Genesis 4 is one of those places in Scripture where things just go from bad….to worse. In a hurry. It starts out alright: Adam and Eve come together and produce offspring. Eve recognizes that God has helped her, even calling God by His covenant name, YHWH. Let’s take that detour and then come back:
In ancient times, it was normal practice that an individual’s name was of much greater importance than it is today. I have very little fear of telling you my name is Doug Hibbard, and knowing my name does not really give you any authority in my life. Neither does it give you much insight into my character.
Not so, the ancient names. Frequently names were given to reflect character expectations. Also, names were safeguarded to a certain degree: one might have a publicly known name for general business, but then a specific name for your most important relationships and covenants.
It is not unlike people like me that are “middle-name” people. Doug is my name…but I have a different first name than that. I don’t typically use it, but I know when it comes up: taxes, government, insurance. If I hear that name, I know it’s not a personal relationship: it’s business, through and through.
Likewise, something you need to remember about the Bible is that “God” isn’t a name. It’s a noun. A fairly non-specific one, actually. Bible translators strive to use context so that they capitalize God when it’s the One True God but show it as god when it’s not. With me?
There are times, however, when the generic designation is not enough. For those times, God reveals Himself by a specific name. That name is considered holy by the original audience of Scripture, such that it was generally not pronounced or fully written out. Naturally, since the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, the name is Hebrew. The best it comes across into English is YHWH, often rendered as either Jehovah or Yahweh.
This is the name that reflects when dealing with the true God, personally, relationally. There. Detour over.
Now that we took that detour, notice that this is how Eve refers to God in this situation. She recognizes the specific and personal nature involved. This is a good recognition on her part. It should be noted that Eve recognizes this—whatever fault you want to lay on her from Genesis 3, she is the one who first calls God by name.
Of course, things don’t stay that positive. Adam and Eve have two children named at this point: Cain and Abel. These two go into separate career fields. One to farming, one to herding. Both bring offerings to God from their work, but Abel’s is accepted while Cain’s is not. The text does not give us an exact basis for understanding how Cain and Abel knew this to be the case, only that they knew it.
This gives us something to consider: very often we are aware when what we do displeases God. Occasionally we may need external evidence of it, but we know when God is displeased with us.
Now, there’s two options left to us when that happens. We can either find a way to make right our behavior toward God or we can lash out at those who are accepted by Him. Cain chooses one.
The wrong one. Abel is murdered. We’re given a classic question that is an indictment of all of us when we neglect those around us: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is: Yes, you are. We all are.
We are to be mindful of the well-being of those around us. Every last one. The victims of human trafficking in London and Lonoke. The poor kids on the streets of Little Rock or the villages of Laos. The sick and afflicted here, there, and everywhere.
That’s the message of Genesis 4: you are your brother’s keeper. Not because there is no God but because there is one. Because that one holds your brother important and has put his life in your hands.
The chapter finishes with contrasting endpoints: Adam and Eve have a new son, Seth, to carry on their line. Also, the line of Cain leads to a man who boasts of his revenge for insults. Lamech expresses disdain at keeping his brother and rather prefers to put his brother under threat.
Who are we?
Or those who will keep our brothers?