Bible as Literature: A Genealogy of Civilization (Genesis 4:16 – 4:26)

After being punished to “become a ceaseless wanderer on the earth” for killing his brother, Cain marries, founds a city, and has a child named, Enoch. Enoch has a child named Irad. Irad has a child named Mehujael. Mehujael has a child named Methusael. Methusael begets Lamech. Lamech marries two wives. With his wife Adah, he has Jabal and Jubal. With his wife Zillah, Tubal-Cain, and a daughter named Naamah. At the very end we find out the man (aka Adam) has another child with the woman (aka Eve), and name him Seth.

While a long list of genealogy isn’t the most exciting material to a modern reader, it is crucial to understand that this genre of writing was important to ancient peoples. Many times in the Iliad, the characters won’t begin fighting until they recall their ancestry. People in Classical Greece took pride in tracing their ancestry back to some illustrious hero from mythology. Indeed, people still pursue genealogy and it is a popular hobby, with over two million people subscribing to as of 2009.

Nevertheless, there is more than just a family tree being presented. Even though Cain is a wanderer and thus symbolic for a nomadic life, the text states that he builds a city. The text also tells us that Jabal, the great great great great grandson of Cain, is the ancestor of all those who dwell in tents and amidst herds, Jubal is the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe, and Tubal-Cain is the ancestor of all who forge implements of copper and iron.  In other words, his descendants invent Bronze/Iron Age culture (farming, taking care of livestock, living under shelter, music, and forging tools of copper and iron). Hidden in the genealogy is an explanation of where city-life and key aspects of civilization came from.

Towards the end of this Biblical episode, Lamech sings a mysterious song that alludes back to Cain’s curse. He speaks of murdering a young man who injured him and claims that if Cain was avenged seven fold then Lamech should be avenged seventy-sevenfold. Many scholars have labeled this passage the “Song of the Sword,” and connect Lamech’s boast of killing a man as relating to the first use of the sword after its creation by his son, the blacksmith, Tubal-Cain.

From these passages, we can infer that Lamech is boastful. The original promise of protection for Cain comes from God, but God never makes any promise to avenge Lamech. Lamech is also claiming he will be avenged seventy-seven fold, eleven times the amount promised Cain. Lamech’s boast is a vain attempt to outdo God’s promise to Cain. With the newfound fruits of civilization, Lamech feels emboldened and believes he doesn’t need God for protection. The murder Lamech commits implies that the justice of God has been usurped for “might makes right” philosophy now that we have reached the dawn of civilization. His entire moral compass is skewed by justifying his murder and act of revenge as being on par with God’s protection to Cain. Lamech’s attitude is a parallel to Cain’s earlier anger and frustration when his offering is rejected by God in that an ego seems to be behind both. This suggests that Cain’s descendants have all his worse qualities. The other point being expressed is that for all its seeming good, civilization moves one away from God. It is one more step away from the simple pastoral life of the Garden.

The statement at Genesis 4:16 is symbolic:

“And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord” – KJV

Part of Cain’s punishment seems to be he will no longer be in the Lord’s presence. As Lamech’s boastfulness shows, it seems the punishment extends to his descendants. They will not know God.

A second genealogy is offered at the end as a contrast to Cain’s descendants. Adam and Eve give birth to a new son, Seth. Adam thanks God for granting him another child. Seth also has a son named Enosh. Then we are told that this about the time people started to proclaim the name of the Lord, suggesting that it is this bloodline who will bring God and His message to the world. All of which parallels the beginning of the Genesis 4 story and conflict between Cain and Abel.

Cain whose descendants invent civilization is an egocentric, narcissistic murderer who fails at his ritual obligations and ignores God’s message about sin and morality, while Abel succeeds in pleasing God and is upright ethically. Those who value selfishness, their own egocentric concerns, and needs are those associated with material progress and civilization, while those who heed the message of God are associated with a simpler life and are shown to be upright.


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