Genesis/Exodus Week 4
“Ending It All and Starting Over”: Genesis 4:1–6:22
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Old Testament
Read this week’s Scripture: Genesis 4:1–6:22
We have come to the place where life outside the garden begins. At first, we are pleasantly surprised, for the previous accent on fertility and progeny (1:28; 2:24) is undiminished. The garden couple produces two sons. Life indeed goes on “east of Eden” (3:24). All we know about these new actors in the drama are their names (Cain and Abel), which one is older (Cain), and that they have different occupations. Cain follows in the footsteps of his father as a tiller of the ground whereas Abel becomes a shepherd (4:1–2).
So far so good. However, immediately the boys are presented as grown men who, unbidden, bring offerings to the Lord. This, too, seems all to the good. But it turns out that this seemingly positive activity eventuates in one of the more enigmatic episodes in Scripture, not to mention a most disastrous outcome.
Instead of being straightforward acts of worship and devotion, the offerings trigger extreme conflict. We are puzzled when we see that the Lord regarded Abel and his offering positively but Cain and his offering negatively. For this reason, we are not all that shocked when Cain is upset (4:3–5). We are perhaps justified to ask: What was so wrong with Cain and his offering and so right with Abel and his? As you might imagine, this question has led to a number of suggestions, all of them plausible but none truly satisfying in light of the text.
Why the Preference for Abel?
Maybe Abel’s meat offering was superior to Cain’s grain offering. But no instructions about the sorts of offerings acceptable to God had been provided. Besides, we know that later on, when explicit instructions are given, grain offerings are entirely appropriate (e.g., Leviticus 2:1–16). Some argue that this is a case where God prefers the younger over the elder, which also happens with characters like Jacob (Genesis 25:23), Ephraim (Genesis 48:15–20), or David (1 Samuel 16:11–13).
Still, the text focuses on two men and their offerings (Genesis 4:4–5) rather than their respective ages. Others claim that the difference in the two men is their attitude — one offered sincerely while the other offered perfunctorily. We cannot help thinking of Hebrews 11:4 on this point, but still have to concede that Abel’s faith or Cain’s lack of it can at best only be inferred. There are even those who say this episode is nothing more than a reflection of the age-old conflict between shepherds and farmers.
But that hardly seems worthy of a text that so far has been replete with issues of great import. We also have to consider those who assert that Abel offered the best that he had whereas Cain did not. True enough, Abel did offer the firstborn and the fattest, choicest parts (Genesis 4:4). But Cain’s offering of the fruit of the ground is not explicitly criticized. At this juncture, we might have no recourse but to acknowledge that interpreters who maintain that in this story there is no getting around God’s arbitrariness have a point [Author’s Note 1].
At the same time, there is arbitrary and there is arbitrary. We have to ask ourselves whether there are clues in the text that might help us comprehend why God would have acted in a seemingly arbitrary manner. First off, we should notice the Lord’s response to Cain’s anger. The Lord wants to know why Cain is so out of sorts. God tells him that if he “does well” — presumably, handles the situation — then the matter will resolve itself. Otherwise, if Cain does not manage his rage, then he will be compelled to deal with lurking sin (4:6–7).
What we doubtless find astonishing in this exchange is that Cain is not called to task for anything but his anger. To be sure, he has been admonished. Nevertheless, whatever it might mean that Cain and his offering were not “regarded” by the Lord, it is not construed at this point as the result of sin. What are we to make of this?
Cain’s response provides a clue that answers that question. Instead of controlling his anger, Cain lets it have full sway over him and murders his brother (4:8). This time the Lord goes beyond admonition. After pressing Cain about his brother’s whereabouts and receiving a most cynical response (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”), God confronts this first murderer with the accusatory words: “What have you done?”
But the question is surely rhetorical, for the Lord immediately adds that Abel’s blood is “crying to me from the ground” (4:9–10). God knows what has transpired. The ground has blown Cain’s cover. However, we should realize that this is not the only reference to the ground. God brings it up again when pronouncing judgment. God says that Cain is “cursed from the ground” (the same ground that absorbed Abel’s blood), and that that same ground will no longer yield its strength to Cain, who was to make his living from it (4:2).
Indeed, the importance of the ground in this context is further highlighted when Cain compares being driven away from the ground — for God had condemned him to be a fugitive and wanderer on the earth (4:12) — to being hidden from God’s very presence (4:11–14). This cluster of references to the ground is hardly incidental.
A “Ground Motif”
As a matter of fact, upon reflection we now realize how central the motif of the ground has been not only to the garden episode itself but also to what unfolds outside the garden. After all, from the outset we learned that the lack of vegetation was because there was no man to cultivate the ground (Genesis 2:5). To procure a gardener, the Lord used the dirt (“dust” is a conventional if less than apt translation — it is difficult to make something from dust) from the moist ground to form a man (2:6–8). As a result, with a farmer in hand, the Lord was able to make the ground produce the necessary vegetation (2:9).
Likewise, God used the ground to fashion all the animals (2:19). Why should we subsequently be surprised when God curses the ground in response to the man’s consuming the forbidden fruit and further charges that the man will eventually return to the ground from which he was originally taken (3:17–19)? In the same vein, the ground is still in view when the Lord expels the couple from the garden, for the farming which the Lord envisioned is still to take place outside the garden (3:23).
This is why the ground motif is so prominent in this unfolding drama. Precisely because he shared his father’s occupation, which made both of them have a special relationship to the ground, Cain was uniquely disadvantaged by the cursed ground from which his offering derived (4:3). Granted, Abel’s sheep also ate grass produced by cursed ground. But the difference is Cain’s special role as a tiller, which mirrored his father’s occupation and was the very reason the Lord fashioned him in the first place. In essence, as a shepherd, Abel’s relationship to the cursed ground was less direct, such that the adverse effects were somewhat mitigated. We protest that this was not fair to Cain. Indeed, the unfairness is blatant.
The Cursed But Nonetheless Protected Life of Cain
At the same time, we recall that God does not actually condemn Cain when rejecting his offering. Cain’s sin was in his future, not his past (4:6–7). God did not even regard Cain’s anger as sin. The story implies that once sin enters the world its consequences are not proportionate, predictable, or symmetrical. Cain was a victim of that outcome. Still, he might have responded very differently. As the Lord had urged him, he could have handled the situation. It would surely have been difficult, but it was hardly impossible.
Unfortunately, rather than accepting that his parents’ actions had made his life painfully and unfairly difficult, he exacerbated the problem by increasing the world’s sinfulness with the callous, brutal murder of his brother. Cain sowed the ground not with seed, but with his brother’s blood. We will have to wait to see whether the ground continues to play such a decisive role as the story moves forward [Author’s Note 2].
Though initially a tiller, we observe that Cain never farms after the offering incident. How could he? Condemned to be a fugitive and a wanderer, which will keep him from being around as the growth cycle dictates, he will be unable to work the soil (4:12–14). From Cain’s perspective, the punishment does not end there. We see him lament that as he roams the earth he will have a target on his back: “Whoever finds me will slay me.”
But God counters his fear by disallowing that outcome. The Lord protects Cain from suffering what his brother suffered by marking him as off limits. Ironically, this gracious act on God’s part is another form of unfairness. Grace, however, is the best kind of unfairness. Since God’s final word was a gracious one, Cain will have a life beyond this terrible episode a little farther east of Eden (4:16).
Nothing indicates the continuation of life like the birth of a baby, so we cannot help but be pleased when Cain’s son is born. At this juncture, we marvel that Cain is more than a father, for he has also become a contractor. He builds a city which he names after his son Enoch (4:17). In the context of this story, building a city is something of a comedown from working the ground. Nevertheless, it is an impressive achievement, not to mention a reaction to divine condemnation that is more positive than we had a right to anticipate.
As well, the fulsomeness of Cain’s ongoing life is highlighted by his genealogy, which shows that Cain’s line is extending well into the future. It does not hurt that several of Cain’s descendants are described with admirable cultural accomplishments, including tent-dwelling, animal husbandry, musicianship, and metallurgy (4:18–22). We would have to agree that this is not a bad recovery for someone condemned to be a fugitive.
Unfortunately, there is also a negative undertone present in Cain’s otherwise impressive genealogy. One of the people listed, a certain Lamech, proclaimed to his wives that he had taken vengeance on someone who struck him. Worse, he pledged to respond to anyone who harmed him not proportionally but with an extravagance of violence. Putting a numerical value on Cain’s getting even with Abel for an alleged affront, Lamech promised that he would exact 12 times as much vengeance if the opportunity ever arose (4:19, 23–24). We cannot help but worry that this is more than bluster. It does not auger well for the future.
Genealogies (except for our own!) make us groan. But their placement in this narrative is strategic. Having paid attention to Cain’s genealogy, we soon realize there is another genealogy that captures our attention. Just as life continued for Cain after his heinous crime, so life went on for his parents after this terrible episode as well. Seth was born to the first couple, prompting gratitude that another child had filled the void left by Abel’s untimely death (4:25). Equally, as had been the case with Cain, the birth of a child showed that a future was in view. There is an additional positive note in the announcement of this birth. Right after Seth’s son Enosh is born, we learn that for the first time folk began to invoke the Lord (4:26). This is as uplifting as Lamech’s threat of increased violence is depressing.
We have a partial genealogy for Seth in 4:25–26. Now we encounter a full-scale genealogy encompassing all of Chapter 5. While we are inclined to skim over such material, further reflection demonstrates its significance.
Three things quickly catch our eye. One has to do with the names. Many of the names in Seth’s genealogy are virtual duplications of the names in Cain’s genealogy: Enoch (4:17)/Enosh (4:26; 5:6); Irad (4:18)/Jared (5:18); Mehujael (4:18)/ Mahalalel (5:12); Methushael (4:18)/Methuselah (5:21); Lamech (4:19)/Lamech (5:25). Even Cain’s name is eerily replicated by Kenan (5:9). Granted, the comparative names are more variations than exact. And a couple of them have no counterpart. But there is too much similarity for us to pass it off as mere coincidence. Rather, the names suggest that we are to construe these two genealogies as two contrasting ways of living.
Studies in Contrast
That seems to be confirmed when we make a second observation, namely, that the achievements of the people in the two genealogies are studies in contrasts. We mentioned that Cain’s genealogy boasts of a number of cultural or technological achievements (4:17, 20–22). No such accomplishments are alluded to in Seth’s genealogy.
But there are other distinguishing characteristics. One is Enoch, who walked with God and is never said to have died like the others in his genealogical lineup (5:22–24). The other is Noah, whose father Lamech predicted that he would one day have a role in relieving humanity from the back-breaking work on the ground which had been cursed as a divine punishment (5:29).
The latter reference leads to perhaps the greatest contrast between the two genealogies. As we saw, the Lamech in Cain’s line boasted that he would wreak vengeance according to a much greater scale than his ancestor (4:23–24).
In contrast, the Lamech in Seth’s line promised that one day his son would act beneficially for all by either lessening or even removing the curse from the ground (5:29). The difference could hardly be sharper. One line is threatening an increase in sin while the other is offering the hope that the very consequences of sin will in the future be diminished if not eliminated. Given these two options, our preference is obvious. It is not accidental that we were first told that folk began to call on the name of the Lord in the context of Seth’s family history (3:26).
After Seth’s genealogy, we are overwhelmed with the growth of sin, which exasperates God. An apparent unholy alliance either between human and divine beings or perhaps between Cain’s and Seth’s descendants leads God to conclude that the propensity for sin is now beyond calculation (6:1–5).
“And the Lord Was Sorry …”
Whatever is suggested by these strange marriages, the result is unambiguous: The Lord regrets having made human beings (6:6). We should not wonder, for the earth is now inhabited by the Nephilim, or fallen ones (6:4). God’s grief leads to a most chilling comprehensive judgment that will all but reverse the wondrous creation (6:7). The only thing that prevents a total destruction is God’s decision to preserve human and animal life through Noah, whose father had previously predicted would have a positive effect on the cursed ground (5:29) and who subsequently found favor in God’s eyes (6:8).
The depths to which the world had sunk notwithstanding (6:11–13), God makes provision for life after the awful punishment. Not only did God commission the building of an ark that would serve as the ultimate “life boat” for human and animal life, but God pledged to establish a binding agreement or covenant with those on board (6:14–18). As serious as this judgment was, it was not God’s final word. As suggested by the text’s valuation of him, Noah did exactly what God asked him to do (6:22). In spite of the world’s almost returning to its chaotic beginnings and in spite of death on a staggering scale, life through Noah would eventually continue. God saw to that.
Questions for Further Reflection: Genesis 4:1–6:22
- Can you think of biblical characters other than Cain who were victimized but reacted to their plight very differently? (Hint: Esau or Joseph). Compare and contrast these various characters’ responses to their plight with Cain’s response to his.
- How would you assess the role of genealogies in the Bible based on this segment?
- What should we make of the biblical depiction of God in light of the deity’s being sorry for the creation of humanity?
- What are the implications of the recurring mention of violence as indicative of humanity’s great corruption?
- How would you compare the biblical “take” on Noah as compared to the way “Noah and the flood” are depicted in popular lore?
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