r m p




The Cain Conundrum       

Recently 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 things. 

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 situation.) 

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 the flood? 

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


CopyrightŠ2004 by Robert M Price
Spirit of Carolina Web Design