This chapter includes another classic story: Cain and Abel. Cain’s story not only parallels his own parents’ casting out of Eden, but begins the solidification of God’s teachings, besides “do what I say or else.” At the same time, though, this chapter introduces how God’s teachings could be manipulated to serve one’s own selfish interests—a warning, perhaps.
The text introduces the two brothers, saying “Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground” (4:2) The syntax already sets up the division between the two, alluding back to the talk of binaries from Genesis 1. The “but” indicates that comparison—and therefore conflict—are almost inevitable.
Just in case you thought this would be a repeat of Chapter 3, I am NOT going to justify Cain’s actions, or complain he was treated unfairly. On the contrary, the Bible’s language reinforces the ultimate sin of what Cain has done. First off, God’s very simple explanation to Cain after rejecting his sacrifice takes the syntax of “If X, then Y. If not X, then Z.”
If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. (4:7)
It’s a pretty simple request (and there aren’t even any death threats). However, Cain slays his brother without a trace of hesitation or remorse (4:8). Further, when God asks where Abel is, Cain responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (4:9)
So I’ve heard the phrase “brother’s keeper” before, but I never knew it was in this context. The phase therefore takes on much more of a sinister tone. One can picture Cain, curling his lip in contempt. This is a classic older sibling complaint: why should I have to look out for my brother? With the added “insult” of his brother being favored, Cain does the opposite of “keeping”: killing his brother over a sacrifice that, while it might have been important, could clearly have been redeemed with a better one.
So no wonder God is angry, and angry God can spit fire:
And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand. (4:11)
The well-wrought imagery makes this my favorite line from this chapter. It’s also ironic because Cain is the tiller of the earth—therefore presumably having more of a connection to it—but in this case the earth is now turned against Cain, and it will no longer work for him. This is similar to the fate of his parents, when nature and the earth has turned against them as they were cast out of Eden.
Speaking of death, I also learned something new about Cain’s punishment. I hadn’t realized that the mark of Cain is not something to mark him as a murderer, but to make sure other people do not kill him out of revenge:
Whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him. (4:15)
Clearly, the ultimate sin in God’s eyes is murder, especially murder taken in vengeance for another crime (“sevenfold” is a lot). Honestly, it sounds like God would not be a fan of the death penalty.
But Cain and Abel aren’t the whole story of this chapter. We also get into the aftermath, and the beginnings of a functioning plural society. For one, this is the first chapter where the “A begat B” syntax appears—and trust me, it isn’t the last. While this listing of lineage is certainly not the most engaging part of this text, it seems mostly a function to show the passage of time. There is also a splitting off of peoples—the descendents of Jabal dwell in tents and raise cattle, while those of Jubal are good with musical instruments (4:20-21)— implying both culture and skills are linked to heritage.
We also get the first example of polygamy:
Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. (4:19)
Yep, just a mention, then we move along as if it’s no big deal. I know this must have been a coincidence, but their names begin with A and Z. Lamech really wanted to grab both ends of the alphabet, there.
But perhaps whoever wrote Genesis 4 isn’t endorsing polygamy, because it turns out that Lamech is also a huge jerk. He’s like that annoying kid in your Philosophy class who tries to argue over and find loopholes for everything. After hearing that anyone who harms Cain would be harmed themselves, Lamech says:
I have slain a man to my wounding, and a young man to my hurt. If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold. (4:23-24)
According to another translation, he essentially KILLED TWO PEOPLE for performing minor grievances against him, then tries to justify it by claiming he’s basically untouchable at this point. (Talk about precedent. Insert “Lamech was the first lawyer” joke here.)
But is Lamech right? God does not respond in any way (so far, at least), so we have no idea if this would hold true. But God must be smarter than that, right?
Speaking of Cain, the chapter ends by circling back to reference Cain and Abel when Eve bears another son, Seth (4:25). This is the final insult to Cain: he receives permanent shame and punishment for what he did, and his revenge wasn’t even permanent—for Seth, as we see in the next chapter, is the true inheritor of Adam’s legacy.