Last week we saw that Cain’s murder of Abel came to be seen by early interpreters not simply as an isolated act of sin, but as representative of something bigger. Cain did not simply do something wicked, but his wicked act showed a much deeper problem, that he is wicked. This way of reading the story of Cain was taken in various directions by early interpreters. One of those ways was to make Cain the cause of the flood.
Genesis 6:1-4 gives the reason—more accurately, we seem to be given two reasons—for why God inflicted such a cataclysmic punishment on all flesh. Cain is not mentioned.
One reason is the “giants” (Hebrew nephilim) mentioned in v. 4, though we are not told here explicitly what about these figures warranted God’s punishment—although the references to the “sons of God” cohabiting with the “daughters of man” seems to be relevant. It seems that divine beings were cohabiting with human women, and possibly the “giants” were their offspring.
In antiquity, a good number of interpreters seized on this episode to explain why God brought the flood (e.g., 3 Maccabees 2:4; Ecclesiasticus 16:7; Jubilees 5:1-11). Such “cross-breeding” wholly violated the order God had established at creation (Genesis 1), and so played a major role in God’s decision to flood the earth.
Genesis 6:5, however, seems to come at it from a different angle. The blame rests not just with the sons of God or the giants, but with humanity at large. Humans had become thoroughly wicked, with a disposition only toward doing wicked acts.
But this explanation passed by rather quickly for early interpreters—one verse—so they sought to anchor God’s punishment in something more concrete. One of those anchors was Cain’s murder of Abel.
Cain was a “logical” candidate of sorts because his act was the only truly wicked act recorded in the chapters preceding the flood story. Cain’s murder of Abel, therefore, was understood not just an isolated wicked act, but a crucial factor in God’s decision to destroy the world in a deluge. One clear example is from the apocryphal book Wisdom of Solomon 10:3-4:
When an unrighteous man [Cain] departed from her [from following Wisdom] in his anger, he perished because in rage he slew his brother. When the earth was floodedbecause of him, Wisdom again saved it, steering the righteous man [Noah] by a paltry piece of wood.
Two things are worth noting here. First, this author sees a causal link between Cain’s act of murder (first sentence) and the flood. Second, note that putting the blame on Cain is not defended or explained, but tucked away in that small phrase “because of him.” This casual allusion to Cain as the cause of the flood indicates that the explanation needed no elaboration because it was already well know at the time in which this author wrote (early in the first century A.D.). By the time this author gave his account of the flood, Cain’s role in instigating God’s wrath was already a commonly accepted explanation.
Slightly veiled in this line of interpretation is an apologetic motive: to defend God’s actions. God’s destruction of the entire earth tends to raise a moral eyebrow or two in today’s world, but it also raised challenges in antiquity concerning God’s goodness and justice. In fact, the history of Christian and Jewish interpretation has demonstrated how interpreters have struggled with the how to reconcile the absolute destruction of creation and God’s justice. This is especially true given the ever-so-brief (and puzzling) explanation given in Genesis 6:1-5. One might think that the reasons for something so utterly devastating would deserve a fuller treatment.
Early interpreters found in the Cain story a possible explanation that offered some rationale. Admittedly, the story of Cain is several chapters and many hundreds of years (ten generations) removed from the flood story (according to the genealogies of chapters 4 and 5). Didn’t this distance from the event render Cain an unlikely candidate?
Not at all. In fact, it is precisely Cain’s chronological distance from the flood story that supported their apologetic agenda: the fact that God waited ten generations from Cain to Noah is evidence of his great patience and mercy. This interpretation is found in the Mishnah, the compilation of Jewish oral tradition dating from about A.D. 200 (tractate ‘Abot 5.2).
Connecting the flood to Cain’s murder of Abel was aimed at explaining in a theologically pleasing way why God would wipe out all creation with water. Interpreting the Bible in such a way as to defend God’s justice is common practice among all traditions that take Scripture seriously, modern and ancient.
For example, answers vary about such things as: God’s order to kill Canaanite men, women, and children (Deuteronomy 20:10-20); treating virgin daughters as property (Exodus 22:16-17); stoning rebellious teenagers (Deuteronomy 21:18-21); and dashing the heads of Babylonian babies against the rocks (Psalm 137:9). The answers may vary, but all agree that some answer must be given, since these passages as they stand, without further explanation, are theologically troubling.
Expanding on the story of Cain and connecting him to the flood is one ancient example of this same interpretive phenomenon.