James L. Kugel and Rowan A. Greer, Early Biblical Interpretation, ed. Wayne A. Meeks (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986) 30.
I'm still waiting for my Quasten's Patrology, volume 1 to arrive in the mail, so I'll be taking a little vacation from Quasten. But don't fret, fans of my patristics posts! Kugel and Greer's Early Biblical Interpretation gets into patristics in its second half.
In the story of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4), Cain complains to God about the punishment that has been given him for murdering his brother; his words are, "Lo, my punishment is too great to bear." To a later age, however, the word used for "punishment" seemed strange, for it had long since ceased to mean punishment and now meant only sin or crime. Jewish exegetes played on this confusion in order to turn Cain into the figure of a repentant sinner, and instead of having him complain to God that his punishment is too severe, Cain is made out to be saying, "Lo, my sin is too great to forgive," quite a different sentiment!
When God gave Cain his punishment, Cain responded, "Gadol aoni mineso." Many translators render this as "My punishment is greater than I can bear." But, in The Bible As It Was, Kugel cites other understandings of the verse. The Septuagint has "My guilt is too great for me to be forgiven." The Vulgate states "My iniquity is too great for me to merit forgiveness." Targum Neophyti 4:13 and Pesiqta deR. Kahana Shubah 11 convey the same idea. As Kugel notes, the second translation makes Cain look like a humble and repentant sinner, not as someone who's only sorry he got caught.
According to Kugel, at some point, the word aon had ceased to mean "punishment" in the Hebrew language, so translators and interpreters understood it according to its most common biblical meaning: iniquity. I don't know to what extent Kugel is correct in this claim. Kugel cites the Septuagint (third century B.C.E.) as a source that viewed Genesis 4:13 as "My sin is too great to be forgiven." Yet, in some places, the Septuagint seems to understand that aon can mean "punishment for iniquity." Leviticus 26:41, 43 obviously see aon as "punishment," since they say God will forgive Israel once she accepts her aon. I'm sure God doesn't want Israel to embrace her iniquity! And the Septuagint doesn't appear to have a problem with the text, which tells me that its translators thought aon could mean "punishment for iniquity."
At the same time, when we get to the Greek translation of non-Pentateuchal material (which came later than the Septuagint of the Pentateuch), aon is largely seen as "iniquity," not as "punishment." So maybe Kugel has a point. One would have to do similar comparative work with the targumim, rabbinic writings, the Vulgate, etc, checking how these texts handle passages where aon means "punishment for iniquity." I will say this, though: Jastrow's dictionary on the targumim, Talmudim, and midrashim lists "penalty" as a possible meaning of aon, citing certain rabbinic texts as support.
Personally, I don't think the Septuagint necessarily rendered Genesis 4:13 as it did because aon no longer meant "punishment" and the translators were confused. Aon can mean "iniquity." And the word commonly translated as "bear," nasa, can mean "forgive" (see Psalm 25:18; 32:1; 32:5; 85:2; Isaiah 33:24). So "My iniquity is too great to be forgiven" is a perfectly legitimate translation of the verse, according to the meanings of its words elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Kugel often acts as if biblical interpretation is a response to a problem: the translators didn't see aon as punishment, so they were confused and sought other ways to understand Genesis 4:13. But maybe they simply embraced another way to read the passage. Granted, bearing iniquity in the Hebrew Bible can mean to bear the punishment for sin (see Ezekiel 18:20), but it can also indicate forgiveness.
We've seen two ways to understand Genesis 4:13: Cain is unrepentant yet thinks his punishment is too heavy to bear, and Cain is sorry and feels his sin is beyond God's forgiveness. But there are other interpretations, which may be slight variations of these two views. Josephus (first century C.E.) says in Antiquities 1:58-60 that Cain offered a sacrifice to escape the death penalty and supplicated God not to be extreme in his wrath, yet he continued to do evil. So Josephus doesn't view Cain as repentant, however he understands Genesis 4:13.
Philo (first century C.E.) goes with the Septuagint's rendering of "My sin is too great to be forgiven," but my impression is that he doesn't think Cain was forgiven. In his discussions of Genesis 4:13, Philo talks about the horrors of punishment, alienation from the good, and the state of being cut off from God (The Worse Attacks the Better 148-150; On the Confusion of Tongues 165; Questions and Answers on Genesis I 73). I don't see positive concepts like repentance and forgiveness! Maybe Philo agrees with the Septuagint's Cain: his sin was too great to be forgiven!
Biblical interpretation is not always easy, since words can mean different things. But I do get something of value from all the interpretations of Genesis 4:13 that I encountered today.