“Endless Genealogies”: The Lineages of Cain and Seth (Retro Week)

This week is “Retro Week” on this blog. I’m reposting selections from the archives. This one originally dates from 26th March:


Despite I Timothy chapter 1, I have to confess to an abiding fascination with the genealogical tables in the Bible. I realise, of course, that most Westerners aren’t with me on this; many people seem to come at them with an idea of “Hmm, long list of names. Little to no detail given about them. I’m not even sure how to pronounce most of them. Why is this even here in the Bible? Moving swiftly on…

While I can sort of understand this, I can’t really relate; I think dismissing them entirely is a mistake. Having said that, however, when people do say something about them it often provokes a “Huh?” response in me and leaves me wanting to quibble over their interpretation or its implications. Maybe this is why St. Paul advised us to avoid “myths and endless genealogies”. Little good can come from arguing over peripheral details.

It occurred to me, though, that it might be worthwhile to unpack one or two of these Biblical genealogies a little, hopefully without delving into the “myths” we are told to avoid. So let’s look at what are arguably the mother and father of all genealogical lists: the lines of Cain and Seth.

The line of Cain is a lot more bare bones than that of Seth. There are no ages given, and it extends only for seven generations from Adam. We’re told at the start that Cain built a city (this from the one God said would be “a restless wanderer on the earth” – more on this later) and named it after his son Enoch. Then the line picks up with Enoch’s son.

From Adam, then, we have:

  1. Adam

  2. Cain

  3. Enoch

  4. Irad

  5. Mehujael

  6. Methushael

  7. Lamech

Then we get some of the few details we are given in the passage. Lamech marries two women (the implication being that this is a new thing) and becomes the father of four named offspring: Jabal, of whom we are told that he was the father of “all who live in tents and keep flocks”, his brother Jubal, father of “all who play the harp and flute”, their half-brother Tubalcain, maker of “all kinds of tools of bronze and iron” and his sister Naamah.

We’re also told of Lamech’s pronouncement of vengeance “seventy-seven times”. Again, more on this later.

The lineage of Seth, by comparison, is more detailed. We are given ages for the patriarchs, and the line itself goes longer: ten generations from Adam to Noah. There’s an introduction to the line at the end of the previous section, dealing with the first couple of generations. In this we learn that Seth was the one Eve said was “granted” by God to replace Abel, whom Cain killed. The implication here is that the two lineages are to be viewed in contrast or opposition to one another; Seth’s line is representative of righteous Abel.

The line of Seth, then, is as follows (beginning from Adam):

  1. Adam

  2. Seth

  3. Enosh

  4. Kenan

  5. Mahalalel

  6. Jared

  7. Enoch

  8. Methuselah

  9. Lamech

  10. Noah

Then the line divides between Noah’s three sons Shem, Ham and Japheth.

At once we are struck by the similarity of many of the names: Enoch and Enosh (and Sethite Enoch himself turning up later), Irad and Jared, Methushael and Methuselah, Cainite Lamech and Sethite Lamech. Cainite Lamech’s three sons versus Noah’s three sons. Given that we are basically invited to view the two lineages as a contrast, this is very interesting.

A line of righteousness and a line of sin. Almost the same names, but with some few differences, and with the sinful Cainite line missing some.

I don’t know about you, but this put me in mind of the way Satan will counterfeit the work of God. He’s not very creative. Creativity comes from God, and Satan is opposed to God and all His works. All he can do is make bad copies. If you read the line of Seth first, the line of Cain looks like a poor-quality copy of the real one, missing all the details that make it live.

And yet he can’t suppress the Divine image completely. It’s out of the line of Cain that the innovations of pastoral nomadism, musicianship and metallurgy come down to us.

It’s easy to go so far in our contrasting of the lines of Cain and Seth as to paint the Cainites as entirely evil and unredeemable from start to finish. After all, the line of Cain begins with the first murderer and ends with the first polygamist and a man who takes the idea of vengeance so thoroughly into his own hands that he is prepared to kill in response to being struck. Yet it’s from him that we get the first musician, the first shepherd and the first metallurgist. And it’s from Cain that we get the first city. Are we to damn all of these things because of their origins in the line of Cain?

Obviously not. King David was a harpist. Abraham was a nomadic shepherd. God describes Himself as a metallurgist testing the heart like gold or silver. And Heaven is a city: the New Jerusalem.

To me, it points to the fact that the line of Cain, too, are made in the image of God. Which makes the eventual judgement of God that “every inclination of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil all the time” that much more tragic. Cain’s descendents weren’t fated to produce evil. They chose, every step of the way, to head down the path into wickedness. As did most of the descendents of Seth, it seems. It wasn’t just the line of Cain that was wiped out in the Flood.

Cain’s building of a city is an interesting physical statement from one whom God had consigned to be “a restless wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:12). Cities don’t exactly wander here and there. The whole incident between Cain and Abel arose from Cain’s do-it-yourself approach to God. Back when Adam and Eve first sinned, God made coverings for them out of skins, showing that something had to die for their sin to be covered. Cain’s ignoring this and trying to bring whatever old thing he felt like as an offering to the Lord showed what was in his heart.

We can’t have a relationship with God on our terms because our sin gets in the way. It’s rather like saying to someone, “I’ll marry you, but I’m going to keep sleeping around with anyone else I feel like. You need to accept this or no deal.” It’s missing the point, and it’s not going to work. No-one righteous or truly loving is going to agree to that.

Cain’s offendedness when God gently exposed what was in his heart prompted the first murder, which was also the first example of religious violence. Even after God’s mercy in not putting him to death and in preserving him from vengeance, he still seems to want to approach God on his own terms. He builds a city, perhaps in an attempt to circumvent the punishment of God on him: Enoch (which in the Sumerian or Akkadian version of Semitic language would probably be the somehow more satisfyingly primeval-sounding Unuk), the primordial city. Nothing’s said about his son Enoch, for whom the city is named. We don’t know what his personal character was like. But we do know that Adam’s choice for sin over God set in place a downward spiral of more and more choice for sin rather than God. Sin begets sin. Or as the great theologian Yoda put it, “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny”.

The downward spiral is complete enough by the generation of Lamech that no-one of any moral sense wants to follow their line any more. The detailing of Cain’s story stops here. Lamech threatens vengeance ” not seven times over but seventy-seven times”; it may be this which Jesus contrasts when asked about how many times we should forgive. Lamech promised to take revenge seventy-seven times over. Jesus said, “No. Forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22). Don’t take revenge. Lay down your offendedness, your woundedness. Forgive and be healed. It reveals how far off-base people were getting.

By contrast, the line of Seth is traced from the one who is “granted” as a replacement for Abel, as I mentioned above. The seventh from Adam, Enoch, we are told “walked with God”: perhaps a reference to the previous time in Genesis where we are told about God walking: when He’s looking for Adam. But in contrast to his forefather, Enoch isn’t fleeing and hiding from the Lord, but walking with Him. The picture is one of relationship. The relationship was so close that it seems God couldn’t wait for him to die; he’s the only one in the list whose entry doesn’t finish with the leaden litany “and he died”, emphasising like a hammer blow the consequence of sin that human beings were never meant to bear. Enoch, by contrast, “walked with God and then he was not, because God took him”.

It’s intriguing to speculate on the circumstances of this antediluvian Elijah. The New Testament book of Jude states that he was a prophet, quoting the Jewish apocryphal Book of Enoch as pointing to God’s coming judgement. However, anything we say about him beyond what we are actually told in Scripture is speculation, and runs the risk of stepping across into the “myths” we are cautioned against by St. Paul.

Enoch’s son is Methuselah, famous as the longest-lived man in the Bible, with an astonishing 969 years of life. While I do not want to get into a discussion of the extraordinary lifespans of the antediluvian age, Methuselah’s is worth mentioning because of his name. One possible interpretation of the meaning of his name is the intriguing statement “When He Dies, Judgement”. It’s especially interesting because if you count up his age, he dies in the year of the Flood.

Remember, Methuselah was named by the prophetic Enoch. Was Enoch forewarned by God not only of the impending judgement, but on when it would come?

It’s possible. But what I want to draw out of this is the connection between the meaning of his name and the length of his lifespan. The one whose name might mean “When He Dies, Judgement” just happens to be the longest-lived man in the Bible. As I have said elsewhere on this blog, God is slow to anger. It takes time and effort to bring Him to the point of judgement.

Sadly, it seems the pre-Flood human race spent both on deliberately choosing sin over God. The Lord’s statement of grief over humanity reveals a profoundly terrifying condition: “every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). Think about what that means. No redeeming features – evil all the time. Injustice, oppression, greed, lust, arrogance, lying, cheating, violence and murder. Every vice and perversion you can imagine, and a few you can’t, given free reign among people living for eight or nine hundred years at a time. We say people of eighty or ninety sometimes “get a bit set in their ways”, usually meaning “stubborn, difficult and a little mean-spirited”. Now multiply that by a factor of ten and make the people concerned hell-bent on evil. This is Hitler able to talk tactics with Tamerlane and Genghis Khan. Al Capone and Ivan the Terrible sitting down to plot together. Every author of genocide and cruelty in the past 8-900 years able to watch and learn from one another, and egg one another on to further depths of depravity.

With the evident downward spiral we see in what’s recorded of the line of Cain, it’s evidence that yes, they really did deserve it when the Flood came.

Contrast Noah. His name is practically the same as the Hebrew word for “comfort”, and his father said of him that “he will comfort us in the labour and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed”. While I’m not sure that a global flood was what Lamech had in mind for “comfort”, the salvation of Noah and his family did put an end to the rampant sin whose origin had been the cause of the curse on the ground. Picturing the earth itself breathing a sigh of relief doesn’t seem too out of place.

Noah is described as “walking with God” (which shows relationship with the Lord), and as being “righteous” (which we understand from the New Testament to be a matter of faith) and “blameless” (by which we understand holiness of lifestyle). What John Wesley called “Christian perfection”: the state of grace in which you walk so closely with God that you don’t sin as a matter of course, but love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself. The contrast with his wicked and depraved generation could not be more profound.

As an aside, it intrigues me that the names of neither Noah’s wife nor of the wives of his sons are mentioned in Scripture. Lamech’s two wives get names. Even his daughter gets a name. Why not the righteous women?

I have a theory about that, though. Throughout the ancient world, there has been a tendency to want to deify primeval mother figures. Mothers are both strong and feminine, and bring forth life. This last especially is a divine attribute. My personal theory is that God did not want anyone making an idol of any of the mothers of the new human race. Indeed, considering that Moses is credited with assembling Genesis along with the other four books of the Torah, it’s possible that some of the pagan cultures around had already done so by his time, and that they were being worshipped by name as the mother goddesses of the ancient world.

Speculation, but interesting speculation. Take it with a whole spoonful of salt, not just a grain.

Anyway, returning to Noah. A man in relationship with his Lord. A man of faith. A man walking in holiness. What we’re told of him is that in contrast to his wicked and violent generation, he “found grace in the eyes of the Lord”.

He found grace. Unmerited favour. Not because he was sinless. Because God was pleased to show grace to him. And through him, to rescue the human race and bring forward His eternal rescue plan to deliver us from sin once for all.

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3 thoughts on ““Endless Genealogies”: The Lineages of Cain and Seth (Retro Week)

  1. Pingback: Speaking In Code | The Word Forge

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