Genesis is one of the greatest works of literature ever written. It feels inexhaustible. I re-read Robert Alter’s translation two years ago and was again impressed by the cosmic and human dramas. Even reading ancient re-tellings of Genesis such as Little Genesis (also called the Book of Jubilees) help explain the origins of the Qur’an, and ancient elaborations like the Book of Enoch provide elaborations of the oldest stories and commentaries on more “recent” events. Commentaries about Genesis – from the psychological to historical, focusing on ancient near east law and religion – are themselves classics.
But this is the first time I read it aloud to an audience. Once again, Genesis is brilliant. This time, I was struck by Genesis’s focus on what later writers would call “justification,” the proper relationship between God and man.
This is told in four lives – Cain, Noah, Joseph, and Enoch. Two of these lives – Noah’s and Joseph’s – are recorded as having ended. Enoch is eerily an exception – he “was no more” instead of having died. And Cain – Cain showed imperfect contrition.
From this, I conclude that for us men, even perfect behavior (as with Joseph) or saving the physical world (Noah) is not even to justify us. But whether contrition – even less than perfect – we are prepared for the grace of life everlasting.
Cain is the “Man,” the inventor of murder, who slew his brother:
Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, and said, “I have acquired a man from the LORD.”
Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.
Yet the deeper story is God’s grace, which is acting even during Cain’s temptation:
So the LORD said to Cain,
“Why are you incensed,
and why is your face fallen?
For whether you offer well
or whether you do not,
at the tent flap sin courches
and for you it is longing
but you will rule over it.”
And the LORD said to him,
“Therefore, whoever kills Cain shall suffer sevenfold vengeance.”
And the LORD set a mark on Cain so that whoever found him would not slay him.
No death of Cain is reported.
Noah saved the life of the earth during the flood:
This is the lineage of Noah – Noah was a righteous man, he was blameless in his time, Noah walked with God.
Then God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters subsided. The fountains of the deep and the windows of heaven.
It is after all the events Genesis relays about Noah that Noah’s “nakedness” is revealed. What exactly happens isn’t clear. On the surface, it is either a physical viewing of his body, or perhaps some form of sexual assault by his son Ham (whose curse is then transposed to his son Canaan):
And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.
So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. Then he said:
“Cursed be Canaan;
A servant of servants
He shall be to his brethren.”
But homosexual incestual rape is otherwise unattested (not to mention an improbable motivation in any narrative!). Observing someone in partial or full disrobe – especially in an environment without showers or baths where any self-cleaning would be done outdoors – does not seem shocking.
Rather, the story Genesis is elliptically telling is less unusual – Noah having an affair with Ham’s wife. What Ham has done is not to attack Noah, but to reveal his shame. This also makes more sense from a textual perspective – illicit, incestuous, heterosexual relationships occur between Judah and Tamar and Lot and his daughters.
Immediately after, we hear that Noah falls just short, both of the round number 1,000 for age, and of the complete 365 years after the flood. (Even in contemporary usage, 365 is a synonym for “complete” – see product names such as Microsoft 365, or as part of phrases, such as 24-7-365.
And Noah lived after the flood three hundred and fifty years. So all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years; and he died.
Whatever happened with Noah is something that kept him just short of perfect completion.
Joseph appears to do everything right. He prophecies, even to those who hate prophecies:
Now Joseph had a dream, and he told it to his brothers; and they hated him even more. So he said to them, “Please hear this dream which I have dreamed:
Organizes worldly affairs well:
Then the seven years of plenty which were in the land of Egypt ended, and the seven years of famine began to come, as Joseph had said. The famine was in all lands, but in all the land of Egypt there was bread. So when all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Then Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians,
“Go to Joseph; whatever he says to you, do.”
Gracefully saves his people:
And Joseph said,
“Fear not, for am I instead of God? While you meant evil toward me, God meant it for good, so as to bring about at this very time keeping many people alive. And so fear not. I will sustain you and your little ones.”
And he comforted them and spoke to their hearts.
And yet – Joseph dies, at 110, as a mummy in Egypt, a land which (in much of the Bible) is used as a term for Hell.
So Joseph died, being one hundred and ten years old; and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.
Not only is 110 nearly an order of magnitude less than the 1,000 that Noah approached, and a third of what Noah lived after the flood, it’s not even at the lower upper limit that God decreed after the flood.
And the LORD said,
“My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty year
What is going on? What could be the lesson if Noah and Joseph die in incompletion, but inexplicably Cain seems not to die?
Well, we don’t know. Except there’s Enoch. Or both Enoch’s. One, son of the undying Cain, is the namesake of the first city. This Enoch, likewise, does not have a recorded death.
There are two Enochs in Genesis. The first is only fleetingly referenced, the son of Cain himself:
And Cain knew his wife and she conceived and bore Enoch. Then he came the builder of a city and called the name of the city, like his son’s name, Enoch. And Irad was born to Enoch, and Irad begot Mehujael and Mehujael begot Methusael and Muthsael begat Lamech.
But there’s another Enoch — whose life is a perfect year of years, 365, and whose lack of a recorded death is even more explicit. The story is so elliptical – it can be told in one breath – that the lack of a reported death is perhaps the most striking feature of the story:
Enoch lived sixty-five years, and begot Methuselah. After he begot Methuselah, Enoch walked with God three hundred years, and had sons and daughters. So all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. And Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.
Indeed, the phrase “no more” is elsewhere used for sons who are alive but not present – Joseph and Simeon!
And Jacob their father said to them, “Me you have bereaved. Joseph is more more and Simeon is no more, and Benjamin you would take! It is I who bear it all!”
Further, Enoch’s undying status and perfect lifespan of a year of years is contrasted with the rest of his genealogy, who lived longer but incomplete, tantalizingly close to a millennium, but who all died:
Mahalalel lived sixty-five years, and begot Jared. After he begot Jared, Mahalalel lived eight hundred and thirty years, and had sons and daughters. So all the days of Mahalalel were eight hundred and ninety-five years; and he died.
[Enoch’s father] Jared lived one hundred and sixty-two years, and begot Enoch. After he begot Enoch, Jared lived eight hundred years, and had sons and daughters. So all the days of Jared were nine hundred and sixty-two years; and he died…
[Enoch’s son] Methuselah lived one hundred and eighty-seven years, and begot Lamech. After he begot Lamech, Methuselah lived seven hundred and eighty-two years, and had sons and daughters. So all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred and sixty-nine years; and he died.
Somehow, Enoch’s telegraphic life is complete in a way yet shared by Joseph and Noah, but perhaps shared with Cain.
Cain repents. It’s imperfect contrition – repentance for avoiding punishment – but that’s all that is needed for a confession to be acceptable. And the imperfect contrition immediately leads to the protection of the life of Cain:
And Cain said to the LORD,
“My punishment is greater than I can bear! Surely You have driven me out this day from the face of the ground; I shall be hidden from Your face; I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth, and it will happen that anyone who finds me will kill me.”
And the LORD said to him,
“Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.”
And the LORD set a mark on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him.
From a canonical perspective walking in the sinner’s steps is the opposite of repenting in the heart. Indeed, the passage where this appears in the much later book of Sirach almost appears to be a description of Cain – both proud and poor, both hating reproof and fearing the LORD:
Terror and violence will lay waste riches;
thus the house of the proud will be laid waste.
The prayer of a poor man goes from his lips to the ears of God,
and his judgment comes speedily.
Whoever hates reproof walks in the steps of the sinner,
but he that fears the LORD will repent in his heart.
Reading aloud Genesis, this is no more than a striking thought. But the use of Sirach as a key for Genesis makes sense of one more character, who also appears, and whose death is also not reported:
Those who eat me will hunger for more, and those who drink me will thirst for more.
And Melchizedek king of Salem [“Righteous King of Peace”] brought out bread and wine, for he was priest to the El Elyon [“God Most High”]. And he blessed him, and he said:
Blessed be Abrah to El Elyon
possessor of heaven and earth,
and blessed be El Elyon
who delievered your foes into your hand.
And Abram gave him a tithe of everything.