Cain and Abel
The story of Cain and Abel immediately follows the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. Eve has a son named Cain who becomes a farmer and then has a second son named Abel who becomes a shepherd. From here things are clear yet also confusing. Cain and Abel present offerings to God. Cain brought “some of the fruits of the soil” while Abel presented “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” God favored Abel’s offering but did not favor Cain’s and as a result Cain grew angry and downcast.
It’s straight forward. Cain and Abel present sacrifices to God, God likes Abel’s but not Cain’s and Cain becomes angry and jealous.
This is where I become confused. Why does God favor Abel’s offering but not Cain’s? The passage clearly states that Abel is a shepherd while Cain is a farmer, they are naturally going to have different offerings. What makes one better than the other?
The best interpretation that I can find is that Abel was selective of the best parts of what he had (first born and fatty parts) while Cain provided “some of the fruits of the soil.” Essentially, Abel gave back to God the best of what he had received, presumably as an act of deep gratitude and reverence to God, and God favored this. Meanwhile, Cain gave something, perhaps the bare minimum, not out of reverence but out of expectation and obligation. That difference, where the act of sacrifice stems from, matters more than the physical offerings themselves.
Regardless of why or why not God choose to favor Abel’s offering over Cain’s, Cain grew angry and jealous and received a warning from God. God warned Cain about sin, saying that it is crouching at his door, it desires Cain, but Cain must rule over sin.
Despite this advice, Cain’s envy of Abel wins out and Cain murders Abel. If you subscribe to the idea that Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel are the only four people inhabiting this planet then aren’t we off to a great start? Adam and Eve betrayed God in the Garden, committing the first sins, and Cain just killed his brother, committing the first murder. Let’s take a moment to thank God for his infinite patience and forgiveness because it would be such an easy call to send that flood at this point and press the Biblical restart button.
After Cain murders Abel and God asks Cain where Abel is, we have the famous lie where Cain claims to not know where Cain is and mutters the famous phrase “Am I my brother’s keeper?” You would think at some point in his childhood Adam or Eve would have told Cain that God is just a bit smarter than a teenage babysitter trying to keep track of where all the kids are. Needless to say, God knows what Cain has done and admonishes Cain. A curse is placed upon Cain whereupon the land will not provide for him and he must now wander as a fugitive. Cain laments that his punishment is too much and that in his wanderings he will surely be killed. As a result God gives Cain a mark that will protect him from premature death.
I find this chapter fascinating for many reasons. Firstly, is because it is full of firsts. Cain is the first birth and commits the first murder. Abel is the first victim. We also have our first example of God’s willingness to lend assistance and help to humanity despite our being expelled from Eden. He provides advice to Cain about mastering sin and even when Cain is cursed He provides Cain with the mark to protect him from premature death. Secondly, this story brings up an issue I asked about in the previous Creation and Eden post, the question being…are there other people on Earth beyond Adam and Eve and their family? Cain is concerned that he will be killed as a fugitive in his wanderings, as a result God gives him a mark of protection. If Cain is alone on Earth save for his parents is this mark to protect him from Adam and Eve’s parental retribution or is to protect Cain from other people?
The confusion in these early stories about the population of earth and their sheer ancientness (these are tales from the first years of the very first family unit after all) make it hard to believe these stories are not allegory for larger human struggles we had to contemplate from our earliest cognizance and awareness of God. The Eden story feels like allegory for mankind’s fall and our emergence into sentient consciousness and our true awareness of good and evil and the ability to purposefully commit good and evil acts. Cain and Abel feels like an allegory in its own right about our relationship with God now that mankind has fallen and the consequences of evil deeds. After all some traditions state that Cain’s line is wiped out by the flood that Noah, a descendant of Seth (another son of Adam and Eve), is spared from, which causes the complete destruction of the world. This allows Seth’s line to restart again, free of the curse of Cain. Perhaps this is a literal story and as we move beyond the mystery of the first six days we are starting to see less allegory and more reality. Perhaps the story of Cain and Abel is the story of the first murder? Perhaps there are other men in the world and this is the first of several stories where God’s chosen family, starting with Adam and Eve and continuing with Cain and Abel, slide away from the bliss and paradise of Eden and begin to push into the muck and chaos of earth? Perhaps it is a mixture of both allegory and reality? After all, at some point in history the first human murderer killed the first human murder victim.
It’s fascinating to contemplate these extremely ancient details but ultimately, these details do not matter to the larger story unfolding. What matters is that Cain killed Abel, Cain has been punished and doomed to wander the Earth, and God has bestowed a protective mark upon Cain. Moving beyond the importance of the early lesson’s of this story such as putting God first as Abel did and being aware of the ever present danger of sin as Cain was unable to resist, we come to the last big lesson of this story, God’s protection. God placed a mark upon Cain to warn others that killing him would provoke the vengeance of God, that if someone did something to harm Cain, the damage would come back sevenfold. I’ve always interpreted this mark in two ways, a positive and a negative interpretation. In the negative interpretation, God places the mark on Cain to ensure that no one kills Cain prematurely, so that he serves his lifetime sentence to wander as a fugitive without the hope of escaping via an early death. The positive interpretation is that God still loved Cain and wanted to protect him despite everything. The mark, therefore, is not part of the punishment or a scarlet letter, but rather a symbol of protection from God that Cain receives despite murdering his own brother and lying to God about it. Perhaps I am wrong on both interpretations, perhaps I’m correct about one, or perhaps both are true to an extent but this is where the Cain and Abel story ends. From here Cain’s story continues and the passages leading to Noah and the Ark are briefly continue Cain’s story and introduce us to Seth.
From Adam to Noah
Starting at Genesis 4:17 and continuing until Genesis 5:28 is, what appears to me, an abbreviated history of the world until Noah. Cain begins his wanderings and his wife gives birth to Enoch. Cain then builds a city he names after Enoch (perhaps because Cain must now find other means of sustenance and living since he cannot farm?) and we are introduced to Cain’s descendants. Interestingly we are told what Cain’s descendants do, for example a man named Tubal-Cain was a great forger of tools and a man named Jubal became “the father of all those who play stringed instruments.” This is one of those weird sections that can allow one’s eyes to glaze over but it’s very important in establishing the ongoing theme and consequence of this Cain and Abel story. If I may borrow a quote from Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary:
“Wordly things, are the only things that carnal, wicked people set their hearts upon, and are most clever and industrious about. So it was with this race of Cain. Here was a father of shepherds, and a father of musicians, but not a father of the faithful. Here is one to teach about brass and iron, but none to teach the good knowledge of the Lord: here are devices how to be rich, and how to be mighty, and how to be merry; but nothing of God, of his fear and service. Present things fill the heads of most.”
These passages establish the consequences of Cain and the long term effects of his envy and actions. His descendants become wicked, concerned with worldly things and their own prestige and mastery. Again we are brought back to that lingering question from the Eden story…is knowledge bad? Again, I don’t think it is…after all Abel seems like a pretty knowledgeable shepherd if he is able to produce excellent offerings that God favors…the key seems to be how you use your talents and mastery.
Lamech, a descendant of Cain even goes on to brag about killing a man for injuring him and saying “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” According to Matthew Henry’s commentary:
“Lamech had enemies, whom he had provoked. He draws a comparison betwixt himself and his ancestor Cain; and flatters himself that he is much less criminal. He seems to abuse the patience of God in sparing Cain, into an encouragement to expect that he may sin unpunished.”
While Cain’s descendants seem to devolve into concern for worldly concerns, we are then brought back to Adam. Adam and Eve have another son named Seth and this leads us to Genesis 5. This chapter is intense. It lists the descendants of Adam to Noah and gives their lifespan. The first thing that should jump out at people in this chapter is the insane lifespans given for these people. Adam and Eve had Seth when Adam was 130 years old and Adam died at the age of 930. Seth lived to be 912. Methuselah, a name often use when someone becomes so old they are downright ancient, lived to be 969 years old. This father and son list extends from Adam all the way down, thousands of years later, to Noah.
Three things stick out or come to mind in this chapter.
First is the lifespan issue. The longest living person we have on modern records is a 122 year old French woman who died in 1997. These guys blow her out of the water. Now, this chapter being what amounts to a Biblical version of a historical record and lineage does not give a lot of context so its hard to say its allegory or a metaphor for something larger. However, it is contained within Genesis which, in itself, could be taken as one giant pile of metaphors. It’s also interesting to note that massive lifespans like these abound in ancient literature. Using Biblical and ancient records people have put considerable work into attempting to demonstrate that lifespans before the global flood event were impressively long and, after the flood, a decline immediately began culminating in where we are in modern times where people generally live less than a century and top out around 120 years at best. Whether or not you choose to believe in such things and want to contrast what we know today with ancient record is up to you. What is important is that a lot of time passed between Adam and Noah and Noah is a direct descendant of Adam through Seth, not Cain.
Second is Enoch’s story. Enoch, unlike the other men in this lineage does not die. Instead he walks with God and God “takes him away” when he is 365 years old. What does this mean and why is it glossed over? Doesn’t this part seem just a teensy bit important? Unfortunately, we don’t get much more information beyond this passage. Enoch is mentioned briefly a few more times in the New Testament but the truly interesting stuff regarding Enoch comes from the tradition surrounding these books as opposed to the books themselves. Traditionally, Enoch is a righteous man who was called to Heaven before his died naturally due to the favor he found with God. More fantastically, and you have to wonder how much of this is human tradition and how much of this has divine origins, is that Enoch was called to Heaven to be God’s scribe. Indeed, in Ethiopian tradition, Enoch is believed to be the first person to use writing. These traditions stem from the apocryphal Book of Enoch. The Book of Enoch is worth an examination in its own right and I might give it a review eventually, but its important to remember that, for numerous reasons, this book is not considered Biblical canon. The Book of Enoch is only considered scripture by the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches. This book contains many stories of angels and Heaven, the fall of many angels, prophecies about the world and final judgments, and things like astronomy. I’m not diving into the specifics in this chapter but basically the idea if Enoch wrote this book when he was called the Heaven and given all kinds of special and ancient and supernatural information.
Third is the time span from Adam to Noah. Taken literally, which it is hard not to given the context we have in this individual chapter, this chapter encompasses thousands of years of human history from creation to when Noah begins construction of the ark. What happens in this time? What were God’s interactions with people like? What civilizations and ancient histories does this period cover? The flood event that is described in Genesis, but also countless ancient legends, books, and mythologies is fascinating to think about. In some instances we have historical data to back up disastrous flood in low lying coastal areas as the Earth warmed from the last ice age. Ancient flood mythology is prevalent in many ancient societies from disparate locations like the Middle East and the Americas. If we take the ancient flood as historical fact then so many questions pop up about human history before the flood, the events around the flood, and the floods impact on human civilization. Covering over a thousand years of human history in a few passages raises so many questions and so many possibilities but we can’t answer them in Biblical tradition because this passage shows us lineage, the passage of time, but refuses to go into detail. Instead we jump to one of the most famous stories in the Bible.
While I’m not diving into the Book of Enoch yet, it is important to note that so much of that book is about the fall of angels, the spread of evil before the flood, and the importance of Noah. Genesis 6 builds off this tradition and gets straight to the point about the wickedness of the world. This chapter begins by discussing how angels married and produced children with human women and how that influenced God’s decision that the world was wicked. Interestingly, when God says that His spirit will not be in humans forever for they are mortal, he limits their years to 120 years. Interestingly,after the flood we see the sharp decline in human lifespan in Biblical tradition.
God regrets creating humans, as well as animals, and decides to wipe them from the face of the earth. Then Noah found favor in God’s eyes. The story then turns to Noah and his family. Noah is described as a righteous man and we know him to be a direct descendant of Adam. God commands Noah to construct an ark, fill it with his family and two of every living creature and in the ark they would all survive the flood that God was sending to clean the earth of evil. The rains persisted for 40 days and 40 nights. The flood covers the mountains with 23 feet of water and every living thing on earth, not in the ark, dies. The waters flooded the earth for 150 days and began to recede, bringing the ark to rest on Mt. Ararat, a mountain in modern day Turkey. Noah sent a dove out to check if the flood had receded fully. The first time it returned with nothing, the second time it returned with an olive branch, and third time it didn’t return at all. Noah, his family, and the creatures exited the ark and found the flood had passed and the earth was dry. Lastly, Noah prepares and altar and gives a sacrifice to God. God creates a covenant with Noah stating He will never again destroy the earth by flood and the rainbow will be a sign of the covenant.
Several things stick out to me in this famous story.
First is the presence of this story at all. Ancient flood myths fascinate me because they are prevalent across human history and occur across many localities. An oral tradition of the African Maasai tribe essentially describes the story of Noah as how mankind survived a global flood. In India, Vishnu tells a man to take all of the grains of the world into a boat and helps the man survive the flood. There are many of these myths and not all follow the Noahanic tradition. Some meso-american myths see gods turning humans into animals as they attempt to survive the floods. The flood myths of ancient China are less focused on punishment from God or a pantheon of Gods and focus instead on efforts to mitigate and survive naturally occurring massive flooding. As an amateur historian I can’t help but feel like something happened in the very ancient world to originate these flood mythologies. The prevalence of the stories and some of their similarities are just too striking to be coincidence. Maybe it was God’s literal punishment for a wicked world and He really did make it rain for 40 days and 40 nights,. Maybe the story is allegory for God’s punishment occurring as melting glaciers and ice caps as the world warmed at the end of the last ice age. Maybe all of these stories are simply fantastical metaphors trying to make sense of various natural floods and sea level rises. Maybe you believe this is just a story and no major flood events occurred in the past. Whatever your interpretation or belief, the story is important for the next two reasons.
Secondly is that God states He knows that evil is in every human but He still decides to spare Noah and his family and makes the covenant not to destroy the world via flood. It is so easy reading these stories to feel unworthy and its important to remember that, because of the destructive nature of sin, that we are all born with, we are unworthy. Despite being unworthy, God understands this and will still save us and spare us if we do not give in to being wicked. Obviously this truth evolves throughout this story, especially with the sacrifice of Christ that is yet to come. But this early sign of understanding and protection is crucial because it reveals a part of God’s nature to us. God doesn’t want to kill us all and wipe us off the earth, He wants us to succeed and overcome and walk with Him.
Third is that Noah and his family survived the flood. This means the lineage of Adam survives but it survives through Seth. Cain’s line has presumably died out and the fantastical intermarriages of human women and fallen angels, the briefly mentioned races of giants, and much of what is discussed in the Book of Enoch is wiped away. This means, while man is still infected with sin and evil, a more resistant line of man has endured beyond the flood and this is who we all stem from today. The flood also marks the Biblical start of modern civilizations and the less documented and fantastical societies that existed before the flood are a thing of the past. While it is interesting to comment and speculate on the pre-deluge world of the Bible, ultimately, like speculation around creation, the specifics don’t really matter to us today. The context is important and knowing where our line comes from is crucial, but the details don’t really matter that much to the rest of the story.
The flood story and the flood myths are fascinating and interesting but ultimately the important part of the story here isn’t the flood themselves but God’s relationship with man, particularly Noah and His decision to let humanity endure.