21. Genesis 4:17-24

I.  C. continued

4. The Descendants of Cain (Genesis 4:17-24)

We now follow the descendants of Cain and the descendants of Seth. The genealogy of Cain is not really a genealogy. There are no numbers given either for life spans or birth years. Cain and his descendants were a side line to the main story, a branch separating from the people who were charged with carrying the oracles of God. It is common to interpret the descendants of Cain and Seth as representing the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman, but I can’t fully agree. In the drama of the Messiah, the most visible representatives of the serpent are also descendants of Seth; the warfare was to be more of an internal family feud and not inter-racial. The descendants of Cain were the rest of the human race who went out from the presence of the Lord.

Cain named his first son Enoch, which means “consecration”, but the significance of this name to Cain is not clear. It is not even clear whether Enoch was born before of after Cain killed Abel, though we commonly assume Cain was unmarried until he left. If Enoch was born before Cain’s banishment, the name might have been an expression of faith, but if Enoch was born after Cain’s banishment, the name might have indicated defiance. But later when Cain built the first city and named it for his son, it was clearly an act of rebellion against the sentence pronounced on him to be a wanderer, as if he thought he could get out of the consequences of his crime by his own power. After all, there were no spirit police, no one to enforce the sentence. Who said he would have to be a wanderer on the earth? He would show God; he would build a city and settle down and not wander. And he would name both his son and his city a word which broadcast his defiance of God, claiming for himself what God had denied him and his offering. But as I pointed out previously, living physically in one place can’t cure the restlessness of spirit that finds no home in the world. Whatever Cain meant by using the name, there is no indication that he or his descendants ever expressed any desire for God or admitted any weakness or homesickness or sign of regret for what had been lost.

The degeneration in these spiritual nomads came to full blossom in Lamech. Lamech was the first recorded polygamist, so we should pause for a moment to discuss polygamy. It is important to give full attention to the fact that the Scripture never forbids polygamy. Under certain conditions the Law of Moses commanded men to have more than one wife. However, while polygamy may be permissible from the legalistic viewpoint, reintroducing polygamy into our culture would be a disaster. American men, one could say western men, find it difficult to be good husbands to one wife, much less to several. The chaos that would come out of polygamy in this culture would only make bad into worse.

It might be argued that polygamy would make adultery less common (David and Bathsheba is a contra-indicator here) and perhaps stabilize our families, which seem all too prone to breaking up. None of the polygamous families detailed in the Bible were much different from the dysfunction we have in our modern monogamous families, however. The evidence seems to indicate that a man who cannot learn contentment with one woman usually can’t learn contentment at all. The cause of adultery is not that men find it impossible to restrain themselves to only one woman; it’s that they were never sure they wanted to in the first place. It is not the number, the quantity, of wives that is the problem, it is the quality of the commitment. It is not strong desires but weak resolve that makes us fail, whether we are talking about fidelity in marriage, in friendship, in faith.

Lamech was designated as the source of nearly all that we now consider to be the marks of civilization. His first wife, Adah, was the mother of Jabal and Jubal. Jabal was the father of the nomadic peoples who lived in tents and kept herds, but Jubal was the father of music. The name “Jubal” is related to the Hebrew word meaning “sound”. This does not mean, necessarily, that Jabal and Jubal themselves personally were the sources of those innovations, though that could be what is meant. To be “the father” of something can mean that the thing originated with the descendants of that person. Once it had been invented, naturally music spread beyond the one family. The passage only says that it was Jubal or his descendants who first initiated the art of music. Lamech’s second wife, Zillah, gave birth to Tubal-cain, whose descendants were credited with the first metalworking among men, which is also a kind of art. If Lamech and his wives gave these names to their children then they were giving them prophetically of what the babies would become. It would be a strange thing if a descendant of Cain were the first prophet the human race produced. But the names might have been acquired in later life by reputation, or even given to them by later generations honoring them.

Moreover Tubal-cain’s sister, Naamah, is mentioned but without a reason being given. Since it is unusual for the genealogies to mention women without some particular purpose, her presence here is worth some attention. Naamah means “lovely” or “graceful”. If we consider the wives’ names as well, Adah means “adorned”, and Zillah means something like “jingling” which creates the image of a woman wearing a lot of jewelry. Given these meanings I wonder if Naamah, Adah and Zillah were the originators of cosmetics and jewelry, and perhaps even of fashion, as the men were the originators of music and metal working. This is not stated in the passage but may be hypothesized from it.

Music has been mentioned as originating with Jubal; Lamech himself was the source of poetry and drama. Drama is the focus of this passage, and Lamech’s speech to Adah and Zillah is in poetic form, making it the first recorded poem. The Hebrew of Lamech’s little speech is ambiguous. It is not clear if Lamech was confessing to a murder or if he was making a boast about what he would do if someone dared to touch him. Lamech’s speech was either bragging about a murder he had committed, turning it into a Tragedy in which he was the hero as well as the criminal; or else he was bragging about what he would do to anyone who crossed him, portraying himself as a Hero whose destiny was above the rules governing common mortals. It is one of the schemes of human culture to try to ennoble our fallen condition by recasting it as great drama, and Lamech initiated this grand tradition.

It is more glorious, after all, to play the role of  the tragic figure, even the victim, in the grand drama of life, than a mere fool and sinner. We are always looking for some way to make the sheer stupidity of evil less a blow to our pride, and drama is the perfect tool to do it. Formal plays and performances were many centuries down the road; the evolution of the dramatic tradition that he began was slow, but he was the first actor in the first script. The ancient myths were all in the dramatic form, and most of them were more tragedy than narrative. Lamech taught men how to dress up the results of evil choices in a palatable form, to make folly larger than life, to make it admirable, to make it glamorous, to make it noble. So when the earliest men began to make stories about their gods, since they could not imagine true goodness or glory, they made their gods into actors in grand plays to ennoble them as much as they could. The gods co-starred in the first great war epics. Lamech was the father of all those in our day who write about warfare as if it were noble.

Civilization and culture, I think, can be understood as “societal clothing”. We wear our civilization to hide our social nakedness like we wear our coats and ties to hide our physical nakedness. The world of fashion, the world of technology, the world of art, the world of the stage – in short, the whole world we live in – is designed to recast evil and decay in a more marketable form, to dress up the process of cultural and sociological disease as something beautiful in its own way. We clothe ourselves in custom and convention and these make our mutual interactions both possible and impossible. We find it impossible to speak or work with each other without certain rules of civility, but the rules are also the means for hiding our true selves. We would no more be honest with our neighbors than we would walk into town naked, and for fundamentally the same reason.

This does not mean that people of faith are to reject the trappings of civilization any more than people of faith are to reject clothing. We can no more live without the customs of society and civilization than we can live without clothes. Consider how God responded to the inventions of the children of Cain. His answer to the development of drama was not at all to despise and reject it. On the contrary, He outplayed us at our own game. He took up drama to His own purpose. He became the starring Actor in the greatest Tragedy of all time. The greatest drama ever conceived was performed for all the world to see in the history of Israel. The rest of Scripture is God’s play performed on His stage. Music was treated in the same way; whatever it’s original purpose, God took it as a central element in the worship of His people.

God does not despise civilization or culture because it is a result of what is left of His image operating in us. Though we are fallen and inevitably create ugliness along with beauty, it is still valued by Him who values us. The inventions of these children of Cain are expressions of  the true image of God, the creative impulse that comes from Him, and God respected those inventions even when their intent was hostile. Human culture may be used to defy God, to hide our shame, to exalt ourselves in a shameless manner, but it is also the very essence of what our existence was supposed to be. The proof of my contention is that God chose to preserve in the Scripture Lamech’s poem in his own praise and He didn’t even give a critical response to it, letting it stand on its own. We could all take a cue from His reaction and be a little less strident and defensive when our own culture expresses itself, even when it is arrogant or deceptive or blasphemous. If God does not defend Himself from cultural attacks, He certainly doesn’t need or want us to do it for Him.

To use a more biblical word, Lamech and his sons and wives and daughters invented the world. In the New Testament, the word that is translated “world” can mean two quite different things. First it can mean “nature”, the physical world we live in. Second it can mean the human world we live in, the mindset and trappings of what we call culture. The first world is the beloved of God; the second world is invariably portrayed as an enemy of God. The relationship of the Christian to the world, the second meaning, is a bit complex, summarized by that phrase “in the world but not of it”. Like so many profound phrases in the Bible, this is one that has been understood in extremely different ways by different people at different times. It has created the monastic movement, the Amish communities, the holiness movement, and modern capitalism.  Clearly Lamech and his family created a dilemma for us that we have not quite gotten a handle on even today.

So this is my take on it. I am a white, American, of the latter 20th century, strongly influenced by the 1960’s toward a social and political liberalism, strongly shaped by television, books, and music, marked by the events I have lived through and the people I have lived with. These all shape me just as my genetic heritage shapes me. They were all put into the mix by God Himself when He knit me together in my mother’s womb into a particular time and place and family. But unlike Lamech, He has lifted me above it all. He has given me eyes to see and a mind to judge my culture. I do not have to adopt it all. I can pick and choose which parts are helpful and which are not, which parts ought to be condemned, which parts ought to be tolerated, which parts may even be praiseworthy. In short, He has made me an outsider to my own people, my own culture, my own land. Only when we take out citizenship here in the world, only when we settle down, only when we fail to judge our own culture, but use it to judge both man and God, do we also become true children of Cain.

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