Thursday, July 24, 2008

“All in the Family”

Genesis 4.1–5.32:

Though Noah’s story in Genesis 6 continues the story of the family of Adam and Eve, it is its own important moment in the Genesis narrative. Apart from some etiological moments (Lamech’s son by Adah, Jabal, “was the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock” [4.20], while his other son, Jubal, “was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe” [4.21], etc.), these chapters seem to “fill the space” between the Fall and the Flood. I’m sure this is unfair to this passage, but nevertheless I haven’t yet been able to shake this impression. But there are some points I would like to make here.

  1. 1. As I noted in the previous section, where Adam and Eve’s original sin covering [= clothes] was made of fig leaves but God provided a sin covering made of “skins,” here Abel’s offering of roasted lamb was accepted by God whereas Cain’s fruit and veg tray was left uneaten on the table. Here is an excellent example of a “high context narrative,” in which the text’s meaning is accessed via extra-textual sociocultural patterns that contextualize the text. I expect that Genesis’s original readers/hearers understood exactly what was going on in Gen. 4.3–5; I’m much less confident that I understand. But my own cultural context frames this story differently than would an ancient Israelite context. In twenty-first century America, I’m slightly offended that an honest offering from a man’s stores is rejected without explanation (Did Cain bring only spoiled or bug-ridden produce? Were previous instructions given to bring meat? etc.). This story was originally told, however, in a cultural environment that did not similarly regard the individual. God accepted Abel’s gift and rejected Cain. Period. It’s good to be confronted with the stark reality that this text, like all biblical texts, speaks obliquely rather than directly to my own sociocultural location. Such a reality does not remove me from the God who speaks through the text, but it does remind me (and every reader, even the original ones) of the distance that already separates me and God and of the ways God has covered that distance (through word, Spirit, and Son).

  2. 2. Despite all this, the story of God’s dealing with Cain is remarkably personal, affectionate, compassionate, and even merciful. The LORD warns to Cain that sin “is lurking at the door” and challenges him: “you must master it” (4.7). Echoes of Yoda taunting Luke ring in my ears. The infamous “mark of Cain” is meant not for his disgrace but for his protection. Cain becomes “untouchable,” not in the sense of the Indian caste system but more like Eliot Ness. Even so, like the serpent in Genesis 3, Cain exits the stage after Gen. 4.17, and his family after 4.24 (except inasmuch as they live in tents and have livestock, or play the lyre and the pipe!).

  3. 3. This last point actually highlights another problem with certain reading strategies that people like me (conservative evangelicals, broadly speaking) employ. In the descriptions of Cain’s descendents as the ancestors of herding nomads (4.21), musicians (4.22), and metallurgists (4.23), the narrative of Genesis 4 is explicitly concerned to explain the origins of people who live in the world of the storyteller (whether Moses or a later monarchical Israelite community does not matter here). But in Genesis 5 we have a genealogy that goes from Adam to Seth (Cain’s younger brother) and eventually to Noah. Of course, in the next scene of the Genesis story, everyone dies except Noah, his wife, and their three sons with their wives. If we press a historiographical reading of Genesis too firmly, we run into the problem of how Cain’s descendents continued to live in the storyteller’s world after the Flood. The only possible historical arguments I can imagine (short of Cain’s descendents clutching the side of the ark and eating hand-caught fish until the deluge subsided) are these:

    • (a) Cain’s descendents were the wives of Noah’s sons. But this is incredibly weak, not simply because it sounds so strikingly like special pleading but also because the text nowhere is interested in suggesting this. So far as I can see, at this point all genealogical descent is being figured through the male ancestor, so we would need Cain’s sons on board, not his daughters. If this way of reading the text were faithful to the way the text was originally read (an important part of evangelical bibliology, I believe), then how would we account for the fact that the narrative itself is nowhere concerned to make explicit that Cain’s descendents survived the flood and continued to wander with their livestock, to release new albums, and to run the bronze mills?

    • (b) Or, the Flood wasn’t a global deluge, and Cain’s descendents, who now lived “in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (4.16), were unaffected by the torrents that ravaged Noah’s part of the world. This argument, of course, contradicts the very reading strategy it was intended to defend, so we don’t even need to deal with it here. If the Flood wasn’t a global catastrophe, then neither is there any need to justify how Cain could have descendents in the post-diluvian period.

  4. 4. Regarding the “distance” the separates humanity from God that I noted above, I wonder if Gen. 4.26 makes a similar point here. The notice that “At this time [when Seth had a son, Enosh; cf. 4.25] people began to invoke the name of the LORD” is enigmatic. But does the invocation of God’s name suggest a growing separation between God and his image? I can pose the question, but I don’t have any answers.

  5. 5. Finally, I notice that the genealogy of Genesis 5 begins with a striking review of Gen. 1.27 and then becomes very “rhythmic” (note the very strict pattern in 5.3–20, 25–27), with two exceptions. First, the story of Enoch (5.21–24) breaks the pattern and ends with the abstruse comment, “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him” (5.24). What this means, I’m not sure. But later Jewish speculative thought would turn to Enoch and expand this “God took him” theology to develop a lengthy corpus of apocalyptic and revelatory traditions, the height of which is probably the pseudepigraphical 1 Enoch (which is part of the Coptic [Egyptian] Christian canon). Second, Noah’s introduction in 5.28–31 is similarly expanded by including the explanation of Noah’s name (cf. 4.1, 25). I note these simply because exceptions to established patterns are typically significant, and in Genesis 5 the text establishes the very pattern it breaks.

Cain’s story is significant, I think, not least for readers concerned to “help people find their way back to God.” The paternal (in a positive sense) chiding, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (4.7; my emphasis) illustrates God’s unwillingness to abandon flawed and imperfect people to their own desires and machinations. Even so, sin isn’t something to be accepted as integral to the human condition. Sin may be ubiquitous, but it is still aberrant. God challenges us to master sin even as he prepares a way to protect humanity from their own failures (cf. 4.13–15). But Cain’s story still ends in separation; he settles in Nod, east of Eden, “away from the presence of the LORD” (4.16). Sin separates God from his image.

I think it’s appropriate that all of this is communicated in a story so intricately bound up with familial relationships. Where else but in our families can we experience such exciting potential (4.7) and such loneliness (4.16)? Genesis 4 especially touches on all the raw emotion of real life, not least the anguish of separation from a God who calls out to his people. Cain was estranged from the God with whom he spoke; Enoch walked with God and was taken by him. This tension will only be heightened in the next episode.

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