This is where the story gets depressing for a while. Eviction from the garden is followed quickly by the world’s first murder, followed by more murder, followed by a list of people who seem to live for ridiculously long periods of time, followed by God finally throwing his hands in the air and deciding he’s had enough.
But at the beginning of Genesis 4, God hasn’t given up on creation. He’s still fighting for it. When Cain gets ticked over the whole prime-sheep-versus-leftover-fruit incident, God pulls him aside and gives what sounds vaguely like a coach delivering a halftime pep talk. God seems to think Cain can actually beat back the sinful impulse that wants to rule over him.
Cain doesn’t listen. He decides life would be better without his annoying little brother. Then God shows up and asks Cain where Abel is. Cain responds, famously, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Um, that would be a yes. Remember that whole “it is not good for the man to be alone” thing? If community and companionship are woven into the fabric of creation, then the whole thing hinges on whether we take responsibility for each other. Individualism and “each to their own” are poison to God’s creation.
Cain’s life becomes a story of what happens when we reject the idea that we are our brother’s (or sister’s) keeper. The alternative is a life of “restless wandering.” And that is Cain’s fate. He is driven out. Sent away.
Cain understands that he’s not being let off easy. He complains someone might kill him (kind of ironic, for a guy who probably hasn’t had time to wipe the blood off his hands). What surprises me is that God doesn’t go for the death penalty. Not only that, but he threatens to punish anyone who lays a finger on Cain.
Why? It’s not as if the capital punishment isn’t in the Bible. It’s mentioned as the penalty for a number of crimes — and not just murder. So whatever happened to justice? Retribution? Deterrence?
Apparently God already knows what we’ve yet to figure out after all these years. The only thing violence ever leads to is more violence. In the words of the great theologian, Commissioner Gordon from Batman Begins (I know, I know, he doesn’t get to be commissioner until the Dark Knight): “We start carrying semi-automatics; they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar; they buy armor-piercing rounds.”
Maybe God’s mercy on Cain is his attempt to short-circuit the escalation. Apparently, God still thinks we’re worth saving from our worst impulses.
Unfortunately, a few generations later, a guy called Lamech loses the plot. He seems to think being Cain’s descendant means he’s got a divine license to kill. What he doesn’t realize is that God’s protection of Cain was meant to stop the violence, not give his descendants free reign to wreak havoc without fear of reprisal.
Things are looking pretty bleak. But there are threads of hope. Which is exactly what you’d expect in a world filled with the “knowledge of good and evil.”
In some ways, Adam and Eve got exactly what they were promised when they ate the forbidden fruit. In Hebrew, to “know” can be a euphemism for intimacy… as in, “Adam knew his wife, and nine months later, out popped Cain.” Knowledge isn’t just intellectual awareness of something; it’s an experience of it.
Knowledge can also imply control over something, as in, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jeremiah 1). Which may explain why the thought of possessing the “knowledge of good and evil” was so tantalizing to Adam and Eve. It meant control. Power.
In reality, it meant engaging in an endless (and often losing) struggle against evil… as in, “Sin desires to have you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4).
But the good news is, if there’s knowledge of evil, then there must be knowledge of good, too. All is not lost. The ground still yields food. Women still give birth and perpetuate the human race. While some of Eve’s descendants, like Lamech, make violence; others make tools and musical instruments. Some even call on the name of God.
Even at its worst, God cannot bring himself to give up on the world. Not entirely, because there is still good to be found in it — in the person of Noah.
For me, the stories of Genesis 4-6 are a reminder that we’re meant to participate in the struggle between good and evil here and now, not sit and wait for it to be settled in some distant future apocalyptic event. It is this world that God cares about, and this world that he still hasn’t given up on.