Friday, October 12, 2007

BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING: Address 4: Conceived in Sin, Raised in Rivalry (Gen 4)

Address 4: Conceived in Sin, Raised in Rivalry (Genesis 4)

A famous painting by Masaccio shows Adam and Eve leaving the gates of Paradise unclothed and overcome with shame and grief. Their brief sojourn in God’s university has ended in expulsion. And no doubt at that moment, life seemed at an end (I know some students feel that way when they are expelled or even take a dead year). However, it is not the end, it is a kind of beginning, and Adam and Eve recover sufficiently to form a family, as we read in chapter 4.

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, "I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD." And again, she bore his brother Abel. (verses 1-2)

We get a new perspective on God’s purposes for marriage in this chapter. Chapter 2 was all about sexual complementarity – Adam finding a helper according to his opposite. Chapter 3 introduces us to sexuality in the modern sense: lust, shame and dominance. Now in chapter 4, we see sexuality as the servant of child-bearing. Adam’s role is minimal: he “knew” Eve, and Eve’s role becomes prominent as her belly. “I have gotten me a man-child,” she boasts, as she brings forth a first-born son Cain and then a second son Abel.

In my Western culture, it is quite common today for a man and a woman, whether unmarried or married, to have sexual relations for some years before having children. This possibility has been enhanced by the easy availability of contraceptives. In Africa there is still an expectation that a couple will try have a child almost immediately after marriage – if not before. The African way is closer to the biblical pattern and in some ways is quite natural: “knowing” one’s wife leads to a birth soon thereafter. Some people in the West say they need time to get to know each other first, before taking on the responsibility of child-bearing and child-rearing. This makes some sense, but in another way nothing can prepare you for the cataclysm of childbirth other than the event itself. Real marriage cannot be divorced from children, and a couple that cannot have offspring is deficient, although this deficiency itself can be an opportunity for grace – say, the grace of adoption or the grace of sacrificial service to others.

The Bible does not say that sex is sinful, but it does say that the original sin of Adam and Eve is passed down through the genes and hence through the generations. King David put it this way: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). Marriage is not sinful, but sin distorts all human relationships and means that the family home will not be a blissful recreation of Paradise but will be in many ways a battlefield. We see this almost immediately with the birth of the brothers Cain and Abel.

Except for identical twins, no two children of the same parents are alike. Often one “takes” after the father, and the other “takes” after the mother. So it was with Cain and Abel. “Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground” (verse 3). We see the different characters of the brothers by their different occupations. Cain takes up the difficult work of farming, which requires planning, ingenuity and technology. Abel’s work, by contrast, is much simpler, following the flock and offering up the first-born to God. In some ways, Abel’s lot is not far from the tree-tending work of Paradise, whereas Cain fulfills the curse that man shall till the earth by the sweat of his brow. Just the other day, I heard a lecturer on economic development say that Africa must cultivate “farmers” rather than “hunters.” He did not, by the way, mean “subsistence farmers,” but rather entrepreneurs who would multiply their talents and products for the global market. The tension in character and aspirations of different classes of people goes all the way back to the first brothers.

Unfortunately, brothers do not simply rejoice in the other’s way of life or good fortune. More often than not, brothers become rivals for their parents’ love and rivals for fame and fortune. So it was with Cain and Abel:

In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it." Cain said to Abel his brother, "Let us go out to the field." And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" He said, "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?" And the LORD said, "What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth." Cain said to the LORD, "My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me this day away from the ground; and from thy face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me." Then the LORD said to him, "Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold." And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden. (verses 3-16)

The cycle of sin in Eden is now reenacted by the offspring of Adam and Eve. Sin is couching in Cain’s heart, and even the warning of God is not enough for him to resist it. Like his parents, he willfully disobeys God, is discovered in his guilt, is sentenced and expelled to wander away from his parents and God. Yet even in this wandering, God extends a hand of protection. Cain’s sin will not justify another sin of vengeance against him.

Family Injustice Leads to Civic Justice

Cain’s sin, the envy that leads to the murder of his brother, becomes widespread as the family of Adam grows.

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch. To Enoch was born Irad; and Irad was the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael the father of Methushael, and Methushael the father of Lamech. And Lamech took two wives; the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle. His brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. Zillah bore Tubalcain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron. The sister of Tubalcain was Naamah. (verses 17-22)

Adam and Eve began as gardeners, Abel was a pastoralist, not too far removed his way of life. But Cain is quite different: he is the founder of the first city. It is an historical fact that “civilization” – the word comes from the root word civis or city – began in those farming areas of the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates Rivers, where men could work the soil and in so doing increase their numbers and prosperity. What are we to make of the idea that the first city, with its arts and culture - was founded by a murderer? Actually, this is not unique to the Bible: the Romans claimed that Rome was founded by Romulus, who killed his brother.

Rivalry within the family can lead to isolated crimes, like Cain killing Abel. But in the city, violence becomes institutionalized. On the one hand, men who seek glory and power rise up to compete with each other, and this leads to tyranny, rebellion and warfare. Lamech’s boast is typical of this kind of ambitious leader: “Lamech said to his wives: "Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, hearken to what I say: I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me” (verse 23). The city must provide defence, however imperfect, from this kind of violence, and laws and police and army are raised up to curb the violence: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold" (verse 24). The kind of restraint that God put on Cain as a solitary individual is now insufficient and calls forth a more widespread institutionalized response. Political philosophers have sometimes spoken of early mankind moving from a state of nature (Eden) to a state of war (Cain and Lamech) to a state of civil society, where people bind themselves together for mutual protection. This overarching purpose of government – “bearing the sword,” as St. Paul puts it (Romans 13:4) – explains why defence of citizens is a number one priority of governments. It is why the Government of Uganda is rightly condemned for failing to protect its citizens in the North.

Now is the Time to Worship

The glory of mankind dims noticeably as we progress through these chapters of Genesis. Yet there are always small rays of mercy, God’s mercy. So it is with the family of Adam and Eve:

And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, "God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, for Cain slew him." To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time men began to call upon the name of the LORD. (verses 25-26)

This time God does not personally intervene; instead the natural impulse to increase and multiply leads our first parents to have another child, for the mother a replacement for the murdered Abel. And the cycle of the generations continues, a parallel line with Cain’s urban family. It is not clear whether Seth and Enosh were city dwellers. What is clear is that a new impulse has arisen: the impulse to religious practice, to “call upon the name of the LORD.” We do not know exactly how God appeared and spoke to Adam and Eve and Cain. What we find in Seth and his line is a desire to formalize and institutionalize this relationship. If you wish, worship will become part of human history alongside warfare. Man is worse, but he looks for a remedy.

Step by step, the book of Genesis is bringing us closer to our own day. We can see many of the basic structures and features of our life emerging, like figures coming out of shadows into the light. And what we see is not all pleasant: some of the ghosts are gruesome and bloody. But we also see that God is in control of man’s history, and he provides a “hope and a future” in even the most awful circumstances.

Religion and worship are not automatically “godly” activities. God will be instructing His people on such matters in the later books of the Old Testament. Let us end with a call to worship from Psalm 95, which is found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and called the Venite:

O come let us sing unto the Lord,
Let us heartily rejoice in the God of our salvation.
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving,
and show ourselves glad in him with psalms.
For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all Gods.
In his hand are all the corners of the earth,
and the strength of the hills is his also.
The sea is his and made it;
and his hands prepared the dry land.
O come let us worship and fall down
and kneel before the Lord our Maker
For he is our God
and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.

It is by such prayer that we prepare our hearts for each day and repair the damage done by sin in our lives. May we go forth today with this song in our hearts.

10 October 2007

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