Thursday, August 25, 2005

But if ye had known what this meaneth (Gen 4:1-7)

Genesis 4:1 marks the first instance of the SAB's use of the sex icon. I'd like to say to the SAB's credit that having such a category is actually a good idea, and would like to point the casual reader of the SAB to the FAQ page where its usage is explained, since it can be confusing as to why the category exists. After all, is there something wrong with sex per se? Even most Christians don't think so, although as is pointed out, we often believe there is an excess of it in our culture, and we ought to not forget that the Bible has some rather disturbing sexual content in several of its books.

That being said, I'm not 100% sure I agree that the usage of the icon is warranted here. If the point of the icon is to show that there is nasty sexual content going on in the Bible, this is not one of those places. A man simply having sex with his wife is not only acceptable, it's a positive thing, even if you are among those people who believe sex is for procreation only, as Adam and Eve end up having a child.

Now it's important to note something about what the text does not say, and make some inferred guesses regarding it in order to make sense of a lot of what comes. The Bible does not say that Cain is the first offspring of Adam and Eve, nor that Abel is the second and Seth is the third. Chalk it partly up to sexism, and partly up to a method of fairly condensed storytelling, but daughters and less significant sons are pretty much left unmentioned through much of the Old Testament. (An interesting thing to note is that while these genealogies almost always give the ages of the men, there is only one woman in the entire O.T. whose age is ever mentioned.) There may have been many other children before the story of Abel's murder unfolds, but for the purpose of telling the story, only these two men are important enough to mention. Since the people in the pre-flood days lived so long and seemed to have children well into their old age, some have assumed that Adam and Eve may have had several hundred children and probably lived to see millions of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. (Assuming most people are living hundreds of years, start having children at age 30 and produce offspring at a rate of one every other year, by the time Adam is 250 years old, the world population is already over 2 million, and the world's present population could have easily been reached by the time Adam was 400! Of course, this sort of growth would eventually have to top out, or the population would be in the sextillions by the time of the flood, a stretch of any imagination.). In fact, if we take the numbers in Genesis 5 at face value, Adam nearly lived to see the birth of Noah, his great7-grandson.

All of that said, the names of Cain and Abel do suggest that they may be the first two offspring for thematic reasons. She gives this first child the name "Cain", which is similar in sound to the Hebrew words for "gotten" or "made". Regarding the prophecy in Genesis 3:15, Eve may have thought literally that her very first offspring would be the one to defeat the serpent, seeing as she's so excited about him. Whether or not, she seems exceedingly excited to have made a baby, and as such I think it is fairly safe to assume Cain was the first child. She seems far less impressed with the birth of Abel, whose name means something like "meaningless" or "temporary". Most Bibles note that this may be a foreshadowing of the fact that his life isn't destined to be very long.

Now comes the point of tension: Cain and Abel each offer up sacrifices to the Lord, but He doesn't like Cain's offering of vegetables, and has higher respect for Abel's offering of animals. Cain gets jealous. The SAB brings up two good points about this lead-in, both of which come under the categories of "injustice" and "contradiction". I'll discuss each one, but my response to both is similar.

First of all, the point that is being made in this passage is apparently that animal sacrifices are necessary in worshipping God. This is true. Aside from the point I already made about Adam and Eve's fur coats, we see animal sacrifices in this story, in the story of Noah, in the story of Abraham, in the Exodus, and so on, up until the final ultimate sacrifice of Jesus. The theme persists that sin must be covered by blood, discussed in Hebrews 9 and beyond. Yet the SAB gives numerous verses in which God says He doesn't want animal sacrifices. Actually, there are many more than are listed on that page, but the theme of those verses, if taken in context, are usually quite clear. When a person sins, there is a necessity of offering up a sacrifice to cover the sin. The idea, however, is that offering up all these sacrifices is going to make you aware of the evil of sin, and stop sinning. Using my parent-child metaphor, imagine a home that has one of those little "swear jars"; I've never had one, but perhaps some of you have, and for those not familiar, the idea is that every time someone says a bad word, they have to put money in the jar to pay a sort of fine. (The concept was used rather humorously in the sci-fi movie "Demolition Man".) Anyway, imagine a child who is required to put a nickel in the jar for each swear word. One day, the child goes up to the jar in front of their parent, puts in a dollar and says, "Just covering myself for the rest of the day. I'm feeling @*$&# feisty today!" It's not going to float. The parent (if they're smart and serious about the issue) is going to stop the child and explain to them that they don't need the money nearly so much as they need their child to understand that swearing is unacceptable. The best, most succinct statement of this concept is in 1Samuel 15:22, where the prophet says to King Saul;
Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.
In any case, the issue here is that Cain is doing his sacrifices wrong. This parallels modern do-it-yourself religion, in which a person may claim to be a follower of a particular religion, but don't really follow its tenets. For a period of time before I consider myself to have truly become a Christian, I used to claim to be a "Christian", but I lived my life no different from any atheist. I never even went to church, even once! And it's not just Christianity where this happens; I had a girlfriend for a while who claimed to be a Buddhist, but she ate meat. It is my understanding that vegetarianism is an important part of "The Noble Eightfold Path". (Buddhism is one of the non-Christian religions I hold in high regard; there's a lot of wisdom in it.)

The second issue is concerning whether God "respects" anyone. Well, yes and no. I think the real point of the verses in question that say, "God is no respecter of persons," is to say that God is not prejudiced. Most people in the world (in fact, I suspect just about everyone) will accept a person they have just met for the first time based on preconceived notions about their race, gender, and physical appearance. It's not necessarily a wrong thing, it's just the way our brains work: we tend to guess on the details that we don't know about, and base it on past experiences or things we have been taught by our schooling and culture. God is in a special position, however, in that He knows what a person is really like deep in their heart and mind, and doesn't have to depend on surface impressions. Once again, there is a particular verse that best shows this concept, and in fact, it's on the page I linked to on the SAB at the top of this paragraph. 1Peter 1:17
And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man's work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear:
Taking this apart, Peter is saying that He doesn't judge people for who they are, but for what they do, and the choices they make in life, so choose carefully. In the case of our passage here, Cain is making some poor choices, and we'll see throughout this chapter that He continues to make bad choices, as God warns him is likely to happen.

7 comments:

marauder said...

While I agree with your point regarding the blood sacrifice, I think there's another element you're overlooking: the quality of the sacrifice offered.

Genesis 4 says that Abel brought the best of his flocks. Cain, on the other hand, only brought some of his crops. The difference in the quality of the sacrifice is significant: bringing your best, or merely bringing something. That, I think, is the more important point.

Brucker said...

Interesting point, there certainly might be something to it. I didn't notice the subtle difference there. I do think one of the foremost reasons is that blood sacrifice is neccesary, but there's something compelling to imagining Cain saying, "Eh, alright, God, I guess you can have the broccoli..."

Na said...

I must admit I thought the sex icon might have been there because of incest; Eve is Adam's twin sister after all.

Blood sacrifice is barbaric. And even as a gruesome swear jar it's doesn't work here, there is nothing either of them has done wrong, God just wants the animal butchered as a recognition of his superiority. It's more like a bully getting other children to kill animals for the bully's own amusement.

Also the comment by marauder doesn't stand as the verse say nothing about the best of his flock, it says one of the firstlings, which just means one of the first offspring of the season.

David Learn said...

It's a cultural thing, Na; in our contemporary view, first does not necessarily equal best. In the culture of the ancient Hebrews, first generally was considered best because it was *first.*

Partly it was because there was never a guarantee that there would be second fruits, second flocks, or a second born; and partly because the first got the most attention because it was first; and probably partly some other reason.

The idea being expressed here is that qua farmer Abel had a successful lambing, but instead of being happy in his good fortune, he made the first show of his wealth into a sacrifice for God, in faith that God would give him successful lambings in the future. (And as Abel sacrificed a fat lamb, he was definitely not giving God the leftovers.)

Cain on the other hand, gave *some* of his crops. Not the first crops, nor the best crops. The implication is that Cain chose to be practical and make sure he would have a good harvest and could spare enough for a sacrifice, rather than making one.

As to the cruelty of the animal sacrifice, I read an interesting observation in a book two years ago about the development of Yahwism in ancient Israel.

It notes that under the Torah, only priests were allowed to kill animals. There's an obvious benefit there for the priestly class, since they get to eat some of the meat of any animal that has been sacrificed; but there is also the effect that Yahwists would have understood that an animal's life was not to be taken casually or lightly. In other words, there was a sense that even an animal's life was sacred, and killing the animal tainted the person doing so, unless the animal was being sacrificed.

Doesn't make animal sacrifice any less abhorrent to contemporary sensibilities, but I still thought it was an interesting insight. If I understand correctly, the method of sacrifice -- bloodletting -- was generally a lot more humane than what goes on at slaughterhouses today.

Brucker said...

Yes, but more importantly, do you agree with what that marauder guy says? (This is the second time I've tried to make a joke about your name lately; I should have just let it drop like last time.)

Na, I don't think his suggestion is a sure thing so much as a good suggestion for interpretation, especially given the larger context. The Bible talks in many places about the importance of giving your best to God, and often it's linked to giving the first. I think this is especially important when dealing with things that can't really be divided into "best" portions, such as money.

Many years back, I had a number of periods in my life in which I was supporting myself entirely through math tutoring. I recall one time, I figured out that in order to make it through the month, I needed to make $1,000 including giving 10% to the church. When I got my first tutoring job after working out those numbers, I'd tutored this guy for a good portion of a Saturday afternoon, and he gave me $100. The next day, I simply took that money and put it the offering bag at church. I honestly have never been very good at that sort of thing, but that moment was one of my better ones, and it felt good to say with that gesture, "Okay God, I'm trusting you for the other $900." At that moment, those five twenties were undoubtedly my "best" $100, because they were all the money I had.

Regarding relative cruelty of slaughter methods--so long as it's been brought up--both Judaism and Islam have laws not just pertaining to what kind of animals one is allowed to eat, but how such animals are to be slaughtered. Something I was not aware of until fairly recently, but find very interesting, is that it is against Islamic Law to hunt animals because (if I am not mistaken) a hunter cannot guarantee that s/he can kill an animal without causing it unnecessary suffering.

David Learn said...

Between you and me, Brucker, that marauder guy is a total jerk. I have it on good authority that he blew up at his wife yesterday and spent a good part of the morning ignoring his children. He needs get counseling or get his dosage increased or something, to spare everybody else his drama. I think I'd disagree with him on general principles, even if his ideas weren't so wrong-headed.

I hadn't realized you'd made a joke about the name before. For some reason, I'm not getting notices when someone adds a comment to these posts of yours. For that matter, I've no idea why Blogger is being inconsistent in how it shares my identity.

Brucker said...

You missed it because as I said in a rather unclear manner, last time, I didn't post my joke.

I think the change in your name probably has something to do with the integration of all things Google. I, for instance, have in the past had a YouTube account, a Blogger account, and a Gmail account, all separate, but Google has tried with incomplete success to merge them all, since they're all essentially the same account now. No doubt "marauder" was the name of your Blogger account, which has now been subsumed by your overall Google account.