Thursday, September 1, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 4

Phew, hopefully this chapter will go faster than chapter 3. That was definitely a long one.

In chapter 4 the story takes a fairly large turn. By now, it has mostly passed over the lives of Adam and Eve who, while still alive, no longer play a major role in the story. As such, we are now reading about the lives of the first children on earth, Cain and Abel. The names Cain and Abel mean "received" and "breath/empty" respectively, though there are other various interpretations proposed by various scholars.

Lot to say here... first I will describe the "historical allegory" analysis, and then give a brief synopsis of my theological analysis.

The historical allegory plays up the farmer/herder tensions implied in this chapter. They take Cain to represent the "farmers" of the fertile crescent and Abel to represent the "herders" of the same region. Remember what I said about tensions over water? That's what is coming into play in this analysis. There's a lot of history to this, which I will mostly skip over. But suffice to say, there have been some transitions between herding peoples and farming peoples, and those transition periods are a euphemism for war/killing/displacement. Just think of Mexican immigration into the US, except instead of there being some degree of racism, imagine the Mexicans all had assault weapons and decided to just kill the people who wouldn't give them money and food. That is the simplest equivalent of what a "transition" in the ancient world looks like. Many scholars like to say that these tensions are imprinted in the story told here. In this case, the Israelites are nomadic herders, so it "makes sense" that they would be the group that pleases God, and also the aggrieved people. Ironically, the punishment of Cain is to be displaced from the land and be forced to "wander the earth", in keeping with the historical allegory of Israel displacing some erstwhile tenants of the now-Israeli countryside.

The standard theological analysis tends to be a lot more nuanced and complex. A lot of the discussion hinges around the question, why did Cain's offering not please God? Many people say many things, but in my opinion none of those interpretations have much weight of evidence behind them. At the end of the day, I don't think anyone presently on earth can give a definitive answer as to why Cain's offering did not please God.

But the rest of the story is still quite informative and I will explain the salient points according to my personal opinion. For one thing, it shows that even just one generation after the sin of Adam and people are already murdering each other. This is why I know that solutions to the world's problems are not going to come from people just... spontaneously deciding to act nicely and work together. The moment your relationship with God is broken (like Cain's clearly is), you really are a candidate for being mastered by sin, so to speak. It really is a life and death struggle between each person and sin, and the only way to be victorious is to get a little help from your one true friend.

Similarly, we see that the descendants of Cain become even more violent, as his seventh generation descendant kills another man and proclaims that (to paraphrase) if Cain avenges himself a little, I will avenge myself MUCH. The biblical pattern is that God is the avenger of wrongs, so both Cain and Lamech are wrong in their approach.

Another aspect is how God is questioning Cain. Again, as with chapter 3, God asks questions for us to know the questions, not for him to know the answers. Cain ironically replies "am I my brother's keeper?" This is doubly ironic because the answer is yes, and because he was using it as a way to say, "how would I know where he is?" when he had murdered him. So it was a lie, and if only he knew the true answer to the question he had just asked, perhaps he would not have committed the crime that forced him to lie like that.

Another aspect is that committing a crime in a certain way will put you under a curse. This is true of sin generally. Whenever you commit a deliberate sin, it will bring a corresponding curse until the sin has been atoned. In this case, Cain pours blood into the ground through murder, and the curse is that the ground is now closed to him and to farming. So it's an instance of "the punishment fitting the crime". Such curses are permanent, but are canceled through repentance and atonement. These concepts will be explained later.

Lastly, we have the perplexing question of "who is Cain being protected from?" This is another critical instance of the Bible clearly eliding out some elements of world history, because while Cain and Abel are the only described human children, Cain is already questioning God about how "whoever finds me will kill me." So from what I've read, scholars usually take two approaches to this. The first is the more obvious, that there are other people around the world, who are either unmentioned descendants of Adam/Eve, or are possibly unmentioned people who God independently created but were not considered important to the main storyline here. The second is that Cain was referencing the people who would *later* be born through Adam, Eve and their children. Since Cain presumably lives some hundreds of years, this is not unreasonable, but it does seem very peculiar that he would be speaking in fear of people who did not yet exist at the time. Perhaps God had been speaking to them about the future rise of the human population, yet such discussions are (once more) not recorded in the Bible, so we are again drifting off into speculation. My personal preference is for theory #1, in keeping with the Bible's tendency to focus on what is salient and to ignore a lot of the trivial details.

At this point, I would like to remind all of my readers to check all of their modern, scientific preconceptions at the door and remember that you are not reading a modern, scientific book. :) I would say more, but explaining the Hebrew mindset is difficult. I will just leave it as an exercise for the reader to learn more about the difference between modern and ancient mindsets.


Anna Tan said...

I agree with the first approach (other unmentioned people around the world)... and am interested in how you're going to deal with the "sons of God and daughters of men" in chapter 6. heheh

Daniel S. said...

I guess I should have warned you that a lot of this was crafted for new believers, so I'm mostly just covering high level material, especially in early Genesis when all of these chapters are incredibly dense and controversial.

My personal opinion about the nephilim is that it's unlikely there were people descended from angels because Jesus said that angels are not married or given in marriage. But I recognize the historical authority of this interpretation, and I think more importantly, the passage is vague enough that it does not resolve the ancestry of the nephilim, nor did it appear that the author intended to do so.

It's possible the author of genesis 6 was alluding to some other story known at his time. Maybe his ancient readers would have intuitively understood the references in Gen 6. For our generation, I think if it were important enough to dwell on, God would have made it clear. So I'm happy to let everyone keep their pet theories, and I personally do not consider it an issue that people will ever definitively resolve.

Anna Tan said...

Thank you for your replies on my comments! Sorry if I am spamming you in any way :)

I highly doubt the angelic descendant theory as well as angels aren't corporeal. (The current Western concept of angels is also actually very secular.)
So my *pet theory* is that since in the creation story (Genesis 1) it isn't mentioned how many humans God created (it's always "according to their kind", "male & female he created them" instead of a specific number - the whole idea of pairs of creation would mainly be from the ark), it's possible that there is a community of humans which were not from the lineage of Adam and Eve, which ties back to the theory of unmentioned people around the world. The writer(s?) of Genesis then backtrack to follow this one lineage due to the significance of the covenant with God. Which might cause this specific definition of "sons of God" (i.e. from Adam) vs the daughters of men (i.e. not from the covenanted lineage).
I'm not very well-versed in genetics - but this theory would also likely offer some linkage/insight to archaeological findings on neanderthals vs homo sapiens. (Is evolution real? Or maybe there were these different types of humans who interbred!)

Then again, it's a pet theory and not very important in the grand scheme of things.

Daniel S. said...

I don't mind your comments at all! In fact, I had kinda hoped when creating this blog that I could use it as a platform for discussion about the chapters, so I'm always happy to see people engaging with it.

First of all, I think your theory is really interesting, and it sounds plausible to me.

Secondly, I just skimmed through Gen 6 and I find it peculiar how the passage closely ties the emergence of the nephilim with the growing wickedness. Verse 2 is the sons of God coming down, verse 3 is the Lord declaring that people will die young, verse 4 is "the nephilim" and verse 5 is growing wickedness on the earth.

These two concepts seem really closely interwoven in the text, and I am not entirely sure why.

Third, as you may be familiar, the nephilim in this chapter are presented in an almost-positive light, they are called these great men, mighty men of renown. However, in later chapters the "giants" become antagonists of Israel, symbolic of the titanic forces opposing Israel's entry into their inheritance.

So, on the one hand, the nephilim are presented as almost-positive figures, but interwoven with a broad social decline that precipitates the flood (pun intended), but on the other hand, the later generations of giants are almost universally in opposition to God's people.

Now, nothing that I've said above would imply that angels have anything to do with the nephilim. But, there is a really interesting undercurrent that is going on here which somehow ties the creation of the nephilim with the destruction of antediluvian society, and I'm not sure why.

I think the traditional answer is that the "elohim" are fallen angels, and therefore the half-angelic nephilim were creatures of pure evil. But there are many objections to the angelic theory, such as the purely practical matter of how angels would interbreed with people, and secondly, why they stopped doing it.

An interesting alternative, going along similar lines to your argument, would be to contrast the lineage of Cain and Seth. The seventh generation of Cain promised to kill a man for wounding him and 77-fold revenge. So he is taking the sin of Cain and magnifying it. Whereas the lineage of Seth increases in righteousness as it goes through Enoch and eventually to Noah. So it's possible that there was some "evil" line of people, perhaps descended from Adam, that interbred with other peoples, and somehow spread their "evil" culture that is somehow derived from Cain's sin?

But none of this exactly answers why the creation of these "heroes of old" is a bad thing, or how that destroyed society. That is the juxtaposition which confuses me, and it feels so deliberate that I think there has to be something going on here, but I just can't put my finger on it.