Secular Sam’s Guide to the OT: The Lineage and Honors of Cain

No story in the OT is ever wasted, and the story of Cain and his descendants is no exception. Like the narratives preceding it, it continues to explain the “how” and the “why” of human existence – it has an etiological function. More importantly, however, it also furthers the theological motives of its author.

The story of Cain fittingly opens (v. 17) and closes (v. 24) with the mention of Cain. The first piece of news is an abrupt notification that “Cain knew his wife.” And who was Cain’s wife? Enquiring minds have wanted to know for some time. Here’s what Martin Luther had to say in his commentary on Genesis:

The young woman who married him certainly deserves great praise. Adam must have been an eloquent orator to be able to persuade his daughter to follow him who was cursed and so severely punished for his sin. It may be that God blessed Cain and his descendants on account of his wife, who took her bloodthirsty brother in sincere faith and out of obedience to God and her parents. (Luther, p. 111-12)

but there is really nothing productive to be said on the matter.

The second surprise in this little narrative is the news that Cain is not doing too badly after all. Although he had suggested he would be a wanderer and a vagabond (v. 14), he actually seems to have ended up as that most settled of citizens, the founder of the first city. And since he seems to have named this city after his son, presumably it was known as the City of Enoch.

    The Genealogy of Lamech

Be that as it may, what follows is the first of many genealogies in Genesis. Far from being idle interruptions of the narrative, these features perform a variety of important functions:

*show the passage of time

*demonstrate obedience to the commandment to bear children

*mark the division between stories

*provide a “finish” to the preceding story

*hint at the next important character (See “Rebekah” in Gen 22:20-24)

The genealogies of Genesis should always be closely examined. In this case, there are seven generations, a significant number. After Lamech, the genealogy shifts from a linear to a branched form and gives the names of his three sons and a daughter by his two wives, Adah and Zillah.

    The Rise of Human Culture

Associated with each of the sons is some advance in material culture. Jabal is a nomadic pastoral; Uncle Abel was not nomadic. The word “herds” (mikneh) is probably used to broaden our ideas about herds from Abel’s sheep to all types of livestock. Animal husbandry was an important step forward.

Jubal is a musician, and he plays (lit. handles) the lyre and the pipe, representative of stringed and wind instruments. The lyre (kinnor) can be traced back to a picture scratched on a paving stone at Megiddo around 3000 BCE, and broken pieces dating from around 2500 BCE have also been found. Although good parties were no doubt as important then as they are now, the real significance of music is as a part of the epic tradition, an activity which will eventually be called lying…er…I mean history.

Then there’s Tubal-cain. The compound name is unusual. The single name Tubal appears again in 10:2 as the name of a people among the descendants of Japheth. Via Isaiah and Ezekiel, some have associated it with a location in Asia Minor. Assyrian sources record a Tabal or Tabura, known for precious metal vessels; and archeology has confirmed the presence of metalworking in the area. What we have here, then, is the smith, another significant step in human culture.

It should also be pointed out that the order of the mention of metals in Genesis follows their historical appropriation: gold, copper, and finally iron. Although there is no mention of a Stone Age, the introduction of Tubal-Cain tells us that a time before widespread metal work was remembered.

And now we come to the taunt song of Lamech. This little gem is usually considered the first instance of Hebrew poetry in the OT, so that we now have references to both poetry and music in this short and under-utilized passage. As is consistent with Hebrew poetry, it has neither meter nor rhyme, but it does have a rhythmic quality of sorts and it exhibits parallelism:

Adah and Zillah, hear my voice
O wives of Lamech, give ear to my speech

I have slain a man for wounding me
And a lad for bruising me

If Cain is avenged sevenfold
Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold

“Adah and Zillah” are parallel to “wives of Lamech,” while “hear my voice” and “give ear to my speech” are likewise related. The next pair, however, is rather unusual because in no other place is “a man” set against “a lad.” If the two are synonymous then perhaps the reference is a taunt: “this man was a mere child” or similar. Finally, the “x 10” numerical difference between the members of the final pair is a common feature of biblical poetry when numbers are mentioned.

    But what of the theological content?

First, we see in Lamech’s little song another increase in the level of human violence, this time expressed as vengeance, and multiplied eleven-fold. Since it appears to have been taken from its original context, interpretation is unsure, but the comparison with Cain cannot be positive and may reflect the tensions that arise in urban settings.

Even more interesting is the attribution of the development of the arts and sciences of human culture to humans. In the wider world of the ancient Near East, these sorts of discoveries were attributed to gods or other semi-divine figures in a process known as euhemerism. In Genesis, however, the rise of human culture is recounted in a seven-generation sweep of human creativity that reminds the reader of the seven days of creation. The question of whether or not Cain’s association with these activities taints them remains open. This disparity between the two pictures of Cain, fratricidal sibling or father of urban civilization, certainly does make one wonder whether the two Cain stories now juxtaposed in our Genesis originally belonged together.

5 Replies to “Secular Sam’s Guide to the OT: The Lineage and Honors of Cain”

  1. Works consulted:

    Jan Fokkelmann, “Genesis,” in Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, The Literary Guide to the Bible, Cambridge: Belknap, 1987.

    Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis pt. 1, trans. Israel Abrahams, Jerusalem: Hebrew Press, 1961-64.

    Martin Luther, Luther’s Commentary on Genesis, trans., J. Theodore Mueller, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958.

    Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, a commentary, trans., John H. Marks, London:SCM Press, 1972.

    Nahum Sarna, Genesis = Be-reshit: the traditional Hebrew test with new JPS translation / commentary, Philadelphia: JPS, 1989.

  2. Be-reshit

    Watch your mouth, Mogget! 😉

    Great post.

    Question: In your view, is the author(s) of Genesis inherently pessimistic in his/her view of humanity? I’ve been leaning that way and want to know your thoughts.

  3. Thanks — it’s far lighter than your work, but I didn’t have time to do what I had intended. Such is life.

    author(s) of Genesis inherently pessimistic

    I think he’s pretty clearly pessimistic — he keeps repeating the Creation in hopes that someone will get right. There’s Creation language in Colassians, as that author tries to assert that God has finally successfully created a people for himself.

    Reminds me of Mark. Jesus keeps interacting with the disciples and they seem to get denser and denser til they all run off. At least in Mark, there’s a didactic purpose: it teaches what disciples are supposed to do, and it shows Jesus’ intent to keep working with them.

    So if Genesis is pessamistic, what’s your take on the author’s intent in so presenting himself?

  4. the author’s intent in so presenting himself

    Or herself? J/K. Let’s see, I think the author is trying to say that we’re doomed without Abraham and the attendant promises to him, illustrated by the renewal to Isaac (an acquiescent character), Jacob (deceitful little stink, but good in the end), and Joseph (a good little Jewish boy). So yeah, that’s why I say the author is pessimistic. Humanity continually displeases God in Genesis, and God continually struggles with and laments over it. There’s the flood, Sodom & Gomorrah, Egypt, etc. — things to “curse” man in his disobedience. And then the great ones, to me, rise up above the pessimism carrying the torch of the Abrahamic covenant, thereby shedding light onto Israel in showing them how they ought to live in order to make right what went wrong with humanity. Make sense? Probly not.

    G’night and shalom.

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