For too long we have read Genesis 3 as a story about individuals, and Genesis 4 as a story about some other individuals. Genesis 3–4 is a communal story. It describes how human society sinks to something that is less than human when it resists God’s authority. Adam and Eve grasped power that belonged to God. Their son grasped power over his brother. The society Cain founds is a long way from God’s intentions for humanity.
Gen 4:16 (paraphrased)
Then Cain went away from YHWH’s presence to live in the land of Wandering, the opposite direction from God’s palace.
Cain is still in God’s kingdom, living under royal protection. But without God’s presence, his life is a vacuum. He tries to overcome the emptiness by collecting people around him—building a city (4:17). The cities in Genesis are resistant to God’s rule: Nimrod’s city (10:12), Babel (11:4-8), and Sodom (13:12; 18:24). Cain names his city after his son Enoch (not the Enoch of Seth’s line who walked with God). In doing so, Cain is claiming power over these people, power he expects to pass on to his son.
Cain’s descendants populate the world, since Abel died without children (4:18). They decide their own values—polygamy and nomadic travel (4:19-20). They find meaning in creativity, developing musical instruments and learning to forge bronze and iron (4:21-22). These metals had useful applications, but an ancient listener would have been aware of their dark side: they provided the military advantage for the Bronze Age and the Iron Age.
By the seventh generation, what Cain did to Abel has become the norm. The City of Enoch is dominated by physical force. The song they all know is of their hero Lamech standing between his two women and bragging about his prowess:
Gen 4:23-24 (my translation)
I’ve killed a man for scratching me, a child for bruising me.
Cain’s revenge was sevenfold? Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold!
Lamech mocks the divine justice promised to Cain. There is no human government yet to enforce an eye for an eye and a life for a life, so Lamech enforces his own justice: 77 eyes for an eye; 77 lives for a life. His answer to violence is greater violence.
The real tragedy is that Lamech’s boast stands unanswered. No longer does their sovereign come to investigate the crimes as he did previously. Lamech kills a man, even a child! YHWH has gone silent.
Is life hopeless now? Has God abandoned us? Do the killers take over? Is that how the story ends?
We sink in despair. It is then that the narrator throws us a lifeline.
Abel’s death is not the end of the godly community. Seth is born. His son is born. Seth names his son Enosh meaning Human—just like Adam (4:25-26). Despite the murderous violence of Cain and his descendants, humanity lives on. This community does not rely on human strength for justice. In their suffering they present their pleas to their sovereign:
At that time they began to call on the authority of YHWH.
While this verse is often read as the beginning of worship, we need to transcend our cultural perspective. They did not distinguish prayer from politics. Calling on the name of YHWH was a plea to the sovereign for justice (Psa 14:4; 79:6 and so on). Calling on YHWH’s name is the alternative to taking matters into our own hands as Lamech did.
At this point of the story, there are two communities. One lives outside YHWH’s presence, relying on human strength. The other still has YHWH’s presence, and calls on his name in their suffering. A Hebrew listener would be very familiar with this way of understanding the world as the godly community versus those who rely on human power.
God is still sovereign of the whole earth. Seth’s community experiences his reign in ways that the City of Enoch does not, yet even Cain was not outside the reach of the sovereign’s reign and protection. The main point of Genesis 1–11 is the global scope of God’s kingly authority. He does not push himself on those who turn from his authority, but he is still Lord of all.
What others are saying
Can you suggest some current biblical scholars who read Genesis 3-4 like this, i.e. as the roots of society as we experience it? If you can, please post a comment. I can find this approach in earlier times (e.g. see how Augustine handles Cain in The City of God Book XV).
K. A. Matthews recognizes something of the significance of Lamech’s poem in Genesis 1-11:26, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 288:
In Lamech’s poem, the so-called “Song of the Sword,” he boasts before his wives his prowess as a combatant, and he revels in the glory of his victims (vv. 23–24). It indicates that violence encircles Cain’s lineage since Lamech claims that he is provoked by another who injured him.
Read Genesis 4:16-26.