church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

The story of Cain and Abel is the story of the human race.  It is tragically timeless, for it is tirelessly enacted over and over again in every generation.  As Larry Norman once queried (as aged historians may remember from his song “Nothing Really Changes”), “Will Cain kill Abel—with a bayonet?”  Regardless of the choice of weapon, somewhere and some place that murder is happening even now as you are reading this.

The story (found in Genesis 4) presents the careful exegete with problems and has therefore resulted in lots of spilled exegetical ink.  That is because it purports to be an event that occurred immediately after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise when the total human population consisted of Adam, Eve, and their two boys Cain and Abel.  Yet after narrating the story of Cain’s hatred of his brother Abel, his premeditated murder of him, and God’s subsequent confrontation and punishment of the crime, the narrator then says almost casually, “And Cain knew his wife and she conceived and gave birth to Enoch” (Genesis 4:17).  Generations of Bible commentators have asked the obvious question, “So where did Cain get his wife?”  At the beginning of the chapter, the world’s population consisted of Adam and Eve and their children Cain and Abel (verses 1-2)—where did this woman come from?

Suggestions abound, mostly aimed at avoiding the conclusion that Cain married his sister.  Some daring commentators suggested that Cain must have married a woman from a race of men other than those descended from Adam and Eve.  Many commentators try to cope with the dilemma by inserting several hidden generations between verse 16 (which narrates Cain’s expulsion and wandering) and verse 17 (which narrates his sexual activity with his wife).  This would mean that Cain did not marry his sister (which admittedly is a bit creepy, whatever the Pharaohs may have thought of the idea), but instead married his granddaughter or great-granddaughter several generations down the line (which is only slightly less creepy).

There is another exegetical problem as well, only slightly less famous than the question of where on earth Cain got his wife—the question of his fear of being killed.  After God condemns Cain to a life of wandering far from his family farm (verses 11-12), Cain responds with an explosion of fear:  “My punishment is greater than I can bear! I shall be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth and it will come about that whoever finds me will kill me!”  His response presupposes the social condition wherein individuals were protected from harm by the threat of retribution on those who would harm them.  Briefly put, it was commonly understood back then that if you killed me, my family would retaliate by coming and killing you, and it was this certainty of family retribution on my behalf that kept me comparatively safe.  If one had no family to act as protection (the so-called “avenger of blood”; see Numbers 35:19) then one was vulnerable.  It was the prospect of this vulnerability that filled Cain with fear.

Once again we ask:  “Who was there to find Cain and kill him?  The human population in the narrative did not include Cain’s wife, much less a group of people who might stumble upon Cain as he wandered homeless and kill him?  Who was Cain imagining was out there?

Again commentators have tried to find more population along the lines taken for finding Cain’s wife, one of the commentators asserting that the text “suggests a family proliferation that spreads over centuries”.

There are problems with positing hidden and unnamed generations, especially in a text which is keen to keep tabs on such things (compare Genesis 5 with its meticulous list of names and ages).  Immediately after narrating the story of Cain, his wandering and his son Enoch, the narrator says, “And Adam knew his wife again, and she gave birth to a son, and named him ‘Seth’, for she said, ‘God has appointed me another offspring in place of Abel, for Cain killed him’”.

This would be an odd thing to say about a child born years or centuries after Abel’s death, for if Eve had children and grandchildren after Abel’s death (offspring from whom Cain could find a wife) then how could a child born much later be celebrated as Abel’s replacement?  The following chapter 5 with its meticulous table of births and ages makes it clear that that Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve’s first children, were followed by Seth, and then Enosh and then Kenan and then the others.  Mention of the age of the father at the birth of the next generation leaves no room for hidden inserted generations (as Archbishop Ussher was aware).

This fact does not reveal a mistake in the Bible, but the delicate artistry of the Biblical narrator.  What has clearly happened is he has taken a story set in a later time and moved it back chronologically to the dawn of the human race.  He did so to make the point that the history of humanity is the history of murder, and that we are a race of fratricides.  All human history is lived under the dark shadow of that primordial act of violence, and as Cain’s distant descendants our race continually re-enacts that violence, following in our father’s terrible footsteps.  As Larry Norman pointed out, Cain continues to kill Abel, but now with a bayonet.

Note:  Cain’s crime was not simply murder, but fratricide—i.e. the murder of a brother.  In our contemporary acts of violence and war, we do our best to hide this fact from ourselves by pretending that those we kill in times of war are people utterly unlike us.  We dehumanize (if not demonize) to make the killing easier.

When we had to fight the Germans, for example, they became not Germans, but “the Huns”.  The men killed in Viet Nam were not men like us; they were “Gooks”.  When we discover their actual names and see photos of their wives and children (as was famously discovered by both sides fighting each other in the First World War during the Christmas Truce) such killing becomes more difficult.  Then the one we kill is no longer just another Hun; he is Hans and is married to Greta and they have three beautiful children, Werner, Maria, and Rupert—children we are now making fatherless.  Hans is our brother, and his murder is fratricide.  That is the lesson which the Biblical narrator taught us when he situated Abel’s murder at the dawn of human history.

This does not, I suggest, mean that a nation should embrace strict pacificism and refuse to ever engage in war.  If it does, neighbouring nations which embrace no such happy policy will soon enough slaughter and enslave.  But though war is sadly necessary in this fallen world, it is always morally ambiguous.  If it is necessary, it is a necessary evil.  At the very least it should be treated like amputation is treated:  sometimes necessary for survival, but always to be avoided if possible.

It turns out that the Book of Genesis—often derided as primitive and uncivilized—has something to teach us moderns after all.  We human beings are wonderfully created and capable of beauty and nobility.  We build cities, we invent the lyre and the pipe and make music, we forge tools of bronze and iron (Genesis 4:17, 21-22).  We are also capable of acts of savagery and hatred, as history books so abundantly document. We slay our brother, and deny that we were ever our brother’s keeper.

This is the message of the Prophets as well as the Law.  In Isaiah 58 we are instructed in the kind of fast in which God delights and what we are to do with the food we do not eat:  share it with the hungry “and not hide yourself from your own flesh” (v.7).  Our own flesh?  Does this mean that the hungry beggar, ill-clothed and smelly, is my own flesh and blood, my family, my brother?  Yes.  Yes it does.

God calls us to remember Cain and Abel, and to know who our brothers truly are.  When he is hungry, we must feed him; when he is thirsty we must give him a drink.  For on the Last Day, we will find out that they were not merely our brothers, but even the least of them were brothers of our King (Matthew 25:40).

Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.