Only a few pages into the story of the Bible, the story starts to get really bleak. Cain kills his brother Abel, Cain’s descendants become famous murderers, and Noah’s youngest son violates his father and mother. And all of it happens because humans decide that power is worth the cost of harming others. In this episode, Tim and Jon discuss the dark side of human nature and the God who favors the powerless—the people who choose to trust him for blessing and exaltation.
God’s response to Cain is essentially, “You’re assuming that there’s no exaltation for you too, just because I went to [your brother Abel] first. So now you’ve got a choice whether you will do good or not do good, based on this moment. And be careful because there’s an animal at the door. Moral failure is like an animal. It wants you, but just like I called your parents to rule over the animals and they didn’t––they let an animal rule them––you have a chance to rule this inner animal. What are you going to do?”
In part one (00:00-17:05), Tim and Jon review our study of the theme of the firstborn so far. The first time we encounter the theme of the firstborn is in the creation narrative in Genesis 1-2. Spiritual beings are the firstborns of creation, while humans are seen as the exalted second-borns.
Genesis 3 lays out the rivalry between (some) spiritual beings and humans and the temptation for both to act independently of the will of God. There’s an interesting tension to this theme, present in the (understandable) discomfort of firstborns when Yahweh elevates people who seem undeserving. It’s easy for us to look at God’s generosity to someone else and fear that there will not be enough left for us—enough time, resources, or blessing. But God’s generosity is inexhaustible. His generosity to one person or group of people doesn’t mean he won’t be generous to us too. The Cain and Abel story will explore this tension.
In part two (17:05-32:06), Tim and Jon begin exploring the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4.
So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brough an offering, from the firstborn of his flock and from their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his face was gloomy.
Cain was the firstborn son of Adam and Eve, but Yahweh favored Abel’s sacrifice. They both bring acceptable offerings, and while there are details we could point to that would possibly explain why Yahweh favored Abel’s offering, the bottom line is he favored the second-born son.
There’s nothing in the narrative that indicates Yahweh wouldn’t have blessed both Abel and Cain. He looked with favor upon Abel first, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that he couldn’t bestow favor on both brothers. In fact, Yahweh’s response seems to suggest this.
[Yahweh said,] “If you do well, will your face not be cheerful? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Cain is tormented by the same doubt the snake communicated to Eve in Genesis 3. Can God’s generosity be trusted? Will there be enough blessing for everyone?
In part three (32:06-45:29), the guys wrap up their conversation about Cain and Abel.
Many of us know the rest of the story: Cain kills Abel, and Yahweh asks a similar question to the one in Genesis 3:9 (“Where are you, [Adam]?”). He asks Cain, “Where is Abel?” (Gen. 4:9) And like his parents, Cain tries to deflect the question. Just like God didn’t immediately enforce the death penalty on Adam and Eve, he also shows remarkable grace to Cain. Yahweh exiles Cain but promises to protect him seven times over if anyone decides to harm him.
Cain travels east and eventually builds a city, which he names after his firstborn son. The narrator makes no comment on this choice, but if Genesis 4 were a movie, ominous, foreboding music would begin playing here (Gen. 4:17). Just a few generations later, Cain’s descendant, Lamech, commits murder and claims the generosity God extended to Cain without even asking Yahweh to be generous to him. This becomes part of the cycle of human evil in the Hebrew Bible. Humans think they have a right to God’s grace and generosity and live like they can manipulate God’s mercy to justify their evil.
The evil that started with Cain progresses with his descendants, and the narrator refrains from commenting on the progression. However, Genesis 4 ends with a “reboot” of Adam and Eve’s genealogy. Adam and Eve have a third son, Seth, and God’s chosen people will come from his descendants. In response to human failure and power struggles, God will raise up a third-born son to be his representative.
Cain’s descendants and Seth’s descendants all have similar names, which is a literary strategy to show that the two family trees are hard to tell apart at times. Cain’s family represents the seed of the snake, and Seth’s family represents the seed of the woman, the two families God said would always be at odds with each other in Genesis 3. The narrator wants us to understand that there is often crossover between which family displays snake and image-bearing characteristics.
In part four (45:29-01:08:11), Tim and Jon discuss another case of sibling rivalry—this time among Noah’s three sons.
When Noah leaves the ark, he’s accompanied by his sons, named by the narrator out of birth order: Shem, Ham, Japeth. Noah shortly takes up farming, plants a vineyard, and gets drunk off his own wine. What follows is a family scandal that will divide his sons.
He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness.
In response, Noah curses Ham and blesses Shem and Japeth.
Blessed be Yahweh, the God of Shem; and may Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and may he live in the tents of Shem; and may Canaan be his servant.
Japeth was Noah’s oldest son, but Noah elevates Shem, his middle child, above all three. Ham, the youngest son, remains at the bottom of his family lineage after attempting a power grab in his father’s tent. “Seeing Noah’s nakedness” is an idiom that seems to suggest that Ham took advantage of Noah’s wife sexually—a way of assuming dominance in the family. Again and again in the theme of the firstborn we see the tendency of humans to think that ends justify means. In this case, Ham justifies violating his own father and mother so he can get ahead.
The Bible is brutally honest about human behavior and motives. When we are confronted with these disturbing parts of human nature, Jesus’ teachings are even more shocking. In the Beatitudes, Jesus says people who know God but are powerless—appearing like they’re living the opposite of a blessed life—are actually the blessed ones because God can be trusted to make all things right (when we choose not to take matters into our own hands).
Show produced by Cooper Peltz with Associate Producer Lindsey Ponder. Edited by Dan Gummel, Tyler Bailey, and Frank Garza. Podcast annotations for the BibleProject app by Hannah Woo.
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