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The Blood of your Brother: Genesis 4

January 10, 2011

Genesis 4 is, perhaps, an odd place to end this short series on early Genesis. Creation and Fall are bound together, clearly, so why go another chapter? The answer is that I don’t think the Fall is over at the end of Chapter 3. This is not to say that the story that starts in Genesis 2 hasn’t ended. It clearly has. For instance, we see that “the Lord God” is replaced by “the Lord” in Chapter 4, a sign that we’ve transitioned between units. However, these stories are not just self-contained units but also part of a longer story that spans the book of Genesis and the Bible itself. Genesis 4 is still part of the Fall narrative.

The story opens with sex. Some of you will remember that I found the absence of any mention of sex in Genesis 2 notable. Here it is – post-Fall. Eve bears two children, Cain and Abel. I regard this, like all of the first five verses of this story, as set up for the main event. Cain and Abel are born. Both Cain and Abel bring sacrifices from their various activities. Abel brings the best portions and the quality of Cain’s offerings is not specified (which probably means it is not as good). God likes Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. Cain becomes angry. At this point the actual story begins: the first angry man.

God responds to Cain’s anger with encouragement and warning. First He reminds Cain that his anger is groundless – if he did what was right he would be accepted. This suggests that we were supposed to understand Cain’s offering was obviously flawed since God acts as if Cain knows what he did wrong. God reminds Cain that his current situation can change. If he started to do what was right he, too, could be accepted. There’s a flip side to this. If he doesn’t do what is right sin is waiting to master him. Cain has only two choices: rule sin or be ruled by it.

Cain chooses the latter. He engages in an act of premeditated fratricide. Ironically for a recounting of the first murder this is a story driven by dialog and so almost nothing about the murder is explained. Instead, we move back to God and Cain talking.

God questions Cain as to Abel’s whereabouts. It’s obvious from what happens next that God knows exactly where Abel is so we must assume that Cain could, at this point, admit his sin and show some sort of useful repentance. Instead Cain asks, famously, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The word “keeper” here could also mean “guard” – an irony we should not miss. God replies by telling Cain he knows exactly what happened and condemning Cain to a life of wandering. Specifically, Cain, the agriculturalist, has involved the ground in his sin by spilling his brother’s blood on it and so Cain will no longer find the ground cooperative in his farming. Instead of sedentary farming he will have to wander. (There has been discussion of Genesis 4 as an agriculturalist versus herder story. I would like to point out that, regardless of Cain and Abel’s professions, it would be odd for a story in praise of the nomadic herding life to see being forced to be nomadic as a curse.)

At this point strangeness ensues. Cain complains that this is too harsh because he will be killed by anyone he runs across. There are, count them, three people on earth: Adam, Eve, and Cain. This is a strangeness you will have to live with. People are about to come out of the woodwork and there will be no explanation. As always, I suggest that this is because the story drives what is written. It’s important that Cain bewail his fate and, later, find a wife, but it’s not important where these people come from. So the story simply skips the unimportant piece. Instead, God simply treats this as a very sane complaint (which, apparently, it is) and marks Cain so that anyone who sees him will know not to kill him on pain of death.

Before we get to the (also very strange) discussion of Cain settling after being cursed to wander we should cover the dialog between Cain and God. There are a few very important points that have been brought up.

The first one is that, since Cain is the bad guy, we should be very suspicious of his answer, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain is not merely failing to do the right thing, he is actually naming the right thing and denying any need to do it. Cain is, obviously, doing evil in the knowledge that he does evil. However, Cain is also contrasting two worlds. One of them is the world in which people act rightly. In this world Cain would guard his brother against harm and together he and his brother would prosper by doing what is right. In the other world, the world Cain has chosen, Cain kills his brother to remove him as an obstacle to Cain’s success. The opposite of murder is not simply refraining from murdering someone but an active mindfulness of their welfare and action to protect it. In a world in which virtue is sometimes talked about as if it was the mere absence of vice this is worth remembering.

God’s response to Cain is also important. Cain has dealt with Abel through violence but God does not deal with Cain through violence. Instead of killing Cain he exiles him but offers him protection. Of course, the protection God offers Cain is the protection of threatened violence against those who would harm Cain but God does not actually harm anyone in this story. This is the third time God offers Cain redemption. First He warns him. Then he offers him the chance to confess. Finally, even when Cain denies his crime instead of confessing, God does not kill him. Cain is free to make a better choice next time even though Cain’s next choices will take place in exile.

Honestly, the story sort of ends here. There’s a definite feeling that if it did end we wouldn’t wonder how things turned out. But, of course, Chapter 4 isn’t over yet. Cain, cursed to wander, settles. This would be strange enough but he settles in Nod. Don’t go looking for Nod – Nod means “wander”. Having settled in Wander (I have no idea whether this is a poetic way to say “wandered forever” or a way to say that Cain named his settlement in exile “Wander”) Cain apparently marries (who? The story doesn’t say or care) and has a son. His son has sons, there’s city-building, technology, and some general beginning of civilization stuff. And, finally, there’s a short comment about Lamech. Lamech, five generations from Cain, haughtily proclaims himself a man of terrible vengeance.

Then the story really ends. Adam and Eve have two new sons to replace the murdered and the exile. There’s a note that “at this time” people begin to call on Yahweh but it’s unclear what that time is (do Adam and Eve wait through six generations of Cain’s progeny before having another child?) and then we’re into genealogies. The story has wrapped up. The characters are replaced. We move on.

But why the extra bit at the end? Is this Lord of the Rings? I think the answer is actually fairly simple: this is a story of the Fall. Unlike the separation between the first and second tellings of the Creation story (Chapter 1, roughly, and then Chapter 2 through 3) this story depends on the previous one. You could tell either of the first two stories without the other. You have to tell the Genesis 2-3 story before you tell the Cain and Abel story. Cain and Abel was never meant to stand alone.

See, the Fall is a bit anticlimactic in some ways. Humans do evil and they are cursed. However, the major effect of human evil is that it cripples the humans who do it. We can divide views of sin into two large categories: sin is crime and sin is disease. At the end of the Fall sin is disease far more than crime. It is a disjoining of the world that needs healing. Yes, there’s crime involved, but it’s not one that shocks or revolts us. Cain fixes that.

Cain’s crime is utterly heinous. He is responsible for his predicament at the beginning. He refuses to take responsibility and kills his own flesh and blood. This is not just murder, this is a crime against one of the people Cain should hold dearest. Cain’s own words mock him on this point. He, who should have guarded his brother from harm, has killed him. Then, of course, Cain denies the whole thing. Cain is the other side of sin, the side that hurts not the sinner but others. Cain is the man who kills without mercy for his own gain, the first warlord, the first deeply evil man. Cain is the archetype of those who would come after: the warlords, the dictators, the murderers, and the terrorists. The Fall doesn’t end with expulsion from Eden. The full force of the Fall is felt when Cain kills his brother in cold blood.

Civilization is built by Cain’s ancestors. That’s the weird ending after the ending. Why are there dictators? They descend from Cain. (Perhaps not physically, but that’s the part that matters least.) Why are there wars? Civilization is full of people like Cain. Why is there slavery? It’s the sort of thing that makes sense to Cain. This is the force of the Fall. Cain is not an isolated blip on the screen but the pattern of things to come. Five generations later Lamech mentions Cain. Lamech mentions Cain neither as a leader in evil nor an example to be avoided but as a wimp. “If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.” Lamech sees Cain and desires to outdo him in evil.

Genesis does not end here, in this dismal spiral downwards. The next few stories range from strange (the Nephilim) to (now) predictable (Noah). But in Chapter 12 a new story begins, the story that really fills most of Genesis. God comes to a childless wanderer in the desert. “Go,” He says. “Go from your country, and your family, and everything you know. Go. And one day I will bless the world through you.” One day, the promise says, Cain will not have the last word.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 13, 2011 11:28 am

    Great article, as usual.

    As an interesting addendum: Genesis 5.1 starts ‘This is the book of the generations of Adam.’ a phrase, that according to P.J.Wiseman is a typical method in the ancient world of marking a section END, and not, as the chapter breakdown of the passage suggests, a section beginning, which I think would simply add a little weight to what you’ve already said.


  2. Eric permalink
    January 13, 2011 6:57 pm

    Interesting. That might also make Genesis 2:4 a concluding statement.

    • January 14, 2011 5:54 am


      The Wikipedia entry on his hypothesis is here, and although it only focuses on this issue, and not on other linguistic issues he mentions in his books, such as the use of phraseology typifying transition from one tablet to the next, it is still interesting.

      His son, Donald Wiseman, continued his work, and went on to become an important authority on Assyriology (and if look into any IVP Bible Dictionary, you may see that he, along with Kenneth Kitchen, wrote the vast majority of historical entries)


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