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Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Good vs. Evil in the Cain Story

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February 22, 2011 Tags: Biblical Interpretation, Morality & Ethics
Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Good vs. Evil in the Cain Story

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

Recap: Who Cares what These Ancient Interpreters Said?!

What I have said in previous posts bears repeating here: the reason why we are even taking the time to look at how early interpreters handled Genesis is to encourage interpretive self-consciousness and humility on the part of readers today. The opening chapters of Genesis, however pivotal they are for Christian theology, are nevertheless notoriously challenging in some details, and these matters have been pondered for over two millennia.

Today, interpretive self-consciousness and humility in interpreting Genesis are driven by (at least) three factors: (1) scientific advances in our understanding of origins vis-à-vis the biblical creation story, (2) our growing understanding of the nature of origins stories in the ancient world and how those stories affect our understanding of Genesis, (3) the interpretive challenges of reading Genesis on its own terms, in part because it is a “gapped” narrative, meaning the story does not supply all the details needed to make definitive interpretive decisions (as we have seen).

These three factors taken together have brought Christian interpreters over the last 150 years or so to ask: What are these stories in Genesis doing? What does it mean to read them well? What are we to do with these stories today at the outset of the twenty-first century?

My recent series on Genesis, Creation, and Early Interpreters has focused solely on the third factor mentioned above: the gapped nature of the stories themselves and the interpretive challenges that result. The other two factors (science and biblical scholarship) have been and will continue to be treated in other posts written by various contributors.

I hope this recap will clarify what the intention of this series is, and therefore how it is to be read. I am not interested in solving the interpretive challenges of Genesis here. I am only interested in pointing them out. Of course, commentators on these posts are free to enter the ancient dialogue and propose their own tentative solutions, although hopefully with a degree of interpretive self-consciousness and humility.

The ancient interpreters we meet in these posts believed that Scripture is God’s Word every bit as much as Christians do today. They also understood that that very confession meant taking the time to look at the details and work through the challenges. This, I think, is a valuable lesson for interpreters today to keep in mind.

So, with that in mind, let’s continue with looking at some other interpretive issues in the story of Cain that came up for ancient interpreters. The story of Cain and Abel is important because it is the story of the first sin, yet it presents numerous interpretive challenges, then as now. We continue here with another example with more to follow next week.

Good vs. Evil

The story of Cain and Abel flies by pretty quickly. The characters are hardly fleshed out for us—we begin in Genesis 4:1-2 with two brothers and by the time we get to v. 8 there is only one. We know nothing of what kind of people they were like, what sort of relationship they had before this one incident, etc.

There was a well-known tendency among ancient interpreters to derive from stories like this some broader moral principle. Characters that were presented in Scripture in skeletal form were fleshed out and ambiguities cleared up—they were painted in black and white so that the biblical stories could serve as clear, unambiguous moral lessons.

This is how some early interpreters treated the Cain and Abel story. This first act of sin in the Bible came to be understood as the first struggle of good vs. evil.

That is why you see ancient interpreters remarking casually about Cain being evil (or unrighteous, etc.) and Abel being righteous. Note that they are not saying this about the sacrifice, which is what God judged in the biblical story, but the sacrificers themselves. And they are not simply saying that Cain did something evil and Abel did something righteous; they are saying that Cain is evil and Abel is righteous. These judgments are missing from the biblical story.

Three examples:

Even though the righteous man [Abel] was younger than the wicked one [Cain]… (Philo, "Questions in Genesis" 1:59)

Abel, the younger one…made a practice of virtue…Cain, however, was altogether wicked (Josephus, "Jewish Antiquities" 1:53)

And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berekiah (Matthew 23:35; see also Hebrews 11:4, 12:24; 1 John 3:12)

The last example from Matthew hints at an additional angle on the “good vs. evil” theme that is fleshed out elsewhere. Since Abel was an innocent and righteous man who died unjustly, he came to be understood among some early interpreters as a martyr figure—someone who willingly submits to suffering and death. For example, in the 4 Maccabees (Apocrypha, first century AD), the mother of the seven slain martyrs recounts how her education of her sons prepared them to meet their death with dignity (4 Maccabees 18:6-19). Among this list of martyrs, v. 11 mentions “Abel slain by Cain.”

Likewise, Cain came to be a symbol, not of a righteous martyr, but one who was somehow responsible for the wickedness of future generations. In fact, it is Cain’s act of wickedness that, in the minds of many ancient interpreters, was the cause of the flood in Genesis 6. We will begin next week by looking at this episode.

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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Michael W. Kruse - #52255

February 22nd 2011

Some modern commentators see the Cain and Abel story as an ancient commentary against settled agriculture (Cain) and preference for the hunter who lives off the land (Abel). Is there any hint of this perspective with the ancient interpreters?

Pete Enns - #52264

February 22nd 2011

Not to my knowledge, Michael, but I have hardly exhausted this topic. Maybe one of our commenters will know something about this—or perhaps John below?

John Byron - #52261

February 22nd 2011

Great post and nice summary of a text with a very complicated interpretive history. Forgive me for a bit of self-promotion here, but if you are interested in the interpretive history of Cain and Abel I have a monograph set to release this month that looks at Genesis 4. Of course it is from Brill so you will need to borrow it from a library or take out a mortgage to buy it.



Pete Enns - #52263

February 22nd 2011

No self-promotion, John!  Thanks for the link. I will look at it later today.

Pete Enns - #52265

February 22nd 2011

John, this book looks GREAT!  I plan on selling one of our cars in the near future to buy it. Brill. Sheesh. How about adding some comments to this thread, e.g., a table of contents of your book? Maybe a brief sketch of some interesting sources I did not address?

Bryan Hodge - #52285

February 22nd 2011

I do hope Brill will make more inexpensive paperbacks of the Themes in Biblical Narrative series. It’s a great series. I look forward to reading this one (in the Princeton library of course).

Jon - #52287

February 22nd 2011

Dr. Enns,

Why were did you refer to Abel and Cain as “the story of the first sin” and “the first act of sin in the Bible”? Wouldn’t Adam and Eve’s sin be the story of the first sin?

Pete Enns - #52298

February 22nd 2011


Fair point. Disobedience to God, which is how the A+E story is presented, is sin, of course. I should have been clearer and said the first interpersonal sin, or something like that.

D;Angelo Joyce - #52290

February 22nd 2011

:The last example from Matthew hints”  That should read John

Glen Davidson - #52294

February 22nd 2011

Likewise, Cain came to be a symbol, not of a righteous martyr, but one who was somehow responsible for the wickedness of future generations.

Beowulf identifies Grendel and his mommy as descendents of Cain.

Glen Davidson

Pete Enns - #52297

February 22nd 2011

Didn’t know that, Glen. Interesting. John Milton was very conscious of extra-biblical traditions. I have no idea if that also holds for Beowulf. Can you shed any light?

John VanZwieten - #52300

February 22nd 2011

Dr. Enns,

Thank you again for this series (sort of).

As a small groups pastor, I get these sorts of questions regularly (in fact just had a 1-hour conversation today about Cain’s wife and ages of patriarchs) from group leaders with inquisitive members.

It used to be much easier to rely on the stock conservative-evangelical response to these questions and spout it with great confidence.  That would have saved me 40 minutes at least just today :D

Conversing with leaders about just what we actually have in the text, some of the interpretive history, and what to do with it all in the face of honest questions is perhaps more troublesome, but I think a more rewarding and faithful venture.

John VanZwieten - #52301

February 22nd 2011

To this text:

I recall in my Hebrew course the professor pointing out the linquistic similarity between 4:7 and 3:16 (desire & mastery), but not discussing what it might mean for interpretation of these texts.

Any thoughts on this?

Joseph Kelly - #52304

February 22nd 2011

John VanZwieten - #52305

February 22nd 2011

Thanks, that is an excellent treatment.

Paul D. - #52359

February 23rd 2011

“Likewise, Cain came to be a symbol, not of a righteous martyr, but one who was somehow responsible for the wickedness of future generations.”

This might have been a later development and not the original intent of these stories. A close look at Genesis reveals two genealogies for the descendants of Adam down to Noah’s father Lamech — the Jahwist source had Noah (and thus Israel) descending from Cain, while the later Priestly source had Noah descending from Seth.

Pete Enns - #52364

February 23rd 2011

Paul, yes I agree, this is not the intent of the stories but an interpretive move in early Judaism.

paulf - #52989

March 2nd 2011

I think the stories in Genesis were created by authors to explain things they didn’t understand.

That there is no apparent reason that YHWH approves of Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s represents the capriciousness of life. There is no logical reason why some prosper and others don’t, beyond the whim of a deity, according to the author.

Another thing would be strife. Clearly war and killing have always been a staple of human life. Here it is explained by the rivalry between brothers, and is in a real sense egged on by actions of the deity.

Pete, do you get the sense that the ancients thought of these characters as real people? One of the things that always puzzled me is how—if they were the first family on earth—Cain would have built a city in his life. With what people? A handful of siblings? That makes me think that the authors knew they were creating a myth (in the scholarly sense).

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