Studying Genesis 4 1-16

We will be ringing in the new year with anger, violence, sin, and consequences, because we are studying Genesis 4:1-16, the story of Cain and Abel, for Sunday, January 2. In the context of our lessons this quarter on “justice, law, and history,” we seem to be meant to consider how both divine justice and divine mercy play a role in this story. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The story of Cain and Abel is one of the first stories in the Bible. It’s told early in the “prehistory” that makes up the first eleven chapters in Genesis, the opening of the Torah.

Cain and Abel are only the third and fourth human beings in the larger story of humanity, and the very first ones to be born in the ordinary way. Their parents, Adam and Eve, were made directly by the Creator. Unfortunately, those two ate the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil at the behest of the talking serpent in the last chapter, so they have been expelled from the Garden of Eden. Cain and Abel arrive right at the beginning of life in “the real world.”

The text skips over everything that happens in the time it presumably takes for Cain and Abel to grow up enough to do the work described in verses three and four, and jumps directly to the drama of worship and conflict and violence and its aftermath.

This text is not in the lectionary. But the story is so famous you’d probably know it was in the Bible even if all you knew were the lectionary, as long as you also know some basic western literature and culture.

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CLOSER READING: V1 reads, literally, “the man” – or, the human, the earthling – “knew Eve, his woman.” Or, “wife,” depending on how we want to translate that one Hebrew word. [So we might want to ask ourselves what would make us prefer one translation over another.] “Knew” “in the Biblical sense,” as people say.

The name Cain that Eve gives to the first child is a play on the verb qanah, “to get” or sometimes “to make.” Eve’s declaration that she has “gotten a man with / from YHWH” highlights the shift from human creation to human reproduction, which takes over in the narrative from here on. Other sources point out that the name Cain means “spear,” or else “smith.” That is, his name already alludes, possibly, to weaponry.

Abel is the same word for “vapor” used in the opening of Ecclesiastes – famously “vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” All for nothing.

The text emphasizes that Abel is Cain’s brother – that word “brother” repeats seven times in the story.

Cain is literally “serving the ground” – we say “tilling” it. The “ground” – another repeated word – reminds us of the origin of humanity, the adamah from which ha-adam, the human being, came. It’s ground Cain and Abel have in common.

Verses 3-5 tell the story of the two brothers’ offerings, that YHWH “looks on” Abel’s but does not look on Cain’s, and Cain’s response: burning anger, and a fallen face. We might imagine a frown, or a scowl, or a downcast look.

Commentators universally point out that “we don’t know” why YHWH treats the two offerings differently. Although the divine response foreshadows a major theme in Genesis, the preference for younger over older siblings. [As an oldest child myself, I confess to noticing this with some dismay.] And, the text does point out that Abel brought “firstborns” and “fat” from his flock, and does not mention any special qualities in connection with Cain’s vegan offerings. So that might be a clue, unless it isn’t. My question is: why does this matter SO MUCH to us as readers? Because it clearly does matter to us, a lot, why God behaves this way. We probably need to think about that.

Verses 6 and 7 are God’s poetic response directly to Cain. Why does God ask Cain why he is angry? Does God not know? Or is God asking Cain to consider his response, and his alternatives? What are the alternatives? The word “do well” in this speech is related to the common, but mighty, word tov, good. The description of “sin” stretched out at the opening of a tent, its desire for Cain, the challenge being for Cain to rule over it, is (a) the first use of the word “sin” in the book of Genesis and (b) an echo of the words God spoke to Eve back in Genesis 3:16.

In v8, the words that might indicate some possible premeditation, Cain’s “let’s go into the field,” are not in the Masoretic text, but are in other ancient text sources. Whether or not Cain had murder on his mind from the beginning, he “rises up” and “slays” his brother. The murder weapon is unspecified. The verb is violent.

In v9, when Cain answers God, “am I my brother’s keeper,” it’s a different kind of “keeper” than in v2. It is, rather, the kind of guarding or keeping people are supposed to do with the sabbath or the commandments.

In v10, the blood of Cain’s brother – emphasized – cries out from the ground (again, the common ground of humanity’s nature) in the same way the Hebrews cry out from slavery in Egypt or the victims of injustice cry out in the “song of the vineyard” in Isaiah. But this is the first, paradigmatic, outcry of that kind.

In v11-12, the curse on Cain comes from the ground, and takes the form of the ground’s response to Cain’s serving it. The ground is no longer going to cooperate with Cain, not going to help him. Cain will be a “fugitive and a wanderer in the land”ha-aretz, now, not the ground, ha-adamah.

In v13-14, Cain’s lament says his “punishment” – or, his guilt, his sin, same word – is too great to bear. That punishment consists of being a double exile, from the ground and from YHWH, and open to being killed, as he killed his brother.

God doesn’t mitigate the exile, according to the text, but does mitigate the killing. By “putting a mark” on Cain, God warns potential killers – Cain’s brothers? – that vengeance (as in Nahum 1:2) will follow from smiting him. A deterrent mark, in other words. We might note that the psychology of the mark as deterrent shows up again in the story of the flood: God puts a mark in the sky to deter God from cursing the ground and smiting the living again that way.

In v16, the land of Nod is literally the land of wandering.

We might want to notice the way this story provides the structure for Jesus’s teaching on anger and its relation to murder in Matthew 5:21-26. As long as we are pondering the fundamental – we might say, grounding – problem of death-dealing violence as the paradigmatic, original sin.

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Image: An image of Torah scrolls at a reconstructionist synagogue in Montreal by Genevieve2 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

2 responses to “Studying Genesis 4 1-16”

  1. Thank you for this lovely analysis. I was baffled at first by your reference to ‘keeper’ – I could not find any reference to shin-mem-resh (wmr) in verse 2 – then I saw that some translations render verse two as Abel kept sheep. No reference to wmr at all. Instead we have Abel was a shepherd of sheep. Shepherd gives rise to a completely different set of potential allusions – e.g. Psalms 23.

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    • Yes, exactly. Sorry about that – I usually use NRSV, and there, “Abel was a keeper of sheep.” NLT has “was a shepherd,” but a lot of the English versions have “keeper of sheep” or “keeper of flocks” or “kept sheep” or so on. I used to think Cain was making a sneering remark about Abel not being an animal that needed a keeper, honestly, so being corrected caught my attention all the more.


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