View all Ask a Priest |
“Ask a Priest: Where Did Those People in Genesis 4 Come From?”
Q: I recently ran into a question and wanted to get the Catholic teaching and answer, please. The Bible says Adam and Eve were the first two humans and bore Cain and Abel, after which Cain slew Abel. It then says Cain went to live among the people in the land of Nod. Where did the people in the land of Nod come from? Thank you. –F.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: The Church doesn’t always offer a nice, neat answer to interpreting every passage of Scripture. But a few observations could be proffered here.
Your reference focuses on Genesis 4:15-16. “The LORD said to him, If anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged seven times. So the LORD put a mark on Cain, so that no one would kill him at sight. Cain then left the LORD’s presence and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” From there, Cain goes on to start a family, the implication being that there were people in this “land of Nod.”
To understand these passages, it is good to recall that the writers and redactors (editors or compilers) of Genesis were not trying to produce the kind of historical account that we in the 21st century might expect. Rather, the writers and redactors were trying to teach important lessons with a particular audience in mind. In this case, the audience was probably the Jews who suffered exile in the fifth or sixth century B.C. and who were mostly living outside of Palestine (see Introduction to Genesis, New American Bible).
That Genesis is not strictly historical in the modern sense is evident by the anachronisms that appear. For instance, the animal sacrifice offered by Abel (Genesis 4:4) reflects a practice from a later era. Or take Genesis 2:24, which says, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” It mentions this right after Adam sees Eve for the first time. But why mention “father and mother,” since presumably, Adam had no human parents to leave?
This is a case where a writer is taking an old story and interjecting a value onto the text. This was not seen as something dishonest; rather, it was one way the ancients showed reverence for the religious stories that had been handed down from one generation to another. This is how writers could link present values with the past, and thus help keep the religious stories alive and relevant.
It is in this context that we could read the story of Cain and Abel and its aftermath. Cain goes off to Nod, which is itself a symbolic name, derived from the verb nud, “to wander.” The purpose of the genealogy that follows “is to explain the origin of culture and crafts among human beings” (see footnote of New American Bible on Genesis 4:17-24).
(For more reading on the Church’s understanding of the origins of the human race, see the International Theological Commission’s 2004 document Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God.)
So to sum up: Genesis aimed to convey deep truths and religious traditions. It wasn’t meant to be read as a history textbook, though it was, and is, the inspired word of God. I hope this helps.