Having set the groundwork for humanity’s story in Genesis 1-3, we can begin to take chapter-sized pieces of the text as representatives of the whole. For example, the story in Genesis 4 is a great representative of the entire scene from 4-11. The story forms a part of the Hebrew canon and is therefore wrapped in the powerful garb of the sacred. The text deals deliberately with the interaction of God and humanity, specifically mentioning God’s sacred name eight times in only sixteen verses (v. 1,3,6,9,10,13,15-16). The story begins with a gift from YHWH and ends with His curse. The sacred function of the story is seen in how it establishes a break from the lineage of Adam. The blessing of God continues through another line (Genesis 5), and Adam’s Lamech is not Cain’s Lamech (Gn 4:23-24; 5:25-31). This dividing of lineage’s and the descent of God’s blessing foreshadows both the remainder of Genesis and the covenant theology of the entire Hebrew canon.
The story is structured to resemble history without being intended as a typical historical account. While the pagans of the ancient world were telling stories of the gods fighting in the sky, the Hebrew people were writing stories of people with names and explaining how their everyday actions brought them into the story of God. Unlike a parable, chapter four does not begin, “a certain man had two sons.” The characters are identified by names, given geographical context (v. 16), and attached to a larger presentation of history-like material (Genesis 4-5). On the other hand, the story is not told as traditional history. It does not function merely to inform, but rather contributes to the understanding of a unique worldview. “Sin,” a word used for the first time in Genesis 4:7, is being explained for all of us to understand.
Having born children (v. 1-2), humanity begins to see how disregard for God’s will and purpose will affect their lives. As the story opens, Cain is angry over the Lord’s preference for Abel’s sacrifice (v. 3-5). The story does not explain why God prefers one sacrifice over the other, only that he did. Cain responds to this with anger, rather than by simply doing what God wanted the next time around. The Lord warns Cain by explaining that his choice of anger over a change of heart will lead to greater consequence:
“Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6-7)
Like so often in the Bible’s story, God’s warning will be ignored.
Cain leads his brother out into a field and murders him, choosing a path of violence that will characterize humanity from this time forward (v. 8). It is interesting to note that Abel doesn’t get to speak a single line in this story. Though the victim, the story is not about him. He only speaks through his blood, the tell-tale sign of his brother’s violent sin (v. 10). Cain refuses to take responsibility for his brother or for his own actions, saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (v. 9) Cain’s violence results in a frightening curse, further exile from God and even from his family (v. 10-12). Violence breeds violence, and Cain recognizes that he is in great danger as a “fugitive and wanderer on the earth” (v. 14). In fear, Cain begs for leniency, and God responds by pledging to prevent any violence toward Cain with the penalty of “sevenfold” vengeance against any that would do him harm (v. 15).
However, the story does not end here. Chapter four continues with the brief account of Lamech, Cain’s great, great, great grandson (v. 17-19). What this section tells us is that the legacy of Cain’s violence lives on in his children (v. 23). Lamech claims an even greater vengeance than God offered to Cain, “seventy-sevenfold” (v. 24).
This story depicts for us the downward spiral of humanity. Later, in chapter six, violence reaches its tipping point and God determines to end it (6:11-13). The escalating violence spills out on the earth. The violence of humanity is silenced by the waves of a flood. At the end of the story, God restrains human vengeance (9:6), as well as his own upon his creation (9:11). However, humanity quickly returns to his old ways.
Thus, for the chapters from three to eleven, the story can be summarized as a tale of sin and consequence, of violence and death, of humanity falling downward and away from God. The question prompted by the story is twofold. Can God continue to work out his purpose for humanity after all this carnage? And if he is able, will he bother?