I am reading Jon Levenson’s The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. Levenson is Jewish. So, if you are used to Christian studies of the Bible, you may have some disorientation reading him. At least, I do. But that is a good thing. He brings up several points I wouldn’t have considered.
He deals with the issue of birth order. In many cultures the oldest son has a birth right. The crown may be the birth right of the king’s oldest son. The land, or major portion of it, may be the birth right of a landowner’s eldest.
But in the Hebrew Bible, God keep’s disregarding birth order. It is part of God’s sovereignty that he chooses whom he will regardless of birth order.
Levenson goes back to the origins epic in Genesis. Adam and Eve have Cain as their eldest son. But God favors the sacrifice of Abel, the second son. Cain, in a rage, murders Abel. Cain ends up as a wanderer upon the earth, seemingly with no heritage. So the epic couple have a third son, Seth. The genealogy in Genesis 5 traces the family of Seth down to Noah. Only descendents of Seth survive the Flood. Cain and Abel have no lasting heritage.
But Seth doesn’t replace Cain. Instead Eve says, “God has appointed me another child instead of Abel, for Cain killed him” (Genesis 4:25). The “instead of” indicates a substitution. Out of the tragedy of Abel’s death God works a substitutionary remedy. And God’s choice of the second son over the first stands.
Yet, in spite of the logic that would say all Cain’s descendents perished, the short genealogy of Cain in Genesis 4:17 ff. indicates that Cain’s family made an ongoing contribution to the human race. For instance, Jubal became the father of who play the lyre and pipe. The names “Enoch” and “Lemech” show up in both genealogies. Lemech was Noah’s father. Since this part of Genesis is clearly myth/epic where independent but somewhat parallel genealogies stand side by side, there is no point in trying to harmonize all this. The point that stands out is that the oldest son will not necessarily be the beloved son. Moreover, if tragedy befalls the beloved son, God will provide a replacement.
In Genesis, God keeps trying to fix disruption in the world. A point I had never considered before is about wine. I have never been a teetotaler, but I have been around a lot of them, so it is easy to pass over a point that Levenson makes. Noah was the first wine-maker. This, says Levenson, was probably to compensate for the curse that had fallen upon the ground. After Eden, agriculture was hard, involving toil and sweat (Genesis 3:18-19). But when Noah was born Lemech says, “This one will bring us comfort in our work and in the toil of our hands, because of the ground which the LORD has cursed” (Genesis 5:29). The ground itself would produce something to alleviate the human condition. This is no doubt the background for Psalm 104:15, “the wine that gladdens the heart of man.”