Monday, May 13, 2013

Blogging through the Bible: Cain and Abel, and beyond

And now it's time for Cain and Abel.

Cain and Abel are the infamous brothers of the Bible. We all know the story: Cain and Abel make a sacrifice, God like Abel's sacrifice but not Cain's, and so Cain becomes angry and kills Abel. Following the murder, God marks Cain and sends him into exile. Somewhere in there Cain has sex with his sister, a man named Lamech kills somebody else, and a bunch of people live improbably long lives.

There's a lot to be said about their story, but what I'm noticing right now is the parallels at work between their story and their parents'.

For starters, God tells Adam not to eat the forbidden fruit, Adam eats it anyway. God warns Cain that his anger is threatening to overpower him and that he must master it, but Cain gives into his anger and kills his brother. (I once heard an interesting analysis on this, that Cain couldn't have known that Abel would die when he attacked him, since at this point in Scripture, no one has died.)

Next, God comes upon the guilty party. Adam and Eve equivocate a bit, but still pretty much come right out and admit that they've done what they shouldn't have. Cain's doesn't do that. His response comes across as more than a little petulant, "How should I know?" he asks God. "Am I my brother's keeper?" You almost expect him to add, "You want to make something of it, tough guy?"

In both situations, God shows that he pretty much knows everything that's been going on. In the case of Adam, he asks rhetorically, "Have you eaten of the fruit I commanded you not to?"; with Cain, he just out-and-out tells him "I hear your brother's blood calling out what you did."

Now here is what's interesting. Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden, and sent to the East. That's also what God does to Cain, sending him East of Eden, into the land of Nod. Also interesting: God cursed the ground for Adam, and he curses it again for Cain. In Adam's case, the curse was that work would become toil and drudgery; for Cain, the farmer, it would cease to yield crops at all.

The author seems intent on setting up the motif of sin and exile, which makes sense given that the theme is expressed later in the Torah and then in the histories, which explain the Babylonian exile as divine punishment for breach of the covenant between God and the Israelites.

A lot of the other stuff that comes to mind with Cain and Abel is pretty standard: Cain is punished either for sacrificing vegetables instead of meat, or for giving only "some" of his vegetables, and not the best and firstfruits, as his brother Abel did. I prefer the second explanation, given the language in Genesis 4:3-4, but the other makes sense thematically as well, when one considers that God dressed Adam and Eve in animal skins after they had dressed themselves with clothes made from plants.

There's also the mark of Cain, which all sorts of people have given all sorts of crazy interpretations to, to justify all sorts of evil things, like racism. It's obviously tied into the mark of Ham, several chapters later. I can't help but wonder if St. John of Patmos had this in mind when he mentioned the mark on the forehead of those who follow the Beast.

Chapter 4 rounds out with Cain's genealogy, beginning with his son Enoch and running down to Lamech and his three sons, Jabal, Jubal and Tubal-Cain. I can't see much point to this genealogy, except that ends in a brief description of each of Lamech's sons and their contributions to society: Jabal was the first nomad and keeper of livestock, Jubal was the first musician, and Tubal-Cain was the first metalworker. All three of these discoveries are defining to human civilization.

For some reason, the genealogist mentions that Lamech had a daughter, named Naamah. This is unique enough to note, but I've no idea what to make of it beyond saying "Hey, there's a woman listed here among the men. Cool." I'd love to know if anyone has an idea why the genealogist thought she was worth including, when clearly the other women weren't considered worth the ink.

Lamech was the man who killed somebody who attacked him, and evidently was worried about retribution from his victim's relatives and friends. When God exiled Cain for killing his brother in a fit of anger, he promised Cain that if anyone attacked him, Cain would be avenged seven times over. Lamech claims the right of seventy-sevenfold retribution if he is attacked.

That, I suppose, sounds to me like a fair amount of self-aggrandizement, in that Lamech feels he can not only invoke God's actions for his own defense, but he also can build upon them. His name, for whatever it is worth, may mean "For Lowering" or "For Humiliation."

Chapter 5 is entirely the lineage of Noah, whose name means "comfort." The people in here lived impossibly long times, though I noticed once that if you do the math, the time passed from the creation of Adam to the birth of Noah isn't that long. It's only around 1200 years.

The genealogy of Noah repeats a few names, like Lamech and Enoch. This Lamech is Noah's father, and this Enoch is the one who famously walked with God and then disappeared at age 365, apparently without dying, to judge by the wording.

This genealogy ends with Noah's three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth. There is probably some sort of comparison being made here between the two groups, but I'm drawing a blank right now on what it could be. Tubal-Cain and his brothers were descended from the "evil line" of Cain, while Noah's sons all descend from the "righteous" line of Seth. (And whoever came up with the idea that people are evil or righteous based on their ancestors was a serious nutter, probably related to the dimwit who conceived the idea that the mark of Cain was black skin.)

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