Notes on Meaning of the City: Cain

I’m reading through Jacques Ellul’s Meaning of the City for the second time. The first time through it was powerful stuff, but almost overwhelming. I came away with the basic point, namely that, with the exception of the New Jerusalem, the Bible consistently uses the city to represent man’s effort to live without God. But the details of Ellul’s case are myriad, and well worth pondering individually, so I thought it would be good to go through the book again and make careful note of the ones that catch my attention.

What follows are only notes, and fragmentary ones. I’m not yet up to summarizing Ellul’s case in any useful way. But I hope some readers will find them helpful, or at least intriguing.

When Cain murders Abel, he receives this curse from God: When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.

“Until now, only God’s protection has enabled life to go on, and this protection is seen in a certain stability, a certain familiarity, between man and nature. Cain has shattered this serenity. He has introduced insecurity, the taste for blood, for vengeance. And the condemnation pronounced by God is only the inevitable result of Cain’s act. Cain has broken the relationship between man and the world, and so he will necessarily be a fugitive and a wanderer. He will no longer have natural protection …”

Cain said to the LORD, "My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me."

My observation: Cain is right about the basics of his fate, but he assumes far too much, e.g. that God has driven him away, that His face will be hidden, that God will no longer protect him.

Then the LORD said to him, "Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold." And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him.

“God is standing before a man who is in open revolt and who in the normal course of events will cease believing in God. What chance is there that such a man will take God’s word seriously? Can receives a sign of God’s protection, but of what import is that sign? He would prefer a more obvious security, such as the one he destroyed by his crime—family security, a relationship with animals and things, a familiarity with men and places.”

My observation: This last sentence of Ellul’s is a good example of how he achieves depth in reading scripture. The implication—that Cain has through his act no longer has the security of family, or a relationship with animals and things, or a familiarity with men and places, is too much to draw from this passage. But it is possible to draw it from a complete survey of how scripture portrays the city—the survey he proceeds with in the book—and the implication is quite consistent with this particular passage, and in fact resonates with the reader’s own experience—city dwellers are observably prone to all these qualities. [See also last two paragraphs on page 8.]

Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

Cain is in fact under God’s protection, but Cain is not willing to believe this; the protection is God’s promise, which is useless to a man without faith. Instead, he chooses to leave the presence of the Lord.

“Cain has no way of knowing that the mark (which he cannot see) will suffice to protect him, even in the depth of his sin, from his disobedience, from his separation from God. And now Cain will spend his life trying to find security, struggling against hostile forces, dominating men and nature, taking guarantees that are within his reach, guarantees that appear to him to be genuine but which in fact protect him from nothing.”

Cain is thus the father of those who choose to live as if they are independent of God.

“The land of Nod is a literal translation of the Hebrew ‘the land of wandering’ (but why make into a proper name what is not?). … The seed of all man’s questings is to be found in Cain’s life in the land of wandering, always searching for a place where his need for security might be satisfied. But the only place he finds is that very country characterized by being uninhabitable.”

Opening of St. Augustine’s Confessions: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord.”

“It was after he had gone far from God’s presence that Cain began his life in the land of wandering. How can we not associate the two notions when the text does so? It is God’s absence which is the never-ending sting planted in his heart.”

“And now he tries something else, something that will disturb his situation and make it even worse. Cain is completely dissatisfied with the security granted to him by God, and so he searches out his own security. However, this search is no different from his first desire for God’s presence, and his security can only be found in God. It is only when he believes in God that he will be able to believe that the mark placed on him (and in fact on every one of us?) is an effectual guarantee, because it is an integral part of God’s word (his pledge). But of course Cain does not understand it the way God does. And as for his security, he will find another way to procure it. And another way to satisfy his desire for eternity. He will try to take care of his own needs in these areas. He is about to take the wrong road, where every step leads further from God. But is it possible to be further from God than Cain? No, the road does not really lead further from God, it leads to the mirages of man’s heart because it leads to temporary satisfactions of the thirst for eternity and rest.”

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch.

“The first builder of a city thinks of his action as a response to his situation, an effort to satisfy his deepest desires. He will satisfy his desire for eternity by producing children. He will satisfy his desire for security by creating a place belonging to him, a city. The direct relationship between the two acts is revealed in the identity of name given to the city and the child.”

“Cain has built a city. For God’s Eden he substitutes his own, for the goal given to his life by God, he substitutes a goal chosen by himself—just as he substituted his own security for God’s. Such is the act by which Cain takes his destiny on his own shoulders, refusing the hand of God in his life.”

The name Enoch means “initiation” or “inauguration.” The city Enoch is thus Cain’s substitute for God’s creation; Cain cannot create, but he can begin again.

“There was a solution for [Cain’s] situation, but the solution was in God’s hands, and that is what he could absolutely not tolerate. He wants to find alone the remedy for a situation he created, but which he cannot himself repair because it is a situation dependent on God’s grace. And cain accumulates remedies, each one a new disobedience, each one a new offense. Each remedy which seems to be a response to a need in Cain’s situation, in fact sinks him even deeper in woe, into a situation ever more inextricable.”

“Cain takes possession of the world and uses it as he wishes. Cain creates the art of craftsmanship. He carves stones and thereby makes them impure, unfit for use in an altar for God. It is man’s high-handed piracy of creation that makes creation incapable of giving glory to God. Cain bends all of creation to his will. He knows full well that by God’s order he has received dominion over creation, and he assumes control. He forces creation to follow his destiny, his destiny of slavery and sin, and his revolt to escape from it. From this taking possession, from this revolution, the city is born.”

“Before going on, we must lay to rest a possible misunderstanding. City versus country. We are in no way putting the city on trial, or making an apology for the country. Our only intention is to discover what the Bible reveals concerning the city. Nothing else.”

“All of man’s history is not limited to the history of the city and its progress. But they have nevertheless intermingled, and neither can be understood alone. The two realities are realities for God, and only in Him can we know exactly what they are. But the problem becomes serious when the city kills the country, when Cain kills Abel. When that happens, man and history are so thrown out of kilter that nothing can modify the new situation. But—and here is what is important—it can be no other way. Cain could not stop being himself. From the beginning he had to kill Abel. The city, so mediocre, so puerile with its scanty population still rustic in nature—the city was, from the day of its creation, incapable, because of the motives behind its construction, of any other destiny than that of killing the country, where God put man to enable him to live his life as best he could.”

Next up: Nimrod.

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One thought on “Notes on Meaning of the City: Cain

  1. Wow. Thank you for your understanding of the Word. I did not think there was anyone left who cared enough about God to sit at His feet and learn His way.

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