Genesis 4

Resentment, murder, exile; this chapter paints a dark picture. A confusing one as well: Cain, upon learning of his banishment from the new location his family had settled in post-garden of Eden, complains to God/“God” that “anyone who meets me may kill me!” (verse fourteen); yet who might meet him? Who else exists to meet him? How is it that the world has suddenly become populated? Apparently it has though, for the following verse has God/“God” provide Cain with a mark that guarantees his safety from whomever he may come across (and note that despite Cain’s killing of his brother there is no execution carried out in kind); thereafter too Cain suddenly has a wife and founds a city (verse seventeen). None of these oddities, however, are particularly interesting to me.

Nor do I find verse nine – upon which a great many have commented – tantamount, although it is of concern and links into what I do think is most central (see the below). That verse reads: “The LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ And he said, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’” From this clearly insufficient and disregarding reply of Cain’s we can locate (via its opposite expression) the ethic of care for the other which is extended and extolled throughout the Tanakh, and not only applied to fellow community members but as well to the ‘stranger and alien who dwell in your midst’ (the Torah especially is full of exhortations for the equal treatment of non-Israelites who live with them). This is significant, it is civilizational founding, but again to me it is not the core of this chapter.

Rather I find the build-up to the murder to be paramount. Both Cain and Abel bring offerings to God/“God”, but for reasons that are not given God/“God” doesn’t want Cain’s; verse five: “but to Cain and his offering He [God/“God”] paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell.” As would yours or mine; Cain was trying to do right here, apparently, but it wasn’t good enough. Why not? We don’t know, we never learn. We might guess that it was because it wasn’t the ‘first fruit’ of the soil – merely ‘the fruit’ (cf. Abel who brought the ‘choicest’ from his flocks) – but even so we may wonder why that would justify the full rejection Cain receives. Perhaps the lesson here is simply that bad things happen, and there isn’t always a reason. Very intriguingly, the ‘bad thing’ occurring here is coming from God/“God”.

What sort of image is this giving us? The answer, I think, comes from God’s/“God’s” own response to Cain’s (understandable) dismay:

4.6-7: “And the LORD said to Cain,
‘Why are you distressed,
And why is your face fallen?
Surely, if you do right,
There is uplift.
But if you do not do right
Sin couches at the door;
Its urge is toward you,
Yet you can be its master.’ [a footnote states: Meaning of verse uncertain.]”

Whatever the editors’ footnote on the exact meaning of the Hebrew translated by the group of rabbis and scholars who produced the NJPS, for me as a reader in the twenty-first century who doesn’t believe in anything like ‘sin’ but who does certainly accept consequences and mindsets, this is the crux of the matter. Inexplicable trouble has befallen Cain despite his best efforts to do what he thought was right, and as a result he is upset about it. Who wouldn’t be? Yet God’s/“God’s” counsel is not to seek an answer or a reason, instead Cain should keep doing what is good and worthy and not give way to the negativity surely tugging at his consciousness. This is a statement of emotional control, of self-discipline, almost of a Stoic mentality really, and it is one that a great many sages of a great many ages have repeated to we readers and listeners. It has even made its way onto bumper stickers. I take this chapter, then, as an early (in Genesis) inkling of an ethics that might be separated from a theology; and that I find fascinating, even personally challenging.

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