Friday, August 28, 2009

Towards a theology of violence, II (Genesis 4)

How swiftly violence comes.

Does anyone think it's accidental that Genesis 4, so soon after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, is dominated by the rapid moral descent of humanity unto the murder of one man by another? In the story of Cain and Abel it is the power of sin (Gen 4:7) quickly at work in the world, leading humanity towards death. And so in Gen 4:8 Cain becomes the first murderer, and in Gen 4:11 God's answer comes again as judgement and curse.

And yet, as is so curiously woven through Gen 1-11, judgement is always paired with mercy and grace, so that the wandered Cain is not in turn slain, in fact God provides provision (Gen 4:15) that if anyone takes vengeance upon Cain, they also shall come under judgement. It is, in this story, God who judges and he does not seem willing to allow others to usurp the right.

That is why the boasting of Lamech is part of this rapidly spiralling descent of humanity into sin. Lamech boasts in Gen 4:23 that he has slain a man in retaliation for striking him, that he has enacted his own judgement. Gen 4:24 reveals how badly Lamech has read the history of his family. For it was God who would avenge Cain seven-fold, but Lamech seems almost to have assumed to himself the vengeance seventy-sevenfold. Here there is no hint of the remorse of Gen 4:13-14, but a self-exaltation in the glory of his own power.

I think it is worth reflecting, even as Genesis 4 becomes a prototype of the violence to come, on John 8 and 1 John 3. In John 8:44 Jesus says that the devil was a murdered, a slayer-of-man, from the beginning. For the one opposed to God, the accuser, there is no greater victory than the slaying of humanity, for he is not ultimately on the side of human beings, but against the side of God. The death of sinners is his great joy, and his first act in biblical chronology is to lead humanity in Adam and Eve by lies into rebellion and unto death. 1 Jn 3:12 sees John bringing Cain back in, as a paradigm of the murderer. That John couples “he was of the evil one and murdered his brother” should not be surprising. Death is the victory of Satan, it is why he is the accuser, for death is also the punishment of God.

In my next post I will consider the sweep of Genesis more broadly.

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