The Oracular Origin of the State?

When Cain slew his brother Abel God banished him to a wandering existence as a fugitive.  He lost his agricultural vocation, the comfort of hearth and home, and the security of his extended family.  When Cain expressed his dismay that his punishment was more than he could bear, God placed a sign on him to protect him from any who would seek to avenge the death of Abel (Ge 4:1-15).  Some scholars have seen in this episode the oracular origin of the state, that in placing a sign on Cain for his protection, God both created and gave divine authority to the state as a human political institution. 

This claim, however, seems spurious for a variety of reasons.  First, the domain of God had already been established in the garden as Adam functioned in his pre-fall condition as God’s vicegerent in creation, serving before God in both priestly and kingly capacities. 

Second, from a biblical perspective, the state functions as an alternative political entity to the kingdom of God; something instituted by the rebellion of humankind against their true sovereign.  It was actually Cain rather than God who gave birth to the state when he rejected God’s sentence of perpetual wandering, opting instead to settle in the land of wandering and build a city (LXX, polis).  And as Ellul points out, into this polis Cain poured all of his revolt, “Man put all his power into it and other powers came backing up man’s efforts.”

Third, Ellul has ably demonstrated that the biblical city builders are descendants of the line of Cain, the foremost being Nimrod who founded the great cities of

Ge 11 the consolidation and concentration of human political power. 

  1. e.g., Kline makes the claim that, “To Cain, God signified that for mankind in general he would provide in his common grace an institutional agent to bear the sword of his wrath in the temporal course of world history” (Meredith G. Kline, “The Oracular Origin of the State” in Biblical and Near Eastern Studies: Essay sin Honor of William Sanford LaSor, ed. G.A. Tuttle. Grand Rapids: Eedrdmans, 1978, pp. 132-141.

  2. In my essay, “The Kingdom of God,” I follow Dumbrell in arguing that the kingdom of God is implicit both in the act of creation and in the command to humankind to “subdue the earth” and “have dominion,” thereby explicating the divine plan for the creatures made in His image is to sit atop and expand a kingdom drawn out of the creative order (  Moreover, the priest/king role is also evident in Ge 2:15 where Adam is placed in the garden for the explicit purpose of working (עבד) and keeping (שמר) it.  These same verbs are used later in the Torah to refer to the roles of priests and kings.

  3. Meaning, Ellul 9.

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