Genesis 4 tells of humanity's descent into delusional behavior. It begins with the story of Adam and Eve’s sons Cain and Abel. The two sons offer sacrifices to God but Cain’s sacrifice is rejected for some unstated reason. Cain becomes jealous and angry towards his brother rather than adapting his behavior to whatever it is God expected of him. Cain gets Abel alone and murders him.
This story has significance in ways that may not be readily apparent. A brother killed a brother. Brotherhood was a special relationship in the Near East and in the Greco-Roman worlds. Marriage was not a relationship of equals in these cultures. Parent to child relationships were hierarchical and often there was emotional distance between fathers and children. The most emotionally intimate relationship one could have was sibling to sibling, especially brother to brother. While we find sibling murder to be more disturbing than the typical murder, it was much more disturbing for the original audience of this story. First there was the attempt by Adam and Eve to become like God. Now Cain exhibited the willingness to destroy his own brother to minimize his own shame and humiliation.
The most instructive part of this story is Cain’s departure. Cain never expresses remorse or regret.
16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD, and settled 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 named it Enoch after his son Enoch. Genesis 4:16-17 (NRSV)
There is a wealth of information in these two verses. Cain departs from the Lord and settles in Nod. This is an oxymoron. Nod means “wandering.” Literally, Cain is going to settle in the land of being unsettled. Furthermore, when you and I orient ourselves by looking at a map or a compass, we are conditioned to find which way is north and go from there. The ancient cultures were oriented to the east. The east was where the sun came up indicating “the beginning.” The west, where the sun set, signified “completeness.” In fact, in the area that later became Israel, there was a Canaanite city called Shalem. It was named for the planet Venus, also known as the “evening star,” a celestial body that marked the end of the day with its appearance. Shalem signified completeness or fullness, as in the completion of the day. Some linguists believe that the origins of the Hebrew word shalom are found in this word. Eastward travel was sometimes used as a symbol for going backward. Cain was literally and figuratively walking away from shalom.
Cain now had a dilemma. Cain had burned his bridges to God. Yet eternal meaning and purpose (or immortality) can only be had in relationship to God. Cain had to find some new sense of meaning. So what did he do? He did two things. He started a family and built a city. He named both his first son and the city Enoch, which means to “initiate.” Cain was initiating life apart from God. This was his strategy for achieving a sense of immortality. Instead of being an eikon of God and filling the earth with God’s glory, Cain opts to hole up in a fortress and create his own elaborate illusion of meaning and purpose.
Of course, being the illusion it is, Cain’s new world can not abide competing realities. His world and the world of any future “Cains” are put in the position of creating and preserving what Walter Brueggemann calls the “eternal present.” In the eternal present, the way things are is presented and represented as being what always has been and what always will be. Cain must make his illusion prevail at all costs or risk having his "reality" exposed as a fraud. All competitor visions must be destroyed.
Destruction is precisely what occurred to Cain and humanity. So virulent was the virus of Cain’s murderous delusion that it threatened to destroy all humanity. Succeeding chapters in Genesis tell us that God brought forth a flood to destroy virus infected humanity and begin anew with Noah and his family. God repeated the command to Noah that he had given to Adam and Eve: Be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 9:1). God was intent on filling the earth with his eikons.
Unfortunately, no sooner do we leave the story of Noah then we come to the story of a people who come from out of the east (the backward place) to settle in the plains of Shinar, (modern day Iraq.) The leader of this people, we learn from Chapter 10, was named Nimrod which means, “We shall rebel.”
Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." Genesis 11:4 (NRSV)
The city is Babel which means in Babylonian, “Gateway to God.” Some have surmised that the idea was to build a tower so high as to reach God but all cities of that culture had a tower. More likely the expression of building "a tower with its top in the heavens" simply meant to build a magnificent city. “Make a name for ourselves” was possibly intended to express a desire to achieve renown. However, some scholars believe the intent was to establish authority over themselves by deciding on their own name. Either way it was in open defiance against God. Particularly noteworthy is their justification for their efforts. God has reissued his command to Noah to fill the earth but these people are concerned that if they don’t unite they “…shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” Scattering across the face of the earth is supposed to be their mission.
Babel has a double meaning because it is also very close to the Hebrew word balal for “confusion.” God intervened and created confusion among the people of Babel and succeeding in scattering them across the earth. This confusion prevented them from pursuing the same destructive path of Cain.
This is not the last episode of rebellion against God’s plan to the fill the earth. History has been an ongoing attempt by humanity to create vain (i.e., self-important yet ultimately ineffective) illusions of life apart from God. To this day there is a struggle to create and preserve the “eternal present.” We are ever trying to settle in Nod, the land of wandering, somewhere east of Eden. The story of scripture is God’s unveiling of a reality that will disillusion us from our futile struggle to fabricate shalom apart from God and draw us back to the true shalom that was meant for us from the start.