Contextual interpretation in Genesis: Cain’s mark

I suppose it goes without saying that approaching the Bible as contextually bound literature leaves you asking different questions and giving different answers.

In the comments of one my posts awhile back, someone expressed bemusement about why God protected Cain after he killed Abel. Not striking him down is easily answerable as an early expression of divine mercy — but did He have to go and make sure nobody killed him? Would it not have been more in line with God’s general practice (especially the OT God) to respond to Cain’s plea for clemency, “Yes, they probably will kill you. He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” Think of the cataclysmic consequence of the wickedness of Cain’s line (the Flood) that God could have nipped in the bud by simply allowing vengeance to be taken on Cain. One might make an argument from within a certain theological system that this was an example of God essentially ordaining evil for His own sovereign purposes. The pernicious hermeneutical principle referred to as analogia fidei (the analogy of faith; “letting Scripture interpret Scripture”) goes about interpreting passages like these by ignoring relevant context and stringing unrelated Scriptures together along the flimsy string of theology the interpreter started with and insists upon reading into every nook and cranny.

This question is indeed puzzling so long as one approaches the Cain and Abel narrative as history. But I wouldn’t expect to learn much about Cain as an historical figure, since Genesis is not eyewitness history, and probably not sourced by written documents, either. Of course, I doubt there is much in Genesis that wasn’t based in the cultural memory of the Israelites or their neighboring cultures. However, the remnants of actual oral history in Genesis (more legendary than mythological) don’t seem to kick in until Abraham in chapter 12 where the style markedly changes. This material, while based on relatively recent oral history compared to the antiquity of the material in the first chapters, has been stylized and edited by the writer(s) in a fashion similar to what we refer to as saga in Icelandic literature: stories of family history, idealizing the exploits of revered ancestors and cultural heroes, at times reveling even in their mistakes.

What we read in Genesis should not be interpreted outside of a recognition of its original value and purpose: in the Old Testament, in which the heritage and history of the Hebrews’ interaction with YHWH is the main attraction, the cultural background of the Hebrews is the stage upon which it plays out. The historicity of these events does not matter in terms of redemptive history; what is important is that Israel began and maintained a covenant relationship with YHWH, and so a precise play by play of the events in historiographic fashion was not so important to them as it would be to us.

To date, I’ve seen no compelling reason to doubt that there were indeed important individuals in the anterior tribal history who correspond to the patriarchs and the children of Jacob (although I don’t know that we should bank on the precise familial relationship between them). However, the actual names of many individuals credited with being the single progenitor of people groups were probably based upon the supposition that tribal names continued patronyms — a reasonable, if not particularly reliable, extrapolation. This ancient crosscultural practice of depositing eponyms as characters in stories of the ancient past resulted in stories of individuals who, like the fabled founder of Rome, Romulus, may have never existed; in Scripture, the historicity of Ammon and Moab, whose parentage was perhaps not coincidentally as scandalous as their descendants the Ammonites and Moabites were problematic from the viewpoint of Israel. It seems likely that the name variation between Abraham/Abram and Jacob/Israel was an etiological explanation unifying the differences between multiple cultural traditions. The stories about how God changed their names are obviously just as instructive of God’s character and illustrative of the unfolding relationship between Him and Israel as if the stories were historical.

When we look at the Cain story within its literary context, we notice that Cain’s survival has an important place within the overall narrative of Genesis. God’s forbearance and even protection was a necessary plot device – how could there be ungodly descendants of Cain (an important story line in Genesis that probably came from an older tradition) inversely paralleling the godly descendants of Seth if Cain got struck down before he begat someone who would make his line a contender with Seth’s? Another consideration is that perhaps “the mark of Cain” was something already a part of their cultural lexicon and that this story was a way of situating that well-known idea within a context that made it relevant and helped along the story line.

However, given the moralistic intent of the Pentateuch, it seems likely to me that these stories also served as morality tales, which suggests that the story of God’s protection of Cain was included for other reasons than showing why he lived long enough to have offspring. This story ostensibly had a place within the larger redemptive context like the rest of Genesis (and the Bible, for that matter). Along those lines, one lesson from this story that I think was quite likely to be in the minds of the redactors was that the wicked can only live and prosper because God allows it; He has a special path for His followers, but allows the wicked a place in His economy, or they wouldn’t be here.

And so I end this little exercise with a lesson not so different from what I might have (and others probably have) drawn out without even considering the literary and cultural context. But I certainly don’t mean to imply that we needn’t bother reconstructing literary and cultural background. In fact, the opposite is true. My proposition of what the authors may have meant may not be correct after all, and I’ll gladly listen to other options. But my point is that:

  1. We should focus our efforts on extracting the theological intent(s) of the authors of Scripture based upon reading them in their context (cultural and literary) rather than fooling ourselves into expecting that every conceivable inference we might make a good sermon out of was actually intended by the authors and by God (this all too popular hermeneutic philosophy is sometimes called interpretive maximalism).
  2. While sometimes interpreting obscure Scripture based upon our pre-determined theological constructs may end up pointing roughly in the right direction (and indeed may corroborate the validity of the construct), this is precisely the reverse order of what it should be. We can be confident in our coordinating systems only as long as the interpretations composing them are sound contextual readings.

In short, we don’t use our heirloom china to feed the dog or to prop open a window; likewise, we show more respect for the sacred text when we are doing our best to use it in the precise manner in which it was intended to be used.

Any other thoughts on Cain?

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