We’re now finished with the Garden of Eden and turn to the story of Cain and Abel.
Genesis 4 begins with Adam getting to know (*wink wink*) Eve, and they give birth to Cain and Abel (Cain being the elder of the two). Much is made of their professions: Cain is a “tiller of the ground” and Abel is a “keeper of sheep” (Gen. 4:2). My Bible points out that the story “reflects the tension between farmers and semi-nomads.”
The two brothers decide to make an offering to God, and each gives something they created from their own profession. So Abel gives the fat portions of the firstlings of his flock, while Cain brings fruit of the ground. God loves the animal sacrifice, but he has “no regard” for Cain’s offering. Cain, understandably, is rather upset by God’s social faux-pas, but God plays that oblivious guy at every Christmas party and tells Cain to just get over it.
Well, not exactly. He says: “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” (Gen. 4:7), which really just adds insult to injury. Cain is a farmer, and he’s just given (of his own incentive – he’s listed in the story as the first to make an offering, and he does so without a command to) part of his livelihood to God. Worse yet, God tells him that if he doesn’t get over feeling upset, sin is “couching at the door” (Gen. 4:7).
Even very young children know to accept gifts with a bit more decorum.
Back to the idea that Cain and Abel are stand-ins for their lifestyles, I find it interesting that God seems to be showing preference for the herder rather than the farmer. The implication is clear – being a herder is a more righteous lifestyle than farming.
The First Murder
In any case, Cain is justifiably upset. Unfortunately, he decides to take his anger out on his brother rather than on God, so he takes him out into a field and kills him.
God comes along and asks Cain what where Abel is. I don’t think we need to take this as a literal question, since it does work perfectly well as a rhetorical strategy to get Cain to confess. Either way, Cain gives that famous answer: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9).
The next bit is rather confusing. God curses Cain, saying that he “shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Thing is, he also says “When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength” (Gen. 4:12). Tilling takes a good deal of time – there’s a reason that we call agrarianism a sedentary lifestyle! So how can Cain be cursed both with wandering and with having less bounty when tilling? The only possibility I can see is that the land will so withhold it’s “strength” that making his living as a farmer will henceforth be impossible for Cain – forcing him to wander/scavenge. Unfortunately, even this interpretation is contradicted in a few verses…
Cain complains that this won’t work because he will be a fugitive and, therefore, “whoever finds me will slay me” (Gen. 4:14). This is a rather odd thing for someone to say when the only other people on the entire planet are his own parents (and possibly a couple siblings). Even if we allow that he’s merely anticipating a time when there will be many people, it’s still rather silly to imagine that someone who literally has never known anyone outside of his immediate family would immediately think of how other people will react to him.
But God acquiesces and declares that if anyone kills Cain, “vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” (Gen. 4:15), and he marks him to make it official. Cain, who has now been hidden from God’s “face” (Gen. 4:14), “went away from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Gen. 4:16). Just to confuse things further, Nod may be etymologically related to the Hebrew word verb “to wander” – adding the possibility that Cain was merely banished to a place called Wander, and not actually banished to wander himself.
The next verse is a bit of a shocker, so brace yourself. “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch” (Gen. 4:17).
So Cain not only has a wife, but enough people to warrant the building of a city. I know that Adam and Eve supposedly lived a long time, but long enough to produce the children necessary to fill a large settlement? And where did Cain get his wife? If she’s his sister, there’s no mention of this. It seems that the authors of the Bible simply could not imagine what a world devoid of people would actually look like – they were writing a creation story super-imposed on a familiar world, a world that comes ready-made with people.
And what about that second part, where Cain builds a city? Once again, how does this fit in with God cursing him to wander?
Genesis 4:18-22 is a genealogy of Cain’s descendants. After a couple generations, we are told about the sons of Lamech: Jabal is the father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle; Jubal is the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe; and Tubal-cain is the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron (rather impressive given that the Iron Age is still a rather long way off). We can see the obvious mythologising of cultural advance.I’d like to note that Lamech has two wives and this incident of polygamy is in no way condemned. In fact, nothing is said about it other than “Lamech took two wives” (Gen. 4:19).
What we do get is a really weird passage where Lamech seems to confess to murder to his wives. In Genesis 4:23-24, he says:
I have slain a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.
There’s no context provided for this. My study bible says: “An ancient song, probably once sung in praise of Lamech, is here quoted to illustrate the development of wickedness from murder to measureless blood revenge.” In other words, the Old Testament was pulled together in a particular cultural context – one that we no longer have. It makes it that much more difficult for modern Christians to read and understand it, since we’re just too far removed for passages like this one to make any sense. More than that, even among passages that seem to make sense, the average reader has no way of knowing whether they actually make sense or whether the reader is simply able to make sense of it by using their own culturally-specific leaps and assumptions.
I’ve heard the argument made that an intelligent God who truly wants to lead people to himself would never use a book to guide us – and this is a perfect example of why.
“And Adam knew his wife again…”
I assume that we’re travelling back in time after having followed Cain’s line in Nod for a while. Adam and Eve have a third son, Seth, as a replacement for the son they lost. No kidding: “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, for Cain slew him” (Gen. 4:25). It’s difficult to imagine the worldview that sees one’s own children as replaceable in this way. But there you have it…
We aren’t given much information about Seth, other than that he has a son named Enosh. It’s during the time of Enosh that “men began to call upon the name of the Lord” (Gen. 4:26). Note, once again, the use of collective language for humanity. If taken literally, and assuming that Eve is not having litters, “men” should be counting perhaps 10-15 people at maximum. And yet, here we are using language that suggests a collective humanity…
Leaving that aside, my study bible notes that this verse, referring to the “name of the Lord,” “traces the worship of the Lord (Yahweh) back to the time of Adam’s grandson, in contrast to other traditions which claim that the sacred name was introduced in Moses’ time (Ex.3.13-15; 6.2-3).”