Hugh B. Cave, an Epistle
reader from Washington state, wrote in with a question about the early chapters
of the Book of Genesis. How, he wondered, did the stories of Cain and Noah
square with the strict Levitical laws against incest? Here's the problem:
Genesis records Adam and Eve as having had three sons, Mike, Robby, and Chip...
er, I mean, Abel, Cain, and Seth. Later, Cain is said to have "known" (snicker,
snicker) his wife and to have begotten a son. As Clarence Darrow once put it vis
a vis Mrs. Cain, "Now where the hell did she come from? Did somebody pull off
another creation in the next county?" Who can she have been except one of the
daughters of Adam and Eve mentioned in 5:4? And that would mean that Cain
married his own sister. Uh-oh.
Hugh mentioned that he had raised this
question in a Christian fellowship meeting, where it was not much appreciated.
He was told rather icily that true believers do not question the Bible. Fine,
but that means equally that they have no chance of understanding it
either! As long as you are afraid to venture into the fissures opened up by the
gaping contradictions in the text, you will remain on the surface with a
perpetual Vacation Bible School sort of faith.
How come Hugh noticed this glitch in the
first place? Simple: for some 60 years he has been writing and selling stories
and novels, with more of each coming out all the time, here and abroad. He's the
kind of reader who would notice a kink, some discontinuity in the plot. He was
quick to spot a flaw in a narrative, since he himself knows to avoid such
How did the writer of Genesis fail to
notice it? Because there was no single writer. The Pentateuch (Genesis
through Deuteronomy) is a composite of four far more ancient sources, the law
code of Deuteronomy plus three ancient Hebrew epics that scholars call J (a
collection of oral traditions, most of which are centered in Judah and
calling God Jehovah), E (another such collection from the north, Ephraim or Israel, and calling God Elohim), and the Priestly
Code, another massive law code (containing those incest laws) prefaced by
another, more sketchy outline of Israelite history from
the seven days of creation on through Moses.
The Cain stories come from J, not from
the Priestly Code. But J must have had scruples against incest, too. The trouble
was that he was not simply writing his story from scratch, like Hugh does. He
rather cobbled together the various legends of Cain that he heard at various
shrines and around the camp fires. He placed them together, back to back, as if
they made one continuous sequence, but a close reading makes it apparent that
the different stories placed Cain in completely different
historical periods (the same thing happens later on in the
case of Daniel: originally he was a wise sage in Canaanite
myth. Ezekiel refers to him accordingly as an ancient figure of proverbial
wisdom (Ezekiel 28:3). But in the much later Book of
Daniel, Daniel is made a contemporary of Ezekiel himself!
Anyway, take a look at Genesis chapter 4,
where the Cain stories are clustered. In verse 1 we have a self-contained
"naming story," of which the Bible contains plenty. Cain's name is punningly
derived from the Hebrew qanah, which means "gotten." Another version,
preserved in the Talmud, traced his name, via another pun, from the Hebrew for
grain and has the toddler Cain bring his mom a stalk of grain. The name actually
seems to mean "blacksmith," and Cain appears again as the ancestor of the
coppersmiths of the tribe of Tubal (near the Black Sea) in verse 22.
By the way, some rabbis were afraid verse
1 implied that Eve had gotten a man-child with the sexual help of Yahweh
and decided the text must have meant to say "with the help of Satan," from which
guess arose the weird legend of Cain as the fruit of Satan's sexual
seduction of Eve, which we find reflected in 1 John 3:10-12, where Cain is
called the son of the evil one.
Genesis 4:2-7, a second distinct tale,
makes Cain a farmer and Abel a shepherd. (Cain is already a farmer, even though
a story from an independent cycle over in Genesis 9:20 makes Noah "the first to
till the ground.") Both brothers offer the fruit of their labor to Yahweh, but
the Almighty turns up his nose at the vegetables offered by Cain. Why? There is
not a word in the text about any hypocrisy on Cain's part, which is the
desperate explanation usually offered by Bible explainers.
In this legend Cain stands punningly for
the Canaanites, whose agricultural religion contained sexual fertility practices
condemned by the Prophets once Israelites had adopted
them. In contrast to them, Abel represents the righteous
shepherds who maintained the austere morality of the days of the wilderness
wandering. The point of the story is to exalt the
conservative lifestyle of earlier days over against the
new-fangled practices of the Canaanites. Perhaps the "back to nomadism" party of
the Rechabites, Jeremiah's allies, first told this tale.
(Granted, none of this stuff is spelled
out in the story itself, any more than the guess that Cain's problem was
hypocrisy, but my explanation is more easily the sort of thing one can imagine
being taken for granted by the readers/listeners in a particular social
Another story begins in Genesis 4:8 and
continues on through verse 16. This time Cain stands for the Kenites, a group of
dangerous nomads feared by settled farmers and notorious
for their practice of seven-fold vendetta and for their distinctive tribal
tattoo, hence the famous "mark of Cain." The story explains how they became
wanderers, and it does so from the viewpoint of the settled farmers who could
only understand such a lifestyle as a curse from God. Incidentally, the land of
"Nod" means "wandering," so the text is saying Cain dwelt
in no single place.
Then what, pray tell, is Cain doing
building a city in the very next verse? Sounds like he's planning to stay put
for a while. Clearly this is part of a later legend in which the Kenite
association has been forgotten, but the killing of Cain's
brother has been retained. Why? Because implicit in verse 17 is a parallel with
the myth of Romulus and Remus, in which the founder of a great city is the
slayer of his own brother, as Romulus kills Remus to lay
the foundation of Rome (compare see the similar notion in Joshua 6:26 and 1
Kings 16:34, where one's son's life is the price for founding a city).
The last two Cain tales have placed the
legendary figure in a much later historical period than the first ones did. In
verse 14 Cain is afraid that "whoever finds me will slay me!" Who's he talking
about if he's one of the immediate offspring of Adam and Eve? In verse 15 God
guarantees that anyone who kills him will have seven relatives die to pay for
the deed. But are there even seven people on earth yet, if Cain is the son of
Adam and Eve? And in verse 17 who's going to live in this city of his? There
wouldn't seem to be enough people on the planet to fill a single house!
Of course all of these stories envision
Cain as active in a fully populated world. From this perspective, the origin of
his wife (verse 17) was no mystery. She was simply a woman of another clan. It
is only the editorial juxtaposition of the Cain stories that creates a problem.
I know what you're thinking: even if it
wasn't Mr. and Mrs. Cain, we're still stuck with the same problem if all human
beings are the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. We still have everybody
stemming from an incestuous couple somewhere down the line, don't we?
The answer is, of course, that the last
way to take the stories of Genesis is literally. Back in the second century AD
Origen remarked that surely no adult thinks that a snake talked to a man in the
Garden of Eden. We are dealing with symbolic myths. I have just now tried to
indicate briefly what the function of the myths of Cain were. They served
various purposes. But they certainly have not a grain of history in them.
Indeed, I am not sure we are dealing with solid history till we get to 2 Samuel.
And from there on in at best it's a heavily edited and rewritten mixture,
especially once we reach the New Testament.
What about Noah? There things are a
little different. What we have there are two different versions. J and the
Priestly Code both had a flood story, and the combination of the two results in
the contradictions of the version we read, where, for instance, the flood is
said both to have lasted 40 days and for 120 days. Noah is said to have taken
aboard 7 pairs of ritually clean animals, but then again
he is said to have only one pair each. Bits of different stories. But Noah is
said to have packed not only his wife and sons, but also his son's wives on
board the ark.
But aren't we back to square one, since
all these people are also descendants of Adam and Eve? In the present Bible,
where they are all edited together cheek by jowl, yes, but originally the Noah
legends belonged to a separate cycle of myths. The earlier Gene sis legends
(i.e., in the previous chapters) do not anticipate a flood and indeed leave no
room for one. For instance, in chapter 5 Jubal, Jabal, and Tubal-Cain are
introduced as the founders of music, herding, and metallurgy as practiced in the
story-teller's own day. But wouldn't the world-destroying flood of Noah have
wiped out knowledge of these arts, making it necessary to rein vent them after
Hugh's experience with his fellowship
group serves to underline something Gerald Sheppard wrote in the Union
Seminary Quarterly Review some years ago, namely that the doctrine of
biblical inerrancy is really more of a pass word than a
piece of theology. It results in total incoherence once applied to the text of
the Bible with any attempt at consistency. The only utility it seems to have is
as a pass word for admittance to the fundamentalist subculture. Say you believe
in it and you're in; reject it and you're out. In that respect it is exactly
like the practice of speaking in tongues in the Pentecostal churches--and has
about the same degree of intelligibility.
Robert M. Price