I realized after re-reading my last post that this blog’s style of writing is essentially derived from Cracked.com. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se, just something to be cognizant of. Onward and upward.
And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD. (4:1)
An interesting side note to the well-known story of Cain and Abel is that they are the first two children ever to be born. Humanity’s first confirmed reproductive act resulted in one child who ended up being cursed by God for killing the other. This is a poor start to human reproduction, really, and perhaps even a further punishment for the Fall, which some theologians posit as the cause of all human suffering and therefore an answer to the problem of evil. Yet Eve’s acknowledgment of her child, while not explicitly giving thanks to God, is sort of an expression of wonderment at the miracle of birth, notably reverent given that it comes on the heels of his ordaining that childbirth will be excruciatingly painful for her and all future women (3:16). She takes a slightly more materialist view of children later in this chapter upon giving birth to Seth, saying “God hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel, whom Cain slew” (4:25).
Cain becomes a farmer, Abel a shepherd. They both make apparently unbidden offerings to God, thereby inaugurating the complex process of sacrifice and offering that characterizes much of the New Testament and is abrogated by the New Testament. God shows his acceptance of Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, making the latter angry, and God justifies himself with this intriguing verse:
If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. (4:7)
The last bit, confusingly but poetically rendered in KJV, is given in NIV as “it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Basically, God is contrasting Abel, who has done well, with Cain, who has done poorly but can be redeemed by controlling himself, following God’s commandments more closely, and conquering sin. Cain goes on to utterly reject this path to righteousness by murdering his brother. This is fascinating.
There are a few possible explanations for the tepid reception of Cain’s offering. First, a living sacrifice such as a sheep is inherently more valuable than Cain’s “fruit of the ground,” defining farmers as inferior to shepherds in the sight of God; this seems uncomfortably classist, as Abel’s sheep and Cain’s portion of crop are presumably similar in value to the respective offerers. Indeed, the offering of a sheep (rather than a crop) is something I strongly associate with the Old Testament, but we will determine how true this is as we move along. Second, Cain was instructed (extra-textually) on how to make a proper offering and given the opportunity to do so, but failed, demonstrating his inferior respect for God. Third, God is judging based on the intangible sincerity behind the offering rather than the quality of the tangible offering itself. The latter two make more sense to me, because they presume that God is punishing Cain for something that is actually his fault, rather than for his particular métier. Herding sheep obviously ties in to Jesus being both a “shepherd of men” (who is murdered) and the “Lamb of God,” but God wouldn’t drive a man to murder his brother just for the sake of setting up a metaphor several hundred pages early, would he?
More fascinating, and less frequently remarked upon, is the chance at redemption that God offers to Cain. A key theme of the Old Testament is that God’s favor is earned chiefly through following his commandments closely and controlling oneself, or ruling over sin, but what if you fail to do so? Here, God is not even demanding special atonement by means of extra sacrifice or extra fidelity, though later in the Pentateuch, if I recall correctly, there is lots of atonement through ritual washing, brief exile, and sacrifice. Maybe this is because we have here the first recorded unoriginal sin (there are a lot of firsts at this point in biblical history) and therefore Cain has little precedent to go on.
Whatever the nature of the redemption offered to Cain, it is in vain, and humanity continues its venerable tradition of rejecting God’s offers. Hotheaded Cain murders his guiltless brother out of jealousy, then gives a non-answer worthy of a career diplomat when omniscient God tests him again, as is his wont, by asking where Abel is: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (4:9) He is cursed to be an ineffective farmer and a permanent wanderer—punishments that are connected, for agriculture implies a sedentary lifestyle. God marks him so that he will not be slain (“whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” (4:15)), cursing him to a long life of reflection upon his crimes. Cain has some children and whatnot (I’m not going to get into the question of where his wife came from because that has been extensively covered elsewhere), but that’s about it for this chapter. Whew.
Generations of Adam. Bo-ring. Includes the lifespans of all the characters mentioned therein, including the oldest, 969-year-old Methuselah, notable for being the namesake of a size of wine bottle and a prominent character in Redwall. Oh, and also a term for a very old person or thing, I guess. Also notable is Enoch, who “walked with God: and he was not, for God took him” (5:24) a qualifier not applied to anyone else in the list, but applied to Noah in the next chapter (at least the first bit). Not sure what that’s all about.
There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown. (6:4)
Hahaha, what? Bible, you so silly. Again, plenty has been written on the giants mentioned in this verse, and I don’t have much to add other than to encourage you to spend some time digging around some hilarious corners of the Internet if you’re interested in finding out more. Basically, they’re from space.
Anyway, God observes the latent evil in men’s hearts, and feels regret at their creation, expressed in anthropomorphic terms: “it grieved him at his heart” (6:6). I continue to be particularly interested in the question of God’s plan and its (in)compatibility with free will, and the idea of God expressing regret factors into this question. If God can express regret, I see several ways that this can be resolved with omniscience:
- God is not omniscient, at least in the way that an omniscient deity is typically conceived.
- God knows all possible futures (a view compatible with quantum mechanics), and can express regret over the circumstances that occur in any given future.
- God knows the future, but is still capable of setting up situations that he knows he will regret because that is how history moves itself forward.
Of the source of this regret, God says that “The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth” (6:13). I find it interesting that it is not greed or lust that gives God cause to destroy the world (as is the case with Sodom and Gomorrah, I believe… we’ll find out soon enough), but violence between men. This whole passage, God’s exhortation to Noah, has some particularly wonderful bits in it, but I will refrain from reproducing it here because there’s lots more to cover.
Noah obediently loads his new ark with animals, as God has directed him; Noah shows very little agency in this or the prior chapter, doing exactly what God tells him without question. The earth experiences a cleansing rain (obligatory TvTropes time-wasting warning), a sort of baptism and rebirth; too bad it had to involve so much death, but such are the wages of sin, apparently. Not much else to comment on here, except for some cool language: “the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened” (7:11). Lol, 7:11.
Death, not eternal suffering in hell, is the result of sin here. It’s interesting how, at different points in a religion’s history, the punishments inflicted and rewards conferred change depending on the religion’s power status. I mentioned previously how Muhammad moved from being a lonely prophet to being the leader of a powerful political faction, and how one easily visible consequence of this is the change in the site of punishment and reward from the afterlife to the current life, in accordance with Muhammad’s rise in power. (Full disclosure: this is one of the few things I know about the Qur’an because I wrote a paper about this in high school.) This pattern is more or less mirrored by the New Testament, but the changes in power through the history of Judaism and its development into Christianity are not nearly so neat because the story is so long and full of people so diverse in status. I will try to trace these fluctuations and see how they affect doctrine at different times.
I would also like to trace Christianity’s relationship with death, which is related to the shifts in power mentioned above. Christianity, one could easily argue, is about death. Its central drama is the death (and resurrection) of Jesus as a sacrifice on the behalf of mankind, and its symbol is the cross on which he was crucified. Yet this mortal death is a passage to eternal life, while mortal sin is a passage to eternal suffering (eternal death?). But how does this, and Jesus’s pronouncements about rich men and needles and all that, fit with the Old Testament idea of divinely meting out death as punishment for sin? I’ll be tracing this as well.
Noah is now stranded on top of Mount Ararat as the murderous waters slowly recede. Well, the Bible actually says “the mountains of Ararat” (8:4), which is rather different and has led to some amount of confusion about the purported resting site of the Ark’s remains. Whatever its site, Mount Ararat falls into the tradition of mythic mountains like Mount Olympus, home of the Greek pantheon, whose significance is tied to their immense height. Ararat is conceived as being the highest point in the world, so high that the floodwaters do not quite cover it. Its location on the Turkish-Armenian border is farther than I would have expected from the Levant (I had a pretty vague idea of where it was), but the fact that it’s the highest mountain in the awareness of the Jewish mythopoeic tradition indicates the relatively limited size of the ancient Jewish world, as Iran and Georgia both have higher mountains.
For the first time, Noah is now forced to gain agency because God is absent. This is a new form of test: God has been asking questions to which he already knows the answer, but now he is being silent and saying, “Ok, hotshot, you figure out what to do next.” Clever Noah sends out a raven, which just peaces out until the waters recede. Next he sends a dove, which returns; he sends her (the text is gender-specific) again, and she returns with an olive branch; he sends her a third time, and she does not return, indicating that she has found a place to nest and it is safe to disembark. Good old rule of threes.
Upon disembarking, God breaks his stony silence to congratulate Noah on a job well done. Then:
And Noah builded an altar unto the LORD; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease. (8:20-22).
I forgot to mention this, but Noah actually brought seven of each of the clean beasts and fowl, presumably in part for this purpose of giving thanks. (The Mosaic laws of cleanliness have not even been laid down by this point—where is Noah getting his concept of clean and unclean from? Were there intervening, unnamed prophets? Did God reveal this information to Noah himself, or to Adam? Funny how this bothers me more than Cain’s impromptu wife.) Smelling the sacrifice with his anthropomorphic nose, God promises to remove the curse he put on Adam back in 3:17, not to “smite… every living thing” (until the apocalypse, I guess), and to ensure the continuance of Earth’s natural cycles (how does this interact with the idea of a watchmaker God?).
The conclusion of Noah’s story, and the covenant with mankind, will have to wait until next time. Don’t touch that dial.