Genesis: Folklore of Faith: Lesson 9: Civilization (Genesis 4-5). Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on Nov. 13, 2005
Introduction: November 13 is a date that reminds us that our ancestors had courage, because that day marked a significant change in the Moravian Church. On November 13, 1741 it was announced to all of the Moravian congregations in the world that Jesus Christ had been officially elected Chief Elder of the church. November 13 is a special reminder to Moravians that our church stands under the protection, guidance, and judgment of Christ. We try very hard not to confuse our human institutions and structures of authority with the rule of Christ. It is because we believe that Christ is our Chief Elder that we can be a progressive church that steps out in ministry to a suffering world. Our Ground of the Unity expresses this so beautifully when it states that the Moravian Church “awaits the appearing of Jesus Christ, goes forward to meet its Lord with joy, and prays to be found ready when he comes.” We look to the future.
The Mark of Cain: Today we are continuing in our in-depth study of the book of Genesis. Last week we looked at the first murder in the Bible in terms of religious violence as well as family violence. In chapel this past week at the Wake Forest University Divinity School, we remembered victims and survivors of family violence. We read aloud the names of 57 persons in North Carolina who were killed last year by members of their own families. The story of Cain and Abel is a contemporary story.
This week we are looking at what happened to Cain after he murdered his brother. Last week we discussed the fact that Cain feared death. He knew what humans are capable of because he had done the unthinkable. Cain lived in remorse, restlessness, and fear. He deserved death because he had taken the life of his brother. But the LORD put a mark on Cain. This mark was not to identify Cain as an outlaw or murdered; it was to place him under the LORD’s direct protection. This has often been misinterpreted. The mark of Cain is the mark of protection, a sign that no one should harm him even though he had killed his brother. God had mercy on the murderer. According to Genesis, the first murder was not punished by death. Someone in our discussion last week noted that there may be a lesson in this story for Christians today. If God had mercy on Cain, perhaps our legal system should err on the side of mercy rather than vengeance. I’ll leave you to ponder the ethics of capital punishment, but you should be aware that throughout Scripture there are stories where we expect death and discover life instead. From the redemption of Cain to the resurrection of Lazarus, the story of God’s work is the story of life.
But the mercy of the LORD is sometimes hard. Cain would not be killed, but he would be an exile. Cain lived as many of us live; an alien in the world struggling to survive in spite of remorse, guilt, and shame. Cain, like too many of us, distorted his world and relationships so badly that he could no longer live in peace. But he was still a human being, loved by God. He still had the image of God and still had divine gifts. Cain married a woman and lived east of Eden.
Genealogies: In chapters four and five of Genesis, we have the first genealogies of the Bibles. The genealogies are not the most interesting parts of Scripture, I admit. I’ve never heard a sermon preached on the genealogy of Cain, nor do many people find meaning in these verses. People who have to read these names aloud in church are not fond of the genealogies either. So we tend to skip these passages, but they tell us something important. East of Eden Cain began a new life. Creation continued. The human race survived murder and the destruction of the first family.
In the King James Version it says that Cain “knew” his wife, which always confused me as a child. I figured you really ought to know your own wife since you had to live with her. Modern translators are a bit more forthright in saying that Cain lay with his wife and she got pregnant, but I kind of miss the old descriptive euphemism. There is an intimacy to the word “knowing” that is lost in modern translations. Perhaps our relationships today would be strengthened if we rediscovered the ability to know our spouses in more than one way.
The point of the story, though, is that Cain had children. We see that the descendents of Cain included Lamech, who had two wives. I hate to be the one to inform you that contrary to popular belief, the Bible is not a strong supporter of monogamy. Many Old Testament figures had more than one wife, sometimes at the same time. Joseph Smith, the Mormon leader, was quite accurate on this point, but that does not mean that modern Christians should embrace polygamy. As St. Augustine pointed out 1500 years ago, the fact that polygamy was once permitted and is now forbidden indicates that morality changes and develops. This is a point often lost in modern political debates. But let us return to the genealogies.
Civilization and Redemption: The wives of Lamech are the first women named in the Bible after Eve, but the focus is on their children. Jabal was the father of nomadic herdsmen. Jubal was the father of music. Tubal or Tubal-Cain was the father of metal workers. And a daughter is named, Naamah, which means “pleasant” or “lovely.” Agriculture, music, manufacturing, and beauty. Arts and industry; beauty and production. Earlier in the text we saw that Cain built a city and named it for Enoch. Other translations read that Enoch built a city and named it for himself. Either way, according to Genesis, the first city was built after the first murder. The children of Lamech are symbolic of the fruits of the city that Cain built. Cain and his descendents created civilization itself. What do we make of this?
We could interpret the connection between Cain and the city as an indictment of civilization itself. This could be saying that all cities are built on violence and murder. We can certainly understand that a writer suffering in exile in Babylon might have a very negative view of cities and be nostalgic for the simple life of Eden. Many modern people have also felt this way. Many Europeans were attracted to the New World and to the Pacific Islands by the prospect of Eden. They longed for simplicity, but they ended up creating cities. Many of those cities were built on the murder of native peoples. Even today people like to move to the mountains or to Montana, away from the noise and crime of the cities, but they end up bringing the pollution and crime into the wilderness with them. It could be that the author of Genesis was anticipating modern philosophers, like Nietzsche, who claim that civilization is inherently violent. This little statement in Genesis could be like cry of a character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail shouting out, “Help! I’m being repressed. Come and see the violence inherent in the system!”
But I’m not sure that is the right approach to this brief text. It does not appear that the author is condemning agriculture, music, manufacturing, or beauty. It may be that this story is showing that even though the murderer Cain was condemned to restlessness and anxiety, he still played a vital role in the creation of human society. Too often we overlook the fact that the Cain story is a story of mercy and redemption as well as a story of justice and condemnation. Cain was able to create something good and useful out of his life, and his descendents carried on the creative activity of God. We are the beneficiaries of the redemption of Cain. Much of what we love about life can be traced to the descendents of Cain. In Genesis the human story begins in pride and violence, but God does not give up on people. Where there is sin, there is also hope for redemption and progress.
Lamech: Sigmund Freud claimed that civilization is the process of channeling human desires and longings into constructive avenues. Civilization keeps us from falling into a cycle of pillage and rampage, such as we have witnessed in Paris in recent weeks. But we know that civilization does not eliminate violence and crime, obviously. Despite redemption, violence lies in wait throughout the Bible.
In Genesis 4, Cain’s descendent Lamech brags about killing a man who wounded him. Lamech is avenged seventy-seven times. This may be a statement on the escalation of violence. Whenever we enact revenge, we increase the level of violence. Lamech killed someone who wounded him. When reading Lamech’s macho boast, Christians should remember the words of our Lord and Savior. How many times are we to forgive our brother or sister, Jesus was asked. Seven times? No seventy times seven times. The great rabbi rejected Lamech’s boast and turned it into an accusation. Bishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela applied this principle in South Africa.
Genealogy of Seth: Adam and Eve had a third son, named Seth. This is important to remember if you do the New York Times Crossword. Chapter 5 of Genesis is primarily from the priestly materials, which scholars call “P” rather than the “J” narrative that we have been reading. The priestly materials are rather dry and filled with numbers. The priestly source is not interested in story, and thus it is less interesting to us. But there are important things in this priestly genealogy. For one thing, many of the names are repeated from the genealogy of Cain. Most scholars think that both genealogies come from the same original source but were remembered in different ways. More importantly, the genealogy of Adam begins with a repetition of the statement that God created humankind in his image, male and female. Genesis 5 emphasizes that human sexuality continues the creative activity of God and is therefore blessed. Adam, it says, had a son “in his own likeness, in his own image,” and he named him Seth. Creation continues.
Another interesting point is that ten generations are listed in Genesis 5. Ten is an important number in the Bible. We no longer place much weight on the mystical aspects of numbers, but it was important in biblical times. Numbers have power. Priests were the ancient number crunchers. Ten is a special number of completeness, which we still honor in our decimal system. The ten generations from Adam to Noah indicates a completed age. The generations are not to be taken literally as an account of human history. This passage is primarily a way to connect the story of creation to the story of the flood. Ten generations is an age of the world.
Life-spans: The Babylonians had the similar idea that there were ten generations before the great flood, but in the Babylonian myths the life spans of the ancients were ridiculously long. In one myth, the ten generations before the flood lasted 432,000 years, in another only 241,000 years. The time before the flood in Babylonian folklore was the age of demigods. Seen in this context, the ages of Adam and his descendents in Genesis are rather short. None lived over 1000 years.
The total period of time before the flood varies in different ancient versions of Genesis (Masoretic, Samaritan, LXX), but the average is about 1600 years from Adam to the flood. I don’t think this is literal history. It is an exaggerated account of life in the distant past, the antediluvian period. Though the Hebrew account of this “dreamtime” is more believable than that of the Babylonians and other ancient peoples, it is still far beyond natural human life spans. It is the Bible’s way of telling us that these early stories are archetypal rather than historical.
There is something I find interesting about this chronology though. You may know that Archbishop Ussher in the 17th century did a chronology of the Old Testament and determined that God created the earth in 4004 BC. On October 23 to be precise. The official calendar of Orthodox Jews today begins with creation, which they understand to have been about 6000 years ago. In terms of natural history, this biblical chronology is only off by about 4 billion years, but in terms of human civilization, it is surprisingly close. According to archaeologists, human civilization began about 10,000 years ago, but it began in earnest in the Middle East about 6000 BC. We can read the chronologies in Genesis 5 as a simplified version of the history of civilization.
Enoch: Another interesting thing in the genealogy of Genesis 5 is Enoch. He is the seventh generation. Seven is the biblical number of perfection: seven days in the week, seven planets, etc. Seven is the divine number. Plus, Enoch lived 365 years, which is perhaps symbolic of the solar year. Unfortunately, we no longer know why Enoch is identified in such symbolic fashion. The text says is that he walked with God, just as Noah did. Whatever significance Enoch had for the biblical author has been lost to us. Centuries later, Enoch became a major figure in prophetic and mystical literature. He appears in several places in the Bible as a person who taken by God and who was taught the mysteries of God, but we do not know what he learned.
Nephilim: The account of the antediluvian period ends with one of the most cryptic stories in the entire Bible. Genesis 6:1-4 tells of the “sons of God” who saw that the daughters of men were beautiful. They took them as their wives and had children with them. These were the Nephilim, the heroes and warriors of renown. No one quite knows what to do with this story since it is so unlike anything else in the Bible, and I’m not sure I do either. We don’t have time to go into this in any detail, but I do want you to notice this little story. You are unlikely ever to hear a sermon on this passage, even from pastors who claim that they preach the whole Bible and take every word as revelation.
Jewish scholars for centuries have seen this as a reference to angels. Christian theologians expanded this into the story of the fall of Lucifer and his followers. The Nephilim, which might mean “fallen ones,” would thus refer to fallen angels. Modern religion scholars speculate that this passage is a holdover from an ancient time when the Hebrews were polytheistic. The sons of God would then be like the gods of mythology. This passage does sound like Greek and Babylonian mythology where ancient heroes, like Herakles, were demigods. Other commentators through the centuries have interpreted the Nephilim as giants and monsters that were born to women who had seduced the angels. For many readers, this story is a prelude to the flood account. Madeleine L’Engel incorporates this creatively in her novel Many Waters, by the way.
All I can say is that this passage is evidence that the Bible is not a simple and straightforward book. I think this story of the Nephilim was part of the literature of the ancient world that the writer included in his account of the world before the flood. Perhaps it has no further meaning than that, but it is interesting to ponder this cryptic tale.
Conclusion: The genealogies of Genesis 4 and 5 take us from the story of Cain, a murderer and founder of civilization, to the story of the flood. In two weeks we’ll begin a discussion of Noah, but we have something special for next week. As we conclude the story of Adam, Eve, and their children, let us contemplate the message of this week’s study. God showed mercy, and Cain responded by helping create civilization. Like Cain, we have all harmed those we love. Like Cain, we have been redeemed. The question for us is how will we move forward? Will we dwell in the past and wallow in our guilt and shame? Or will we create a better future for ourselves, our children, and our world? Will our religion help us to progress as a civilization or hinder us?