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The Masoretic version of Genesis 4:8 reads as follows:

וַיֹּאמֶר קַיִן, אֶל-הֶבֶל אָחִיו; וַיְהִי בִּהְיוֹתָם בַּשָּׂדֶה, וַיָּקָם קַיִן אֶל-הֶבֶל אָחִיו וַיַּהַרְגֵהוּ.

And Cain said to his brother Abel, and it was when they were in the field that Cain rose up to Abel his brother and killed him.

The text has an obvious omission—what did Cain say to Abel? I don't want an answer that claims that "wa-yomer Ka-in" is a "Cain spoke", because the verb is not speak, it is say, and it requires embedded dialogue to be grammatical.

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3 Answers

The NET Bible textual criticism note is helpful here:

The MT has simply “and Cain said to Abel his brother,” omitting Cain’s words to Abel. It is possible that the elliptical text is original. Perhaps the author uses the technique of aposiopesis, “a sudden silence” to create tension. In the midst of the story the narrator suddenly rushes ahead to what happened in the field. It is more likely that the ancient versions (Samaritan Pentateuch, LXX, Vulgate, and Syriac), which include Cain’s words, “Let’s go out to the field,” preserve the original reading here. After writing אָחִיו (’akhiyv, “his brother”), a scribe’s eye may have jumped to the end of the form בַּשָּׂדֶה (basadeh, “to the field”) and accidentally omitted the quotation. This would be an error of virtual homoioteleuton. In older phases of the Hebrew script the sequence יו (yod-vav) on אָחִיו is graphically similar to the final ה (he) on בַּשָּׂדֶה.

Clarke's Commentary on the Bible points out:

In the most correct editions of the Hebrew Bible there is a small space left here in the text, and a circular mark which refers to a note in the margin, intimating that there is a hiatus or deficiency in the verse.

I don't know what he means here by "correct" (it's not a helpful if it just means the ones that support his reading on this point), but it is interesting that some scribe were aware of the problem. Also interesting is that they seem not to be aware or satisfied with the solution found in other versions. So a reasonable possibility is that the MT lost a phrase and translators made their best guess about what was left out in order to produce a grammatically correct rendering in the target language.

It seems that many modern English translations supply the missing phrase from the Septuagint. For instance, here is the NIV translation:

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let’s go out to the field." And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.—Genesis 4:8

Others supply the extra text in the form of a footnote:

Cain spoke to Abel his brother.1 And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.

(Genesis 4:8 ESV)

  1. 4:8 Hebrew; Samaritan, Septuagint, Syriac, Vulgate add Let us go out to the field

But whether the Masoretic Text dropped the phrase (due to scribal error) or the others added it (to make the sentence more understandable) or both is somewhat unclear. What's not unclear is that Abel's murder was premeditated.

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It's ungrammatical, not dramatic. MT has it right (this was also my first choice, preserve the grammar error in English, before seeing LXX and then Samaritan). This is J writing, J doesn't make grammar errors. There is 0% chance that Masoretic is right here. –  Ron Maimon Apr 11 '12 at 16:49
It's not just septuagint, but also Samaritan, and Samaritan provides the Hebrew--- nelecha ha-sadeh. I can't doubt that this elegant phrase was there, it's Masoretic that's corrupted. Also, it's a nice example of J's beautiful style, she is terrific with literary pacing. –  Ron Maimon Apr 12 '12 at 6:56
I am sure most will think it nonsense, but... The word 'say' is the same as for 'lamb'. If you are looking for a reason to drop the actual quote (or not include it originally), perhaps the scribe was showing us that Cain intended to make Abel his 'lamb'. Of such things are riddle made of. –  Bob Jones Jun 15 '12 at 0:43
@BobJones: The word say is in no way related to the word "lamb", lamb is "seh" and say is "amar". –  Ron Maimon Sep 1 '12 at 6:17
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There is an omission in the text. We can fill in that omission logically -- gee, they went to the field, so maybe he said "let's go to the field" -- but this would be speculation. Plausible speculation, but speculation nonetheless.

Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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It's not speculation, because it exists in the LXX and in Samaritan, and the sentence is ungrammatical without this--- this means the original had the text, and LXX agrees with samaritan. In history and literature, this is called "certainty" (it's better than 5 sigma evidence). –  Ron Maimon Apr 11 '12 at 16:03
@Ron: I would say that it is a non-trivial problem. The ending of Mark presents a similar puzzle. Thankfully, the added text is clearly long enough that we can identify a separate author. But Mark's Greek is poor enough that we can't know if the text ended in an awkward place or if the ending was damaged. Since ancient languages lacked the apparatus of modern punctuation... –  Jon Ericson Apr 11 '12 at 17:12
@RonMaimon "When the omitted text makes the rest ungrammatical, you can tell." You've never made a mistake (typo, grammar-o, etc) and fixed it later (or had it fixed for you)? You don't believe in text inerrancy, right? –  Gone Quiet Apr 11 '12 at 17:31
@RonMaimon, I'm challenging your logic, not this specific case. I don't have the Samaritan to check, and I don't have your faith that J (1) exists and (2) never makes a mistake. (I'm also not sure that a definite article requires a prior reference, but I'm not going to go hunting.) You argue that we should be logical and not take anything as given (like divine authorship, or rabbinical interpretations), but you aren't being so careful about checking your own assumptions at the door either. I see from other comments that I'm not the only one who feels this way, so maybe I should just stop. –  Gone Quiet Apr 11 '12 at 17:50
@Ron: Clearly the others can't all be right as they each supply slightly different phrasing and are in different languages. Binary thinking really doesn't help us understand what happened in this or any other textual criticism. The fact is even the simplest explanation must be tentative. –  Jon Ericson Apr 11 '12 at 17:51
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up vote 0 down vote accepted

Cain said "Let us go out into the field", as attested by LXX:

[Septuagint Genesis] 4:8

And Cain said to Abel his brother, Let us go out into the plain; and it came to pass that when they were in the plain Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.

I assume that "plain" is "sadeh", by the repetition of "sadeh" later. I prefer to translate "sadeh" as "field" rather than "plain". The Samaritan Pentateuch has in 4:8

נלכה השדה

Nelecha ha-sadeh

"We'll go to the field"

And considering the identity of the remainder of the chapter to the Masoretic version, this is certainly the elided text.

I should point out that one can see just by grammar that there is omitted text--- "amar" cannot appear, just by Hebrew grammar, without spoken dialog next to it, just as "I said" is ungrammatical in English.

Highly likely that Masoretic is corrupted

It is very likely that Masoretic is corrupted, because grammar errors in J are rare, and the ones that do occur are arguably intentional. But the probability is 1 part in 20 not 1 part in 10,000, so one cannot claim certainty. The problem is that it is possible that the original did not have the text, and it was supplied later because of the grammatical awkwardness. The only argument against this is that the LXX and Semaritan agree.

I can't see a motivation for deleting the text intentionally--- especially not leaving a gaping hole like that, but it is not possible to be certain in this case, only to put a greater likelihood.

Unfortunately, certain religious traditions give a bias to the hypothesis that Masoretic is never corrupted, which means that one must be careful to counterbalance this with a certain amount of resistence, in insisting that it is still likely that it is in fact the Masoretic version which is corrupted.

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-1 for "0% chance". When it comes to history, that is nonsensical. –  Jon Ericson Apr 11 '12 at 17:53
I think you are overestimating the precision of your experimental apperatus –  Jack Douglas Apr 11 '12 at 18:10
If "the field" requires a prior reference, how do you understand Gen:37:15? וַיִּמְצָאֵהוּ אִישׁ, וְהִנֵּה תֹעֶה בַּשָּׂדֶה "And a certain man found him, and, behold, he was wandering in the field." This field is not previously mentioned. –  Gone Quiet Apr 11 '12 at 19:22
I come to biblical Hebrew without going through the lens of modern Hebrew (just as you come to the text without going through the lens of religion), and it sounds natural to me -- presumably because we also have this construct in English, as you note. I'll take your word for it that this usage is unnatural in modern Hebrew, but I don't think that bears much on interpreting biblical text (any more than modern English sensibilities come to bear on reading Chaucer). –  Gone Quiet Apr 12 '12 at 1:12
@MonicaCellio: No, I was totally wrong, you were right, it just took me a few hours to appreciate it--- it is natural in modern and ancient Hebrew both, just as it is in English. I was thrown off by the fact that I already expected a "field" in the missing dialog. I should readjust my probabilities then, but the first grammar error is real. –  Ron Maimon Apr 12 '12 at 6:29
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