Where did Cain’s Wife Come From?

One of the enduring questions about reading the Bible, is how to read it with the same interests and worldview as the author of the story. [1] I know that way of saying it makes it sound easy. I apologize for that because I am sure you know it is not easy.

It is going to take us a little while to get to why this point causes friction because we are going to have to start in very early childhood.

If we started at the very beginning, we would have to go back to that stage of early childhood where the child first discovers that different minds have different contents. “I know this is true, but she thinks that is true.” It is only an extension of that early awareness to note that the author of a biblical text pictures the world differently that I do, has different values to account for and keeps those values in a different priority order than mine, imagines that there is such a thing as “the natural world” or not and if there is one, what the rules of its operation are and under what circumstances they can be broken.

Now I can know that to be true—the author thinks this way and I think that way—and still Cain 2have no inclination at all to prefer the author’s understanding to mine. When Tamar—one of my favorite people in the Bible, not just one of my favorite women in the Bible—seduces her father-in-law, Judah, and gets pregnant, we want to say that she shouldn’t have. Naughty, naughty. But to the author, is it the supreme act of obedience to God and compassionate service to the father-in-law. [2] To understand Tamar, see Genesis 38, you have to care about what the author cares about and the author is engaged in caring about what The Author cares about, which is, in this case the regular transmission of property from one generation to another. There is a lot of sexual activity in Tamar’s story and we, in our very sexualized age, are drawn to it in a way the author is not. And that’s just Tamar. There are a lot of stories where the challenge of caring about what the author cares about is much more severe.

We are now almost to the step where we started. We know now that we need to find a way to get inside the author’s intention or we will not understand the text. One way to do that is to recognize the kind of text it is. Is is a history? If so, is it guided by modern or ancient notions how how to do a history? Is is poetry? If so, are the arts that make their poetry work the same as ours? Is it biography? Where did the information come from to describe the crucial events of that life? Is it myth and folklore? What events is this folklore about and/or what lessons does it try to teach?

OK. NOW we are back to where we started. This is the why of reading the stories in this way. Now we get to the “how” question. How do we do all those things? [3] Well…this has been pretty abstract. Let’s take a particular question. How about one of the all-time favorites, “Where did Cain’s wife come from?”

Cain 4If you have been reading along in Genesis, you have noticed the prototypical human couple, Adam and Eve. They had two children, Cain and Abel. That is the pool of people to draw from. Now, suddenly, Cain gets married. Huh? Who? The only named woman so far is his mother, Eve! Uck! We don’t want to go there. So…where?

Using the understanding that there are multiple stories going on, all at once, and that characters may drift from one story to another, gives us a new way to understand Cain and a new way to answer the question. A lot of stuff was going on in the neighborhood while we were focused on Cain and Abel. The woman Cain married came from one of those other stories.

So how do we understand the stories if there are a lot of them going on at the same time, representing several genres of literature and drama? This is going to sound simpleminded, I know, but I recommend starting with the question, “What is this story about?” Every narrative is there for a reason. Every narrative requires a time and a space for its logic to play out. Every narrative requires a cast of characters adequate to the time, the space, and the meaning.

So…questions like what, for instance. How about these?
why is there evil in the world?
why do we die?
what is the intended relationship of men and women (two answers are provided)?
what is the fundamental relationship between God and humankind?
why does childbirth hurt?
why is it so hard to make a living?
where is matter come from OR (alternatively) why is matter ordered rather than chaotic?
why do we all speak different languages?

And so on.

Every one of those is addressed in a story that does not preclude other stories which account for the same interest. Here are some examples.

Example 1: Adam and Eve

Cain 3For there to be a relation between humankind and God, there needs to be one entity called human. Not many entities: one. Genesis manages that by having God create the progenitors of the one race, the human race, and proposing a relationship of a certain kind with them. The oneness is crucial. It’s how we understand human nature, how we understand the Fall and sin; how we understand being a race of people alienated from God (alienated from the relationship for which we were created) and in need of reconciliation.

Example 2: Cain and Abel

Italian Baroque Painting of the Killing of Abel and the Banishment of Cain --- Image by © Geoffrey Clements/CORBIS ORG XMIT: 12873731

Italian Baroque Painting of the Killing of Abel and the Banishment of Cain — Image by © Geoffrey Clements/CORBIS ORG XMIT: 12873731

But when you move to kinds of economies and of cultures, you don’t need oneness, you need multiplicity. Actually, two-ness will be enough. You make Cain, a farmer, and Abel, a rancher/shepherd. It’s very much “Oh, the ranchers and the cowhands should be friends” from Oklahoma! That’s who Cain and Abel are: they are the farmers and the cowhands.

Now the story comes from a people who are nomadic herders, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it was the farmer’s sacrifice that was not acceptable. When Israel occupies a land and grows its own crops, the crops can be “sacrificed” (the first fruits) as well, but Cain and Abel are a lot earlier than that. Israel is going to be a nation with animal sacrifice an essential part of its religious practice, so God needs to prefer the sacrifice of an animal—Abel’s sacrifice—as the right kind.

Again, as the question becomes “this way of life or that one” the oneness emphasis of the humankind in paradise gives way to the multiplicity of economies. It requires another stage setting because it is another question. A new question gets a new cast of characters and a new set of scenery and a new narrative focus and so on.

Example 3: The Tower of Babel

One more. Humankind living together in an urban setting. Huge numbers of them, all speaking the same language and proud of their technological powers. “God is up there,” they reason, “and we know how to build a tower that gets us up there. Let’s build it and overthrow God.” You see what question is being asked, so you see what kind of setting will have to be constructed so that the answer can be played out. God notices the work and decides to “confuse”—I think today we might have said “diversify”—their languages so that can’t cooperate with each other. Another story based on a question and with a new cast of characters.

So what is a good answer to a child who is thinking these matters through for the first time and stumbles on Cain getting a wife from…well, from nowhere? I have sketched, above, the answer I think is a good answer, but you may have noticed—those of you who are parents will certainly have noticed—that it is not an answer to the question the child asked.

It is not a good practice to tell a child he or she should not have asked that question. It is especially bad if you want the child to continue to formulate and ask interesting questions. I think what I would do is to point out how many stories are going on at the same time. Genesis 1—11 gives an amazing buffet of stories. If they are all taken as historical, one precludes another. But if they are taken as answers to questions, there is a story that goes with every question and you can focus as much as you want or even as much as the child wants on the relationship between the narrative and the point.

The child will continue to be interested in reading these stories in the wrong way because that is the way he or she has been taught to read stories. But coming back over and over to the relationship between the story and why it matters (the point) ought to function, eventually as a kind of narrative rope-a-dope and the child’s curiosity about these stories as history ought to wane, while the freshness and the significance of the stories as narrative that say something important ought to remain.

To tell you the truth, I don’t remember whether it worked with my kids. It has worked really for me and I continue to learn things about these stories that amaze me.

[1] In the context of my own upbringing, the question was always of the Author (God, obviously) and not the author, say Nehemiah. After all these years, I find I am entirely happy with the Author/author division but I have made the work of the Author the presupposition and the work of the author the focus of my study.
[2] No, not that kind of service. By my calculation, Tamar saves Judah’s life by running the particular con she managed so well.
[3] With great difficulty, I would say, and only by persistent study—particularly if you were trained, as I was, that all that was not necessary. I’ve been working on this for nearly 70 years and I still have bad habits to catch and refuse.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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