Copyright (c) 1998, Herb Drake.
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As we approach our forth article in this series, we should not at all be surprised to discover that Genesis 4-6 continues the "fallenness" theme that began in Chapter 3, ultimately leading to such a level of corruption that the flood judgment that follows becomes justified. Beginning with the first murder (Cain vs. Abel), the narrative escalates to the depraved song of Lamech:
I have killed a man for wounding me. A young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.
Things finally reach the point that "The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the throughts of their hearts was only evil continually..." (Gen. 6:5). So, left on their own, humans acheive a state where sin becomes truly universal--an observation that comes right out of God's own mouth. Be sure to note the word "heart," which was the Hebrew seat of the emotions. Much later, Jeremiah would say "The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse--who can understand it?" (Jer 17:9). Here is a lesson for our own times, where "following the heart" means changing spouses and significant others at the drop of a hat. The heart is an unreliable indicator. Indeed, the universality of sin that climaxes in the flood judgment is the inevitable result of a humanity left to its own devices--to its following the "heart."
But this section also contains a measure of God's grace. Because God is a redemptive God--a God that seeks the salvation of a humanity that has truly demonstrated nothing whatsoever to merit redemption, God intercedes as we will see.
Cain and Abel become the first farmers and shepherds, vocations that have such a long history of conflict that we can't be surprised to find that the first murder takes place between them. But the conflict cannot be traced too sharply to this difference of vocations. We are not told exactly why Cain's anger was sparked against his brother, we do know that it had to do with differing way they each worshipped God, also a familiar spark for war as we look at our own history books. As Cain's anger simmers, God reads his discomfort and counsels him that "sin is crouching at his door" and that he must master it. Cain, however, yields to his anger rather than God's advice and commits the murder.
It is completely appropriate that we find in these chapters a reprise of the vertical and horizontal relationship themes that were discussed in previous articles in this series--God/humanity (Gen. 1) and humanity/humanity (Gen. 2). The difference is that, this time, the perspective has changed from the ideal (Gen 1-2) to the fallen (post-Gen. 3) world. This distinction that forms a prelude to human history is one that helps us understand the end of history--a return to the ideal world, where these relationships will be put right again.
In our discussion of Genesis 3, God's question to Adam, "Where are you?", was shown actually to be question to the reader. The same literary device appears in Gen. 4:9, where God asks, "Where is your brother?" While the first question deals with our relationship with God, this time we are examining our relationship with other humans. The first question was answered with an evasion of responsibility, and so we can hardly be surprised to rediscover that motif again when Cain replies, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Both responses, of course, betray the fallen condition of the world and are completely consistent with the way people respond to the same questions today.
Just as God's grace was evident in Genesis 3, it is to be found here in the "mark" of Cain. This mark (Gen. 4:13-16) is often misunderstood as a sign of evil, but the careful reader will surely conclude that it is actually a sign of God's grace--of God's protection. After receiving the mark, Cain moves to Nod, separating from God (4:16), always a consequence of sin. As for the rest of humanity, Chapter 4 ends with the statement, "At that time people began to call on the name of the Lord"--that is, some people prayed.
Little can be said about Gen. 5 other than that it is a return to the literary genre of Gen. 1 (compare 1:27 and 5:1-2). The style of this genealogical chapter is typical of several that appear throughout the balance of the book, and it has been suggested that these passages of "priestly" material form the framework into which other narratives have been carefully woven.
Only two characters in the genealogy (the ones who had discovered the importance of prayer?) are of particular interest--Enoch (Gen. 5:21-24) and Noah. For one thing, they are the only characters who's accounts do not end with the words, "and he died"--a phrase that quite clearly drives home the fact that God's word in 2:17--that the consequence of disobeying God is death--is more reliable than the serpent's advice in 3:4, "You will not die." Enoch jumps out at us because, after six repetitive paragraphs ending with "and he died.," suddenly we encounter "Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him." In Enoch we have a foretaste of the fact that those who "walk with God" escape death. Indeed, we find in Revelation 20, that the "first death" is of no consequence--only the "second death," which is reserved for those who do not walk with God, need concern us.
We are interested in Noah, of course, because he (and his family) are the only ones who will survive the coming flood judgment--a hat-racking of the genealogical tree that has developed to this point. Noah, indeed, "walked with God" (6:9) just as Enoch had done--he is a "righteous" man. He was righteous enough to go to the tremendous effort of obeying God in the seemingly absurd command that he build an ark. Here is another application of Genesis that still applies today--the act of obeying God can lead to doing some things that will make absolutely no sense to one's neighbors. It's a good bet that Noah was probably the butt of the whole "stupid pet tricks" list of his day as God sent him all those animals as the first storm clouds began to appear.
Is the flood story real, or simply a parable? The Bible claims no eye witnesses. But the message these early narratives bring us is just as valid whether we regard them as "history" or not. Yet the possibility of a flood cannot be dismissed too quickly because there are flood memories in other cultures, even though their accounts serve a completely different theological purpose. Theology, after all, is a main concern in our study of these narratives, and whenever they are read for their theological content they must be taken literally lest the intended lessons be lost. Besides, the very nature of ancient, biblical Hebrew is that it is not capable of expressing abstract, subjunctive ideas. So it conveys lessons like these by concretizing them into a story form.