Text: Moses 5:16-41; 6:26-63; 7:13, 17-47, 68-69
As always, time compels us to be selective in what we focus on. Today, it’s all about Cain.
First off, we need to understand that Cain has nothing to do with Canaan. That association is an accident of English transliteration and pronunciation. They sound similar in English, but in Hebrew Cain/qayin (accent on first syllable) has no relation at all with Canaan/kena’an (kuh-nah-ahn, accent on middle syllable.) If there’s any descent of Cain in the Bible, it’s… Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, who is a Kenite. Or rather, a Cain-ite, if we’re being more consistent. As the intro paragraph of the Anchor Bible Dictionary article on Kenites says, “The Kenites—or more correctly the Qenites—were a community or clan whose ancestry was traced to an eponym, biblical Cain (Heb qayin ). The Kenites constituted a non-Israelite group, frequenting the wilderness near Sinai…” The text thus portrays Moses marrying Jethro’s daughter Zipporah, a non-Israelite who is the namesake of Cain, if not a descendant.
If Cain has nothing to do with Canaan, he does have something in common with Cainan/qeynan who appears in Genesis 5:9-12. (See the genealogy discussion below.)
Cain and Master Mahan- I think this is a great opportunity to bring a human-centric and Christ-centric focus to the lesson. Cain’s great secret is the Satanic revelation of converting people into property and wealth, dehumanizing them for gain.
“Truly I am Mahan, the master of this great secret, that I may murder and get gain. Wherefore Cain was called Master Mahan, and he gloried in his wickedness… while they were in the field, Cain rose up against Abel, his brother, and slew him. And Cain gloried in that which he had done, saying: I am free; surely the flocks of my brother falleth into my hands.”
Along with murder for money, modern evils like human trafficking, slavery, drugs, and prostitution are all based on the idea of dehumanizing exploitation of a fellow son or daughter of God for personal gain of some kind.
One thing that is not usually recognized about the Old Testament is its care for the disadvantaged and those who have no social power. You see this repeatedly in Deuteronomy’s concern for “the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner.” In Israelite culture, these people had fewer family/clan/tribal connections and were particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Therefore they were singled out to be particularly taken care of, and not exploited for personal gain. In their actions and attitudes towards these people, the Israelites were to remember their own crummy experience and mistreatment as “resident aliens” and “foreigners” in Egypt.
“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.23 If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; 24 my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. (Exo 22:21-24 NRS)
19 ¶ When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the [foreigner], the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings.20 When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the [foreigner], the orphan, and the widow.21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 22 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this. (Deu 24:19-22 NRS)
Part of the terms of the law of Moses was binding oneself under curses for violating the law (see below.) One of those clauses was as follows. “Cursed be anyone who deprives the [foreigner], the orphan, and the widow of justice.” All the people shall say, “Amen!” (Deu 27:19 NRS)
Indeed, one of God’s characteristics in the Old Testament is that he is one “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the [foreigners], providing them food and clothing.” (Deu 10:18 NRS) Isaiah commands to “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil,17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isa 1:16-17 NRS) And Malachi reserves God’s judgment “against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.” (Mal 3:5 NRS)
Cain’s secret was to sacrifice the lives of others for his personal gain, but Christ’s example and call to discipleship was to sacrifice his own life for the gain of others. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13 KJV) “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mat 16:26 KJV) “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Mat 6:25 NRS)
Thought questions– We live in complex society very different from those we find in the Old and New Testaments, which were different from each other as well. In what ways might we (surely unwittingly) be following Cain’s example instead of Christ’s in converting life into property? Do we “oppress the hireling in his wages” or “deprive the foreigner of justice”? Do our purchasing habits contribute to or alleviate these problems? We rarely see the whole chain that our goods and services come through anymore (we’re not buying direct from the farmer or producer), so are there more direct interpersonal things I can do to emulate Christ more than Cain in this way?
- Hugh Nibley explored the idea of Master Mahan in his writings .
- Steve Evans looks at Master Mahan and the potential abuse of power inherent in secrets… using Batman.
- Elder Oaks discusses this principle in connection with our finances, in The Ensign, October 1986.
- For LDS history on Cain and the curse, see here from Russell Stevenson, and here from me. I’ve also used the curse on Cain to talk about tradition and “doctrine creep.” On curses in general, see below.
What kind of text? Several times in the blogs so far, I’ve hinted at how these chapters shouldn’t be read, namely as some kind of documentary history. (Modern history writing is messy, and ancient history writing is worse.) The texts themselves have strong indications that we shouldn’t be reading them strictly historically. Walter Moberly has an excellent chapter exploring this, quoted below. He says, “The problem posed by this narrative is simple. Its internal details are in significant ways at odds with its context at the outset of human life upon earth.” Ancient readers also noticed these problems. The most obvious one is, who did Cain and Abel marry?
Other details at odds with the setting suggest that the Cain/Abel story originally had a different setting that assumed the existence of (many?) other people and a developed society.
1) The specialization of labor into shepherd (Cain) and farmer (Abel) does not fit well with the notion of only a handful of people, but seems to presume a population significantly larger than four.
2) Cain should have ample and frequent opportunity alone with Abel, yet must get him out into the “open countryside” in order to kill him.
3) When Cain is cast out, he worries about “everyone who finds” him, who might take vengeance (v. 14). Who are all these people? Shouldn’t Cain literally have thousands of square miles of potential solitude and safety?
4) While Cain is condemned to be a “fugitive and wanderer” (v.14, NRSV), he immediately settles down to build a city (v. 17), which “presupposes the kind of population density and organization that are also presupposed at the outset by the roles of shepherd and farmer, and it is at odds with the story’s own location at the very beginnings of human life on earth.”
5) Several of Cain’s near descendants are described as founding fathers of genealogical lines of cultural knowledge and technology, a description that seems unaware of the death of all humans just a few chapters later. In short, the details provided are both necessary to the story, but also render it virtually impossible in its supposed setting.
Yet another of these indicators comes in the confused genealogies of chapters 4 and 5, as identical or very similar names appear in competing Sethite and Cainite genealogies. This suggests a confused tradition that became split. That is, there was some kind of tradition about the past, that was duplicated, and then put together. The screenshot illustrating this below (from the Word Biblical Commentary) shows how these same or very similar Hebrew names became embedded in two different genealogies.
Covenants and Curses
Satan says to Cain in Moses 5:29 “Swear unto me by thy throat, and if thou tell it thou shalt die.” Since this kind of thing is fairly universal, I’m not making any claims about it and antiquity. But since I had quite an interest in the form and function of curses in graduate school, I can’t let it go by.
Two points. First, in the Hebrew Bible, God sometimes swears by his nephesh (Jer 51:14, Amo 6:8). While nephesh in Heb. has mostly taken on the meaning of life/soul/self, it sometimes retains its earlier meaning of throat/neck (e.g. Isa. 5:14.) The cognate noun in Akkadian and Ugaritic means throat/life/soul as well. The implication in swearing by one’s throat is, as Satan makes explicit, is that one swears the oath on pain of death.
(My UChicago compatriot who dissertated on oath structures asked if this meant God’s life was in danger, since a pledge that can’t be fulfilled is worthless as a pledge.)
Second, contrary to some, the Israelites engaged in oaths and covenants of just this kind. It was built-in to the Law of Moses in several places (Exodus 24, Deu. 11 and 29), and also part of a common oath structure. “May God do thus (Heb. coh “like so”) to me, if I do not do X.” To pick one of many such statements on this,
the word כה [cōh, “like so, thus”] may suggest that this oath formula was accompanied by an act, speech, or gesture that suggested the manner of punishment in case of violation of this oath. In speculating on the nature of this act, scholars offer various possibilities: it is a verbal enumeration of punishments that would occur in case of its violation; a symbolic gesture or act intended to clarify the implied pun ishment in case of violation, such as an index finger moving across the throat [there’s our nephesh, or throat] or another gesture of threatened punishment; or a ritual act involving the slaughter of animals. In this situation, the slaughtered animal would represent the punish- ment which God is invoked to execute against the violator of the oath.Support ers of this theory cite 1 Sam 11:7, in which the words כה יעשה לבקרו refer to Saul’s symbolic act of cutting up a pair of oxen in order to indicate what will happen to anyone who does not join the battle against Ammon.
-Yael Ziegler, “‘ So Shall God Do . . .’: Variations of an Oath Formula and Its Literary Meaning” Journal of Biblical Literature 126:1 (2007): 62-63.
This kind of thing also happens in the Book of Mormon. For more, see my post at Times&Seasons, the page at MormonMonastery about covenants with blessings/cursings, Jeff Lindsay’s short discussion of a similar article in relation to Ruth, and my podcast on Ruth discusses it a little also.
As for the mark on Cain, note that it is to protect him from being killed. Nothing about the mark is negative here. It is divine gift, a protection for Cain. (And it shoul go without saying, there’s nothing here in Genesis that might suggest the mark is black skin.) Now, again, if Cain is only one generation removed from the lone couple single-handedly populating the entire world, just who are all these people he fears will kill him when he leaves the family to become a wanderer? As Walter Moberly points out, the “internal details [of these early chapters] are in significant ways at odds with its context at the outset of human life on the earth.” See his excellent chapter, “How Should One Read the Early Chapters of Genesis?” in Reading Genesis After Darwin (Oxford Press, 2011), p.7.
As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through making your regular Amazon purchases through the Amazon links I post. You can also get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box on the right). You can also follow Benjamin the Scribe on Facebook.