also grazed in the forests which had covered the farm lands. The talmudic sages undoubtedly relied on an ancient tradition when they included, among the ordinances enacted by Joshua , one permitting the grazing of flocks in the wooded areas.
(Agriculture in Israel: History & Overview,

One cannot simply assume that Israel was always associated with farming or that Judah was always affiliated with herding. The earliest days in Israel also had a vast amount of herdsmen as well as farming. This is evident based on the narratives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There is also an abundance of evidence showing farming settlements in early northern Canaan. Even their deities were crop related deities. Baal and Dagon were storm/rain and crop deities. However, as Judah grew and developed more complex cities they eventually had to develop their own agricultural practices. The Bible actually records the time period where Israel began its move from nomadic herding to living in city-states. It is the appointment of a king over Israel. A stark warning from the prophet Samuel to the people of Israel serves as a chronological break point. In the eyes of Deuteronomistic history, the move from tribal society like what is found in the book of Judges, to a kingdom of city-states can be symbolized in one demand. The demand for a king.

1So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. 12 And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

19 But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” 21 And when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22 And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey their voice and make them a king.” Samuel then said to the men of Israel, “Go every man to his city.”
(1 Samuel 8:10-22)

The prophetic warning against forming kingdoms under a king should be understood as a rebuke against going the way of the Babylonians. The rest Hebrew Bible is full of warnings against building cities like their urban neighbors. Isaiah delivers a warning again Assyrian and Babylonian city building. In the passage so famously thought to be about Satan (it’s not) Isaiah ends the oracle with a warning that the king’s sons must not be allowed to live and build cities all over the earth. In fact, the first 35 chapters of Isaiah exhibit a strong emphasis on the cities of Israel being depopulated and returning to the old way of life.[15]‘Every City shall be Forsaken’, Urbanism and Prophecy in Ancient Israel and the Near East. JSOT Vol 330, Ed. Lester L. Grabbe and Robert D. Haak (Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 35-70.

Prepare a place to slaughter his children
for the sins of their ancestors;
they are not to rise to inherit the land
and cover the earth with their cities.
(Isaiah 14:21)

Even the great city of Jerusalem was not safe according to Isaiah. In one oracle the city is destroyed and a remnant of the people are designated to live in peace, following the old way of living.

You women who are so complacent,
rise up and listen to me;
you daughters who feel secure,
hear what I have to say!
10 In little more than a year
you who feel secure will tremble;
the grape harvest will fail,
and the harvest of fruit will not come.
11 Tremble, you complacent women;
shudder, you daughters who feel secure!
Strip off your fine clothes
and wrap yourselves in rags.
12 Beat your breasts for the pleasant fields,
for the fruitful vines
13 and for the land of my people,
a land overgrown with thorns and briers—
yes, mourn for all houses of merriment
and for this city of revelry.
14 The fortress will be abandoned,
the noisy city deserted;
citadel and watchtower will become a wasteland forever,
the delight of donkeys, a pasture for flocks,
15 till the Spirit is poured on us from on high,
and the desert becomes a fertile field,
and the fertile field seems like a forest.
16 The Lord’s justice will dwell in the desert,
his righteousness live in the fertile field.
17 The fruit of that righteousness will be peace;
its effect will be quietness and confidence forever.
18 My people will live in peaceful dwelling places,
in secure homes,
in undisturbed places of rest.
19 Though hail flattens the forest
and the city is leveled completely,
20 how blessed you will be,
sowing your seed by every stream,
and letting your cattle and donkeys range free.
(Isaiah 32:9-20)

Additionally, the prophet Micah prophesied that when God rebuilds Israel, he’ll get rid of their idolatry and their cities. The image painted in chapter five depicts the small nation of Judah reforming the remnant of Israel. One can hardly miss the pro-Judah and and anti-city message found in the oracle.

Marshal your troops now, city of troops,
for a siege is laid against us.
They will strike Israel’s ruler
on the cheek with a rod.
2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans[b] of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.”
3 Therefore Israel will be abandoned
until the time when she who is in labor bears a son,
and the rest of his brothers return
to join the Israelites.
4 He will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth.


“In that day,” declares the Lord,

“I will destroy your horses from among you
and demolish your chariots.
11 I will destroy the cities of your land
and tear down all your strongholds.
12 I will destroy your witchcraft
and you will no longer cast spells.
13 I will destroy your idols
and your sacred stones from among you;
you will no longer bow down
to the work of your hands.
14 I will uproot from among you your Asherah poles[e] when I demolish your cities.
15 I will take vengeance in anger and wrath
on the nations that have not obeyed me.”
(Micah 5:1-4, 10–15)

The Drinkers?

There is a running theme among the biblical authors who preferred the nomadic life that shows farming, cities, and excessive drinking to be associated. This is odd because many other passages in the Hebrew scriptures show wine as being a blessing from the Lord and called for to be a blessing to the Lord by means of offerings (Proverbs 3:9-10, Deuteronomy 7:13; 11:14; 33:28, Exodus 29:40; Leviticus 23:13; Numbers 15:5,7,10 18:12; 28:7,14; Deuteronomy 18:4; 1 Samuel 1:24; 2 Chronicles 31:5; Ezra 6:9; 7:22; Nehemiah 5:11; 10:37,39; 13:12). Nevertheless, over-drinking was looked down upon and tends to get linked to unsavory characters in the Bible.

Noah, interestingly enough, was the first to plant a vineyard after the flood and he subsequently got drunk which resulted in the cursing an entire nation (Canaan). In addition to Noah, Lot who was associated with the city life as opposed to his tent-dwelling uncle Abraham had some trouble with drinking. When he was made to be drunk his daughters slept with him and gave birth to the Moabites and Ammonites, two more nations the Lord wanted destroyed.

The Forsaken First Son

There is another theme in the Judah vs Israel rivalry that most scholars refer to as the “younger son” or the “forsaken first son” motif. In order to understand this motif one has to know some history. Based on what we know from the Bible and from Archaeology, northern Canaan was populated before deserts and hills in the south. The earliest patriarch in Genesis were associated with places like Shechem, Bethel, Shiloh, and other places north of Judah. In fact, archaeology shows that even after the exodus the population of Judah’s capital, Jerusalem, was only sparsely inhabited. Simply put, between Israel in the north and tiny Judah in the south, Israel has long been considered the wayward eldest son among the two nations. Other divides also existed between the two nations such as the worship of the Canaanite god, El in the north, as well as his son Ba’al. While the rise of Judah in the south saw the worship of YHWH slowly dominate the land after the elder of the two nations falls into captivity at the hands of the Assyrians.

The worship of YHWH developed long after the exodus and most scholars today conclude that one of two things are true. 1) The Hebrew people worshipped El until the rise of Judah who worshipped a deity that was well known in the southern part of Canaan, Yah/Yahu/Yahweh. There was even a temple in Elephantine Egypt for early worshipper of Yahweh. The united monarchy called for the worship of one God and El got merged into the worship of Yahweh and the explanation for this merger is found in Exodus 3 when it’s explained to Moses that the patriarchs did not know God by his name of YHWH but by the name El Shaddai (God almighty). 2) The Bible should be taken at face value and God just did not reveal his name to the patriarchs. The second of those two choices will draw agreement with traditionalists but not with archaeology. Why does any of this matter? It shows that the earliest tradition of the Hebrews was based on northern Canaanite worship and culture which makes sense since that is there the patriarchs came from. However, Judean culture and worship eventually prevailed and that takeover in the Bible is seen as a subtext repeatedly. Judah is the second son who came to dominate the older Israel. With that was a merging of changing of worship and the demonizing of Israelite culture, which was largely similar to the detestable practices of the Canaanites and the city builders in Mesopotamia. Thus, the Cain and Abel story embodies the Judah over Israel in the younger son motif where the older brother is pictured as unfavored and the younger as favored by God.

The angel of the Lord also said to her:

“You are now pregnant
and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,
for the Lord has heard of your misery.
12 He will be a wild donkey of a man;
his hand will be against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
toward all his brothers.”
(Genesis 16:11-12)

The Lord said to her,

“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger.”
(Genesis 25:23)

When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” 11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
(Genesis 37:10)

When Joseph saw his father placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head he was displeased; so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. 18 Joseph said to him, “No, my father, this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.”

19 But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a group of nations.” 20 He blessed them that day and said,

“In your name will Israel pronounce this blessing:
‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’”
So he put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh.
(Genesis 48:17-20)

What happens so often in Genesis is that the individual nations are personified in particular patriarchs or characters. What follows is an explanation why one nation might have dominance over another based on the actions of their ancient forefathers. Such was true of the cursed nation of Canaan who was cursed because the father of the nation (Ham) uncovered his father’s nakedness. One of two things is true about this story. It’s either a fictionalized story explaining the justification for subjugation of the land of Canaan. The other possibility is that God is perfectly okay with cursing millions of people for the impropriety of one single ancestor. Most scholars believe the former of the two options.

When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said,

“Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers.”
26 He also said,

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Shem!
May Canaan be the slave of Shem.
27 May God extend Japheth’s[a] territory;
may Japheth live in the tents of Shem,
and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.”
(Genesis 9:20-27)

Additionally, the Reubenites are cursed to serve the younger brother. When Jacob was an old man he revoked the birthright of Reuben and gave it to Judah. He then goes on to deliver a prophetic message about Judah’s future. It is generally accepted in scholarship that this passage was written centuries after the fact as a justification and explanation of Judah’s status among the other tribes during the time period in which Genesis was being edited…a theme found throughout the Old Testament.

“Reuben, you are my firstborn,
my might, the first sign of my strength,
excelling in honor, excelling in power.
4 Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel,
for you went up onto your father’s bed,
onto my couch and defiled it.
5 “Simeon and Levi are brothers—
their swords[a] are weapons of violence.
6 Let me not enter their council,
let me not join their assembly,
for they have killed men in their anger
and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.
7 Cursed be their anger, so fierce,
and their fury, so cruel!
I will scatter them in Jacob
and disperse them in Israel.
8 “Judah,[b] your brothers will praise you;
your hand will be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons will bow down to you.
9 You are a lion’s cub, Judah;
you return from the prey, my son.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down,
like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
10 The scepter will not depart from Judah
(Genesis 49:3-10)

Another image of the superiority of the second son is that of the small shepherd David from Bethlehem over tall Saul from Gibeah. Their introductions were significantly different in the Bible. 1 Samuel 9 shows Saul being model of Canaanite kingship, being tall, handsome, and an active participant in Canaanite/Israelite worship on the “high places”. Saul would go on to be rejected by the Lord (1 Samuel 16:1) While David is being sought by Samuel to replace the tall king Saul, the Lord states the following:

Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.
(1 Samuel 16:7)

It is almost as if Saul was chosen for failure. David on the other hand was handsome but the youngest of the bunch and ruddy. Eventually David would go on to be the Lord’s chosen son and father of the eternal throne. Saul died a shameful death, scorned by the Lord and falling on his own sword.

The rise of Judah in the south (or its correlation as the 2nd son) is not something often considered when reading Biblical texts because most readers view Israel and Judah as one cohesive group but they were very different. Judah did not really grow and develop until after the united monarchy was divided. In the late 8th century BCE just the city of Jerusalem saw a population growth of 10-fold. Inhabitants went from around 1,000 to 10,000 in a rather short span. Likewise, the population in the Judean hill country during the same time period more than doubled.[16]Israel Finkelstein, “The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah”, Lecture at International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, Jan 20, 2015. VIDEO Part of the reason why this happened was because the Assyrian conquest of northern Canaan (Israel) caused a large migration of refugees from the north to seek refuge in Judah. Shortly after this migration the northern kingdom ceased to exist. It is after this period that we see late Judean writings begin to critique earlier texts that might have been critical towards Judah or its greatest leader, King David. The life of David as recorded in Samuel was white-washed by the later Chronicler. All things Judean were spoken of positively while Israel in the north was pictured as wicked and involved in idolatry. El and his son Baal was supplanted with worship of a single God named Yahweh.

Interpreting the Cain and Abel Story

To summarize the main points above, the subtext of the Cain VS Abel story is commentary on two very different types of cultures and two different life styles. Those two life styles were also stereotypes of Judah and Israelite nations. Built into the narrative is displeasure for the types of civilizations that were at odds with the idealized nomadic life. The older farming brother is rejected by God in favor of the younger herdsman son. This should come as no surprise as the majority of the editing of the Old Testament came at the hands of the Jews long after the northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians.

Did God reject Cain’s sacrifice because it was produce rather than livestock? It’s possible but not apparent. It’s more probable that later redactors of the stories made a stylistic edit to the story that provided commentary about the preference for a particular life style. It seems evident that the biblical editors and authors purposefully characterized Cain as a farmer and not a herdsman. Just like the destruction of Sodom, the people were not destroyed because they lived in an ancient city but it’s no coincident that the most wicked people in the Hebrew Bible are city dwellers.

Ancient Jewish thought on the rivalry also tends to take into account the two occupations of Cain and Abel. Perhaps the most famous of the Jewish commenters was the 1st century historian, Josephus. Josephus makes the following observation about their sacrifices.

He slew his brother on the occasion following. They had resolved to sacrifice to God. Now Cain brought the fruits of the earth, and of his husbandry: but Abel brought milk, and the first fruits of his flock. But God was more delighted with the latter oblation, (8) when he was honoured with what grew naturally of its own accord, than he was with what was the invention of a covetous man, and gotten by forcing the ground.
(Antiquities, Book I, 2:1)

While we certainly cannot tell for sure why God rejected Cain’s sacrifice, I think it’s fair to say that he was painted as a bad guy in similar ways to other rejected biblical characters. His relation to his occupation as a farmer is relevant only as a means to alert the reader that he was not favored by God or that he lived a life style that was not favored by God.



1 John W Flight, “The Nomadic Idea and Ideal in the Old Testament”, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 42, No. 3/4 (1923), pg 165-168.
2 What Did Ancient Mesopotamians Eat?” History on the Net, Accessed: September 15, 2020 <>
3 Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, Chapter on the Gods of their Fathers.
4 D.O. Edzard. “Mesopotamian Nomads in the Third Millennium B.C.”, in “Nomads and Sedentary Peoples”, Ed. Jorge Silva Castillo
5 RIME, Victory Stele of Utu-Hengal
6 Frayne, Douglas. Sargonic and Gutian Periods (2234-2113 BC): RIM The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia, Early Periods Vol II, (University of Toronto Press, 1993), 183-184.
7 Dietz Otto Edzard, Mesopotamian Nomads in the Third Millennium B.C.: Nomads and Sedentary People, Ed. Jorge Silva Castillo (International Congress of Human Sciences in Asian and North Africa, 1981), no pp#.
8 Markus Hilgert, Drehem Administrative Documents From The Reign of Sulgi. Oriental Institute Publication 115.
9 Postgate, J. N. 1992 Early Mesopotamia : society and economy at the dawn of history London ; New York : Routledge.
10 King Hammurabi of Babylon, 3-14.
11 William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, The Context of Scripture (Leiden;New York: Brill, 1997–), 513.
12 William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, The Context of Scripture (Leiden;New York: Brill, 1997–), 417.
13 John W Flight, “The Nomadic Idea and Ideal in the Old Testament”, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 42, No. 3/4 (1923), pg 59.
14 John W Flight, “The Nomadic Idea and Ideal in the Old Testament”, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 42, No. 3/4 (1923), pg 183-186.
15 ‘Every City shall be Forsaken’, Urbanism and Prophecy in Ancient Israel and the Near East. JSOT Vol 330, Ed. Lester L. Grabbe and Robert D. Haak (Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 35-70.
16 Israel Finkelstein, “The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah”, Lecture at International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, Jan 20, 2015. VIDEO

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Gottwald, N. K., The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 B.C.E. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979 / London: SCM, 1980). Reprinted under the same title but with a new Epilogue and additional bibliography in the series: The Biblical Seminar, 66; (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999). See esp. pp. 435-463 (Chap. 39 “The Pastoral Nomadic Model for Early Israel: Critique and Radical Revision”), and in the 1999 Epilogue pp. 889-894.

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Khazanov, A. M. – O. Bar-Yosef, “Anthropological Aspects of Recent Archaeological Research in Pastoralism”, in A. Biran – J. Aviram – A. Paris-Shadur (eds.), Biblical Archaeology Today, 1990. Proceedings of the Second International Congress on Biblical Archaeology, Jerusalem, June – July 1990 (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1993) 459-464.

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Lemche, N. P., Early Israel. Anthropological and Historical Studies on the Israelite Society before the Monarchy (VTSup 37; Leiden: Brill, 1985), esp. 84-163.

Matthews, V. H., Pastoralism in the Mari Kingdom (ca. 1830-1760 B.C.) (ASOR Dissertation Series, 3; Cambridge, MA: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1978).

Nicolle, C. (ed.), Nomades et sédentaires dans le Proche-Orient ancien. Compte rendu de la XLVIe Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale (Paris, 10-13 juillet 2000) (Amurru 3; Paris: Éditions Recherche sur les Civilisations, 2004).

Postgate, J. N., “Nomads and Sedentaries in the Middle Assyrian Sources”, in J. Silva Castillo (ed.), Nomads and Sedentary Peoples. Thirtieth International Congress of Human Sciences in Asia and North Africa (Mexico City: El Colegio de Mexico, 1981) 47-56.

Rosen, S. A. – G. Avni, “The Edge of Empire: The Archaeology of Pastoral Nomads in the Southern Negev Highlands in Late Antiquity”, BA 56 (1993) 189-199.

Rosen, S. A., “Finding Evidence of Nomads”, BAR 14/5 (Sept.-Oct. 1988) 46-53 and 58-59.

Rosen, S. A., “Nomads in Archaeology: A Response to Finkelstein and Perevolotsky”, BASOR 287 (Aug. 1992) 75-85. [see Finkelstein & Perevolotsky 1990 above]

Rosen, S. A. “The Evolution of Pastoral Nomadic Systems in the Southern Levantine Periphery”, in E. C. M. van den Brink – E. Yannai (eds.), In Quest of Ancient Settlements and Landscapes. Archaeological Studies in Honour of Ram Gophna (Tel Aviv: Ramot Publishing – Tel Aviv University, 2002) 23-44.

Rowton, M. B., “The Physical Environment and the Problem of the Nomads”, in J.-R. Kupper (ed.), La Civilisation de Mari. XVe Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale organisée par le Groupe François Thureau-Dangin (Liège, 4-8 juillet 1966) (Bibliothèque de la Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres de l’Université de Liège, 182; Paris: Société des Éditions “Les Belles Lettres”, 1967) 109-121.

Rowton, M. B., “Autonomy and Nomadism in Western Asia”, Or N.S. 42 (1973) 247-258.

Rowton, M. B., “Urban Autonomy in a Nomadic Environment”, JNES 32 (1973) 201-215.

Rowton, M. B., “Enclosed Nomadism”, JESHO 17 (1974) 2-30.

Rowton, M. B., “Dimorphic Structure and the Problem of the ‘Apiru – ‘Ibrim”, JNES 35 (1976) 13-20.

Rowton, M. B., “Dimorphic Structure and the Tribal Elite”, in J. F. Thiel (ed.), Al-Bāḥiṯ. Festschrift Joseph Henninger zum 70. Geburtstag am 12. Mai 1976 (Studia Instituti Anthropos, 28: St. Augustin bei Bonn: Verlag des Anthropos-Instituts, 1976) 219-257.

Rowton, M. B., “Dimorphic Structure and Typology”, OrAnt 15 (1976) 17-31.

Rowton, M. B., “Dimorphic Structures and the Parasocial Element”, JNES 36 (1977) 181-198.

Rowton, M. B., “Economic and Political Factors in Ancient Nomadism”, in J. Silva Castillo (ed.), Nomads and Sedentary Peoples. Thirtieth International Congress of Human Sciences in Asia and North Africa (Mexico City: El Colegio de Mexico, 1981) 25-36.

Saidel, B. A., “New Insights into Ancient and Modern Pastoral Nomads”, RelSRev 23 (1997) 349-353.

Sasson, A., “The Pastoral Component in the Economy of Hill Country Sites in the Intermediate Bronze and Iron Ages: Archaeo-Ethnographic Case Studies”, TA 25 (1998) 3-51.

Schwartz, G. M. “Pastoral Nomadism in Ancient Western Asia”, in J. M. Sasson (gen. ed.), Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Associate editors: J. Baines – G. M. Beckman – K. S. Rubinson. Vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1995) 249-258.

Sparks, K. L., “Israel and the Nomads of Ancient Palestine”, in G. N. Knoppers – K. Ristau (eds.), Community Identity in Judean Historiography: Biblical and Comparative Perspectives (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009) 9-26.

Staubli, Thomas, Das Image der Nomaden im Alten Israel und in der Ikonographie seiner sesshaften Nachbarn (OBO 107; Freiburg, Schweiz: Universitätsverlag; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1991).

Steen, E. J. van der, “Aspects of Nomadism and Settlement in the Central Jordan Valley”, PEQ 127 (1995) 141-158.

Steen, E. J. van der, “Survival and Adaptation: Life East of the Jordan in the Transition from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age”, PEQ 131 (1999) 176-192.

Szuchman, J. (ed.), Nomads, Tribes, and the State in the Ancient Near East: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives (Oriental Institute Seminars, 5; Chicago, IL: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2009).

Thompson, T. L., “Palestinian Pastoralism and Israel’s Origins”, SJOT 6/1 (1992) 1-13.

Vaux, R. de, Histoire ancienne d’Israël. Vol. I: Des origines à l’installation en Canaan (EtBib; Paris: Gabalda, 1971), esp. 213-223. For English and Spanish translations see here.

Walz, R., “Gab es ein Esel-Nomadentum im Alten Orient?”, in H. Franke (ed.), Akten des vierundzwanzigsten Orientalisten-Kongresses München 28. August bis 4. September 1957 (Internationaler Kongreß für Orientalistik, 24; Berlin – Wiesbaden: Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft, 1959) 150-152.

Wapnish, P. – B. Hesse. “The Contribution and Organization of Pastoral Systems”, in Ø. S. LaBianca – D. C. Hopkins (eds.), Early Israelite Agriculture. Reviews of David C. Hopkins’ Book The Highlands of Canaan (Occasional Papers of the Institute of Archaeology, Andrews University, 1; Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1988) 29-41.

Weippert, M., Die Landnahme der israelitischen Stämme in der neueren wissenschaftlichen Diskussion (FRLANT 92; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1967), esp. 102-123 (“Nomaden des 2. Jahrtausends”); = The Settlement of the Israelite Tribes in Palestine. A Critical Survey of Recent Scholarly Debate (SBT II/21; London: SCM, 1971), esp. 102-126 (“Nomads of the second millennium”).

Zuber, B., “Nomadentum und Seßhaftigkeit”, in his Vier Studien zu den Ursprüngen Israels. Die Sinaifrage und Probleme der Volks- und Traditionsbildung (OBO 9; Freiburg, Schweiz: Universitätsverlag; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1976) 99-138.


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