Lesson 3: The First civilizations: Genesis 3-5
What if… neither faith nor science knows for sure how the numbers add up?
Cain and Abel (Genesis 3):
What if… Cain and Abel could be Adam’s great-great-grandsons?
Since Adam also means “man” (and earth, and clay, from which Adam was formed), and Eve means “mother of the living,” Cain and Abel’s story could be interpreted as the tale of Adam and Eve’s first children, or else of man’s and woman’s, of their great-great-… great-grandchildren. Different cultures have interpreted it differently in different times.
The details of the Cain and Abel story do seem to suggest a more settled world than the immediate escape from Eden; a world of farming, villages and religion; maybe even of meat and cooking grain. Since Cain leaves and marries someone else, at the very least the details suggest a world where Adam and Eve are not the only human beings.
What if… father doesn’t always mean Dad?
Of course, the Bible does (sort of) say Adam is the father of Cain and Abel (Genesis 3:1,25). But, just as English only has one word for snow, ancient Hebrew may only have had one word for ancestor; parent, grandparent, great-great-grandparent, etc... Naming someone’s father in the Biblical text might mean literal parenthood, or it might just be a definition of his tribe. When we look at later lists of ancestors, (e.g. in Jesus’ family line in the different gospels), we can start to guess at an average number of “missing generations” but it’s only a guess, only interpretation.
What if… we shouldn’t jump to conclusions?
Smoke rises from Cain and Abel’s sacrifices, but how different is the smoke that rises from grain compared to the smoke from meat? Clearly Cain and Abel, and maybe other people around them, felt it appropriate to burn meat and grain in sacrifices to God. And when the smoke from his sacrifice smelled less enticing, maybe Cain simply didn’t understand, and jumped to his own conclusions without waiting to learn. There’s a lesson there somewhere.
What if… Cain didn’t marry his unknown sister?
After Abel’s murder, Cain leaves for the land of Nod, to the east of Eden. If we imagine Adam’s family staying as close to Eden as they can, Cain might have moved further towards Canaan, to marry someone from another human tribe, a tribe which didn’t survive to present times.
Cain’s descendants initially appear to be quite successful, but the Bible stops mentioning them after Lamach’s sin. There are many traditions of wandering musicians and toolmakers – they could be Cain’s descendants travelling between tribes. Or perhaps the family died out as a result of Lamach’s behavior.
The “mark of Cain” is the promise of God’s protection on sinners. But the protected ought always to thank Him, not take Him for granted.
Methuselah (Genesis 5):
What if…the world is really, really old?
Some people believe we can work out the age of the world from the ages of parents and sons mentioned in the Bible. The parents do tend to be remarkably old by modern standards, but the results the calculations yield are usually still much younger than the age suggested by science. That doesn’t necessarily mean science is wrong, or that the Bible is wrong; just that some interpretations of the data might be wrong.
Our best conclusions, from science, history and linguistics, suggest that Adam and Eve lived tens of thousands of years ago, but probably not hundreds of thousands. It’s a guess though, an interpretation. And adding the numbers strictly as written in the Bible is just interpretation too.
Just for reference, Dawkin’s “proto-Eve” lived 50,000 to 250,000 years ago, so in theory we could even “guess” that she was Eve, though we might be wise not to cause offense.
What if… people could be really, really old?
Modern medicine increased our human life-span, but modern living decreased it. The Middle Ages represent a low point in human life expectancy, with civilization, transport and cities facilitating the spread of disease. It’s actually quite likely that early Biblical ages would be greater than our own, and would decrease as time went on (Genesis 6:3).
Other pre-historical records claim that kings lived to great ages—even tens of thousands of years. So Biblical ages certainly don’t invalidate the Bible as history. The other records may be just as accurate, or inaccurate, as the Bible.
Of course, the remarkable ages of the earliest Bible characters would mean that the Bible stories were passed through a remarkably small number of generations before being written down, but only if we interpret them that way.
What if… it’s hard to count to nine hundred?
Read Genesis 5:27. If Methuselah did live to be 969, he died around the time of the flood—was he too old to sail the ark? And if he didn’t, maybe he died earlier, or maybe his grandsons just didn’t remember his age as well as they thought.
The simplest argument against Methuselah’s age (besides cellular decay) might be that people in ancient times just couldn’t count that high. It’s known from various sources (not just Biblical ones) that forty was a generic “big number” – 2 hands, 2 feet, 2 people. It may well have been used to represent a “generation.” (See Numbers 32:13.) Moses, for example, is 40 when he leaves Egypt, and 80 when he returns, but if a generation was actually 25 years, as other evidence suggests, that would make him 25 and 50. But Methuselah would still be more than 600, which is distinctly old.
Do you know how old you are? Quick? Without thinking? Without using a calendar or remembering the year you were born? I usually don’t, and I struggle even more to remember the ages of my children. If you’ve ever played Civilization you’ll know that numeracy develops after farming, which would place it somewhere close to or soon after Noah—which is when the ages in the Bible start to decrease. Does it invalidate the Bible if we think some of the numbers might be wrong, or does it just make it all the more plausible that it derives from the time it’s written about?