Bible Studies on Genesis 1–11 – Lesson 11: Degeneration in the Generations

READ GENESIS 4

As part of the punishment of the LORD God, expulsion from the Garden of Eden is the result of Adam and Eve’s rebellion. But in the judgment of God, there will be a “seed of the woman” that will crush the serpent’s head. Divine wrath came upon the human race in Genesis 3 but not without divine mercy. God reveals the covenant of grace.

The first family (4:1–2a)

The “mother promise” of Genesis 3:15 spoke of seed to come, i.e., children, descendants. Here we observe that God’s original intentions expressed in Genesis 1:26–28 are not frustrated. Mankind, under God’s blessing, is to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. Mankind is called to rule and have dominion over all the earth, to till and keep this world for God’s glory. Genesis 4 will now show that mankind, even in the state of total depravity and corruption still can produce, both children and products from the creation.

Adam had not rejected his wife in Genesis 3, but he took her to himself and named her Eve, “mother of the living.” He loves her again, and he “knew” her. In knowing Eve in a close, intimate way, Adam has a son, but the text focuses on Eve as mother of a son, even the one who names the son. She calls the first baby of human history Cain, a name that sounds like the word meaning “acquired” or “obtained.” “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth (acquired) a man,” she says.

The events of Genesis 4 must be read on the background of Genesis 3:15 and 3:20. This in part helps us understand what motivates Eve’s naming of Cain. A son is born, and she may wonder, “Is this one the promised seed from the LORD who will crush the serpent’s head?” We the readers know that Cain is not the one, but Eve may very well have hoped for this in the birth of Cain. The name of Cain suggests hope for victory.

By contrast, the name of the second son, Abel, is not so hopeful. Abel means “breath,” “meaningless,” even “vanity” (ef. Eccl. 1:2; 12:8). Perhaps he was weak and sickly at birth so that his parents were discouraged about any longevity of life. After all, sin leads to death, and man, being made of dust, will return to dust in death. 

Deception and murder (4:2b–8)

The text reveals that both of these two sons of Adam and Eve are productive in work. This underscores the fact that God’s judgment does not undo our humanity, nor does sin cancel our responsibility and calling before God. In fact, curiosity about the world around us and exploring that world, is so much a part of human nature that it is done almost instinctively. It is almost like the normal two-year-old child who is so quick to explore the world around him or her. to touch things and to get into the surrounding environment. Work is integral to our humanity, but work is to be done for the glory of God and the well-being of our neighbor.

Abel was a keeper of livestock, while his older brother Cain worked the soil (ef. 2:15). There is nothing inherently wrong with either calling; both kinds of work exercise a kind of dominion over creation.

We may believe that Adam and Eve knew and taught their children some of the basics of the worship of God. These basics include the fact that we are required to present ourselves before God with humble and contrite hearts, and we must come before the LORD with gifts and not empty-handed. These principles became part of the Law that God gave to Israel in the Wilderness (see Exodus 13:2,12; Lev. 3:14–16; Deut. 16:16). The firstborn among the people and the livestock belonged to the LORD. The best portions (the “fat”) of the sacrificial animal also must be offered to God.

Cain’s practice was to offer some of the ground’s produce. Produce could be presented to the LORD later according to Deuteronomy 26:1–11, but we should note that this is a bloodless offering. The shedding of blood is necessary for the forgiveness of sins (see Heb. 9:22). Any kind of offering, any kind of “religious activity,” any kind of human endeavor that does not take into account the need of blood sacrifice for making atonement, is an attempt to bribe God and gain merit with Him. God sets the standards for how we may become right with Him. We may never offer to God worship that we think is right and that is done to please us, first of all.

Sometimes this question is debated in the case of Cain and Abel’s worship: was the LORD God’s attitude of pleasure and displeasure directed toward them (i.e., their heart attitudes). or was it directed toward their particular offerings? This is a false dilemma. “The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering” (4:4b). Both elements, the person and his offering, are mentioned. The New Testament confirms this. Hebrews 11:4 says that Abel offered what he did “by faith” when he gave God the fat portions of the firstborn animals. Conversely, I John 3:12 says that Cain was of the evil one, hating his brother to such a degree that he killed him. He did not see that he needed to offer up to God the best, the blood, and certainly his heart.

When Cain notices the LORD’S pleasure toward Abel and his offering, Cain is visibly angry. How hard it is to keep what is inside from eventually showing on the outside! His anger is directed against Abel, but in fact Cain is angry with God. It is God who determines how He is to be approached, worshiped and adored. That is not for us to determine! Cain should have investigated that which would please God and then humbled himself. God even confronts Cain with a diagnosis of his great spiritual danger. Sin, like a lion, is crouching at the door, ready to devour him! God gives Cain time and space to repent. But instead, like the serpent before him, Cain deceives his brother into thinking it is safe (a lie!). They go to the field together where Cain commits murder against his own godly brother. How the wicked hate the righteous, even today!

Divine judgment...again! (4:9–16)

There are more parallels with Genesis 3. Just as God came to the Garden earlier with the question, “Where?” (d. Gen. 3:9), so now He comes to ask Cain as well, “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain’s answer is a bold, icy-cold lie: “I don’t know, and I don’t care!” How different, later on, David’s confession would be when he is confronted with his adultery and murder. We wonder just how degenerate a person like Cain could be so early in human history.

Abel’s innocent blood cries out for justice from the soil that has been polluted by murder. God hears the cry of the blood, and He will repay “life for life.” Yet God’s punishment shows both justice and mercy. Cain is cursed in his soul, made a wanderer in his body, and he becomes unfruitful in his labor. Then, and only then, does he throw himself upon the mercy of the court, because he fears for his own life (the danger coming from other descendants of Adam who would act now as “avengers”; (d. Num. 35:12ff). God puts a mark on Cain (unknown to us as to what it was) that serves as a sign to everyone that this judged man is still protected from human execution. Yet this section ends on a very chilling note: “So Cain went out from the LORD'S presence.” The physical departure seems to symbolize what has been true in his own soul.

From Cain to Lamech (4: 17–24)

Genesis 4:17 is similar to 4:1 and 4:25 in that all three verses tell us that children are born to several important characters in this chapter: Adam, Cain, and then Adam again. The son born to Cain is Enoch (not to be confused with another Enoch in Gen. 5:19–24). Cain now builds a city, thus repudiating God’s judgment of wandering on the earth. Furthermore, Cain demonstrates his pride by naming this city after his own son. Thus Cain will have seed after him, and that son will have an abiding physical “monument” to carry his name.

Of the next generations after Enoch, we know nothing more than their names: Irad, then Mehujael, then Methushael, and finally Lamech. From Adam to Lamech inclusive, there are seven generations. Occasionally, commentaries will point to the frequent usage of seven (or its multiples) in this chapter (e.g., 4:15,24). Seven is a num~ ber that often refers to completion, even perfection. A complete week has seven days, for example. By the seventh generation of mankind, we arrive in the text at a man who is a bigamist and a braggart. Such is the progress of degeneration caused by sin in the heart of man throughout every generation.

Lamech takes two wives (4:19), acting contrary to the principle of one man, one wife, in Genesis 2:24. The more wives one has, obviously the more children one can have. Lamech has children that are important people culturally. The Bible describes Jabal, lubal and Tubal-Cain as the “fathers of” agriculture, of the arts, and of industry. Even today we might say that Marconi was the “father of” the radio. Lamech’s children are cultural “movers and shakers,” one might say. Civilization made great “progress” under the influence of Lamech’s children. But they grew up in the home of a man whose worldview and morality stand diametrically opposed to the kingdom of God.

Trumpeting one’s revenge

The speech of Lamech (4:23–24) is sometimes called the “Song of the Sword.” In these words Lamech boasts of how he took the life of a young man who had wounded him. Furthermore, he declares that the quantity of personal revenge that he seeks far outstrips the vengeance to which Cain was entitled. He goes beyond the Biblical principle of an “eye for an eye.” Lamech demands the death penalty because someone only hurt him.

The “Song of the Sword” thus celebrates a boastful brutality that runs counter to the law of God (see Deut. 32:35) and counter to the “milk of human kindness.” Yet the song describes for us, in stark terms, the kind of depravity and revenge-seeking that is so common in history, even up to the present time. The end of the 20th century has witnessed horrific atrocities in Bosnia, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Rwanda and elsewhere.

Serpent seed in human flesh

The plain and painful reality of this chapter’s revelation is to explain more clearly what the natures of the woman’s seed and the serpent's seed are (recalling Gen. 3:15). Obviously, “serpent’s seed” does not mean that there will be a long line of literal snakes that constitute God’s and man’s enemies. By nature the woman produces in her children “serpent seed.” Adam and Eve’s children are people who become jealous and bitter, who hate, who deceive, and who kill. Even then there is little remorse. And this callousness is already evident by the second generation of the human race! The second generation of mankind is stubborn and rebellious, willing to resist God the Creator-King. By nature Adam and Eve produce children physically who are spiritually prone to hate God and their neighbor. Thus, in effect, they remain in fellowship with the evil one, the Devil. The antithesis (spiritual enmity) displays itself within the body of the human race.

Here exists the dilemma faced by humanity in Genesis 4 and also in our own day: how can there be this “seed of the woman” if by nature we produce “serpent seed”? The seed of the woman comes by sovereign grace alone. Remember that it was the LORD God who said, “I will place enmity.” In this life we never have the ability to see anyone's heart, but we can see the fruit of what lives in the heart. One can tell who is part of the seed of the woman when a person or persons acknowledge and then live according to the enmity, the spiritual division, that God has instituted by grace. Through redemptive history, the seed of the woman is that body of people who, by sovereign grace alone, hate evil and its instigator and chief proponent, the Satan. The one Seed who will do battle against the Satan is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the One who crushes the serpent’s head.

Therefore, as we have indicated in earlier lessons, the covenant that now is absolutely central after the sinful rebellion of our first parents, Adam and Eve, is the covenant of grace. That one, critical covenant will be worked out in historically established covenants with Noah, with Abraham, with all Israel under Moses, with Phinehas (Num. 25:12,13), and with David. Each one of those covenants in history has its own particular place, persons, promises, requirements and emphases. But the phrase, “covenant of grace,” reminds us of two things: covenant points out the historical character of God’s dealings with a particular people in time and space, while the word grace points out that God has shown us undeserved mercy. Something miraculous and supernatural must happen in this creation so that God’s mercy, according to His sovereign decree, will create a people “who call upon the name of the LORD” (4.26). Without the gracious kingdom of God ultimately controlling the course of events, the end result would be a world filled with people who are technologically civilized yet increasingly more brutal.

Hope placed in another seed (4:25–26)

Genesis 4 is an “epilogue of shame” to the “generation of the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 2:4). Sinfulness corrupts absolutely the human race in its standing before Almighty God. Building cities and accomplishing great cultural things may make life more comfortable, but nothing that any human can do will make mankind better or more righteous.

Yet this chapter ends on a hopeful note. The text has taken the story of sinful Cain to its terrifying endpoint in the person of boastful Lamech, but then it goes back to Adam again. Here again we see a literary “flashback” so that the reader is made to reach back to an earlier place in time and then move forward again with another line of characters.

Because of God’s gracious purposes in Christ Jesus, there is more to be said than seeing how sinfulness corrupts us in ever increasing measure. Adam again knew (loved, became intimate with) Eve his wife. They had a third son. His name is again significant and meaningful. Seth comes from a word meaning “to place, to set, to grant.” Cain was not the promised conqueror of the evil one, and Abel is dead. But through one man, the covenant line can move ahead into history, by God’s grace. Seth’s son is Enosh, meaning “man.”

The text ends on a ray of light when it tells us that at that time men “began to call upon the name of the LORD.” This family practiced a simple kind of public worship of the true God, and this pleases God. No great cultural achievements are mentioned in this family line.

Yet it is in the hearts of the humble and the contrite that God is pleased to dwell (d. Isa. 66:2). Thus the ray of light at the end of Genesis 4 comes from the “seed of the woman,” Jesus Christ, who would descend from Seth and Enosh. In all the degeneration evident here, the kingdom of God is not at all crushed. Hope seemed to die with Abel’s death and Cain’s punishment, but hope was resurrected with the birth of and in the line of Seth.

POINTS TO PONDER AND DISCUSS

1. Both Cain and Abel brought offerings before the LORD, but the LORD had consideration or favor for only one worshiper and his offering. How important is worship for Christians today? What kind of worshiper and what kind of worship please the LORD?

2. In Genesis 4:10 the LORD says to Cain, “Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.” Read Luke 11:50–51, Hebrews 11:4 and Hebrews 12:24. For what did Abel’s cry out? What does the sprinkled blood of Jesus the Mediator say to us today?

3. Cain built a city, thus going against God's sentence of wandering. The city suggests to us today civilization and protection. But by concentrating people together, sinners are also concentrated together. What of good and evil does the Bible say about “the city”? What constitutes true community? What should the attitude of the church and of Christians be toward cities today? What is the Christian mission to the cities of the world?

4. Read Matthew 5:21–26, Ephesians 4:26,27 and James 1:19–21. Is anger ever justified for a Christian? If so, under what circumstances? Cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 40, and Westminster Larger Catechism O/A 134–136.

5. What is meant by “total depravity”? What is meant by “total inability”? Is it appropriate for Christians to speak of themselves—regenerated and converted—as still “totally depraved”? Why or why not?

6. Read Matthew 18:21–35. Peter asks if forgiveness should be extended seven times to a brother who sins against him. But Jesus commends showing forgiveness “seventy seven times” (or, “seventy times seven,” according to some translations). What is an easier course to pursue—seeking revenge or showing forgiveness? Why? What factors are necessary in showing forgiveness?

7. The 20th century has seen two horrible world wars. Where did these wars start-in remote Third World countries or in civilized Europe? What factors explain the brutality of war in these “civilized:” modern times and places?

Mark D. Vander Hart

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