Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Genesis 4:1-2's intro to Cain and Abel

Genesis 4 takes us to the next prototypical story—this one of brothers. It continues the second account in Genesis (chs. 2-4): Gen 2's Creation/Perfection; Gen 3's Original Sin/Separation; and now, Gen 4’s violent sequel.

In particular, we transition from Gen 3's root of sin to Gen 4's fruit of sin—and sin continuing in the family tree. A 2nd generation is offered the choice of obedience or rebellion, life or death. Here, we have a second story on the importance of family and the tragedy of dysfunctional families. The household/family (with children) debuts here: from husband/wife to parent/child—and especially siblings (particularly with two boys).

Beyond family, we’re introduced to passion/emotion (human), human death, crime & punishment, “justice”, attempts at relation with God though sacrifice—and in the postscript, the emergence of ag, cities, and the arts—what Kass identifies as “many of the essential elements of human nature”.

More broadly, the Bible asks us to consider how people would live without moral instruction or Law (since none is mentioned). Looking forward, Kass that we’ll find that “the natural or uninstructed way does not work, and therefore why the subsequent giving of God’s law might be both necessary and welcome”

In Gen 4:1-2, we’re introduced to Cain and Abel. So, the first thing Adam and Eve did after getting booted from the Garden? They “raised Cain”. The term “lay with” in the NIV is often rendered “know”—and is the Hebrew term for sex which implies intimacy. The term is used later to refer to our idolatry and adultery toward God.

It’s interesting that in response to the last word in Gen 3 (mortality—no more access to the tree of life), we read here about pro-creation as Eve gives birth to Cain. He is the first to be born at all, so Cain, rather than his parents, is the stronger prototype for humans.

Eve, not Adam, names Cain. In fact, Adam recedes into the background for the rest of this account—whether a return to his ch. 3 passivity or no need for him in the narrative. In any case, this points to Eve’s connections with Cain. She acknowledges God's hand—God’s provision and her/Adam’s participation. And she acknowledges a male child, perhaps implying that a bunch of daughters preceded. (Then again, why bother to mention Adam laying with Eve?)

In (some) reference to herself and her (new) name from Adam, Cain’s name is related to root words meaning “possess” and perhaps “form/shape/create”. As such, Kass observes: Cain “will become a proud farmer, the sort of man who lays possessive claim to the earth and who is proud of his ability to bring forth—to create—fruit from the ground.”

In contrast, the birth of Abel is uncelebrated (no detail) and “later” (as if an afterthought). He is only introduced as Cain’s brother—not even as A&E’s son—as if he is only/mostly important in that role. No explanation is given for his name. (Gen 4:25 provides an explanation for Seth as well.) Later, his name will be used as the Hebrew word meaning "breath, meaningless" (see: its frequent use in Ecclesiastes!)—and for the reader, it foreshadows the brevity of his life.

Kass talks at length about Cain and Abel (or perhaps more accurately, Cain vs. Abel). First, we’re introduced to the prominent Biblical theme of the 2nd being favored by God over the 1st. Of course, we also see the first example of sibling rivalry and the challenges for both the younger and the older.

From the perspective of the younger: the older is already established “in size, in ability, in their parents’ affections”—but he elicits our sympathy. The older “faces serious and subtler difficulties…first carrier of parental hopes…feels that more is expected of him—and more often than not, it is…the birth of his sibling radically changes the world as he had known it…now has competition—especially for his mother’s attention.”

Kass also discusses the differences between the spouses and the siblings: “Between man and woman, two is the coupling number…but between brother and brother, two is the fighting number.” Kass points to the natural complementarity between husband/wife as marriage and sexual partners. But for siblings, there are “no natural impulses or passions that seek to unite brother with brother…what is experienced instead is, immediately, rivalry for parental attention…and in the long run, competition for…the inheritance of family name, home, and fortune.” And in the story, every detail emphasizes things that separate them.

Cain is a farmer; Abel is a shepherd—the true “oldest professions” after 2:15’s gardener. After Adam and Eve work on “be fruitful and multiply”, Cain and Abel work on “dominion”—Abel with livestock and Cain who lines up with the cursed ground (3:17-18) but “serves the earth” (2:5,15, 3:23). This serves as a useful literary device, but also provides a sense of important differences and competition between worldviews.

Later, God seems to have a preference for nomads and shepherds over those who settle, esp. city-dwellers. The farmer possesses private land and seems self-sufficiency. He is “inclined to regard himself as responsible—creatively as maker—for the produce itself”. Kass also points to the farmer’s considerable intellect and discipline: he foresees and plans for grain to bread, invests, exhibits self-control, develops tools, and protects crops. In a word, Cain is more complex—resulting in both greater dangers and the prospects of greater achievements.


At April 21, 2010 at 5:11 PM , Blogger Robert Hagedorn said...

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