August 12, 2012 1

Episode 04 – Cain & Abel

By in Blog, Podcast

Cain and Abel Comic Strip


Well, we made it through a song, a couple of magic trees and a talking snake, but nothing has prepared us for what we face today, my friends. Buckle up and prepare yourselves for… GENEALOGIES. That’s right, genealogies: lists of people you’ve never heard of who begat other people you’ve never heard of. Do all these names mean anything? Do they contribute anything to the Bible’s message, or were the authors just being paid by the word?  Well today we’ll find out just what the deal is with all those lists of names in the Bible. Oh, and there’s also sex, murder, and polygamy. All this and more on a little show I like to call…BOOK.


Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a Bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. Today we continue our tour through the Torah, the five-part book which tells the story of a family called Israel and their long and sordid adventure to become a nation.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, we’re not necessarily going to cover every single chapter in the Bible one or two at a time like we have been. Sometimes we’ll skip ahead or around, and sometimes we’ll look at a whole book, or even a group of books at once. But for now, the material at the beginning of Genesis is so diverse and eclectic and strange, we really need to take the time to see what’s going on and how it all ties together. The themes, genres and devices we encounter here in Genesis are going to pop up again and again in later books, and we’ll get better at recognizing them and learning how to read the Bible quicker and smarter.

So just one chapter today, and it’s a doozy. Literarily (if I may profane the English language), this is a continuation of the Adam and Eve narrative we examined last time, though there are some new elements for us to deal with – particularly those pesky genealogies. But we’ll get there in time. Thematically speaking, we’re looking at the same strands: OFFSPRING and LAND. This is a story about a family and their relationships with God, the earth, and each other.

So here is Genesis Chapter 4:

[1] Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.” [2] She then bore his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the soil. [3] In the course of time Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the soil, [4] and Abel, for his part, brought of the best portions of the firstborn of his flock. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, [5] but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. [6] The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? [7] If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. It has it in for you, but you must be its master.”

[8] Cain spoke with his brother Abel. And when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him. [9] The LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” [10] Then he said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is cries out to me from the ground! [11] So now you are more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. [12] If you work the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.” [13] Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is too great to bear! [14] Since you have banished me today from the soil, and I must avoid your face and be a ceaseless wanderer on the earth – anyone who meets me will kill me!” [15] The LORD said to him, “I promise, if anyone kills Cain, sevenfold vengeance will be taken on him.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who met him should kill him. [16] Cain went away from the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

[17] Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to Enoch. So when he built a city, he named the city after his son, Enoch. [18] To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad fathered Mehujael, and Mehujael fathered Methushael, and Methushael fathered Lamech. [19] Lamech took two wives for himself. The name of one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. [20] Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of all who dwell in tents and have herds. [21] His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the ancestor of all who play the lyre and pipe. [22] As for Zillah, she bore Tubal-cain, who forged all implements of bronze and iron. The sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.

[23] Lamech said to his wives:
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
O wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
and a young lad for striking me.
[24] If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold,
then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.”

[25] Adam knew his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and called his name Seth, for she said, “God has provided another child for me instead of Abel, because Cain killed him.” [26] To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to invoke the LORD by name.

The first thing we notice about this chapter is that, although it is a clear continuation of the story in Chapter 3, it is also designed to work as an independent unit. And how do we know that? Because of a literary feature called “inclusio.” “Inclusio” is a fancy way of saying the passage begins and ends the same way. In verse 1, Eve gives birth and makes a statement, then at the end in verse 25 she gives birth and makes a statement. This is typical Hebrew storytelling.

And while the repetition gives us a clue as to the structure of the text, the subtle differences in the opening and closing statements say something about the meaning. The first time Eve gives birth, her statement is a little goofy and boastful. She’s basically saying, “Hey, I made a dude, and God helped!” At the end, she is wiser and more humble: “God has provided a child for me!” It’s as though giving birth for the first time filled Eve with a sense of creative power and grandeur, but the unsavory events of the chapter brought the ugly reality of life outside the garden into grim focus. She did make a dude, but he turned out to be a murderer.

To appreciate the story of Cain and Abel, their sacrifices, and the violence between them, we have to remember the historical reality, not of Cain and Abel, but of Israel which told this story. We’ve already observed that the story of Israel is the story of shepherds and farmers occupying the same land. Farmers worked their own land, while shepherds moved around looking for any land that could support their flock. Conflict between the two was inevitable, and Cain and Abel are a dramatization of that conflict. Cain is a farmer, and his “offering” comes from his crop. Abel is a shepherd, and his “offering” comes from his flock. It’s one thing when this conflict is between strangers in the wilderness, but in this story and in Israel’s reality, the clashing farmers and shepherds are family. They need each other, as we explored in Genesis 3.

Now we should say something here about SACRIFICE. This is something that modern people find creepy, but there’s really no reason we should if we understand it correctly. A little confession: when I was a kid, raised in the church, I was thoroughly weirded out by animal sacrifice in particular. I read the Bible, and I could not understand why God was so insistent that people spill animal blood all over the place. It made no sense, and the theological answers to my objection didn’t help much.

Of course now that I’ve “grown up” and learned more about the ancient world, I know why animal sacrifice doesn’t make sense to us. It’s because of groceries. It’s because our food is extracted and synthesized and preserved and packaged and chilled and sold to us. Very few of us have to slit an animal’s throat so we can have lunch, or clothing, or a tent. Because there was no “middle man” between consumers and animal resources in the ancient world, people were keenly aware that animals actually had to die so they could have the things they needed. It’s that simple. It’s not that gods demanded that people spill animal blood, it’s that people were doing it already and developed a religious way of acknowledging the exchange – an animal’s life, for a meal. Or a tent. Or a garment. Sacrifices were done in the name of gods to show appreciation for the provision of the animal.

So Cain and Abel offer sacrifices to God. Cain brings an offering of fruit or perhaps grain, and Abel brings a meat offering. They’re saying “thank you” to God in the normal course of their work. For reasons that the text does not explain, God is pleased with Abel, and displeased with Cain. Interpreters have gone nuts with this, trying to figure out what is pleasing and displeasing about each sacrifice, but I think the text is intentionally vague. As a result, we understand and empathize when Cain becomes angry.

Before the events of Genesis 3, Adam and Eve trusted that God knew what he was doing and they simply enjoyed the benefits of creation. Once they had gained the “knowledge of good and bad,” they became keenly aware of their own interests and limitations. Ambition plus limitation equals frustration. Cain inherits this condition, which we might call “humanity,” and he rages against God.

But anger itself isn’t presented as “sin.” The first sin is when Cain follows his frustration through to its unfortunate climax and takes his brother’s life. Granted the allegorical nature of this story we can still imagine that the first murder was something of a surprise to both parties. Cain forsakes his commitment to the three relationships of the garden – BREATH, FOOD, and FAMILY – and to his horror breaches the boundaries of mortality.

The aftermath echoes the previous chapter, when God comes looking for the man and asks him a question: “where is your brother?” Cain’s famous answer strikes at the heart of all human conflict: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer, of course, is YES. That is what Cain was meant to be above all else.

Sin, according to the Bible, is not simple rule-breaking or villainous plotting. When Cain says “my guilt is too great for me to bear,” he is expressing the full Hebrew concept of sin. The word here is “aven,” which simultaneously connotes trespass, guilt, and punishment. They are all wrapped up in the same experience. The weight of guilt from a sinful act is also the punishment for it. There is no “eternal damnation” in the Hebrew Bible as such. The danger of sin, according to this story, is threefold:

1) It ISOLATES THE INDIVIDUAL. Cain forfeits his role in family and society and is doomed to wander.

2) It OPPRESSES THE INNOCENT. Abel’s blood “cries out from the ground,” a common Hebrew image of injustice.

3) It PROVOKES RETALIATION from others. God must provide protection and refuge for Cain, lest others seek to “pay him back” for what he has done.

These are the foundational principles of Israel’s system of justice, which we’ll investigate further in future podcasts.

Then the text says that Cain went off and “built a city.” Not the sort of thing we typically attribute to an individual, but here’s the point: Cain no longer has a place in the agrarian society founded by his family. A city, in ancient semitic thought, represents a human attempt to order the elements of the earth. It’s a sort of counterfeit creation, an alternative way to live and breathe, and eat, and love. It’s not that cities are “evil,” but they are made necessary by human ambition and isolation. This complicated understanding of urban life and civilization is one of the keys to understanding the genealogy that comes at the end of the chapter.

So now we come to the first of many genealogies in the Bible. This is one is actually mercifully short and peppered with interesting narrative details. But after a while, these lists start to add up and the names all run together, and we wonder why the heck any of this matters to anyone.

Biblical genealogies are actually very important to the structure and meaning of narratives. They provide connective tissue for otherwise disparate elements, and they trace the lineage of important figures throughout the sweep of Israel’s history. However, it’s important to understand here at the start that Hebrew genealogies are very stylized and artistic, and don’t always behave the way we want them to.

For example, these early Genesis genealogies connect historical figures like Jacob and Moses to legendary characters like Adam and Cain. Additionally, we find that Hebrew genealogies are limited to a certain, symbolically significant number of generations. This list, Cain’s genealogy, has seven generations (beginning with Adam), which is three short of the more typical ten. Even the life spans given in the genealogies appear to be stylized.  We’ll talk about the significance of the numbers in a moment, but here’s the immediate fallout of this observation: Attempts to quantify and add up the generations in Genesis to “prove” or “disprove” assertions about the age of the earth are simply not in tune with the way these lists work.

The Cain genealogy is better understood, perhaps, in contrast with the genealogy in the next chapter, chapter five. It’s longer and I won’t bore you by reading, but go ahead and check it out on your own. It’s the lineage of Seth, Cain’s brother, and beginning with Adam it has the expected ten generations. In Hebrew thought, ten is the number of completeness and perfection. God speaks ten times in the song in chapter one. God gives ten words or “commandments” in the book of Exodus. Ten of something is enough, just the right amount.

So Cain’s line, with its seven generations, is incomplete. Fewer than ten. But think also about the significance of the number seven. This is the number of creation, of the days of the week in the hymn in chapter one. Cain’s line includes city builders, craftsmen, and musicians. These are culture makers, humans who practice creation. To modern readers like us, this is only good. This is where art and music and expression come from. But in Genesis, this is bittersweet because culture is a pale copy of what God already established. Meanwhile, the ten “perfect” generations in Seth’s genealogy sound very mundane to us. Each one (with a notable exception) plays out the same way: “He lived, he fathered, and then he died.” These are normal people, people who breathed, ate, and loved, then passed on. Sounds boring to us, but the text clearly sees these as the “faithful” people, the “simple” people. This contrast is also illuminated by two small bits at the end of this chapter.

The bit about Lamech toward the end of Cain’s lineage, is an indication of just how far that line got from where they had started. Lamech is a braggart, a polygamist, and a murderer. But what’s more, he’s proud of it. Cain hid from his sin, Lamech celebrates it. This is also the first mention of polygamy in the Bible, another subject that is sorely misunderstood. Many assume that the Bible endorses polygamy based on the fact that many of the so-called “heroes” of the Bible practiced it. Of course, this also assumes that the point of Bible stories is simple moral exemplification, that these men are supposed to be “heroes” in the first place, and that the Bible must explicitly condemn something or else it is endorsing it. Just read the Genesis family stories (or stay tuned to BOOK), and you’ll discover that in every generation where it is found, polygamy is portrayed as disastrous and counterproductive. Lamech is Exhibit A.

Over against the negative portrait of Cain’s descendants, there is the comment about Seth’s line that “at that time people began to invoke the Lord by name.” Keep in mind that “Lord” is not a generic religious category, but the specific personal name of Israel’s God. The claim here is that these descendants of Seth at some point began to encounter and worship Adonai, the God who won’t be explicitly revealed to Israel until Exodus chapter four. Whatever else this might mean, it clearly means that Israel identifies itself more with Seth’s family than with Cain’s.

I know this genealogy and numeric symbolism stuff is hard to take. After a while it starts to sound like “Bible Code” nonsense. It can hurt our brains and make the text seem impenetrable, but let’s not get hung up on it. Suffice to say, numbers and symbols and repetition are important in Hebrew writing, and would have been effortlessly understood by the original hearers. We have to work a little bit to meet them where they are.

And that’s Genesis 4. Next time we’ll take a look at Noah and the big flood, another one of the Bible’s overly-familiar but misunderstood stories.

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. My name is Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I urge you to share, blog, like, and tweet it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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