By Bishop Todd Townshend
The first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis are so loaded with meaningful images that “it’s taking forever!” you might say, just to go through what is called the “pre-history”—these stories that imply meaning for life in every age.
This week, we’re going to look at three separate stories that occur “East of Eden” completing this section: Cain and Abel, chapter 4. Noah and the Flood, chapter 6. And the Tower of Babel, chapter 11.
Next week, we’ll be taking a trip to “Camp Huron” on the shores of Lake Huron, our diocesan summer camp. It’s an unusual summer there but it is one of the great places that our children and youth learn about God, Creation, and human life in relation to God. So, the video will happen there.
Then, the following week, as a preview to the next major section of Genesis, we’ll look at three important women in these stories—Eve, Sarah, and Hagar—and what a difference it makes to pay attention to their perspectives.
Ok, on to these three stories.
As we saw in Chapter 3, things go wrong for the humans pretty quickly. And now, when we pick the stories up again in Chapter 4, it is clear that things are still not right. The humans, Adam and Eve, have given in to the temptation to arrange the world according to what suits them. They wanted to run their own show, without any need for God. And there they are, east of Eden, not in God’s garden anymore. God is still with them, God is beginning the great reconciliation project, but things are not right out there.
In Genesis chapter 4, we see that Adam and Eve have children. Children usually provide all the drama a narrative needs and it is no different here. The drama of Cain and Abel shows us that it is tough enough to try to live in God’s world according to God’s terms—as Adam and Eve found out—but a second dilemma is learning how to live with God’s other creatures, specifically other human creatures. How can we live in peace with our human siblings?
The first child born is Cain. Then comes Abel. Cain’s name means, “to get, to create.” As first-born, he embodies future possibility. Abel’s name means, “vapor, nothingness”, which is a rather dismissive start. Have you met my boys, “everything” and “nothing”!?
From the start, Abel is dismissed and Cain is the embodiment of vitality. Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. The siblings want to worship God by making an offering. Both bring their best offering. Both had reason to expect that God would accept their best. There was no hint of rivalry or hostility.
The trouble doesn’t actually begin with Cain, but with Yahweh (YHWH, one of the names for God). Here, Yahweh, the God of Israel, accepts one gift and rejects the other. There is no explanation given for this, but in some kind of “capricious freedom” (Brueggemann), God unfairly accepts Abel’s offering and rejects Cain’s. This creates a crisis. It evokes the shadow side of the sibling relationship and Cain’s face falls as his gift is rejected. He is angry.
“Why are you angry Cain?” At this point, Yahweh is the least likable character in the story. “Cain”, Yahweh asks, “if you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
This is the first mention of sin in the bible and Yahweh seems to be creating tensions in the humans to reveal the challenge of being human, East of Eden. Cain does not master his desire to do violence, he invites his brother Abel out into the field, and he kills him.
Here again is this term “desire”. Sin was waiting like a hungry lion ready to leap. Yahweh has told Cain that he can master this desire, but he doesn’t. Abel is dead. Cain is a murderer.
When asked, “where is your brother?” Cain takes no responsibility for his brother. And that angered Yahweh. Cain is investigated, sentenced to banishment, sent away from the presence of the LORD. And as he’s escorted out… further east of Eden, I guess. But again, the LORD has mercy and puts a mark of protection on Cain so that no one would kill him.
So, there’s happy story number one. Humans have trouble dealing well with one another. Humans will have to learn to resist sin. Violence against your brother will not be tolerated.
Of course, the story is much more complicated and ambiguous than that so, if you have the inclination, I suggest reading read John Steinbeck’s book, “East of Eden” for the best literary exposition I know for this part of Genesis.
That’s not the last brother story we’re going to encounter in Genesis, so we’ll keep it in mind.
The next story we come to casts our gaze on Noah, in chapter 6, through 10. Adam and Eve had been given another son after they lost the first two, his name was Seth. Somehow, without too much concern about the reproductive details, by the time we get to Noah the people had multiplied and multiplied—and the wickedness had multiplied and multiplied, to the point the the LORD wanted to ‘blot out from the earth the human beings I have created’. The LORD said, “I am sorry, regretful, that I have made them.” The earth had become corrupt. It was filled with violence.
But… Noah… had found favor in the sight of the LORD.
So the LORD says to Noah, I’m going to end this and start over—make yourself an ark of cypress… and the instructions came about how to build it and how to fill it with two of every kind. Just two. And the LORD made a covenant with Noah. And the rains began to fall.
So, here we are, seven pages into a two-thousand page book, and we’ve gone from a wonderful creation—a perfect garden home for the Creator to live in right-relationship with the creatures, with humans being given a central place in this garden with everything they need—to a series of events that see them being kicked out of the garden, into a life where to their children murder one another, and where in a few generations violence and corruption grow to the point that the Creator wants to wipe the whole thing out with a flood.
Within all this, this God doesn’t abandon them. The LORD is angry, but still acts with some mercy to protect the creation. God keeps promising a future. And now, even in exasperation, God makes a covenant with the one faithful human that can be found.
Then, finally, we come to the story of the Tower of Bable. It goes like this. (The Message).
At one time, the whole Earth spoke the same language. It so happened that as they moved out of the east, they came upon a plain and settled down.
They said to one another, “Come, let’s make bricks and fire them well.” They used brick for stone and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower that reaches Heaven. Let’s make ourselves famous so we won’t be scattered here and there across the Earth.” God came down to look over the city and the tower those people had built.
God took one look and said, “One people, one language; why, this is only a first step. No telling what they’ll come up with next—they’ll stop at nothing! Come, we’ll go down and garble their speech so they won’t understand each other.” Then God scattered them from there all over the world. And they had to quit building the city. That’s how it came to be called Babel, because there God turned their language into “babble.” From there God scattered them all over the world.
There is endless meaning to these stories. One thing is clear: God the Creator will protect and preserve the divine-human boundary. God is totally and completely “other”, infinitely different in quality from the human creatures. We are made in God’s image, we can know and love God, but God will not let us take control of the divine reign. It cannot be.
We have a hard time learning this and we end up desiring violence and disharmony instead of a right relationship with the God. We pray for the continuing intervention of the Holy One. We pray that God will continue to be in Christ, by the power of the Spirit, to reconcile all things to God’s own self.