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