The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
– Genesis 4:6-7, before Cain kills Abel
And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days.
But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided…
– Genesis 7:21 – 8:1
Despite our failures, a turning away from God is not an option: no failure can reach the level of “catastrophe” like the one we can inflict on ourselves.
Cain’s turning away from God is complete when he founds a city for his son (4:17). The line of the son includes Lamech, a man who revels in murder as the mark of power; the lesser the injury (he is wounded by one, struck by another), the more powerful his wrath is (4:24). It is Lamech who bears, on the one hand, the founder of nomadic herding (“those who live in tents and have livestock”) and musicians who play instruments, and on the other hand, the maker of metal tools.
What the Bible is doing is linking the same urge that defines the wanderer as the urge which creates Empire. Both tendencies are a rejection of believing in His justice, and that is Cain’s true fault before the murder of his brother. The sacrifice Cain offered was not regarded, but the Lord’s counsel is not “try harder, you lazy bum:” it is more like “Do your best, I will reward.” The way we can see Empire in the children of Lamech is by putting together the three children: nomadic herds are like armies, men are led the same way as goats or sheep, tents populate the land. Instrumental music keeps the march going, and riles people up for battle when the time comes. Finally, bronze and iron make all those farming implements which could very easily be used (cf. “Slingblade”) to cut someone’s head off.
The ways of war are right under the surface in city life; the Bible does not accept small republicanism or the Aristotlean polis as an account of politics. Politics, after all, is about justice here and now to some degree – are we not treading on God’s greater judgment when we claim to make our own law, as opposed to following His commandments purely?
Cain’s line becomes ever more corrupt and murderous when they see that immortality is not assured even for the strongest. The line of Seth, through Noah, is a peaceful line even as the descendants of Cain battle giants and fight for dominion and honor and create an age of myth and heroes (6:1-4). The Flood happens to end the age of myth and heroes: God’s covenant is emphatically not myth, it is a moral understanding that is worthy of contemplation and remembrance.
The remembrance is key because of the way injustice can be conceived acting in the world: the world could be nothing but death all around us. In that case, what would keep us strong – nay, alive – is that God would remember us. Covenant is a moral understanding because of God’s reality; He remembered us, and so to be grateful and thus just ourselves, we remember Him.