Biblical Interpretation — Using Multiple Sources

One guard against misinterpreting Holy Scripture is to consult different, reputable sources. In this post, I would like to extend my thoughts on Biblical interpretation with an exercise illustrating the value of using more than just one source when trying to puzzle through the Biblical texts. In searching for a good example that might illustrate this idea, I asked my [former] Hebrew instructor and she suggested exploring the “missing text” in Genesis 4:8. She also pointed me to the resources cited in this note.

The first resource I used was the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible written during the third-century BCE in Alexandria (Egypt). Another useful source are the Aramaic “targumim” (plural of “targum”). The targumim were written during the first century for Aramaic speaking Jews (by this time, Hebrew was pretty much confined to the priests of the Temple and others who were required to read and translate the temple scrolls).

Let’s begin. The following is a common English translation of Hebrew text in Genesis 4:8:

And Cain said to his brother Abel [… missing text…] And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.

Can we discover what Cain might have said to Abel in the field before he killed him? Yes. Here’s the English translation of Septuagint.

“And Cain said to his brother Abel: Let us go out into the plain’. And it came to pass when they were in the plain . . .”

Assuming that the Septuagint authors <ref>Legend has it that the Septuagint was translated from now-missing scrolls by 70 Hebrew sages</ref>. This translation certainly fits within the overall context of the Cain and Abel narrative and is quite revealing. First, the missing text does not support the idea that Cain was planning to murder his brother. Indeed, the second clause (And it came to pass…) suggests premeditation did not play a part. Still, the negative proves nothing. Textually, we still do not know for certain whether the act was premeditated or a spontaneous act of rage.

Now, then, let’s turn to the Aramaic Targumim. Fortunately, my Bible Software contain translations of several ancient Aramaic targumim. Specifically, I have the “Targum Yerushalmi” and Neofiti and both of these targumim translate the first part of the Septuagint’s Gen 4:8 almost word-for-word:

“And Cain said to his brother Abel: ‘Let us go outside'”…

Following this are approximately 10 lines of text (which I don’t reproduce here) which describe in great detail what exactly happened between the brothers. In this dialogue, they argue about the pillars of faith: Cain wants to understand why his sacrifice to God was not accepted, while Abel’s was. Abel tries to explain that his sacrifice was better than Cain’s. Cain, however, is unpersuaded and comes to the conclusion that his faith in God was misplaced. Losing his faith, Cain no longer believes that he will be punished for his bad deeds and, in the heat of the fight, kills Abel.

What do we learn from this [rather long and involved] exercise? Here’s what I take away from the lesson of Cain and Abel.

1.    Cain did not murder Abel. His was a crime of passion. This explains why God does not exact capital punishment for the death of Abel.

2.    God does not punish Cain for his loss of faith. God punishes Cain for his inability to restrain his jealousy.

3.     More generally, the story teaches that a loss of faith gives rise to bad works. This shows that, among other things, a trust in God’s word leads to a right ordering of society, while lack (or loss) of faith leads to disorder.

Now, go and study

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