Judgment

“They Will Come and See My Glory”: An Exegesis of Isaiah 66:18-24

Note: I originally penned this piece for my theological studies at Ridley College. It is a short, exegetical essay on Isaiah’s ultimate passage, Isa 66:18-24. I also don’t mind saying that I did pretty well on it! The essay certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but for the exegetically-minded, it may well provide some food for thought. 

Introduction

The book of Isaiah contains some of the loftiest language in all Scripture, its pages replete with remarkable visions of divine majesty. Isaiah 66:18-24 is no different: there, the prophet’s audience is treated to an eschatological vista, as the nations stream into a restored Jerusalem to worship the one, true God. The revelation of Yahweh’s glory, the universal reach of his salvation, the triumph over idolatry and false worship, and the final distribution of rewards and punishments – these and other Isaianic themes are dramatically drawn together in 66:18-24, which sets them within an ultimate frame of reference.[1]

Such will form the backdrop for my examination of 66:18-24, as I argue that it provides a fitting coda to Isaiah. Indeed, its structurally significant position at the close of the Isaianic corpus is manifested in the multifarious connections it bears with the rest of the book. Depicting God’s universal revelation within a renewed creation, the passage reflects an eschatological longing[2] that also resolves the book’s basic tension between judgment and salvation. Finally, I’ll briefly sketch some of the text’s important hermeneutical points, showing that whilst salvation is offered to all, persistent rebellion exacts a sure and terrible price.

Contextualizing Isaiah 66:18-24

Questions concerning the context of Isaiah 66:18-24 – both historical and literary – have yielded multiple positions. Scholars have made numerous, sometimes speculative, suggestions regarding the passage’s historical background,[3] with many thinking it dimly reflects a post-exilic setting.[4] Gardener, for example, argues the international convocation and dispersal of emissaries (vv.18-19) suggests just such a period, when Jerusalem was still populated by foreigners. Though not unreasonable, one should be cautious about reducing the elements of the passage to “mundane” occurrences.[5] Trying to “establish an absolute dating” for the text is fraught with difficulties, given it lacks the expected historical anchors tying it to a particular period.[6] Ultimately, 66:18-24 is “eschatologically oriented” – inviting the audience to cast its collective vision forward to an as-yet unrealized era of creational and corporate renewal.[7] Not that the passage is completely severed from the general historical process (e.g., 66:20; cf. 64:10-11; 65:18-19); however, it does suggest a period that exceeds the limits of purely historical or temporized events.[8]

The literary context of Isaiah 66:18-24 can be discerned with greater confidence, for it bears multiple, overlapping links with the surrounding textual neighbourhood. Although the text constitutes a distinct unit, a clear connection exists between it and the preceding passage: a universal missionary effort succeeds universal judgment (vv.15-17), even as the consequences for the rebellious are severely felt (vv.16,24).[9] Concluding ongoing tensions between Yahweh’s servants and the apostates (cf. 65:13-15), 66:18-24 envisions the finality of deliverance and reprobation – part of a broader relationship between Isaiah 65-66.[10] Moving further afield, 66:18-24 picks up several prophetic threads in Trito-Isaiah,[11] (e.g., the interchange between judgment and salvation,[12] the inclusion of Gentiles into the redeemed community [56:1-8; cf. 66:18-21]). Indeed, commentators have noted numerous verbal links between the prophet’s final vision and the rest of Trito-Isaiah – particularly 56:1-8, with which 66:18-24 constitutes an inclusio around the book’s last major division.[13] Finally, the text constitutes a counterpoint to the opening indictment of Isaiah 1 in another inclusio, framing the book with contrasting pictures of false and true worship.[14] I shall explore these points further as I proceed.

Exegeting Isaiah 66:18-24

Isaiah 66:18-24 can be divided further into two sub-sections: vv.18-21, in which Yahweh draws together people from all nations, Jew and Gentile; and the resulting convocation of vv.22ff, where the pilgrims engage in ceaseless worship of the one, true God.

Much of the passage is rather elliptical, making interpretation difficult. Those challenges begin with v.18, which apparently details God’s response to the iniquity of the irreligious.[15] We may draw some tentative conclusions, however. The most likely antecedent of “they” (v.18a) are the rebellious of vv.16b-17, who exposed their obstinacy through corrupt and idolatrous worship[16] (cf. 57:12; 59:6-7; 65:2).[17] Their iniquitous actions somehow “trigger” Yahweh’s decision to call people from the nations – i.e, a foil for his determination to unveil his glory (v.19).[18] Verse 18b is the first of several references that give 66:18-24 a decidedly universalistic hue, thus taking up themes broached earlier in Trito-Isaiah (e.g., 56:1-8) and Isaiah 40-55 (45:22-25).[19] The consequent international assembly will “see” God’s “glory” (thrice-underscored in vv.18-19; cf. 42:8), which in context could refer to the revelation of his unique splendour, associated with his status as the world’s only Lord.[20]

In concert with this great ingathering, Yahweh will establish a “sign” among “them” (v.19a). Some argue that where v.18 summarises God’s plan in this passage, vv.19-21 detail its unfurling.[21] However, the construction of v.19 suggests a sequential relationship with the previous verse (otherwise, “them” in v.19a lacks context). Identifying the sign has also generated debate, given its ambiguity (cf. 11:10-11). A number of suggestions have been made: e.g., the restoration of Jerusalem (cf. 62:1-2,11-12), or the sending of the emissaries themselves (v.19b).[22] The first option ties 66:18-24 to earlier portions of Trito-Isaiah, but lacks positive warrant from within the passage; the second alternative also seems unlikely, for the act of disseminating heralds appears to be distinct from the sign itself. It’s entirely possible the author has been deliberately non-specific, in keeping with the eschatological, visionary complexion of the passage.[23]

“Survivors” will be sent to declare Yahweh’s glorious fame (v.19b). The term evokes images of people enduring a great catastrophe; some commentators reason that this reference ultimately finds inspiration in the experiences of post-exilic Jews.[24] This cannot be ruled out, although like the rest of 66:18-24, v.19 lacks historical markers. Again, it’s perhaps best to interpret this clause in association with vv.15-17, where Yahweh poured out his fury upon “all flesh”. If vv.18-24 follows in sequence, then the “survivors” are probably those who underwent the universal execution of Yahweh’s judgment. A related issue is whether the survivors-cum-heralds are Jews or Gentiles. Some argue for the former position, given earlier references to survivors from the Judahite community (4:2).[25] But the natural antecedent of “those who survive” are the members of the international gathering (v.18b) – i.e., non-Jews who endured the conflagration of vv.15-17 (cf. 45:20)[26] – obviating the need to look beyond the passage’s literary environs to determine their identity. Of course, this raises the question: if the envoys are Gentiles, how should they be distinguished from those foreigners who have not heard of Yahweh’s “fame” (v.19b)? The most reasonable interpretive course is to argue that the distinction is based on proximity to Jerusalem.[27] Those from Israel’s near-neighbours – who would themselves be adherents of Yahwism – will travel to the farthest reaches of the earth (cf. the impressionistic list of countries in v.19b) to announce Yahweh’s splendour.[28]

Verse 20 sees those from the far-flung nations convey “[your] brothers” to the holy mountain in a restored Jerusalem (see 64:10-11; 65:18-19; cf. 1:26-27; 36:1-37:37).[29] This image shouldn’t be taken too literally – as if so many millions could fit into such a small parcel of land – and is more intelligible on a visionary interpretation.[30] Jerusalem’s presence here coheres with the Isaianic commitment to the city as the centre from which Yahweh’s glory will be revealed.[31] Similarly, “holy mountain” features in other texts envisioning eschatological renewal (2:2-4; 65:25c; cf. 56:7).[32] Its present inclusion offers an implicit contrast with 65:11, which has the disobedient abandoning God’s sacred mountain. Here, however, his servants venture towards it. Some argue that “your brothers” are ingrafted Yahweh-fearers from among the Gentiles.[33] But v.20 seems to distinguish between this group, and those who ferry them. If indeed both cohorts are composed of non-Jews, we may ask what differentiates them – i.e., why only one group is explicitly said to enjoy fraternal standing with God’s covenant people (“your”). Conversely, understanding the term as referring to Jews comports with passages alluding to the hope that Abraham’s scattered descendants will be re-gathered (11:11-12; 49:8-12).[34]

Gentiles will therefore transport members of the diaspora on a variety of vehicles and domesticated animals – an image evoking urgency and alacrity, as this great multitude descends on Jerusalem. Their actions are compared with the “pure” offerings of Jews before Yahweh (v.20b), which suggests acceptable worship and thanksgiving.[35] This represents a “striking reversal of” attitudes concerning “unclean” foreigners.[36] Remarkably, these same Gentiles will even be elected to cultic office as priests and Levites (“some of them” – v.21). Although some exegetes contend that the verse refers to diaspora Jews,[37] such a claim is unlikely: to say that would hardly be remarkable, and indeed, rather anti-climactic.[38] Verse 21 not only corresponds to, but also “escalates”, the vision of 56:1-8, where foreigners were permitted to enter the sanctuary.[39] Further emphasising the text’s universalism, 66:21 affirms the role of Gentiles as ministers and facilitators of pure worship in the New Jerusalem, further dismantling distinctions between Jew and non-Jew in the redeemed community (cf. 56:8).[40]

Verses 22-23 unveil the final goal of this multi-national congress: worship of Yahweh as the world’s true sovereign, set within a renewed creation. Together with vv.18-21, these verses counterpose the perversity of religious formalism in the physical Jerusalem (Isa 1:1ff) – part of that wider inclusio at work in Isaiah[41] – by envisioning true worship in a New Jerusalem. They also constitute a capstone to the book’s polemic against idolatry, supplanting false worship with global recognition of Yahweh (“all flesh”; cf. Isa 40-48 and Yahweh’s cosmic “lawsuit” against idols).[42] The term, “New heavens and new earth” corresponds closely to 65:17-25;[43] although some contend that it’s merely a poetic description of the new order or restored city (65:17ff),[44] the language evokes the totality of creation (Gen 1:1). In addition, the verb “make” may well correspond to the thought behind a text like Genesis 2:4, whilst 65:17-25 contains its own references (long life, the fruitfulness of toil and child-bearing) which represent an undoing of the primordial curse (cf. Gen 3:15-19).[45] The new creation’s endurance – free from death and despoliation – is analogous to the persistence of Yahweh’s servants, who will enjoy permanence of posterity (cf. 56:5).[46] This may ultimately reflect the incipient universalism in Abraham’s originating call (“seed”; cf. Gen 12:1-3).[47]

Jewish and Gentile pilgrims will engage in purified worship of the one, true God (v.23b: “…bow down before me…”).[48] The clause, “From one New Moon…” implies that it will also be perpetual (v.23a).[49] We may discern another contrastive link – anchored in the dual references to Sabbaths and New Moon festivals – between this uncorrupted activity and the religious formalism within the Judahite community (1:13ff).[50] The faithful worshipers are, of course, sharply distinguished from the corpses of the rebellious, which lie outside the city walls (v.24).[51] The Isaianic interchange of salvation and judgment thus reaches a climax in the final consignment of the obedient and the obstinate. Yahweh’s servants will exit Jerusalem to “observe the grim fate” of those who stubbornly persisted in their rebellion. Verse 24 implies that the corpses are exposed (hence, the worshipers being able to view them). Their lack of proper burial is a fitting testimony to their own shamefulness: indeed, such a state represented the ultimate indignity for a Jew.[52] The makeshift graveyard may have been inspired by the Hinnom Valley, located just south of Jerusalem; as a place of child sacrifice in OT times, it would have supplied a suitably gruesome image for the appalling destiny of the wicked.[53] That the author speaks of “their worm” and “their fire” only serves to underscore the responsibility the unrighteous have for their own judgment, which here continues into the eschaton.[54] Less clear is whether this can be taken as a picture of conscious, post-mortem anguish (as per later depictions of Hell). The punishment seems permanent, but the clear reference to “dead bodies” indicates literal death. Meanwhile, “worm” and “fire” signal the permanent state of dissolution and judgment, respectively (cf. 1:31)[55] – a terrible fate, and a sobering reminder of rebellion’s consequences.[56]

Conclusion

Isaiah 66:18-24 concludes the overarching trajectory of the book, weaving many of its themes together in a most astounding eschatological vision.[57] It remains now to uncover some of the passage’s primary hermeneutical implications. The passage’s deep-rooted universalism immediately springs to mind, which is of a piece with the NT’s insistence that the message of salvation through Christ is, in principle, for all (John 12:32). God’s children are so, not because of ethnic lineage, but because they are born of him (John 1:13; Acts 8:26-38). A narrow, ethno-centric cast of mind may have been scandalized by such texts. But the church is also guilty of trying to restrict the gospel’s reach, often on the basis of cultural and social mores masquerading as the fundamentals of orthodoxy. Isaiah 66:18-24 reminds us that the gospel stands as God’s promise to welcome “[every]one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34). The passage confirms what much of Isaiah has already indicated – namely, that the primary metric of membership within the covenant community is not ethnicity (or any external trait), but humility before his word (Isa 66:2). Of course, this is not the whole word, for the offer of salvation does not remain open in perpetuity; judgment is still a reality. Isaiah 66:18-24 strongly implies that actions have moral consequences, even beyond this present life. Apart from humble adoration before Yahweh, one can only expect wrath and loss.[58] Difficult though it may be, this, too, cannot be ignored.

[1] See the summative statement concerning Isa 66:18-24 in Joel S. Kaminsky and Anne Stewart, “God of All the World: Universalism and Developing Monotheism in Isaiah 40-66”, HTR 99 (2006): 160. Cf. Brevard Childs, Isaiah (OTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 542: “A succinct summary of the eschatological themes that occur throughout the entire book…”

[2] Andrew T. Abernethy, The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach (NSBT 40; Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2016), 193.

[3] See R. Reed Lessing, Concordia Commentary: Isaiah 56-66 (CC; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2014), 29-30, for a brief survey of the various hypotheses that have been put forward. Lessing’s conclusion – that in many cases, such reconstructions illegitimately attempt to historicise what appears to be an eschatological text – is a wise one.

[4] See Michael J. Chan, “Isaiah 56-66 and the Genesis of Re-orienting Speech”, CBQ 72 (2010): 449-450, who says that some scholars date the pericope to the Persian period, subsequent to the building of the Second Temple. Chan acknowledges that the material in this entire section “eludes precision of dating or exactitude of allusion” (451).

[5] Anne E. Gardner, “The Nature of the New Heavens and the New Earth in Isaiah 66:22”, ABR 50 (2002): 15, n.18. This isn’t to disparage the view that certain elements in Isa 66:18-24 may have been inspired by historical events – merely to suggest that such occurrences do not exhaust the significance of the pericope.

[6] E.g., Childs, Isaiah, 444.

[7] Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40-66 (NAC; Nasville: B&H Publishing, 2009), 65, 69, 519.

[8] William J. Dumbrell, “The Purpose of the Book of Isaiah”, TynB 36 (1985): 128.

[9] Pace Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 19B; New York: Doubleday, 2003), 312, who argues there is no relationship between these passages whatsoever. Cf. Lessing, Isaiah 56-66, 492.

[10] Smith (Isaiah 40-66, 521) argues that Isa 66:18-24 is part of a larger literary unit stretching back to 63:7. This is true, although it should also be noted that whilst 63:7-64:13 are a lament in the face of corruption and devastation, chapters 65-66 seem to constitute Yahweh’s response.

[11] I am using the term “Trito-Isaiah” in a purely heuristic sense.

[12] John N. Oswalt, “Judgment and Hope: The Full-orbed Gospel”, TrinJ 17 (1996): 197.

[13] See Edwin C. Webster, “A Rhetorical Study of Isaiah 66”, JSOT 11 (1986): 103.

[14] Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66, 38.

[15] Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), 541; John Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary (ICC; London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 512.

[16] See Motyer, The Prophecy, 541. Conrad argues that the identity of those referred to in v.18 is especially hard to uncover if, as some maintain, the verse is unrelated to what precedes it. See Edgard W. Conrad, Reading Isaiah (OBT; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 92.

[17] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 512. References to deeds and actions in those passages are all cast in a negative light.

[18] Oswalt, Isaiah – Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 687. Cf. Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 512.

[19] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 513.

[20] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 513. Whybray reasons that the reference to glory has a “restrictive and intensive sense” associated with the temple (cf. Ezek 11:22-23). See R.N. Whybray, Isaiah 40-66 (NCBC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 289. Abernethy plausibly suggests that Yahweh’s glory should be seen in conjunction with the restoration of Zion (Isa 60). See Abernethy, The Book, 193-194.

[21] Jan L. Koole, Isaiah III: 56-66 (HCOT; Leuven: Peeters, 2001), 522.

[22] Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary (OTL; London: SCM Press, 1976), 425.

[23] Oswalt, Isaiah, 687. Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, 290.

[24] Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, 290.

[25] E.g., Oswalt, Isaiah, 688-689, who argues there is nothing explicit in this passage about Gentiles experiencing judgment (but see 66:16 and “all flesh”). Moreover, the textual links between vv.15-17 and vv.18-19 favour the position I take. Cf. Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 514.

[26] John D.W. Watts, Isaiah 34-66 – Revised (WBC 25; Waco: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 940. Cf. Emmanuel Uchenna Dim, The Eschatological Implications of Isaiah 65 and 66 as the Conclusion to the Book of Isaiah (Bern: Peter Lang, 2005), 176, 182. Cf. Willem A.M. Beuken, “Yhwh’s Sovereign Rule and His Adoration on Mount Zion: A Comparison of Poetic Visions in Isaiah 24-27, 52, and 66”, in The Desert Will Bloom: Poetic Visions in Isaiah, eds. Joseph A. Everson and Hyun Chul Paul Kim (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), 105.

[27] Whybray Isaiah 40-66, 290; cf. Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66, 314.

[28] Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66, 314; cf. Koole, Isaiah III, 520; Dim, The Eschatological, 183.

[29] Dim, The Eschatological, 187. See also Shalom M. Paul, Isaiah 40-66: Translation and Commentary (ECC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 626, 628.

[30] Oswalt, Isaiah, 692.

[31] Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66, 314.

[32] Dim, The Eschatological, 186-187.

[33] E.g., Motyer, The Prophecy, 542, who partly bases his argument on the assumption that “your brothers” and those being made priests and Levites (v.21) should be identified.

[34] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 516.

[35] See Paul, Isaiah 40-66, 628-629 for comparable practices of tribute levied before potentates in Mesopotamia.

[36] Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, 291.

[37] E.g., Jose Severino Croatto, “The ‘Nations’ in the Salvific Oracles of Isaiah”, VT 55 (2005): 157. Croatto also claims that the nations in 66:18-24 play a purely servile role (hence, his interpretation of v.21). This seems clearly to run against the grain of the text.

[38] Blenkinsopp, “Second Isaiah – Prophet of Universalism”, JSOT 13 (1998): 103, n.51; Oswalt, The Holy One of Israel: Studies in the Book of Isaiah (London: James Clarke & Co., 2014), 104.

[39] See Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 520, who refers to a “suggestive sequence” of expansion in Isa 56-66, climaxing with the “globalization” of the priesthood in 66:21.

[40] Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 426. See, too, Mark T. Long, “The Inclusion of the Nations in Isaiah 40-66”, TE 44 (1991): 91; Gary Stansell, “The Nations’ Journey to Zion: Pilgrimage and Tribute as Metaphor in the Book of Isaiah”, in The Desert Will Bloom: Poetic Visions in Isaiah, eds. Joseph A. Everson and Hyun Chul Paul Kim (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), 246.

[41] Dumbrell, “The Purpose”, 128; Motyer, The Prophecy, 543; cf. Dim, The Eschatological, 183.

[42] On the universal implications of “all flesh”, see Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 521. Cf. Childs, Isaiah, 542; Paul, Isaiah 40-66, 632; Koole, Isaiah III, 528; Kaminsky and Stewart, “God of All the World”, 160-161; Gardner, “The Nature”, 15, 26.

[43] Koole, Isaiah III, 526; Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 691.

[44] E.g., Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 527. Calvin argues that the reference to a renewed heavens and earth refers to the “inward renewal of man”. This represents an unwarranted spiritualisation of the text. See John Calvin, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah – 33-66 (trans. William Pringle; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 437.

[45] Koole, Isaiah III, 526.

[46] Childs, Isaiah, 542; Dim, The Eschatological, 193.

[47] Motyer, The Prophecy, 543. See Gardner, “The Nature”, 26, and Isaianic references there to “seed” as a reference to the descendants of the patriarchs.

[48] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 521.

[49] Calvin, Commentary, 437.

[50] Motyer, The Prophecy, 543; Dim, The Eschatological, 195; Koole, Isaiah III, 528.

[51] Lessing, Isaiah 56-66, 29.

[52] Dim, The Eschatological, 197.

[53] Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 692.

[54] Childs, Isaiah, 542.

[55] Calvin, Commentary, 439, correctly judges “fire” to be a metaphor for judgment. Whether “worm” symbolizes a troubled conscience, as he contends, is less certain. For the connections between v.24 and Isa 1:29-31, see Smith, Isaiah 40-66, 744; cf. Oswalt, The Holy One, 70, n.41.

[56] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 524; Calvin, Commentary, 440; See also Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Int; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), 252. I regard Goldingay’s contention that the passage has nothing to do with individual eschatology (or cosmic eschatology) as somewhat reductive.

[57] Stansell, “The Nations’ Journey”, 244.

[58] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 525.

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Murder in the First – a Biblical Analysis

Here is an essay I wrote a number of months ago for an Old Testament class I am taking at theological college. I was quite happy with it, so decided to include it on the blog for the enjoyment of my many readers (I know you’re out there – somewhere!)

Introduction                                                                                                    

A cursory glance at the account of Cain and Abel yields little more than a bizarre and bloodthirsty tale. In reality, the story of history’s first homicide is a deeply integrated part of Genesis, looking retrospectively at Chapters 2-3 and prospectively towards the rest of the book. Through artful use of literary techniques, it offers a window into central themes and motifs[1] that shape the Genesis narrative. This essay will elucidate the ways in which Gen 4:1-16 accomplishes its two-pronged role, unfolding the argument in three stages. First, an exegesis of Gen 4:1-16 will offer a summary of the unifying themes and images which link the passage to its textual environment. Second, using those findings as a springboard, it will consider how the passage both echoes and develops the central points contained within Genesis 2-3. Third, the essay will use Gen 4:1-16 to consider the enduring influence of the aforementioned ideas throughout the book – identifying the story as negative preparation for the further spiral of sinful humanity; and as positive preparation, setting the stage for God’s gracious response.

Cain and Abel – Looking Down

It is first necessary to identify, by way of brief exegesis, the various themes and motifs reflected in Gen 4:1-16. Before looking backwards or forwards, we must look down.

The passage opens with Cain’s birth, accompanied by his mother’s faith-filled exclamation (v.1). [2] Almost in passing, Abel’s birth is also mentioned – which, along with the meaning of his name, foreshadows his abrupt demise (v.2).[3] After briefly detailing the brothers’ respective vocations and relationship with the land, the narrative records the offerings they brought to God. Yahweh accepts Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s (vv.4-5), provoking the elder’s rage. God unsuccessfully attempts to persuade Cain from allowing sin – pictured as a ravenous creature at the door of his heart – to gain a foothold.[4] He is instructed to “master it”, lest there be consequences (vv.6-7). Cain’s failure to do so is immediately narrated: he deceives and kills his brother in an act of premeditated murder (v.8). God interrogates Cain as to Abel’s whereabouts, offering him a chance to confess; instead, he receives only defiance and sarcasm. In the course of a few verses, the word “brother” is used four times, throwing the heinousness of Cain’s fratricide into sharp relief (vv.8-11). It is also at this point that Abel finally speaks: he who was silent now “cries out” from the grave, exposing his brother’s crime.

God renders judgment: he pronounces a curse on Cain, consisting of expulsion from the land and a recalcitrant earth.[5] What was meant to be his source of life and livelihood has become a source of restlessness and futility (v.12).[6] The land now acts as God’s agent in judgment[7] – receiving Abel’s blood as a place of rest, whilst truculently refusing to yield to Cain. The sinner chafes at his punishment; in response, God mercifully “marks” him so that he doesn’t fall prey to another.[8] He then executes the sentence, expelling Cain to Nod, “east of Eden” (v.16).[9]

Theological Window

This brief rendition of Gen 4:1-16 unveils a constellation of themes and motifs that constitute a theological window into the Bible’s premier book. Obvious is the layered, symbiotic relationship between humanity and the land.[10] Cain and Abel ultimately derive their livelihoods from the land, participating in humanity’s ongoing vocation to harness it. Creational service, however, does not exist apart from service before the Creator, and the juxtaposition of work and worship in Gen 4:2-3 alludes to the land’s theological significance. Gen 4:1-16 thus envisions a triadic relationship between God, humans and the land – a web of connections, mutated by sin. It shatters harmonious interdependency between the earth and humanity; the land serves as an instrument of divine judgment, and its association with life is replaced by one with death. Moreover, exile from the land – as Cain correctly perceived – means banishment from God’s presence. The theological-ethical connection (for good or ill) between these three “actors”[11] is reflected throughout Genesis. Furthermore, several recurring motifs flesh out these organising principles: blessings/curses; judgment/mercy; rest/restlessness; and sibling rivalry. These, too, weave strands between the account and its literary environment.

Cain and Abel – Looking Back

Parallels

The relationship between Gen 4:1-16 and Genesis 2-3 is particularly intimate, with a series of echoes establishing deep thematic continuity.[12] Dotted across the landscape are various verbal/linguistic parallels between the two narrative sections. We may cite the frequent use of “land” language, variously described as “earth” (2:4,5; 4:14), “field” (2:5; 4:8) and, in particular, “ground” (2:5,7,19; 3:17,19,23; 4:10-12).[13] Land’s presence in Genesis 2-3 suggests that its thematic reach extends beyond Gen 4:1-16, binding the passage to its narrative predecessors and evincing the land’s consistent function as an arena for human-divine-natural interactivity.

In addition, Gen 4:1-16 uses precise words to look back at key moments in Genesis 2-3 in order to frame its message. Gen 4:2, by referencing Cain and Abel’s respective vocations, parallels similar references in Chapters 2 and 3. The words “keep” and “work”, for instance, consciously recall the role God assigned humanity (2:15).[14] Indeed, even after the first act of disobedience, Adam’s land-associated vocation endured (3:23).[15] Gen 4:2 suggests the ongoing relevance of humanity’s original commission to tend the earth (cf. 2:5). Even Cain’s defiant response to God’s question – where the word “keeper” is employed – implicitly reveals multivalent connections between land and human-to-human relationships, constituting aspects of the divine ideal.[16] Finally, Genesis 3-4 highlights sin’s previously-unknown presence, signalled through the word “desire” (3:16; 4:7). A similar relationship between sin and Cain to that of his parents (post-fall) is implied. The fall itself is portrayed as a paradigmatic act, theologically framing Cain’s crime.[17]

Underlying these linguistic/verbal echoes are fundamental structural similarities between Gen 4:1-16 and the previous two chapters, particularly Chapter 3[18]: ongoing symbiosis between God’s image-bearers and the earth (2:7,15; 4:2); introduction of a moral test (2:17; 4:6,7) God’s judicial interrogation (3:9-13; 4:9,10); personification of sin/evil as a creature (3:1; 4:7);[19] pronouncement of a “land-based” curse upon the offender, centred upon his vocation  (3:17-19; 4:11,12);[20] barrenness and banishment (to the “East”)[21] as the outcomes of divine wrath (3:3,23; 4:16); and the temperance of judgment by mercy (3:21; 4:15).[22] Importantly, the structural parallels largely embrace Genesis 3-4. However, their significance exposes contrasts between the Cain and Abel pericope and Genesis 2, which exist as a result of the events of Genesis 3. In other words, although parallels between Chapters 2 and 4 aren’t as apparent, the account of the fall links them indirectly. Abel’s murder details the outworking of primal rebellion; together, they flesh out sin’s deleterious consequences upon the ideal envisioned in Chapter 2.[23]

Developments

Thus, it would be wrong to conclude from this survey that Gen 4:1-16 simply reprises the fall, or that the situation established in Genesis 2 continued with only minor alterations. In fact, the parallels within Genesis 2-4 throw light on subtle, yet significant, differences. Gen 4:1-16 represents development from the moment of initial transgression and its effects. For instance, it alludes to sin’s growth in the midst of human experience, which was not the case in Genesis 2-3. Cain’s response to God’s disfavour – and indeed, God’s warnings to Cain – suggests sin’s already-present rootedness in human nature. Genesis 3 pictured sin as an external force; Gen 4:1-16 sees it as something internal to God’s image-bearers. A cause-and-effect relationship between vertical sin (towards God) and horizontal sin (towards others) is clearly indicated.[24] Disobedience to a command transmogrifies into murder. Similarly, God’s sentence upon Cain is an extension of his judicial reaction to Adam’s sin: he curses Cain, not merely the ground;[25] the land, instead of simply producing “thorns and thistles”, becomes completely barren; and Cain’s exile is beyond Adam’s own banishment, completing a process of graded alienation.[26] The upshot is a mournful counterpoint to God’s original plan, pictured in Chapter 2. Gen 2:2 saw God “rest” from his work in creating an environment of bounteous pleasure for humanity (cf. 2:8-14).[27] By contrast, Cain is condemned to a life of futile labour and constant restlessness. Rather than being a blessing to humans, the land’s divinely-ordained role is to mediate cursing. Finally, Cain’s fate seems to mark off any hope of intimacy with God, differing sharply from Gen 2:7,25; 3:8.

Cain and Abel – Looking Forward

Negative Preparation

By echoing and developing Genesis 2-3, Gen 4:1-16 establishes a number of themes and literary tropes. In the process, the account also precipitates a series of downward cycles throughout Genesis 4-11, charting humanity’s progressive decline. At this point, the account is akin to the stem of a funnel: supplying a microcosmic picture of the multifaceted corruption wrought by sin, which eventually spreads to take on a monstrous universality.[28] Gen 4:1-16, then, negatively prepares its audience for further moral and spiritual disintegration of God’s image-bearers.[29] It does not do this alone, but in concert with Gen 4:17-26, which details Cain’s genealogy. Whilst an identifiable literary sub-unit in its own right, Cain’s line logically extends Gen 4:1-16, and so can be considered alongside it. Moreover, the subtle reference to other people in 4:14 suggests that Cain’s experiences were never meant to be seen in isolation. Along with later descriptions of city-building and the growth of human culture (vv.17-22), it anticipates the burgeoning influence of sin within, and across, human society.

Lamech, Cain’s descendant, exemplifies this anticipatory relationship (vv.19,23-24). Like Cain, Lamech represents another stage of moral retrogression.[30] Falling from the ideal of monogamy to which even Cain adhered, Lamech boasts about murder in a manner unlike his forebear (vv.23-24). What was writ small in these individuals is, by Chapter 6, a universal phenomenon. Again, the triadic relationship between humans, the land and God – now characterised by complete discord – continues to frame the narrative. Cain’s sin becomes an exclusive, deeply-rooted reality (6:5,11-12); his expulsion and curse becomes permanent “banishment” from the land through the flood as God enacts a similar round of judgment (6:7). Genesis 11 repeats this cyclical pattern: human arrogance met with divine wrath, mediated through alienation from the land (11:8-9).[31]

Positive Preparation

Nevertheless, as with Cain, divine mercy accompanies divine judgment. Noah and his family find salvation; the people of Babel are scattered, but the original commission to multiply endures. Gen 4:1-16 thus introduces another thread, changing the trajectory of Genesis beyond Chapter 12. In this way, the Cain and Abel pericope, in addition to provoking questions about the solution to the dire situation it precipitates, prepares readers positively for the growth of God’s responsive grace and covenantal promises. Whilst some negative themes and motifs linger – sibling rivalry[32] and divine judgment, for example – its chief contribution is as a foil (in concert with the rest of Genesis 4-11) for the turn the narrative eventually takes. Hints of new beginnings are already present,[33] starting with the election of Cain’s younger brother, Seth (4:25-26). An epochal change, however, occurs at Chapter 12. Framed by the programmatic call of Abraham (12:1-3), the orientation of Genesis 12-50 is fundamentally positive, and constitutes a divinely-initiated counterpoint to Cain and his line. The contrasts between the two men can be seen below:

Cain   (Adam) Abraham
Banished from the land (4:16) Called into a good land (15:7; cf.   28:13-15)
Cursed (4:11) Blessed (12:2-3)
Driven from God’s presence (4:16) Walked with God (18:18)
Unrighteous (4:7-8) Righteous (15:6; 17:1; 18:18)
Genealogy/progeny marked by sin   (4:19,23-24) Genealogy/progeny marked by election (12:1; 17:19; 37-50; cf. 4:25; 5:21-24)

Table 1

Table 1 outlines the ongoing and contrasting significance of themes and images featured in Gen. 4:1-16. The implications, when seen in biblical-theological terms, are clear: Gen 12:1-3ff, represents a kind of reversal of all that Cain’s sin engrained within human experience.[34] Abraham himself should be seen as an antitype to Cain (and, by implication, Adam). Gen 4:1-16 detailed the various interrelationships between God, the land and humanity, as well as their resultant dissolution. The call of Abraham and his offspring play on these same themes, but with a much different complexion. Structurally, Genesis 12-50, contrasting Gen 4:1-16ff, suggests a harmonious return for humans and creation, as well as God and his image-bearers. The triadic relationship continues to feature as an interrelated macro-structure for the narrative, but with the promise of righteousness, rest and reconciliation – not sin, discord and alienation – firmly in view (cf. 50:24).[35]

Conclusion

The Cain and Abel pericope is far from an isolated tale. Instead, it fits naturally into its literary environment, looking back to Chapters 2-3, and forward to the rest of Genesis. As theological window, it offers a microcosmic look at the network of themes and images that constitute the underlying structure of the book. Through literary parallels and causal developments, Gen 4:1-16 details the catastrophic results of initial transgression, presenting a stark counterpoint to the idyllic situation envisioned in Chapter 2. Simultaneously, the account prepares readers for further exploration of the thematic patterns it establishes. Although sin and judgment are especially prominent in Genesis 4-11, Gen 4:1-16 also signals the eventual growth of divine mercy throughout Genesis 12-50. As a typological contrast with God’s chosen agent, Abraham, Cain’s trajectory subtly invites one to anticipate the gracious solution. It is with this turn that the triadic relationship between God, humanity and land, so corrupted in Gen 4:1-16, promises to be restored. The story of Cain and Abel, then, acts as a narrative and thematic bridge, clothing its message – and that of Genesis – in a tragic, yet ultimately hopeful, garb.


[1] See Roger Syren, The Forsaken Firstborn: A Study of a Recurrent Motif in the Patriarchal Narratives (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993), 11; David J.A. Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, Second Edition (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1997), 20-21, for distinctions made between “theme” and “motif”.

[2] Derek Kidner, Genesis (TOTC; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003), 74; R. Kent Hughes, Genesis: Beginning & Blessing (Preaching the Word; Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2004), 102.

[3] Abel can mean “breath” or “futility”. See Kidner, Genesis, 74.

[4] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (WBC 1; Waco: Word, 1985), 106.

[5] Walter Bruegemann, Genesis (Interpretation Series; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 60; Robert P. Gordon, Holy Land, Holy City – Sacred Geography and the Interpretation of the Bible (Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster Press, 2004), 20.

[6] Wenham, Genesis, 108.

[7] Kristin M. Swenson, “Care and Keeping East of Eden: Gen 4:1-16 in Light of Genesis 2-3,” Interpretation 60, 4 (2006): 381-82.

[8] Bill T. Arnold, Genesis (NCBC; Cambridge University Press: New York, 2009), 80.

[9] Nod means “wandering”. See T.C. Mitchell, “Nod”, NBD 3rd ed., 827.

[10] On the land’s theological significance, see Bruegemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Challenge and Promise in Biblical Faith, Second Edition (Overtures to Biblical Theology; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 4-5.

[11] Swenson, “Care and Keeping,” 381.

[12] William Sandford La Sor, David Allan Hubbard and Frederic William Bush, Old Testament Survey – The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 80.

[13] C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4 – A Linguistic, Literary and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2006), pp.189-90.

[14] Swenson, “Care and Keeping”, 374-76. See also Arnold, Genesis, 59. In Hebrew, the word for “keep” is the same in both verses.

[15] Victor H. Matthews, Old Testament Turning Points: the Narratives that Shaped a Nation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 24.

[16] Swenson, “Care and Keeping”, 374-76.

[17] William J. Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel – A Theological Survey of the Old Testament (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 24.

[18] S. McKnight, “Cain”, DOTP, 107.

[19] John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology. Volume One: Israel’s Gospel (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003), 151.

[20] Darrell Cosden, The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work (United Kingdom: Paternoster Press, 2006), 96. See also Peter Williams, From Eden to Egypt – Exploring the Genesis Themes (Surrey: Day One Publications, 2001), 34-5.

[21] This is substantiated by double use of the word, “driven”.

[22] Collins, Genesis 1-4, 213. See also Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel, 24.

[23] ibid, 210. See also M.D. Gow, “Fall,” DOTP, 286.

[24] Bruegemann, Genesis, 55. See also Tryggve N.D. Mettinger, The Eden Narrative: A Literary and Religio-historical Study of Genesis 2-3 (Winona Lake: Eisenrauns, 2007), 31.

[25] T. Desmond Alexander, From Paradise to Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch (3rd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 118.

[26] Gordon, Holy Land, Holy City, 22; See also S. McKnight, “Cain”, 107.

[27] J. McKeown, “Blessings and Curses”, DOTP, 87.

[28] Collins, Genesis 1-4, 190. See also Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, 71.

[29] Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, 65.

[30] Collins, Genesis 1-4, 190.

[31] Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, 66-67. See also: John H. Sailhammer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 310-11.

[32] See Syren, The Forsaken Firstborn, for detailed exposition of this motif.

[33] Alexander, From Paradise to Promised Land, 119.

[34] L.A. Turner, “Genesis, Book of,” DOTP, 357; J. McKeown, “Land, Fertility, Famine,” DOTP, 488; Brueggemann, The Land, 19-24.

[35] Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel, 28; Arnold, Genesis, 126-7, 132.