East of Eden, Civilization Begins

Most mythological systems have some version of how crafts originated. Crafts and arts are essential to human identity, and so every attempt at history must account for the rise of human creativity. The Bible is no exception. In today’s reading of Genesis 4:16-26 we have precisely that. We read of musicians, “all those who play the lyre and pipe,” and of “Tubalcain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron.”

14-Cain Builds the City of Enoch_TIF

Throughout history, the arts and crafts flourished primarily in cities. So, here in Genesis 4:17 we read that Cain “built a city, and called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch.” But before that could happen, Cain had to go “away from the presence of the Lord” and dwell “in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” Cain had to leave the land of his birth, way beyond any proximity to the garden where his father and mother were created. He burned his bridges behind him in order to face the dawn of human society.

In addition to the city and the musicians and craftsmen, we also read here of “Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle.” A spiritual tension will exist between city dwellers and the nomads and farmers who live beyond the gates of cities, and that too is part of human history, but none of that is hinted here. In these simple, summary statements, we have a condensed, brilliant history of human civilization as seen by the Yahwist, or whoever wrote these chapters of Genesis. We have the establishment of a city, the beginning of arts and crafts, and farmers who live outside the city – all the makings of human civilization. Humanity has definitively moved beyond its infancy stage. The purity of an idyllic origin is long gone. Real human beings are ruling the earth now, and God is going to have some real issues ahead in his dealings with the humans who are now “east of Eden.”

But there is still one last, all-important requirement for civilization: record-keeping. Writing originated from the need to keep records of rulers and finances. The Bible has its own system of record-keeping. Throughout the Bible – both Old and New Testaments – there are genealogies which describe the family trees of those who appear on the stage of biblical events. So here in Genesis 4:17-21 we have a first short genealogy, while the next chapter of Genesis gives us the first fully developed genealogy, of the type that we will encounter so often in the Bible.

The time has now come for Adam and Eve to make their exit; they no longer have a role to play in the unfolding of events. They have another son, Seth, to take the place of the murdered Abel (Gen 4:25). In Genesis 5:5 we will read that Adam lived to be 930 years old; and then he died. Nothing is said of how many years Eve lived.

“At that time men began to call upon the name of the LORD” (Genesis 4:26). One can argue about the anachronism of this statement. After all, the name of the LORD was not revealed until thousands of years later, when Moses encountered God in the burning bush in chapter 3 of Exodus. But anachronism is never a problem in the Bible; only fastidious moderns would even raise the issue. The important thing here is that civilization is not complete without the establishment of religion. We have already seen the roots of the religious instinct in the offerings that Abel and Cain made. Here we have communal raising of human voices to God. And that is religion. Religion came with the city, with the arts and crafts, and with the keeping of records. Religion is communal, and so it comes with the first city and the first inklings of civilization. They’re inseparable. The religious instinct is built into the DNA of human beings, right from the beginning of our move and evolution “east of Eden.”

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