Cain in the Land of Nod

In the Beginning

The Judeo-Christian story of creation is assumed by biblical literalists to be an accurate, historical representation of the beginning of the universe, with Adam and Eve firmly ensconced as the first human beings to inhabit the earth, and the Garden of Eden as the first habitat. Those who accept this as literal fact are faced with numerous challenges, and in this essay I will focus on one of the most common… the origin of Cain’s wife, whom he meets in a foreign land known as “Nod,” to which he is banished for the crime of killing his brother. To address this issue, I will focus on Genesis 4: 9- 17 (RSV):

 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.
11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.
12 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.”
13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.
14 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.”
15 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.
16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
17 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.
Four primary issues emerge when examining this passage:

(1) If God created the universe and everything in it, including one man and one woman who had two sons, where did Cain’s wife come from?

(2) Since Cain appears to have found her in the land of Nod east of Eden, then there would have been other people living in that land. Therefore, Adam, Eve and their sons could not have been the only people on earth.

(3) If the Garden of Eden was the first habitat on earth, how could there be anything east of it, or in any other direction?

(4) Cain “went away from the presence of the Lord” into this new land. But if God is omnipresent and omnipotent, how is it possible for anyone to go “away” from God’s presence?
From even a cursory reading of the text, we can see that Adam and Eve were not the first people on earth, because it is specifically stated that there were other people living “east of Eden.” Both God and Cain are aware of these people, because when Cain is banished, he cries out to God, “everyone that findeth me shall slay me” (Gen. 4:14), indicating his concern about how other people will react to him. God acknowledges Cain’s concern by placing a mark upon him to protect him from the angry mob that might greet him in Nod (Gen 15). Both Cain and God are aware of the existence of other people.

As far as we can tell, the people east of Eden are not related to Adam and Eve, which if we are to take the Genesis account of creation literally, would mean that they were not created by the same god. As children of a different god, they were likely considered by the authors to be the pagan tribes from which the Israelites wished to distinguish and separate themselves. Placing these people elsewhere in creation functions as a literary device to clarify this separation.

With Abel dead and Cain banished, Adam and Eve eventually give birth to a “replacement” son named Seth (Gen: 4:25), who later finds a wife and fathers a son of his own. We are now faced with trying to determine the origins of Seth’s wife and Cain’s wife, both of whom would have come from some other community. As such, both women would have been foreigners representing the blending of the “first tribe” with neighboring tribes, and the resulting dilution of Adam’s lineage. Could this be the source of God’s disappointment in humanity and his decision to start a new, improved race of humans?  According to a commentary by Matthew Henry, Cain’s banishment removed him from Adam’s family so that he was never again allowed him to “be around good people” (Henry, n.p.). Henry’s interpretation suggests that the people of the east were not good.

But apparently neither were Adam and Eve at this point, because they themselves had been banished from the garden back in Genesis 3:23. Cherubim were assigned to guard the eastern gate of Eden (Gen 3:24) to protect the tree of life (and presumably to keep Adam, Eve and other intruders out), so Adam and Eve would have already been residents of “the east” when Cain and Abel were born in Genesis 4. Robert Jamieson’s commentary interprets Cain’s “leaving the presence of the lord” to mean that Cain left the appointed place of worship at Eden (Jamieson, n.p.). But Cain could not have left Eden, because he never lived there. He was born in exile.

The Metaphysical Perspective

Contrary to the views of Henry and Jamieson, Hairfield’s metaphysical interpretation helps us see that Cain, Abel, Adam and Eve were not really people at all, but were representations of the struggle that occurs when spirit becomes embodied in flesh. The banishment of the whole family is an allegory for the conflict between the soul (our spiritual nature) and the ego (our human nature). It is the original struggle of human life, acted out by the original humans. Forgetting our true divine nature and identifying exclusively with the body instead of the soul is, according to Hairfield, the true meaning of original sin (Hairfield 72). Hairfield sees the Bible as a guidebook for the journey of the soul as it moves through the path of experience that returns us to Source, or God (70).  He suggests that the genealogical listings are more than just names; they are markers along the journey that note our development as we evolve in physical reality. To interpret this passage literally, we are missing the wonderful spiritual message hidden between the lines. Just as the Garden of Eden is symbolic of our arrival into the physical world, leaving the garden expresses the painful sense of separation and loss that comes with believing that physical reality is the only reality (75).

The passage also speaks to some of the key characteristics of human suffering, such as anger, fear and loneliness. Since there is no explanation given for God’s preference for Abel’s offering, our attention is directed away from the motivations of Yahweh toward the concerns of day-to-day survival in a post-Eden world, which reflect the struggles and imperfection of the world inhabited by the authors (Swenson 379).

In a similar type of symbolic interpretation, God’s disapproval of Cain’s vegetarian offering in favor of Abel’s meat offering is often seen as representing the shift from a hunting/nomadic existence to an agricultural/farming existence. Cain ultimately prevailed over Abel, so it might follow that agriculture ultimately prevailed over following the herds. In fact, Gilmore observes that there is very little found in Biblical scholarship concerning Cain and Abel beyond the question of why God preferred one offering over another (5). God preferred the meat offering (as was his custom), but in the end, it is Cain (agriculture) that survives and thrives.

If both wives both came from a place called Nod, a word which Strong’s concordance links to נוֹד, the Hebrew word for “wandering” or “vagrancy” (Strong’s Hebrew #5113), then life in Nod could not have been agricultural. If it was indeed a land of wandering, Cain would have had to revert to hunting and herding in order to survive, since God cursed his ability to farm (Gen 4:12), and one cannot farm and wander at the same time. Eventually Cain builds a city (Gen 4:17), which is also something one cannot do while wandering. Cain’s status as a vagrant is further supported by the work of his descendant Jabal, who becomes the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds (Gen  21). At the same time, Jabal’s brother Jubal sires those who play the lyre and pipe, and their half-brother Tubal-Cain goes into the business of forging copper and iron (Gen 22). There is not a farmer among them, and since God revoked Cain’s farming privileges back in Gen 4: 11 -12, Cain could not reasonably represent a shift to farming.

Key pieces of the Genesis creation story were lost over time as it was shared between cultures, languages and locales, and by the time it was finally committed to paper (or parchment), it no longer had a linear storyline, having been revised, edited, amended and altered by numerous sources over the centuries. In ancient times, there was no concept of copyright or plagiarism, as texts were commonly written by copying or transcribing existing material, and adding, interpreting or deleting freely. This created an enormous challenge for modern scholars in trying to determine which pieces were original and which were adapted or redacted (Origins of the Bible).

Scholars generally agree on the “documentary hypothesis,” which states that writers in antiquity created numerous written works over hundreds of years, and that these documents were used as sources for later writers and editors that “wrote” the Bible as we know it. To date, as Friedman explains, scholars have identified four different authors of the Pentateuch, and have dated the writing of these books to the period of the Jewish exile in Babylon in the sixth century BCE (Empires). The four writers came from four different literary traditions, perspectives and religious agendas (for the purposes of this paper it is not necessary to explore this in detail), but they are generally categorized as “J” (the Jahwist or Jerusalem source based in the southern Kingdom of Judah); E (the Elohist source, northern Kingdom of Israel); “D” (the author of most of Deuteronomy) and “P” (the Priestly source). Friedman adds another source that he calls “R” for the redactor, who functions as an editor who pieced together sections of stories and added transitional text (Friedman, 32).

Friedman’s observations about the passage concerning Cain’s wife support this. He determined that the genealogy in Gen 17–24 as written by J traces Adam’s line through Cain alone and does not mention Seth, while the Book of Records in Genesis 5 traces the line through Seth alone, as Adam and Eve’s only son, and never mentions Cain or Abel. To reconcile this, the redactor added the line about Seth being born as a replacement son to Adam and Eve (Friedman 2003, 40).

Separating the Myth from the Message

Mythical stories have an important purpose in every culture, because they create theological frameworks that foster collective thinking and cooperative living in societies. Viewed as metaphors for deep spiritual truths, the stories, myths and legends of a culture can provide wisdom and a useful moral compass. But these benefits can only truly be realized if the stories are understood symbolically rather than as literal, historic facts. Literal interpretations often contradict each other, and they do not necessarily align with actual history, resulting in confusion and conflict in a society. This is why it is so important to look at religious stories through the lens of critical, historical inquiry rather than through the limited scope of literalism.

While religious myth has indisputable value in explaining the natural and supernatural worlds, the faithful might find far more meaning by allowing their instincts and critical thinking skills to lead the way toward a more comprehensive and practical understanding of scripture. If we were to take Old Testament scripture literally, we would be worshipping a god that expresses some of the worst qualities of human beings, such as jealousy, sexism, irrationality, violence and fascism. He grants special status to some of his children (though that status can be taken away for even the smallest infraction), while murdering those that stand in the way of his political agenda.  Yet although Yahweh seems to think nothing of killing innocents, Proverbs 6:17 tells us that God “hates” hands that shed innocent blood (KJV). So if we were to adhere to strict literalism, then this God would have to literally have to hate himself.

Currently scholarship is generally aligned on the idea that most of the Old Testament was put into writing (vs. oral tradition) during the Jewish exile in Babylon, which leaves a large gap between the written record and events that took place 1000 years earlier. According to Friedman, the land of Judah was a small village that was insignificant compared to the enormous power of Babylon and Egypt. In order to establish a presence that could compete with other nations, Judah’s early leaders and priests, through the oral tradition, created the idea of an all-powerful god that took a special liking to their tribe and promised to make them into a great nation (Friedman, 1997, 138). This idea was expressed in the writings of the scribes who found themselves in exile despite the promise of God’s favor and protection. In writing their stories, scribes justified this devastating loss of status by assuming that they were being punished for displeasing God. Friedman states, “In Pagan religion, if another nation defeats you, you can say their god was more powerful than your god. But in monotheism, if you’re suffering, it must be because you did something wrong” (Empires). Because the Pentateuch has only one god, and the children of that God were not as faithful and obedient as required, punishment would have seemed like a logical conclusion.

But was Cain really punished? In looking deeply into the story of Cain’s banishment, we assume that Cain displeased God by killing his brother, and he is punished with exile and the loss of ability to grow food. But he ultimately receives special protection from God, and goes on to father the rest of mankind[1]. The “mark of Cain” is traditionally understood as a negative mark that identifies him as an outcast, but on closer reading we see that it is actually a divine imprint that protects him from potential enemies (Gen: 15). Cain may not be able to grow crops, but he ends up with excellent social standing and a secure future. He did not wander aimlessly, but became a builder of cities, so God did not make good on his threat. In reference to my earlier comparison of Eden and post-Eden conversations with Yahweh, something similar in terms of punishment occurred with Adam and Eve. God warns that if they ate from the tree of life in the center of the garden, they would “surely die” (Gen 2:17). But they did not die. They lived long lives and went on to become the ancestors of all of humanity. As a father, Yahweh might have benefitted from some parenting classes to help him learn to be more consistent with punishments and promises.

Most parents, despite their otherwise superb parenting skills, have issued empty threats of punishment to their children, saying things like, “If you don’t clean your room you can’t to go the beach,” only to cave in and allow the beach trip in the end, won over by the child’s sincere promise to clean his room tomorrow. I suspect parents in the ancient near east did the same thing, and hence, created gods who operated as parental figures with the same flaws and weaknesses shared by parents everywhere. For biblical literalists, God’s constant waffling on his promises is extremely troublesome, but when it can be understood that gods are modeled after humans and not the other way around, the behavior of gods becomes much easier to understand.

Wheeler describes the process of really reading the Bible as opposed to “scanning its words complacently in a doctrinal haze” (53). As a professor of English who teaches a course in the Bible, Wheeler details how reading the Bible as literature takes away its religious authority but has the added benefit of removing the burden of uncritical worship. This way we can see its value as a human creation and a piece of the historical record rather than as a transcendent, mysterious event that has to be accepted on an all-or-nothing basis.
The passage separates the descendants of Adam and Eve from the “other people” who lived east of Eden. It might follow then, that these other people — who did not descend from Adam and Eve — were not created by the same God. As such, they would not be subject to the Eden story, and therefore they would be free of original sin. This would conceivably include anybody not of Semitic descent, such as Africans, Chinese, Native Americans and anybody else living east of Eden’s longitude (which would technically include the entire world outside Eden’s borders). If we were to follow this logic, there would be no need for Christian missionaries to travel to those places to “save” foreign inhabitants who do not bear the sinful genetic imprint. Zell points out that the story of Adam and Eve is the story of some of us rather than all of us, and if the descendants of Cain and/or Seth did have foreign mothers, then that would make those descendants only half guilty (Zell, n.p.).

In a metaphysical, symbolic interpretation, Adam and Eve’s awareness of themselves as physical beings that incarnated and separated from their divine home can be seen as the first step in humanity’s sense of separation from spiritual love that has come to be known as original sin. Cain’s banishment might be considered step two, when we are separated from our inner sense of belonging to our divine home and family, and must survive in the physical world without the safety and blessings of our original, innate state of perfection. We are separate and on our own, but a shred of protection still exists in the mark of Cain (Gen 4:15), which contrary to popular understanding does not identify him as a murderer, but give shields him from attack by enemies and cloaks him in divine protection.

If taken literally, there are far too many confusing aspects to make any sense of the story’s purpose or meaning, which leaves a metaphysical explanation as the only reasonable option.  John Dominic Crossan points out how foolish and troublesome literalism can be when he says, “It is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told symbolic stories that we are now dumb enough to take literally” (Harpur, 1). Crossan explains that literalism deprives us of the valuable messages in these stories because it offers a one-dimensional view of ideas that actually contain multiple dimensions of instruction and spiritual guidance.
by Terri Daniel
Copyright 2018


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[1] This depends on whether we believe J’s version of Gen 17–24 (which would mean that all of Cain’s descendants would have perished in the flood), or if we subscribe to the genealogy in Genesis 5 (which attributes future generations to Adam and Eve’s only son, Seth).

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