Mercy

Wealth and Poverty in the Letter of James

Introduction

The letter of James is famed for its stirring ethical clarity. This is especially true of its teachings on wealth and poverty, which constitute one of the leading concerns of James’ missive. In this essay, I will argue that James provides a coherent ethical view of wealth and poverty for his audience,[1] which undergirds his specific exhortations on the matter. The essay itself will unfold in three (unequal) sections. First, I will exegetically survey the relevant passages in James, parsing his main lines of thought according to three, conceptual categories: the epistle’s notion of eschatological reversal; its prophetic critique of wealth and economic injustice; and its forceful moral entreaties. Second, I will “delve beneath” those initial results and argue that the ethics of the OT and of Jesus have decisively shaped James’ economic teachings. Finally, I shall outline the implications of the aforementioned, particularly in relation to James’ overall theological-ethical agenda. Indeed, it is within this overarching framework that James’ economic counsel must be placed, as he sets out his vision for a people renewed, living in a liminal age.

James’ Teachings

The five main passages on wealth and poverty in James (1:9-11; 1:27; 2:1-7; 2:14-17; 5:1-6) reflect a cohesive programme for how to approach these matters. I have grouped James’ teachings within three inter-related categories, linked by his theocentric outlook: the eschatological reversal of status; prophetic denunciations of the (unrighteous) wealthy; and exhortations towards proper treatment of the destitute. These categories represent different facets of the larger issue of wealth and poverty in James’ epistle, evincing a spirit of social and economic egalitarianism.[2] Moreover, because these threads are woven into James’ controlling narrative, I shall pick them up at the essay’s end.

James’ teachings on wealth and poverty often focus on the eschatological reversal of the fortunes of rich and poor.[3] Indeed, James signals his conviction that present struggles (cf. 1:2-4) – borne out of economic deprivation and/or the exploitation of the poor by the rich[4] – are transitory, subject to God’s ultimate (i.e. eschatological) verdict and purposes.[5] This lies behind his initial exhortations on the matter, in 1:9-11: the Christian in lowly circumstances (“brother”) should exult in his “high position,”[6] whilst the “one who is rich” should focus upon his “low position.”[7] For James, present status and hierarchies will be overturned – reversed – when God’s purposes are fully and finally revealed. Poor believers are to “take pride” in their impending vindication in God’s kingdom, and are encouraged to look beyond their current earthly status (v.9);[8] the rich, on the other hand, are to “boast” in nothing more than the fact that they have been accepted as servants within that same kingdom (v.10-11).[9]

James 1:9-11 effectively argues that God will erase present injustices.[10] Believers should therefore evaluate themselves by spiritual, not material, standards, and orient their lives around God’s final purposes, rather than the present.[11] James underscores the ephemeral nature of riches when he says that the affluent believer may pass away even as he goes about his business (v.11). Life’s impermanence, James implies, should caution against overreliance on material goods for one’s security; thoughts of self-sufficiency, owing to economic security, are anathema (cf. 4:13-16). Significantly, James speaks of one’s future eschatological position as simultaneously present – of a status that is already a reality, even if it awaits final consummation.[12] I will return to the larger issue of this tension at the essay’s end.

Eschatological reversal also surfaces in Jas 2:1-7. There, James castigates his audience for discriminating between people based upon their socio-economic status – an issue that seems to have been very real in the communities to which James wrote, given the space he devotes to the matter.[13] James partly bases his criticisms on the fact that such favouritism is wholly contrary to God’s own special concern for the lowly and downtrodden – demonstrated particularly in the fact that he has “chosen” the poor to inherit his kingdom (v.5).[14] Like 1:9-11, the ethical exhortations in 2:1-7 are partly rooted in God’s eschatological judgments. Because the Creator and Judge has deigned to exalt the poor, any kind of behaviour within the church that mirrors the stratified world around it is sinful. James 2:1-7 also contrasts earthly poverty with spiritual wealth (esp. v.5), implying that worldly status and divine worth do not necessarily coincide. James’ point is clear: not only is it wrong to treat poor brethren so disdainfully, as it is they to whom God directs his mercy; a believer’s present earthly position, whether she be poor or rich, in no way reflects social relationships within God’s kingdom.

James’ denunciations of the wealthy in 5:1-6 reflect similar concerns to 2:6b-7, and demonstrate the relationship between this polemical exposure and James’ belief in the eschatological erasure of status and hierarchy.[15] James 5:1-6 offers a trenchant critique of the rich, tinged with prophetic indignation.[16] His letter speaks not only about the future (though partly realized) upheavals of the present socio-economic order, where misery will befall the unrighteous rich (vv. 1-2, 5); the catalogue of sins listed in 5:1-6 reflects James’ warnings about the present dangers of “unrighteous Mammon”, cohering with passages elsewhere which evince a condemnatory attitude towards materialism and avarice (cf. 4:13-16).[17] Here, wealth’s transience gives way to the testimony of judgment (vv.2-3). Of course, James does not denounce the wealthy qua wealthy. He states precisely why they are liable to judgment: they have acted oppressively and exploited the poor (vv.4-6).[18] But he also criticises them for hoarding their wealth whilst others have suffered penury (v.3b). In any event, James writes convinced that the unrighteous rich will not be able to sin with impunity forever.[19]

As noted, these passages are joined together by an important theological point of orientation for James – the purposes and nature of God. James, for example, can say that the Lord hears the cries of the exploited (5:4c): in a world where they are defenceless, he is their guardian.[20] Rooted in God’s supreme compassion and mercy, Jas 1:27 and 2:14-17 exhort his audience to use wealth and resources righteously – upholding the vulnerable, and supporting those who are materially bereft. For him, the proper stance towards wealth and economic status is imitative of God. James 1:27 explicitly links care for the poor – exemplified via widows and orphans – to unsullied religion acceptable to God.[21] He condemns rapacity (4:2; 5:1ff), whilst commending generosity.[22] James calls the Lord “Father,” subtly suggesting that care for the fatherless recapitulates God’s own paternal largesse (1:27; cf. 1:17). So, too, 2:14-17, where authentic devotion, reflected in the language of “faith,” is expressed via deeds of mercy towards impoverished brethren.[23] Indeed, James’ illustrative choice is telling. One may also cite 2:1-7, which reflects James’ concern about honouring, godly attitudes towards poverty and the poor.

James’ Influences

Whether viewing economics through the lens of eschatology, or urging his audience to use what they have compassionately and justly, James grounds his teachings in God’s character and purposes. However, he did not create this perspective de novo; rather, his economic teachings reflect dependence upon a long and rich tradition, stemming from OT-Jewish thought regarding God’s just and merciful character, and the corresponding obligations placed upon his people.[24] James’ letter builds upon, and grows out of, this consistent biblical theme.

James’ reliance on OT prophetic and wisdom traditions has long been recognized, as has his use of categories of vulnerable people the OT frequently employs (Jas 1:27; cf. Deut 10:18; Ps 68:5).[25] Particularly influential for James’ teachings regarding wealth and poverty, however, is the law. This is clearly seen in 2:1-13, where James condemns partiality in the redeemed communities. He roots his condemnation in an extended application of the law of neighbour love, found in Leviticus 19:18 (cf. Jas 2:8ff), and his teachings reflect a broad dependence on the law’s social concern.[26] An expression of God’s character and will, the law informs James’ economic teachings, especially at this crucial point (cf. 1:27, applying the command to follow the word). Partiality (or selfishness and apathy in the face of poverty) is contrary to the law – and, therefore, contrary to the fundamental image of God as compassionate Father who treats all image-bearers equally.

However, James doesn’t simply allude to OT-Jewish tradition; his letter also echoes the voice of Jesus. For James, God’s attitudes to poverty and wealth – as well as the corresponding obligations of God’s people – are particularized and fulfilled in Jesus (e.g. 2:1).[27] Scholars note the many verbal links between Jesus and James.[28] For our purposes, Jesus’ social and economic teachings are relevant. Contrasts between listening to, and obeying, the word (Jas 1:22/Matt 7:24ff); promises to the poor of a royal inheritance (Jas 2:5/Matt 5:3); denunciation of the wealthy (Jas 5:1-6/Lk 6:24-26); the basic importance of eschatological reversal (Jas 1:9-11/Matt 19:30; 20:16); and, most saliently, the significance of the Levitical law of neighbour love (Jas 2:8/Matt 22:34-40), all suggest Jesus’ overriding influence upon James’ thought. Reference to the “royal law” (Jas 2:8) nuances OT legal codes according to the law of the kingdom (v.5; cf. 1:25), embodied in Jesus.[29] For James, the law – which helps animate his teachings on wealth and poverty – is taken up into the ethics of Jesus, becoming the implanted word that “can save” (1:21).[30] James views the communities to which he writes as the Messianically-renewed people of God (cf. the language of 1:1b),[31] and writes in the light of that reality. Jesus, God’s agent in eschatological restoration, constitutes the defining voice behind James’ economic exhortations and admonitions, shaping them at a deep, structural level.[32]

James’ Controlling Narrative

For James, God’s past revelation and future purposes – effecting justice, denouncing economic oppression and commanding mercy – are drawn together in Jesus’ establishment of a redeemed community, embodying God’s kingly righteousness. This leads us to James’ controlling narrative, tellingly illuminated by 1:18 (with its overtones of new creation):[33] the church is the “first fruits” of God’s redemptive reign.[34] His teachings on wealth and poverty reflect reliance upon this fundamental salvation-historical story.[35] Consequently, James urges his audience to live according to the requirements and implications of the eschatological inauguration of God’s kingdom, anticipating its consummation via a just, compassionate – indeed, counter-cultural – approach to the harsh socio-economic milieu they inhabit.[36]

And so we come full circle, returning to the fruits of our exegetical survey. James’ broader eschatological concerns and context,[37] within which he situates his teachings on wealth and poverty, are clear. Aside from the already-surveyed confluence between eschatology and economics,[38] James’ whole letter brims with eschatological conviction: he consistently invokes divine judgment to motivate right living (2:12; 4:12; 5:7-9), whilst picturing the Christian life as a trajectory moving towards its final goal (1:2-4). Moreover, James’ partly realized (i.e. inaugurated) eschatology suggests that he thinks of his audience as living in a liminal phase – the first of a burgeoning, divinely-ordained future (1:18; cf. 2:5). His audience, having been “birthed” through God’s saving word (v.18), operate as his redemptive vanguard. Through his instructions on wealth and poverty, James implies that the values of the kingdom should be practiced proleptically – offering an “advance model” of what God’s just reign will look like.[39]

Paired with this view is James’ sustained, thematic call to “wholeness,” “completeness” or “perfection.”[40] The audience’s obligation to approach wealth and poverty in the way(s) he urges are part of a complex of behaviours by which believers, both individually and communally,[41] demonstrate their devotion towards God and each other. James seeks to encourage economic behaviour that is oriented towards God’s present injunctions and his future rule. His letter is replete with terms that reflect this constellation of thought,[42] and it carries concern for ethical completeness (and within that, a godly approach to economics) in a number of ways: commendation of “pure religion” (1:27); a “whole” faith, manifested in good deeds; endurance towards one’s spiritual telos or goal (1:2-4); criticism of the “double-minded” (1:7-8); and, in a crucial passage, the excoriation of spiritual “adulterers” and encouragement towards purity (4:1-10). James urges unity within Christian assemblies (cf. 2:1-7), which coheres with the complete devotion and spiritual wholeness to which he enjoins individuals.[43] He repeatedly envisages eschatological “wholeness” as a present requirement; by calling them to live in an “undivided” manner – to which acting righteously in regards to wealth and poverty provides powerful attestation[44] – James instructs his audience to anticipate the ultimate perfection that a just and compassionate God will bring (cf. 2:5).

Conclusion

The foregoing analysis has attempted to provide a summation of the main facets of James’ teachings on wealth and poverty. His letter features several, related concerns that are especially prominent: the eschatological reversal of socio-economic status/hierarchy; the prophetic exposure of economic unrighteousness and oppression; and the corresponding regard for those who are impoverished and/or vulnerable. James evinces basic sympathy towards the victims of present injustices, grounding it in God’s nature and purposes, and the corresponding ethical implications for his people. James relies upon the consistent witness of the OT regarding treatment of the poor, evidenced in his use of the law to condemn practices contrary to God’s fundamental character. That character is, for James, exhibited in Jesus, the decisive voice in the letter’s economic-ethical teachings. These findings suggest that James’ instructions on wealth and poverty are situated within a controlling narrative, one which sees Jesus as the inaugurator of God’s (partly realized) eschatological kingdom. James writes to his audience as the “first fruits” of that inauguration, urging them to embody God’s perfect rule through economic justice and generous stewardship.

Bibliography

Bauckham, Richard. James. New Testament Readings. London: Routledge, 1999.

————————-. “Eschatology.” Pages 333-339 in New Bible Dictionary (Third Edition). Edited by I.H. Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer & D.J. Wiseman. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011.

Beale, Greg K. “Eschatology”. Pages 330-345 in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments. Edited by Ralph P Martin and Peter H. Davids. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997.

Blomberg, Craig L. From Pentecost to Patmos – Acts to Revelation. Volume Two: New Testament Survey. Nottingham: Apollos, 2006.

Carson, D.A. “James,” Pages 997-1013 in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Edited by G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.

Davids, Peter. Commentary on James. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.

Johnson, Luke T. The Letter of James – A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. 1 vol.; Anchor Bible 37A; Garden City: Doubleday, 1995.

————————. Brother of Jesus, Friend of God – Studies in the Letter of James. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.

————————. Sharing Possessions – What Faith Demands, Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.

Lemcio, E.E. “The Unifying Kerygma of the New Testament.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 33 (1988): 3-17.

McCartney, Dan G. James. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

Martin, Ralph P. James. Word Biblical Commentary 48. Waco: Word, 1988.

Maynard-Reid, Pedrito U. Poverty and Wealth in James. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1987.

Moo, Douglas. James. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

Ross, Allan P. Holiness to the LORD – A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002.

Wachob, Wesley Hiram. The Voice of Jesus in the Social Rhetoric of James (Studies in the New Testament Series 106. Cambridge: CUP, 2000.

Wall, Robert. “James, Letter of.” Pages 545-561 in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments. Edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997.

Williams, Robert Lee. “Piety and Poverty in James.” Wesleyan Theological Journal 22 (Fall, 1987): 37-55.

Winbery, Carlton L. “The Attitude Toward Wealth in the Letter of James.” Theological Educator 34 (Fall, 1986): 26-34.

Witherington III, Ben. The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought-World of the New Testament. Volume 1 – The Individual Witnesses. Downers Grove: Inter-varsity Press, 2009.

[1] See Douglas Moo, James (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 22-24; Craig L. Blomberg, From Pentecost to Patmos – Acts to Revelation. New Testament Introduction and Survey, Volume 2 (Nottingham: Apollos, 2006), 390, for similar reconstructions of the identity of James’ audience.

[2] Luke T. Johnson, The Letter of James – A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (1 vol.; AB 37A; Garden City: Doubleday, 1995), 82.

[3] Ralph P. Martin, James (WBC 48; Waco: Word, 1988), 25-26; Dan G. McCartney, James (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 70-71.

[4] Moo, James, 65. On the socio-economic conditions of the first century, see Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid, Poverty and Wealth in James (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1987), 12-23.

[5] On eschatology and the later NT (and James esp.), see Greg K. Beale, “Eschatology,” DLNTD, 330-333, 335; Richard Bauckham, “Eschatology,” NBD, 333-334.

[6] Carlton L. Winbery, “The Attitude Toward Wealth in the Letter of James,” TE 34 (Fall, 1986): 28.

[7] Moo, James, 68, argues that the rich person is a Christian; cf. Martin, James, 25-26. I agree with Moo that the term “brother” (v.9) governs both individuals.

[8] Robert Lee Williams, “Piety and Poverty in James,” WTJ 22 (Fall, 1987): 43.

[9] Winbery, “The Attitude,” 29; Moo, James, 66.

[10] Winbery, “The Attitude,” 28.

[11] McCartney, James, 98.

[12] Martin, James, 25, 28; Johnson, The Letter of James, 185; Moo, James, 30.

[13] Moo, James, 98.

[14] Moo, James, 35.

[15] Winbery, “The Attitude,” 31-32.

[16] Moo, James, 211.

[17] McCartney, James, 232.

[18] Moo, James, 210.

[19] Johnson, The Letter of James, 309.

[20] Moo, James, 216.

[21] Martin, James, 52.

[22] Johnson, Sharing Possessions – What Faith Demands, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 92.

[23] Martin, James, 52.

[24] See Moo, James, 35-36 for a discussion of this general theological-ethical trend; cf. Peter Davids, Commentary on James (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 42.

[25] See D.A. Carson, “James” CNTOT, 997-1013. On the influence of wisdom and prophecy, see Johnson, The Letter of James, 32-34.

[26] See Johnson, The Letter of James, 30-32; Johnson, Brother of Jesus, Friend of God – Studies in the Letter of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 127-135; Carson, “James,” 999-1000. On Leviticus 19, see Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the LORD – A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 351-365.

[27] The consequential relationship between faith in Jesus and rejection of partiality is clear. See Wesley Hiram Wachob, The Voice of Jesus in the Social Rhetoric of James (SNTS 106; Cambridge: CUP, 2000), 77.

[28] See esp. Ben Witherington III, The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought-World of the New Testament. Volume 1 – The Individual Witnesses (Downers Grove: Inter-varsity Press, 2009), 298; Wachob, The Social Rhetoric, 138.  

[29] Moo, James, 98, 112; Carson, “James,” 1000.

[30] McCartney, James, 110.

[31] The language suggests that James sees his audience as the renewed “Israel” of God. See Davids, Commentary, 63.

[32] Bauckham, James (NTR; London: Routledge, 1999), 147.

[33] McCartney, James, 111.

[34] Moo, James, 24, 80.

[35] On the unifying story of the NT, see E.E. Lemcio, “The Unifying Kerygma of the New Testament,” JSNT 33 (1988), 6.

[36] On the narrative cast of James’ letter, see Robert Wall, “James, Letter of,” DLNTD, 556-557; Bauckham, James, 100; Winbery, “The Attitude,” 33; Johnson, The Letter, 85-88.

[37] McCartney, James, 70-71.

[38] Cf. Moo, James, 36-37.

[39] Bauckham, James, 173; Moo, James, 24.

[40] See Bauckham, James, 165, 173-179, for an extended treatment; Martin, James, lxxix.

[41] McCartney, James, 71-72.

[42] See esp. Martin, James, lxxix.

[43] McCartney, James, 71-72.

[44] Moo, James, 97-98.

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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.

When Glory and Wisdom Die

Easter is upon us. Many have been, and will be, flocking to churches to sing, praise, worship, listen, pray and fellowship. Many more will elect to devote their time to other things, perhaps forgetting (or not knowing in the first place) the events that lie behind this cherished time.

Those events are what I want to celebrate, and so this post is a kind of paean to the God who initiated them; who set them in motion, so that his image-bearers might be saved, rescued – redeemed. Of course, I refer to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, God’s Son, in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). Through these epochal acts, God in Christ secured for us what we could not accomplish by ourselves. Through Christ’s death, God took upon his own shoulders the pain and penalty of sin; through his triumphant resurrection, God defeated sin’s companion, death, and vindicated his Son’s sacrificial offering.

That is, admittedly, a very rough treatment of something that cannot be grasped in a few sentences. In fact, one might say that the church’s entire biblical and theological reflection upon the events of Easter has barely scratched the surface of the manifold wisdom of God. The analogy of a diamond springs to mind. Like a diamond, the cross and the resurrection are multifaceted to a seemingly infinite degree; no one perspective – no one image – is alone capable of capturing the brilliance of what we see.

With that in mind, my post may well be seen as reductionist. For I seek to hone in on the first part of God’s redemptive work – the cross – and distil two particular dimensions pertinent to its significance: the revelation of God’s glory; and the demonstration of God’s wisdom. The cross stands as the paradoxical occasion for both these divine attributes, and indeed, can be seen as the “theatre” (to borrow Calvin’s term) of their supreme manifestation.

The Cross as a Revelation of God’s Glory

John’s Gospel is unique for many reasons; indeed, it is quite unlike the Synoptics in several respects. One of the most significant differences is the way in which it treats the cross. For the fourth evangelist, the cross itself functions as a revelation of the glory of God. Consider the prologue (John 1: 1-18): the evangelist begins this section by equating the mysterious “Word” with God himself. Later, he declares, with stunning imagery, that “the Word became flesh” and dwelt in the midst of humanity (v.14). That concept (i.e., the Word dwelling amongst flesh-and-blood people) can also be translated as “tabernacled”, and conjures up the idea of one pitching a tent or, as is the case here, a tabernacle. It is a clear allusion to the notion of Yahweh’s glory becoming manifest, visible, brilliantly apparent, in the tabernacle he directed the Israelites to establish for him.

What the evangelist is proclaiming is that the same Creator God, who dwelt with his people and displayed his glory thus, is also the very same God who has made his “home”, as it were, in human flesh. One hardly needs to possess unparalleled interpretative skills to realise that the fourth evangelist is talking about Christ when he speaks of the “Word”. What surprises is the connection between the embodied life of a Galilean peasant with the resplendent majesty of the sovereign Creator. Indeed, John links the Incarnation with the revelation of divine glory in the very next part of the verse. He writes, with the awestruck sincerity of an eyewitness, that “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only”, with “One and Only” functioning as a veiled reference to the uniqueness of the one true God. The manifestation of God and his glory are here inseparable, and the evangelist pinpoints them in Christ himself.

So we see that the self-abnegation and humiliation of the Word (read: Jesus Christ) is intimately, though paradoxically, linked to his glorification from the moment of his advent. But it does not end there. For John takes the strange unity of glory and humiliation beyond the Incarnation, and marries them at Calvary in a way that would have seemed nonsensical to many of his contemporaries. Three times in his gospel, he records Jesus as using the phrase, “lifted up” (3:14; 8:28, 12:32), which is not only a literal reference to his crucifixion – in particular, the act of his being raised up on the wooden cross as part of the process of execution – but also a metaphorical nod to his glorification. His being “lifted up” did not simply pertain to the physicality of being nailed to a piece of wood above a throng of onlookers; that event, grisly as it was, actually revealed the unmitigated glory of Father and Son in harmony.

It deepens further the paradox of Christ’s mission, almost to the point of offense. How indeed, we might ask, could a form of execution – used not only to kill, but to subject a person to the most extreme form of public humiliation – be the site of the manifestation of God and his majesty? How could Christ himself say, with the cross clearly in view, that the “hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23)? How could he pray to the Father, the night before his death that “…the time has come. Glorify you Son, that your Son may glorify you” (17:1)? Clearly, Jesus thought of his death, not primarily as a form of debasement (though on a certain level, that was the case – cf. Philippians 2:8c), but as a necessary part of his revelatory work. Bearing in mind that God’s glory cannot be separated from himself, the unveiling work of Christ on the cross was the supreme unveiling of God.

On the cross, the Son revealed the splendour of the Father. On the cross, the saving sovereignty of God was manifested. On the cross, the power of God to vanquish the powers of evil, death and sin were uniquely revealed through its accomplishment. The diverse attributes of the triune God – love, mercy, justice, authority, wrath, judgement – were drawn together at a single point with the violent demise of one man. And it was in that demise that these attributes were seen in all their pristine beauty. We beheld his glory – the glory of a man, mangled by the brutality of a world that had rejected its god.

The Cross as a Demonstration of God’s Wisdom

Some people are loath to admit this truth. For moderns, the cross seems like a bloodthirsty act. At the very least, it seems morbidly ridiculous to suggest that God would reveal himself through something as shameful as the cross. Even if salvation was a necessity, why should God elect to accomplish it through something so at odds with what we normally think of noble and praiseworthy? It is not simply a problem for moderns; the apostle Paul confronted a similar dilemma when he preached the cross to cultural and ethnic contemporaries. Writing to the Corinthians, he freely concedes that the cross is foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews (1 Corinthians 1:23). It was the very antithesis of the ideals possessed by Greek culture and Jewish religion. But, Paul declares, Christ crucified is the revelation, embodiment, of God’s wisdom and power (v.24). Paradoxically, the cross fulfils Greeks’ search for wisdom and Jews’ search for miraculous might (cf. v.22), doing so in way that confounds the world’s expectations. But that is part of the point; the apostle suggests that the wisdom of God bursts the boundaries of – and indeed, is unbounded by – the cultural and religious frameworks that man imposes on truth and knowledge. Rather than conforming himself to the ways of man, God enacted something entirely new; something unprecedented; something so unlike the wisdom of the world that it would hardly have been believed.

No matter. For Paul, Christ is indeed the demonstration of God’s wisdom, despite the apparent foolishness of that statement. Two things are noteworthy. First, Paul appears to be singing from the same hymn sheet as John. Both testify to the embodiment of God’s wisdom in and through the person of his Son, Jesus (1 Cor. 1:24,30; cf. John 1:1-2, where “Word” should be seen as a synonym or sorts for wisdom). God’s truth has become supremely known in Jesus – and that, supremely enacted in his shameful death.

Second, Paul’s notion of wisdom is not a static, intellectual concept, any more than it was for his companion, John. Both men, standing in the tradition of their religious forebears, regard wisdom as a dynamic, creative process. It transforms and changes. It is, one might say, powerful, in that it can wrought a shift in reality. Think Proverbs 8, which speaks loftily of wisdom being a partner in creation. Thus, for Paul, God’s wisdom is authoritatively revealed in the salvation of sinners. It is embodied in Christ crucified, whose death was God’s way of effecting the redemption of his image-bearing creatures, ending the reign of sin and death, and inaugurating the age of new creation. He has shamed the wise and the learned, for their sophistry – skilled as it might be – cannot solve the ultimate question of humanity’s predicament or its relation to the Creator. However, the ministry of his Son, who has dealt with sin, once and for all, through his own sacrificial death, has provided a definitive answer. Through death and apparent failure, God in Christ has, ironically, defeated the powers arrayed against humanity (cf. Colossians 2:15) and opened up the way of reconciliation between himself and his image-bearing creatures.

The cross of Christ radiates the upside-down brilliance of God. Nevertheless, his saving work is left incomplete if we do not consider Calvary’s necessary sequel, the empty tomb. Indeed, the cross cannot be understood except in light of the resurrection. The enigma of Easter Sunday is one that I will explore in due course. For now, let us celebrate and commemorate the strange, yet irrevocable, hope elicited by the death of a loving God.