Error correction: Genesis 4-5

The first fraud is a murder. In the first instance of white-collar crime, a human being is put through the shredder.

Smith and Sigh

Eve names her first son Cain (Kayin in Hebrew). The name probably means something like smith, his named descendants include metalworkers, and his profession involves a lot of sophisticated tool use, but the Bible provides an alternate explanation for Cain’s name: Eve names him Kayin (spelled kof-yud-nun קין) because “I have acquired (kaniti, spelled kof-nun-yud-tau-yud קניתי) a man from Yahweh”. She then has a second son, Sigh (Hevel, spelt Abel in English).*

Abel becomes a shepherd, Cain a farmer. Each sends Yahweh a burnt offering – a message on a limited-bandwidth channel. Cain sends a low-quality message, some vegetables. Abel sends a high-quality, compressed message, higher on the food chain: meat. Yahweh pays attention to the highly compressed offering, and ignores the uninformative one.

Cain is upset. After all, he put in just as much work. He feels like his message is just as valuable, and has been unfairly neglected. Yahweh responds with a pep talk: “Why are you annoyed, and why has your countenance fallen? Surely, if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door. Its desire is toward you, yet you can conquer it.”

Cain modifies the record by murdering his brother Abel. This is the first instance in the Bible of someone trying to force the system to assign them more credit than they deserve. Yahweh asks Cain what happened to his brother, and Cain responds: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It’s worth noticing that the problem here is not that Cain is in fact his brother’s keeper. The problem is that this excuse is in astoundingly bad faith. Abel isn’t missing because Cain didn’t bother to keep track of him – he’s missing because Cain murdered his brother.

What is the consequence of Cain’s actions? Yahweh informs him that since he has corrupted the soil with his brother’s blood, when he attempts to work the soil, it will not yield food for him. You can try to corrupt the records in order to assign yourself more credit – and if someone is awarding real resources on that basis, then you can capture more of the rewards – but you can’t produce anything that way, because you’re not keeping track of what works.

Cain is not directly punished in any way. Yahweh simply declines to protect him from the direct consequences of his way of life. Indeed, when he complains that he is doomed to a vagrant life, and that strangers will kill him on sight, he is given amnesty against any bodily harm, with a promise of divine protection. Yahweh promises that if anyone kills Cain, they will be punished “shivatayim” (either sevenfold, or for seven generations, the meaning is unclear), and puts a mark on him to signify this.

It is not always necessary to actively avenge yourself against those who are corrupting the records. But it is necessary to keep track. To mark them as deprecated, untrusted. Making this common knowledge is all that the justice of Yahweh demands. No less, but also no more.

The Line of Cain

Cain’s descendants end up responsible for a lot of things. His son Enoch (Chanoch) becomes a city-builder and names his city (“Ir” – עיר – is the Hebrew word for city) after his son Irad (עירד). (Alternately Cain becomes a city-builder and names his city after his son Enoch – the Hebrew text is ambiguous.) Enoch’s great-great-grandson Lamech had two wives, Ada and Zillah. Ada’s sons Yaval and Yuval were the first tent-dwelling cattle herder, and harpist and flautist, respectively. Zillah’s son Tuval-Cain worked copper and iron.

Then there’s another murder, with less context provided. It isn’t described directly. Instead, Lamech simply announces to his wives:

Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; wives of Lamech, give ear to my speech: for I have slain a man with my wound, and a young man with my bruise. If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold.

I have a couple of hypotheses for what’s going on here:

  1. Yahweh’s promise to Cain was to protect him and the next seven generations of his line. Someone attacked Lamech, who was in generation six, counting Cain – and died, slain by (Yahweh’s response to) Lamech’s injuries.
  2. Lamech was attempting to replicate Yahweh’s protection of Cain, by doing what Cain did to earn his protection: murdering people. Presumably he murdered multiple people to get a higher degree of protection. This would of course have been a gross abuse of Yahweh’s precedent of amnesty, and grounds for a policy change.

Whatever happened, this is the last we hear of the lines of Cain or Abel. Eve then bears Adam another son, Set (Shet, שת), described as a substitute for Abel: “for Elohim gave (shat, שת) me another child in place of Abel, for Cain had killed him.” Set has a son Enosh, and at that point – we are told – people began to call the name of Yahweh. This is puzzling, since it seems as though Yahweh’s name had already been called.

The line of Set

We then get another, extended genealogy. This one is an Elohist genealogy, beginning with Elohim making Adam in their own image. Its omits Adam’s sons Cain and Abel, mentioning only his son Set. But the line of Set is suspiciously similar to the line of Cain:

Set – שת
Enosh – אנוש
Cain – קין Kenan – קינן
Enoch (Chanoch) – חנוך Mahalalel – מהללאל
Irad – עירד Yared – ירד
Mehuyael – מחויאל Enoch (Chanoch) – חנוך
Methushael – מתושאל Methuselah (Methushelach) – מתושלח
Lamech – למך Lamech – למך
Sons by Ada: Yaval, Yuval – יבל ,יובל
Son by Zillah: Tuval-Cain – תובל–קין
Daughter by Zillah: Naamah – נעמה
Noah – נח

Enoch and Lamech appear prominently in both lines, with notable direct offspring. Methushael and Methushelach are suspiciously similar. “Irad” is simply “Yared” with an extra letter at the beginning (the mostly-silent Ayin), and Kenan’s name is written the same as Cain’s but with an added letter (Nun) at the end.

If we identify Kenan with Cain, then we have to identify Enosh with Adam. And indeed, just as “Adam” is sometimes a generic word for man (as well as looking like a masculine variant of the word for earth), “Enosh” (אנוש) resembles the singular version of a word for men, anashim (אנשים). Set, nominally to replace his murdered brother Abel, is the grandfather of an amended Cain.

The record being corrected here is not just a verbal one. Yahweh is also curating lines of ancestry; genetic information is important too. Combining genes is, after all, the other way of knowing someone. Shared models are more important for relationships of shared production.

On this model, it is no longer puzzling that people started using Yahweh’s name in Enosh’s generation – the Adam stories are meant to be transposed to Enosh. This also helps make some sense of the dual creation story. The Yahwist account of Eden is situated within history – Enosh, son of Set, lived in Yahweh’s garden.

Set is the only named son of Adam whose line continues after the Biblical flood, by way of Noah – and thus ancestor of all the Hebrews as well as related peoples. So even if the lines of Cain and Abel had not been revised out of existence, Set would be the only one whose line survived.

Set in other traditions

The early Egyptians also revered Set – not as an ancestor, but as a god. This could be mere chance, but the coincidence is striking. Their Set is one of their oldest gods, dating to the predynastic period (before they had what is generally regarded as the Egyptian pantheon.) However, like the Biblical Set, he has been retconned as part of a trio of siblings, in ways that produce an interesting contrast:

The Egyptian Earth-god Geb and his mate Nut had three offspring: Isis, Osiris, and Set; the Hebrew ancestor Adam (the masculine form of Adamah, earth) and his mate Eve had three offspring: Cain, Abel, and Set. The Egyptian Set murdered his brother Osiris (who thus became the god of the underworld and memory), and Isis mated with his body to produce a son as a living substitute and heir: Horus, god of personal responsibility, who became Set’s rival; the Hebrew Cain murdered his brother Abel, and his brother Set was born as a substitute.

The later Egyptians didn’t know what to do with Set; as he was gradually displaced by Horus and Ra, he became the god of the wilderness and foreigners, and ended up being a generic bad-guy god. The Hyksos – kings from abroad in the Second Intermediate Period – favored Set, and this may have had something to do with it. In any case, the Hebrews returned the favor; their generic term for evil was the same as the later Egyptians’ chief god: Ra.


* In the Hebrew Bible, a sigh often represents something ephemeral. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” begins Ecclesiastes, but literally this is “Sigh of sighs, all is sigh.”

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