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B'resheet/Genesis 4:16 And Cain went out from before the L-rd and he dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
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These words bring to an end the block of verses 9-16 where Cain is tried, found guilty and sentenced for the murder of his brother Abel. Even these seemingly mundane words, however, tell us more about the story than might at first appear. The first word, describing Cain's action at the end of the trial, shows the state of mind in which Cain now found himself. Instead of the milder "and Cain went", the narrator uses the much more definite "and Cain went out". Did he go out rejoicing? Was he cowed? Was he feeling self-righteous and resentful? The third word, , translated above as "from before" means literally "from the faces of" and is rendered by some English translations as "from the presence of". The ancient sages asked, "Whence did he go out? Rabbi Aibu said: It means that he threw the words behind him and went out, like one who would deceive the Almighty. Rabbi Berekiah said in Rabbi Eleazar's name: He went forth like one who shows the cloven hoof [i.e. a hypocrite - a pig/swine shows his cloven hoof through pretending to be clean], like one who deceives his Creator" (B'resheet Rabbah 22:13).
Let's just review the trial transcript and see what has happened so far. In the famous opening verse,HaShem asks Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" and Cain replies with the equally famous response, "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?" (B'resheet 4:9). Citing Abel's blood crying out from the ground, HaShem passes sentence: "You shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth" (vv. 11-12, NJPS). Cain then responds, "My punishment is too great to bear! Since You have banished me this day from the soil, and I must avoid Your presence and become a restless wanderer on earth -- anyone who meets me may kill me!" (vv. 13-14, NJPS) and HaShem explicitly lifts the threat of killing by promising that "if anyone kills Cain, sevenfold vengeance shall be taken on him. And the L-RD put a mark on Cain, lest anyone who met him should kill him" (v. 15, NJPS). Then Cain walks out. But before he does, we need a quick action reply on one thing. Where did Cain get the idea that "I must avoid Your presence" or "anyone who meets me may kill me"? Neither were present in what HaShem said? Is he exaggerating his punishment in the same way the serpent exaggerated HaShem's instructions in the Garden when he asked Eve: "Did G-d really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?" (3:1, NJPS)?
Nachmanides says that when Cain left, he left "for good. He never again stood before Him, based on his statement that, 'I must avoid Your presence.'" Umberto Cassuto agrees, commenting that "after the conclusion of the judgement, Cain left the presence of the Judge; henceforth, he would constantly flee from before Him."1 James McKeown, a modern Christian commentator, adds that, "Cain's story ends, like many stories in the OT, with exile. Once again, disobedience leads to expulsion. The increased seriousness of his crime leads to a deeper sense of alienation from G-d and an intensified sense of exile. Genesis clearly attributes exile to alienation from G-d."2 But are these statements really true? At least on the face value of the text, while Cain's relationship with the ground is a punishment of exile, HaShem hasn't expelled Cain from His presence. On the contrary, it looks as though it is rather more a case of self-exile!
Another key claim of the narrator is that "Cain left the presence of the L-rd". Is this even possible? The Psalmist is sure that it is not. David first of all observes how well HaShem knows him - "You have examined me and know me. When I sit down or stand up You know it; You discern my thoughts from afar. You observe my walking and reclining, and are familiar with all my ways. There is not a word on my tongue but that You, O L-RD, know it well" (Psalm 139:1-3, NJPS). The writer to the Hebrews agrees: "And no creature is hidden from His sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account" (Hebrews 4:13, ESV). God knows our lives from top to bottom, He understands and anticipates our thoughts. As the Psalmist writes, "You hedge me before and behind; You lay Your hand upon me" (Psalm 139:5, NJPS). He is simply there! And this is involuntary on our part - oftentimes, we don't even think about it.
However, David goes further to explain how getting away from G-d is impossible: "Where can I escape from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I descend to Sheol, You are there too. If I take wing with the dawn to come to rest on the western horizon, even there Your hand will be guiding me, Your right hand will be holding me fast. If I say, 'Surely darkness will conceal me, night will provide me with cover,' darkness is not dark for You; night is as light as day; darkness and light are the same" (vv. 7-12, NJPS). Everywhere that David might go and even some that he can't, G-d is already there. He is, to use a technical word, omnipresent - present in all places, at all times. So, even if Cain didn't know this, the narrator reporting the event certainly did. Cain couldn't leave G-d's presence if he wanted to. We need some way to understand what the text is telling us.
DavidKimchi tries to connect location and presence, suggesting that Cain left "the place near the garden, which was a place of prophecy, where the Shekinah was to be found and the Holy Spirit spoke with Adam and Eve and their children." This would mean that Cain left the place that He associated with the presence of G-d, because G-d had always spoken to him (and members of his family) in that place. But that doesn't really help; we need something more. Rabbi Hirsch moves into the field of relationship; "According to the way our sages take it, this does not mean just away from the place of the Presence of G-d, but altogether turned right away from Him; turned his back to G-d and, banned by the earth and mankind, wished to try to fund an independent life on his own. Although banished from Paradise, Man still stood 'before the L-rd'. But Cain, by his crime and his subsequent behaviour left this relationship." Cain didn't just make a physical move, he made an emotional move; he may (or may not) have changed his physical location, but more significantly, he changed his relationship status. He turned his emotional back on G-d; he decided that he was no longer in relationship with G-d. We have to ask the question therefore, whether Cain had to take that choice and leave. Could he perhaps, if he had been willing to admit his crime and guilt, have stayed to talk and tried to put things right? The prophets suggest that he could.
During the days of the kings of Judah, when Judah had fallen away from following the G-d of Israel and even the pretence of observing the Torah, G-d very firmly rejects the religious motions that the people were still performing: "'What need have I of all your sacrifices?' says the L-RD. 'Trample My courts no more; bringing oblations is futile, incense is offensive to Me. New moon and sabbath, proclaiming of solemnities, assemblies with iniquity, I cannot abide. Your new moons and fixed seasons fill Me with loathing; they are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them.'" (Isaiah 1:11-14, NJPS). He even goes as far as to say, "when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime" (v. 15, NJPS). When even the rituals proscribed by G-d for creating and restoring relationship will be rejected, what can possibly be done? But then the text urges the men of Judah to repent, to turn away from their wickedness and embrace a culture of justice, mercy and righteousness. "Come now, let us reason together, says the L-RD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool" (v. 18, ESV). Since G-d does not change, this approach would also have been available to Cain if he had been prepared to confess his sin and seek forgiveness.
What then do we see happening here? That despite G-d continuing to care - evidenced by putting a mark on Cain lest he be killed by another and would yet find it possible to repent - and remaining open to return, Cain exaggerates his punishment, adopts imagined victim status because of the way he thinks he has been treated, and chooses to turn his back on God and walk out of relationship. Although the relationship between Cain and the soil - critically important for him as an arable farmer - has been broken because of Abel's blood on the ground, so that it has rejected him, G-d has not. G-d, as Peter will later say, is "patient ... not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9, ESV), including Cain, if he will have it.
And what about us? The prophet gives us hope that "the L-RD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore He exalts Himself to show mercy to you. For the L-RD is a G-d of justice; blessed are all those who wait for Him" (Isaiah 30:18, ESV). The writer to the Hebrews, using words describing Cain's attitude exactly, urges, "See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of G-d; that no 'root of bitterness' springs up and causes trouble" (Hebrews 12:15, ESV). And Yeshua? Where is He is this? Using the words of Isaiah 61, He announced that He had come to "proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour" (Luke 4:18-19, ESV). All those caught in sin are blind and oppressed captives, who need to have their eyes opened and to hear His gracious words of freedom and release. What a gospel it is we have to share!
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Part One - From Adam to Noah (Jerusalem, Magnes Press, 1978), page 228.
2. - James McKeown, Genesis, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), page 42.
Further Study: Jeremiah 23:23-24; Psalm 143:7-12; 2 Corinthians 6:1-2
Application: There are many like Cain in this world, who are convinced that G-d has it in for them and that their life is cursed and blighted. Have you proclaimed liberty and release in your neighbourhood and place of work, so that the captives may hear the good news and find freedom, forgiveness and reconciliation in Yeshua? Sign up for G-d's liberation program today and start proclaiming the year of G-d's favour!
Comment - 02:16 11Oct20 Diana: Very good lesson! Was thinking even Jonah held to the notion that G-d was only sovereign in Israel. When Jonah shrank back from the call to go to Nineveh, he headed for Tarsus to flee from the Lord's presence. So glad the Lord has no physical boundaries and is bound to faithfulness to His Word, anxious to perform it.
Comment - 07:58 11Oct20 Judith Chesney: Come let us reason together says the Lord. Saved by His gracious love. Thank you for your work.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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