In Chapter 3 of The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin describes his work identifying the carrion-feeding hawks of South America. He writes the following about two of them—Carranchas and Chimangos.
These false eagles most rarely kill any living bird or animal; and their vulture-like, necrophagous habits are very evident to any one who has fallen asleep on the desolate plains of Patagonia, for when he wakes, he will see, on each surrounding hillock, one of these birds patiently watching him with an evil eye: it is a feature in the landscape of these countries, which will be recognized by every one who has wandered over them.Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, Chapter 3.
There is a hilarious scene in the 1987 movie Ishtar, starring Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, depicting this very thing. [Clip time: 1 minute, 43 seconds].
Now, hold on to the idea of vultures and falling asleep, for I want to turn to something that, on the surface, seems entirely unrelated, a biblical murder.
A murder, a fratricide, is committed early in the Bible, in the fourth chapter of its first book, Genesis. Cain murders his brother Abel.
And Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose against Abel his brother and killed him.Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, Genesis, Ch. 4.
It is a tale of sibling rivalry gone awry. Cain and Abel made offerings to God. God preferred Abel’s offering over Cain’s. Cain decided to kill Abel. After the murder, God asks Cain where his brother is. Cain replies, in a now-famous phrase, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God responds: “Listen! your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil.” (Alter, ibid.)
I’m not going to spend more time on the murder as recorded in the Bible. Instead, I want to examine some material, not as well-known perhaps, that discusses the roles animals have in the story. In addition to being fascinating in their own right, these accounts, not recorded in the Bible, connect, among other things, Abel’s murder to Darwin’s description of carrion-feeding hawks.
I’m using material from the English translation of the Hebrew book Sefer Ha-Aggadah. The book is a collection of legends from the Talmud and Midrash compiled by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, translated into English by William G. Braude, and published by Schocken Books in 1992.
To begin: Cain’s weapon or weapons would have been primitive; Abel’s murder, a bloody affair. The following lines confirm this, but they also tell us something else, something about a dog at the scene of the crime.
After Abel was slain, he was lying in a field, his blood spattered over sticks and stones. The dog who had been guarding Abel’s flock now also guarded Abel’s corpse from the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky.Bialik and Ravnitzky, Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Schocken, trans. by Braude, p. 24.
Elsewhere, we learn that Adam, the first man, and Cain and Abel’s father, domesticated dogs to protect himself from animals that threatened to attack him. Presumably, it is one of these domesticated dogs that Abel uses to guard his flock of sheep, and that now stands by the body of Abel, guarding it “from the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky”—the latter, Darwin’s carrion-feeding birds.
Dogs perform guard duty well, as I can attest. Once, my wife and I were looking for a shofar factory in northern Israel. At one point, near a barn adjacent to a farmer’s field, our GPS told us (erroneously) that we had arrived at our destination. I got out of the car to look around, to see if I could spot the factory. In doing so, I approached a nearby flock of sheep. It was not long before two or three dogs appeared, creeping toward me and growling ominously. They stood between the sheep they were guarding and me. I backed up slowly, keeping my eyes on the dogs, and got back in the car.
Abel’s dog’s loyalty is noteworthy, its protection of Abel’s dead body admirable, but also necessary. Unfortunately, unlike Dustin Hoffman in the movie clip, Abel was dead, his body lying exposed in a field. The Midrash continues the story, telling us about the role of another animal, in this case, a bird, not a carrion-feeding hawk, but a wise and sympathetic raven. It was, we must remember, the first time that humans were in the presence of the dead body of another human.
Adam and his mate came and sat by the corpse, weeping and mourning for him—but they did not know what to do with Abel’s body.
A raven whose companion had just died said: I will teach Adam what to do. The raven took his dead companion, dug up the earth before the eyes of Adam and his mate, and buried him in it. Adam said: We will do as the raven. At once he took Abel’s corpse and buried it in the ground.Bialik and Ravnitzky, ibid.
A dog protected Abel’s corpse, and a raven taught his parents how to bury their son.
The final animal story I want to discuss regarding Abel’s murder concerns Cain. God punishes Cain for killing Abel, condemns him to be forever a restless wanderer. Cain feels that his punishment is too much to bear, and he is also afraid, frightened that anyone who finds him will kill him. God is sympathetic to Cain’s fear: “And the LORD set a mark upon Cain so that whoever found him would not slay him.” (Alter’s translation.) The Sefer Ha-Aggadah translates the Bible verse differently and again shares with us something fascinating.
“And the Lord provided Cain with a token for his protection” (Gen. 4:15). He gave him a dog, according to Rav.Bialik and Ravnitzky, ibid.
God’s gift to Cain, his token for Cain’s protection—a dog! Who would have thought that? Well, Abba Areka—Rav, that is—one of the greatest Babylonian sages, for one.
My wife and I share our home with a blue merle Long-Haired Collie named Kulfi. He alerts us by barking when someone is entering our front gate, long before we would become aware of it ourselves. When I am working in my study, often he will come to lie on a mat I’ve placed in the room for him and stay with me while I work. At night, he comes unbidden and sleeps on a rug on the floor at the foot of our bed. He is a constant reminder to me of a token for protection given by God to a man at the dawn of time.
Some might ask if these legends from the Talmud and Midrash are true. Did a dog protect Abel’s body; did a raven teach Abel’s parents how to bury him; did God give Cain a dog for protection?
I’m more interested in what the stories are trying to teach me than in their truth value. They call me to think about how the lives of humans and animals are bound up together; about how God, like a parent, still loves his children, desires to protect them, even when they’ve made a terrible mistake—things well worth thinking about, so it seems to me.
All the best!