Echoes of Cain in the Prophecy of Isaiah

When I read Isaiah 1, I can’t help but hear echoes of the story of Cain. I’m sure this has everything to do with the fact that I have been thinking and posting about Genesis 3-4 lately. Hear me out, and let me know what you think. First the text, and then an explanation.

Doing and getting “good” (טוב, red text): The context of Isaiah 1:18ff. is similar to that of Genesis 4:6ff. In both passages, God addresses the guilty party. In both passages, the terms of law are stated similarly–the combination of the אִם conditional clause and the טוב root.

Spilling blood (דם, yellow text): In Isaiah 1, the hands of the people of God are said to be “full of blood.” Cain washed the blood off his hands, yet it cried out to the Lord from the ground.

Murder (הרג ,רצח, green text): This makes explicit that the bloody hands of Isaiah 1 are those of a Cain-like, murderous people.

How/Where (אי ,איכה, purple text): The connection here is more clear in Hebrew, but still, some might think it a stretch. To me, this expression resonates with Genesis 4 more loudly than any of the others, besides the טוב connection. In a previous post, I mentioned the similarity between Genesis 3:9 and 4:9. After Adam sinned, the Lord asks, “where are you (איכה)?” After Cain killed his brother, the Lord asks, “Where is Abel (אי הבל)?” So when I hear אי in Genesis 4, I think of איכה in Genesis 3. Though איכה is usually translated “how” in Isaiah 1:21, in light of the previously mentioned connections, when I read איכה in Isaiah 1, I recall the violence of Genesis 4.

What does all this matter? Hearing the echoes of Cain in Isaiah 1 adds another layer of richness and meaning to both Isaiah 1 and the story of Cain in Genesis 4.  Violence, no less than that of Cain, crouches at the door. You don’t have to slash someone with a knife to be in Cain’s predicament. Turning a blind eye to “justice and righteousness” will suffice (Isaiah 1:21-23).

Literary Ties Between Genesis 3 and 4

Genesis 4 is essentially a reenactment of Genesis 3. There are plenty of significant differences between the two chapters, but here are the literary similarities, as I see it.
As is well noted, the only occurrences of the the word translated “desire” (תשׁוקה) are in these two chapters (3:16/4:7). Eve’s desire will be for her husband, but he will rule over (משׁל) her. Sin’s desire is for Cain, and he must rule over (משׁל) it. The structure of these clauses is almost identical:

3:16 – אל אישׁך תשׁוקתך והוא ימשׁל בך

4:7 – אליך תשׁוקתו ואתה תמשׁל בו

It appears to me that the same literary phenomenon is going on in 3:22 and 4:8. In 3:22 the narrator breaks off Yahweh’s speaking mid-thought. So also, in 4:8 the narrator stops mid-thought:

3:22 – פן ישׁלח ידוֹ ולקח גם מעץ החיים ואכל וחי לעלם וישׁלחהו

“Lest he stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat and live forever . . . [new thought]”

4:8 – ויאמר קין אל הבל אחיו ויהי

“And Cain spoke to Abel . . . [new thought]”

Concerning 4:8, the NET notes comment, “Perhaps the author uses the technique of aposiopesis, ‘a sudden silence’ to create tension. In the midst of the story the narrator suddenly rushes ahead to what happened in the field.”

3:9/4:9 – After Adam sinned, the Lord asks “where are you” (איכה)? In chapter 4, after Cain killed his brother, the Lord asks, “Where is Abel (אי הבל)?

3:13/4:10 – After Adam shifted the blame to Eve, the Lord said to her, “What is this you’ve done?” (מה זאת עשׂית) When Cain shirks his responsibility to love his brother, the Lord responds, “What did you do?” (מה אשׂית)

3:14, 17/4:11 – Both the snake and the land (האדמה) are cursed (ארור and ארורה, respectively). So also, Cain is “cursed from the land” (ארור אתה מן האדמה).

3:24/4:14 – Just as Adam and Eve were driven (גרשׁ) from the garden, so also Cain is driven (גרשׁ) from the land.

3:24/4:16 – Adam and Eve must now live “east of the garden of Eden” (מקדם לגן עדן). So also, Cain must now dwell in the land of Nod, “east of Eden” (קדמת עדן).

For one attempt to explain the theological significance of reading these chapters together, see this previous post.

Genesis 3-4 and the Double-Love Command

In Matthew 22, when an expert in the Mosaic Law approached Jesus and asked which commandment is the greatest, Jesus summed up the the Law and the Prophets with the double-love command:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. But the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

In Genesis 3, the man and woman proved that the first of the double-love command (to love God with all that we are) was too much for them. They loved things that were appealing to their eyes and appetite, things that were able to make them “wise,” more than they loved God.

In Genesis 4, Cain proved that the second part of the double-love command (to love our neighbor as we love our self) is out of our reach. Cain got mad. He was filled with rage and killed Abel. When the Lord asked, “Where is Abel,” just like his mother and father, he shirked his responsibility. “Am I my brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9) means “What? You expect me to look out for, take care of, and actually love my neighbor?”

According to Matthew, the Old Testament is summed up with the double-love command. But according to Luke 24, the OT can be summed up another way. Luke says the Law, Prophets, and Psalms point to Jesus himself. Half way through Genesis 4, the message of the Old Testament concerning Jesus and the double-love command is already clear. We’ve failed to love God and neighbor, and if we are to overcome the serpent and the effects of the fall, the “seed of the woman” (Gen 3:15) is going to have to come and crush both sin and the serpent.

Praise the Lord that he came, he finished the first part (John 19:30), and he is coming again to put an end to the serpent and the broken disorder in which we live.