Footnoted song lyrics

“Open the Ground,” annotated

by Alicia Jo Rabins/Girls in Trouble

The raven showed us how to open the ground1
And feed it what it grew2
But all the while as we buried your brother
I was thinking of you3

Where would you wander4
And would you ever stay
And could I have taught you
Some other way5

The pain was so terrible6
I thought I was dying
I thought that I would split in two
But a sound came from me7
And I opened wide
And then, there was you

I didn’t want to tame you
I loved you as you were8
If I’d had a mother
Maybe I’d have learned from her

Will some woman love you9
In that faraway place
For the strength in your hands10
And the mark on your face11

Seven times seven12
How much is it worth?
Flaxseed13 and blood,
All the fruit of the earth.

What did you say14
Out in the field that day
And how did he answer you
You always were convinced
That you were somehow less than him15
Though I told you it wasn’t true

And who is counted lucky16
the living or the dead
When sin is always crouching17
just ahead?

1 This draws on the following midrash: “And Adam and his partner were sitting and crying and mourning over [Abel] but weren’t able to do anything, since they weren’t accustomed to burial. One raven whose fellow had died said, “I’ll teach this human (adam) what to do.” What did he do? He took his fellow and dug in the ground, hid him in the ground before their eyes and buried him. Adam said, “I will do as this raven does,” and took Abel’s carcass, dug in the ground and hid it.” (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 21)

2 The human body is a part of the cycle of nature, like the offerings later in the story. We are of the earth and ultimately return to it. Cf. Genesis 3:17, “From [the ground] you were taken. For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.”

3 What a powerful and tragically complex moment for Eve as she grieves for two sons in different ways. I imagine Eve’s despair over Abel’s loss does not erase her love for Cain and her her grief over losing him as well (see next footnote).

4 God’s curse to Cain: “You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.” (Genesis 4:12)

5 I imagine Eve wondering if she, as parent, is somehow responsible for the failings of her children - a very modern thought pattern. There is, however, a tradition of Eve blaming herself for Cain’s murder of Abel, even if more indirectly than one might imagine. An example is an early Byzantine homily attributed to Ephrem the Syrian (306-73) in which Eve traces Abel’s murder to her eating in the garden: “Because I ate the fruit of the tree, I reaped death.”

6 “I will make most severe your pangs in childbearing; in pain shall you bear children.” (Genesis 3:16)

7 Ina May Gaskin, the “patron saint” of natural childbirth, often describes women who are having difficulty in labor but then begin making low sounds, similar to a cow’s moo, which enable them to open their body and relax to allow birth.

8 I imagine that Eve loved Cain's wildness as a child and found it thrilling. Without anyone to teach her about discipline and boundaries, I imagine that Eve as a young mother could not have foreseen how Cain’s wildness might become truly dangerous when he was older.

9 Here I imagine Eve wondering who Cain’s wife might be one day, who he will grow up to be, and where his life will take him after he is lost to her. I think she might have hoped he would find a woman who could care for him and comfort him in Eve’s absence.

10 This refers to Cain’s strength as a hunter and killer. In my imagining, Eve wonders if a woman will one day love her son and see beauty in his strength, which she still loves despite its dangerous aspects.

11 “And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest anyone who met him should kill him” (Genesis 4:15)

12 This draws on the mystical power of the number seven and God’s strange protection of Cain: “The Lord said to him, "I promise, if anyone kills Cain, sevenfold vengeance shall be taken on him." (Genesis 4:15)

13 Cain and Abel’s deadly dispute seems to have something to do with their different offerings to God. “Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil, and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. God paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering God paid no heed.” (Genesis 4:3). According to the midrash in Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, the offering that Cain brought was “the surplus from his food - roasted flaxseeds” (Chapter 21). I consider the strange mathematics of this offering competition; what is worth more, vegetation or animals? Flaxseed or blood? Why would God prefer one over the other? And are we not all the fruit of the earth? I chose to simply name the questions, rather than attempt to answer them.

14 The Torah writes “Cain said to his brother Abel ... ,” but does not tell us what Cain said. The next thing we are told is “and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.” (Genesis 4:8) What did Cain tell Abel? The Torah leaves it a mystery.

15 When God “paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering… paid no heed, Cain was much distressed and his face fell.” (Genesis 4:4-5) I interpret Cain as having been insecure since childhood, perhaps became God seemed to prefer Abel, despite the fact that Eve adored Cain and tried to placate him.

16 In a previous version of this song (available on YouTube), the lyrics here were: “And who will build the Temple, / The living or the dead, / When sin is always crouching / Just ahead?” This draws on Genesis Rabba 22:8, which proposes that the mysterious conversation between Cain and Abel in 4:8 was an argument over how they would divide the world - each wanted the Temple to be built on his own property. For the final recording, I felt that the Temple imagery was a little too obscure and specific, because what I really wanted to have Eve ask was more general: if sin is always just ahead of us, perhaps there is a relief in ceasing to live. I don’t personally subscribe to this despairing theory of life, but I can certainly imagine Eve considering it in this moment, and perhaps considering that Abel is safer in death than life, now that Eve begins to understand the complexity and stakes of life outside of Eden.

17 God to Cain, in Genesis 4:7: Surely, if you do right, / There is uplift. / But if you do not do right
Sin couches at the door; / Its urge is toward you, / Yet you can be its master.”

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Footnoted song lyrics." (Viewed on July 9, 2020) <https://jwa.org/node/23157>.

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