Saturday, February 26, 2011

Genesis 4 (2004)

In this post, I will comment on some of my notes for my 2004 weekly quiet time on Genesis 4.

1. "Why did God reject Cain's sacrifice? V 4 says Abel brought from the firstlings of his flock and the fat. I think this is the key---that Abel brought his best and Cain did not, demonstrating Cain's lack of regard for God. Cain would have been accepted had he done well, so God is not guilty of favoritism. God tells Cain to master sin, which can sneak up on him unexpectedly (and Cain's resentment does lead to murder)."

The first explanation that I heard for why God rejected Cain's offering was that Cain had an attitude problem and did not bring God his best. Later, when I was in high school, however, I encountered a different explanation. I read a book by E.W. Bullinger, which argued that God accepted Abel's offering because it was a blood sacrifice---one that atoned for sin---whereas Cain's offering was rejected because it was from the ground, which God had cursed (Genesis 3:17). For Bullinger, the lesson here is that God accepts us when we cling to what Jesus Christ did on the cross for our sins, whereas those who rely on the works of the law to be accepted by God are under a curse (Galatians 3:10), as was Cain for bringing his offering from the cursed ground. Bullinger said that our attitude should be, "Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling," a perspective that is in marked contrast with that of religion, which always tries to bring God something in order to earn his approval. For Bullinger, Abel epitomized justification by grace through faith, whereas Cain exemplified religion---an attempt to become right with God through works.

I heard Bullinger's interpretation in another setting---at a small Baptist church that I visited one Sunday morning. The pastor was criticizing a children's Bible story book because it said that God rejected Cain's offering on account of Cain's bad attitude, for the pastor thought that this message was promoting salvation by works. The pastor said that the lesson of the Cain and Abel story is that God only accepts people who bring a blood sacrifice, for blood atones for sins. Nowadays, according to the pastor, the blood sacrifice that God accepts is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. If we don't have faith in Christ and his atonement, the pastor said, then we will go to hell.

I liked Bullinger's interpretation when I first read it. I especially appreciated the line of "Nothing in my hand I bring," for I felt that I didn't have much to offer to God. But embracing and clinging to God's free gift of eternal life through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross? Sure, I could do that! And so I taught Bullinger's interpretation of Genesis 4 at a youth group, and, at a Sabbath school in which we were studying Cain and Abel, I made sure that Bullinger's view got a fair hearing.

Nowadays, my viewpoint is different. I think that God rejected Cain and his offering because Cain did not bring his best, for v 4 says that Abel brought the firstborns of his flock, whereas v 3 merely says that Cain brought fruit from the ground---it does not say that Cain brought the firstfruits! Was Cain's offering rejected because it was not a blood sacrifice? I don't think so, since God accepted offerings that were not blood sacrifices, but were from the ground (Exodus 22:29; Leviticus 2).

Of course, the ground was cursed when Cain brought his offering, but was it still cursed during the time of Moses, when God was accepting fruit and grain? Genesis 5:29 expresses Lamech's hope that his son, Noah, will comfort the people in terms of their work and toil, on account of the land that the LORD had cursed. Some have interpreted this to mean that Noah marked the end of God's curse on the ground. But does the text really mean that? It may just be saying that Noah will do something that will alleviate the toil of those trying to grow stuff on the cursed ground. One idea is that Noah invented the plow! But the ground could have remained cursed, even after Noah (or his plow). And yet, God accepted gifts from the ground. The ground was not cursed in the sense that God considered anything from it to be abominable; rather, it was cursed because it took a lot of work to grow stuff on it (Genesis 3:17-19).

Moreover, God actually tells Cain that he can master sin in Genesis 4:7. In my opinion, that differs from the Christian teaching that, apart from regeneration, we cannot help but sin on account of our corrupt state (as Romans 6-8 has been interpreted).

How do I apply this part of the Cain and Abel story (about their offerings) to my own life? To be honest, I don't. For one, I can't give my "best" to God, for it is impossible for anyone to give his or her "best." As a professor of mine once said, you can't give your "best" for the simple reason that you can always do better! Plus, it's stressful to try to make everything I do for God my "best." It was easier for Abel to give from the firstborn of his flock, than it is for me to give God my "best." Sure, there was a degree of sacrifice on Abel's part, for Abel could have chosen to enjoy the firstlings and the fat for himself. But at least he had a concrete "best" that he could give to God. I'm not sure what it would look like for me to give my "best" to God, and, quite frankly, I'd have a hard time worshiping a God whose approval I had to earn! That's why I like Bullinger's approach, although I can do without the "fire and brimstone" element that the Baptist pastor attached to it!

I do believe in honoring God, however. Cain brought an offering, but he was very casual about it---almost like it was an afterthought. I hope to love God more than that. That doesn't mean that my acts of worship will be perfect, for my mind may still wander when I'm praying or reading my Bible, or attending church. But I'd like to think that God is happy when we just show up to honor him and to hear what he has to say---whether that be in prayer, or at church, or at meetings, or in reading inspiring literature. I want a God who enjoys having us around, not one who feels that he has to be impressed! But I hope not to arrive at a state where my offering is meaningless and perfunctory, as Cain's was.

Can I overcome sin by my own efforts, as God seemed to instruct Cain to do? I believe that God is there to help me out. And I know that I need him.

2. "Matthew Henry presents a rather bleak picture of the aftermath of Cain's murder of Abel. For Henry, Cain complains of his punishment and even wants to die, but God keeps him alive to suffer and marks him so that people will shun him. He deliberately shuns the presence of God to start a city, and culture appears to be the product of sinful people seeking worldly things apart from God. Lamech is motivated to sin more boldly than Cain because of God's mercy in protecting Cain with a mark, meaning Lamech tempts God. The church begins with Seth, who precedes the phenomenon of people calling on the name of the LORD. Henry's God is still merciful in that he offers Cain an opportunity to confess, the prerequisite to receiving divine forgiveness."

I make a note in the margin: "Could the development of culture from Cain's descendants show God's ability to bring life out of death?"

I got a lot of this from Robert Di Vito, whom I read at Harvard Divinity School. Di Vito pointed out that, in other flood stories of the ancient Near East, the "Noah" character brings on board the ark the exemplars of culture, such as the musicians. But the biblical Noah does not do so. Is God anti-culture in Genesis 4, preferring the simple life?

What's interesting is that many scholars have tried to associate Cain and his seed with the Kenites---the nomads who were related by marriage to Moses (Numbers 24:21) and protected by Saul in his attack on the Amalekites (I Samuel 15:16). According to I Chronicles 2:55, Rechab was a Kenite. Rechab was the father of the Rechabites, who were fierce Yahwists (II Kings 10) and resistant to alcohol and settlement, preferring to live in tents (Jeremiah 35). Some have speculated that the Rechabites were metallurgists, who refused to drink alcohol because that could lead them to divulge the secrets of their trade, and they did not settle because their profession required them to be on the move, as they went to new places after using up the metal resources in a previous place. And sure enough, in Genesis 4, Cain is the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and work in metals, plus Cain went to the land of Nod, a word that concerns wandering!

Is the story of Cain a commentary on the Kenites? Not all of the biblical traditions about the Kenites are positive, for Genesis 15:19 includes them among the nations whose land Israel will eventually possess, and Numbers 24:21-22 foretells that the Kenites will be defeated by the Assyrians, regardless of how strong they are. Did some biblical authors believe that the Kenites were too wild, and even murderous, and that became the basis for the Cain and Abel story?

At the same time, the Rechabites resisted settlement, whereas Cain in Genesis 4:7 builds a city. And yet, metallurgy probably coincided with urbanization, and so the Rechabites likely had dealings with cities. Did the author of Genesis 4 express his preference for a simpler life by attacking cities and culture? If so, why would he criticize people who themselves lived a simple nomadic existence? Were they not simple enough for the author of Genesis 4?

3. "Abel represents the first of a long line of martyrs killed by resentful evildoers for their righteousness (Matthew 23:35; I John 3:10-12). Matthew Henry says that the blood of Christ is more powerful than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:24) because Abel's blood screamed for vengeance, whereas the blood of Christ screams for mercy."

I am not as certain now that Abel's blood screamed for vengeance, although that is the view of I Enoch 22:7, Jubilees 4:3, and Philo (in Det. 48). A colleague of mine at Hebrew Union College, Chad Bird, wrote a paper for a class on Philo, in which he argued that, according to Hebrews 12:24, the blood of Abel cried out for mercy towards Cain, not vengeance. The point of Hebrews 12:24, according to my colleague, is that Christ's blood is even better than the blood of Abel in bringing God's forgiveness to people.

That could be. There are rabbinic traditions about God's forgiveness of Cain. Plus, in the biblical story itself, God does protect Cain after the murder, and Cain has a new beginning---as the founder of a city, a family man, and an ancestor of culture. And yet, the forgiveness Cain received did not clean everything up, for humanity went on a downward spiral, which culminated in the human depravity that God punished with a flood. Could Hebrews 12:26 be saying that Christ's blood is better than the blood of Abel---that Christ's blood brings, not just forgiveness, but cleansing as well (Hebrews 9:14)?

4. "Genesis 4 divorces sacrifice from prayer, a novelty in the ancient Near East perhaps designed to divorce both acts from magic"

Nahum Sarna makes this point. He bases his argument on the fact that, in Genesis 4, Cain and Abel bring offerings years before the days of Enosh, which is when people begin to call on the name of the LORD (which Sarna interprets as prayer); therefore, for Sarna, sacrifice and prayer have separate points of origin in Genesis 4, and are clearly distinguished from each other. I don't know what to make of this. As Sarna notes, there is no reference to prayer accompanying sacrifices in Leviticus, and some scholars, such as Israel Knohl, have made a big deal about this, arguing that the priests were advocating a sanctuary of silence. At the same time, there are Psalms that are set in the temple, and I Kings 8 presents the temple as a place of both prayer and sacrifice. And yet, there are scholars who will then argue that there was conflict between the priests and the temple singers. Moreover, there are passages in the Hebrew Bible in which prayer is elevated as better than sacrifice (Psalm 50), which may demonstrate a conflict between the two, in certain Israelites' minds.

I'm not sure how much weight to place on Sarna's point about the separation of prayer from sacrifice, but I should note: in Genesis 12:8, Abraham builds an altar and calls upon the name of the LORD. Abraham does not appear to have separated prayer from sacrifice!

5. "Enos means weakness. Is there a confession here that the human race has become weak, in light of the first murder occurring? Also, E.W. Bullinger says that Enosh corresponds with the rise of idolatry."

Bullinger's view is that of many Jewish exegetes, as is indicated by Jerome (who refers to Jewish exegesis), Targum Jonathan, and Midrash Rabbah 23:7. The idea is that Genesis 4:26 is saying that, at the time of Enosh, people profaned the name of the LORD. This could mean that they called other gods "the LORD," which is idolatry. According to Bullinger, Targum Onkelos says that, at the time of Enosh, people desisted from calling on the name of the LORD. So there is a tendency in Jewish interpretation to read Genesis 4:26 quite negatively---perhaps because Genesis 4 seems to present humanity on a downward trend.

I do, however, like what Sarna says about the verse: "[Prayer] is the consciousness of human frailty, symbolized by the name Enosh, that heightens man's awareness of utter dependence upon God, a situation that evokes prayer."

I know that I need God, for I am weak.

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