Reflections on Genesis: Murder and Civilization

This is the fourth in a series of notes for a Bible study I’m (!) leading on Genesis. The “(!)” is appended because, I consider myself something of a tyro at this sort of thing. But, so far I think things are going fairly well, the discussions have been good, and if nothing else, it’s getting me to think a lot about these first foundational chapters to Genesis.

Hermeneutic Notes

This text is not historic (in our hermeneutic at least) but paradigmatic. This is a direct continuation of the Eden story, which by its particular literary trope. By this I mean, the Eden 4 rivers not geographically continuous, which like the Odyssey’s Oggyia (Calypso’s home) at the “navel of the oceans” indicates a metaphorical not geographical location. That this has indicated the universal nature not historical nature of the story improves rather than diminishes the impact of this story. That is because the universal vs historical nature of this story increases and not decreases it’s applicability. These stories tell things about us, not some people who lived thousands of years ago.

Brevity of the Text

In 26 short verses, chapter 4 gives insight into a number of things also giving a demonstration of how sparse and efficient our author is at conveying much with few words.

  1. Elementary description of household and family — noting the difference in relationship between sons and husband and wife.

  2. Human passions, specifically wounded pride, anger, jealousy, fear, and dread.

  3. Murder, crime and punishment.

  4. The establishment of agriculture, city, and the arts.

  5. Sacrifice, a striving by man for a relationship with God.

Birth of Brothers — Eve’s Pride

The man knew Eve, his wife [or his woman], and she conceived and bore Cain, saying “I have gotten [or created] a man with the Lord,” And she again bore his brother Abel.

Eve’s statement is prideful. She has made a statement in which she at worst compares herself to the abilities of God (she, like He has created life). At best, (ala Rashi) asserts that she is a partner with God.

Could it be that pride is unavoidable, at least without suffering (jumping ahead viewing her third child and her pronouncement there)? This pride is noted, as mentioned above as part of our paradigmatic family. Is this pride, the natural instinct, uninformed, of a mother at her first-born.

Cain is not just the firstborn of this family. He is the first man to be born. He, unlike Adam (created from dust) or Eve (from a rib) is the first truly human prototype (faults included).

Sibling Rivalry

Abel, second son, has less importance for our story. He has almost no mention except as a foil for Cain.

Is sibling rivalry natural? Our text seems to indicate in the affirmative. The text invites us to consider siblings and their relationship. Of the two relationships, man/woman has a relationship based on desire seeking fusion. For siblings, there the relationship has no such union being sought (no natural impulses uniting them), instead more often competition and rivalry for parental affection if not inheritance. Man+wife looks forward to children and grand-children. Siblings have no forward looking shared goals, just backward looking shared origins. In times of conflict (for the family) brothers bond together, but in times of peace, rivalry peaks.

Is sibling rivalry sex specific? Perhaps, yes and no? “Sororicide” is not a word, while fratricide is.

Occupational Differences

Genesis has a theme running through it preferring the nomadic shepherding life to the agrarian/city-dwelling life.

  • Cain may be following the life that God predicted in the Eden story. A tiller of the earth.

  • What is required of farming vs nomadic life. More intellectual and psychic discipline. To see grain -> bread, to develop tools, to protect crops, so that one can work for months to get a payoff two seasons later.

  • Mixing labor with the soil (improvements, irrigation) and such leads to possession of land. Farmer is aggressive and self-assertive.

  • Nomadic shepherding is by contrast simple and artless. The shepherd has no illusions of self-sufficiency.

Is it that in the absence of more instruction/rules for society we get what will happen, whereas such is not necessary for the shepherd?

Sacrifice and Pride.

Why sacrifice? God didn’t command this. What impulse is this? It might be (from God’s point of view) a problematic one. Sacrifice will (eventually) be regulated under God’s command, but is that regulation to command it’s nature or to regulate and govern this impulse. It may be a “payoff”, a matter of manipulation of nature of the divine. To bribe or put the gods in man’s debt. Or natural piety striving to close the gap between the mortal and the divine. What assumptions does this sacrifice make of the divine?

  1. God is (gods are?) the kind of being which cares for me.

  2. He (they) would more likely care for me if I show I could please them.

  3. I might please them with gifts (for I am pleased by gifts).

  4. God (or gods) must like what I like.

[side note: liturgical sophistication has had some advances since prehistory.]

Cain brings for the idea first.

Consider reasons for the rejection of Cain’s sacrifice. What were his motives for his sacrifice?

Abel gave first-fruits, first-lings and the fat of thereof, no mention of priority on the part of Cain is not expressed.

We are left in the dark as to why or how Cain found out his sacrifice was not sufficient. We are not therefore meant to focus on why it was rejected but how Cain responded.

Robert Sacks has pointed out, “Cain’s sacrifice was not rejected but merely not yet accepted … From Cain’s reaction it appears he understood God’s disregarding his sacrifice as simple rejection, but this is not necessarily the case.” [emphasis mine]

Perhaps God’s rejection is to educate Cain as to the motives behind his impulse to sacrifice.

Wounded self-esteem, vengeance and Justice

Cain is first-born initiator of sacrifice seeking preeminence. Abel however is successful. Cain’s impulse is “I did not get what I was deserved.”

Aristotle calls anger, “an impulse … to revenge … caused by an obvious unjustified slight.” Retroactively Cain’s display of anger shows something of his motives for sacrifice.

From Kass (pg 138):

Cain’s anger, shame, and jealousy are — sad to say — entirely intelligible and, speaking anthropologically, perfectly normal. Every human being, once he comes to self-consciousness, acquires notions of self-esteem and self-worth; which each of us naturally measures what he thinks he deserves from another and the world.

Prior to Pope Gregory I (6th century) the “deadly” or “serious” sins were eight in number, with self-esteem being the 7th (prior to pride).

God attempts to assuage Cain’s wounded pride/self-esteem. Cain’s sacrifice has not been rejected but will be accepted if Cain “does well”. Cain however, may not take God’s attention and solicitude well (as might any angry person). But does “do well”, have a good meaning (for us or Cain)? Is this ala Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Or alternatively is this speech analogous to Athena’s to Achilles in the Iliad?

Murder and Consequence

First degree murder. Reason is used to line up, use speech to arrange, and pick a place for the “dirty deed.” Might even Cain have thought this what was meant by “doing well?” Recall, murder has not been forbidden yet. Is it necessarily wrong at this point?

Like in Eden, God starts with no accusation but instead a question (which seems similar to “Where are you?” instead “Where is Abel, thy brother?”). Cain denies Abel’s whereabouts and lies to God. God is not deceived. He treats the lie as confession. This statement, “they brother’s blood cries unto me from the ground.”

Is “I am not my brother’s keeper” the statement of a man who may commit murder? It is a contravention of “love thy neighbor”, perhaps this statement is the logical opposite, if we follow it’s implications. Modern philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has a book on ethics and the virtues Dependent Rational Animals, which among other things highlights our dependence on others. “I am not my brother’s keeper” denies this dependence.

As a consequence we are told, the earth crying out will no longer support Cain. So Cain, the farmer sets out to wander.

There is no capital or other direct punishment for Cain. There was no ruling against murder at the time. This, like Cain, was a first.

From Cain -> the Birth of Cities

Cain however, does not follow nomadic existence. Instead, settles in Nod, and with his family founds a city, founded on the fear of death and with a mind to security? The Hebrew word city (iyr) comes from “to watch” we are told. Did men gather in cities out of fear and watchfulness?

The Seventh … Lamech (Heroic Ideals rejected?)

Lamech has a speech in which he in (perhaps) bruising a man, kills him instead, a young man at that. This speech (with its Hebrew brevity) is analogous perhaps to the many speeches of prowess by Homer (or the Epic of Gilgamesh), instead we shall see is not the election of God’s preference. We will see how Cain’s and Seth’s lines compare.

Monotheism is regarded often as innately superior to polytheism. It might be noted, that monotheism importantly rejects apotheosis. Hercules, Utnapishtim, and many others in other mythos achieve theosis via human artifice or as a reward for their heroism. The

A Reprise, with Seth less Pride?

Compare Seth’s birth announcement to Cain’s by Eve. Note the phrase with Enosh and his line that “then men began to call upon the name of the Lord.”

Compare and contrast the notions and notes accompanying Seth’s line and Cain’s. Cain’s has accomplishments and heroes. Seth’s does not, but walks closer God. Is this again to note the pastoral vs the agrarian/city life. Or is it to point out that Seth’s way, that noting our relationship with God is more important than our wealth and accomplishments. For example, I take pride (and care) in my craftsmanship. Noting this here in Genesis, that might be seen as something of a sin.

Via calculation, Kass provides: Looking at ages and genealogies (Genesis 5), in the line of Seth, Noah is the first man born in the “post-immortal” world. That is, he is the first birth noted which would take place after the death of Adam (death by old-age not murder or violence). How does that make Noah special? Is that why he, and not any other, is chosen by God to be saved in the flood, i.e., that he grew up from his birth knowing that he was mortal?

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