For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another (Galatians 5:17)

The “flesh” as opposed to the “Spirit” is an important contrast for Paul (Galatians 4:29; 5:16-25; 6:8; Romans 2:28-29; 8:4-17; 1 Corinthians 5:5).  While the term, the “flesh” does not appear in the Tanakh or rabbinic literature, the concept does, and we will look at this as we go on.

Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24); as in Galatians 3:3, there is not a third option.  We are either walking in the Spirit or we are serving the flesh.  There is an eschatological battle between the flesh and the Spirit, and the believer must take sides on a daily basis (v16).  Jeremiah 17:5 puts it well when he says, “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his arm, whose heart turns away from the Lord.”  In Psalm 78:39, flesh and sin are closely related.  The word “flesh” often, but not always, refers to taking the natural as a norm in opposition to the spirit.  We find that humans cannot “inherit the Kingdom of God” because of their mortal nature (1 Corinthians 15:50).  Another meaning is, to set up the natural and human as God (as in humanism for example), neglecting the true God, we live according to the sinful nature, or sinful flesh, with its passions, indulgences etc.  In 1 Peter 2:11, the passions of the flesh…. wage war against the soul.  “The lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes” (1 John 2:16), are not of the Father but of “the world,” which is darkness, in opposition to the light, which is God.  As we saw in our opening verse, the flesh can oppose the Spirit; and, the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit” (Romans 8:8f; John 1:13; 3:6; 1 Peter 4:6).  We see from this that the flesh is opposite the Spirit, not because it is material but because it lives by its own standards; so we sometimes speak of that which is “carnal”, the carnal nature.  Believers have divine resources available to them that the law did not provide, therefore they can enter this conflict with great optimism.  The Spirit takes the initiative in empowering and equipping the believer (you are led by the Spirit: Galatians 5:18).  The “But” in v18 indicates that there is hope in the midst of this contest between flesh and Spirit.  There is much more on this theme in the New Testament, but I want now to consider examples in the OT.

Tanakh examples

In the Tanakh (Old Testament) we find examples of the battles of the flesh against the Spirit.  David and Goliath for instance, is a graphic example; as well as the temptation in the Garden of Eden.  We will look at some of the lesser known examples that might not immediately jump to mind in this theme.  The archetype of religious sin is represented in the story of Eden.  The archetype of moral sin, is that of Cain and Abel.  In these stories the battle between the flesh and the Spirit rages too.  Building an analogy between the two exposes a profound aspect of biblical theology: moral sin is tantamount to religious sin!  Giving way to the flesh leads to death.  It leads to separation from God, and can lead to a nation being spewed out of its land.  Cain’s departure “out from the presence of the Lord” was both religious and geographical.  This is what gratifying the flesh does to us.  In his attempt to avoid God’s mission, Jonah’s flight was “out from the presence of the Lord.”  It was geographical, but it was also to avoid any dialogue with God.  You can’t serve two masters, as we have already discovered.  Cain was the first that we see offering a sacrifice to God.  Intrinsic in sacrifice is the idea of “drawing near to God,” which is in the name “korban”, “to draw close”.  The one that sought to draw close (Cain), was the one banished and distanced from God’s presence.  Perhaps we see in this a shadow of Matthew 7:23 where those that draw near to Him saying, “Lord, Lord” and Jesus response is to say, “I never knew you.  Depart from Me, ye that work iniquity…”

The opposition of flesh and Spirit is seen in the line of Cain, and that of the line of Seth. Seth’s line constitutes an alternative to Cain’s.

Cain’s dynasty continues for seven generations.  Some commentators suggest that seven symbolizes totality, wholeness.  This is not necessarily in a moral or religious sense – rather it is presented as a complete, whole entity.  In a sense, Adam’s line through Cain might be compared to the seven days of creation – which was a completed project, open to scrutiny.  But Cain’s line does not culminate with a sense of “rest,” as the creation of the world did in concluding with Sabbath.  The flesh is ever demanding; it is never satisfied.  The sense of “rest” will emerge in the line of Seth, in the tenth generation.  We have a picture of God putting to death the flesh, in all flesh, when we reach the time of Noah (Genesis 6:13; see also Hebrews 11:7).

It is the things of the world that more often than not, that catch our eye, even in those that have known God’s presence (Genesis 3:6).  When the disciples were in the presence of Jesus, at least one of them was distracted, and focussed his attention on the “magnificent” stones and buildings (Matthew 24:1; Mark 13:1; Luke 21:5).  It was Cain and his line that were the builders and the eye-catchers.  Cain built the very first city on earth, and he named it after his son, Enoch (Genesis 4:17 – There were two Enoch’s, one in the line of Cain, and one in the line of Seth).  The root of the name Enoch, ḥanokh, is related to the building of buildings and cities (the ḥanuka of a building means “dedication”).  Naming the city after his son was possibly an attempt to free the city from his own curse.  This is what the flesh does.  However, looking down the centuries we discover it is not our effort that can save us, but Jesus, who became a curse for us (Galatians 3:13).  Where Cain has been cursed to be a wanderer, in naming the city as he does, in his mind he is justifying the idea of a permanent residence for his children, and future generations; thereby breaking the curse that was on him.

Others in Cain’s line are named, but there is a little detail when we come to Lamech, the first in the bible to take two wives.  Here we see the creativity of his sons and their wives.  They brought art to the world, and invented the concept of music.  Tools were created from copper and iron.  The briefness of the descriptions appears to suggest that Cain’s line is a doomed family.  Lamech, who was the first to compose poetry, sings a song to his wives – the first poem found in the bible; but look at it: Hear my voice/Listen to my words.  I killed/Injuring me.  Cain is avenged seven times/Lamech seventy-seven times (Genesis 4:23-24).  There is a dark side to the content of this poem, it is not just an ode to the proud hunter or warrior as we find in other parts of Scripture (1 Samuel 18:7).  It is as if Lamech goes back to his wives proudly displaying his injuries, injuries that were not life-threatening displaying great rejoicing and boasting that he had killed the man that inflicted them on him.  He exceeds Cain and will take revenge “seventy-seven times” against anyone who harms him.  Read his words again, “my voice,” “my words,” “I killed,” “wounding me,” “injuring me.”  This is Lamech’s cruel egotism coming out; and the exaltation of self and the flesh.  It was the builders of another city, a city with a tower reaching into the heavens that proclaimed, “so that we may make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4).  The flesh exalts itself.  We all have to be careful about our motives; those in leadership positions have to be particularly watchful, carefully examining who it is that’s exalted in their lives, and in importance.  The desire to be known and to be recognised, making a name for themselves is the flesh exalting itself over the Spirit.

The seventh generation of Cain’s line is replete with creativity and talent, but so is there this celebration of death and killing.  The DNA of Cain’s creativity continues in the line, but so does the murderous streak.  We have witnessed this combination of art, poetry, music, science and creativity in Europe, along with mass murders, pogroms, and the holocaust, and more recently through the abortion industry.  This generation of Cain is the end of the line.  There are hints that this is so in the collection of first generation names recollected in the final generation where we have Tubal-Cain, and Lamech’s song that speaks of Cain.  The three sons of Lamech are named with a word root that recalls the name “Abel,” the brother that Cain murdered.  This line which was so rich in creativity was coated in the blood of its rivals, eliminating even brothers of their own family.  Such leaders, as the one in North Korea have done the same in the 21st Century, as have some in the Middle East.  When the flesh is in control, there is no mercy.  What about us?  We might not have gone out and committed murder, but consider what Jesus said, “Anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.”  “Anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin.  But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of hell” (Matthew 5:22).


“Adam again knew his wife, and she gave birth to a son, and called his name Seth (Shet), saying, God has granted (shat) me another child in place of Abel, for Cain killed him.”  Eve displays a change of heart in her expression “God granted me another child.”  When Cain was born she saw herself as an equal partner with God in bringing the child into the world, as she gloried in her creative powers.  With Abel she regards him as purely a gift provided to her from Heaven.  In the Garden of Eden, Adam did all the naming, but in the first two human births, Eve names both her sons.  The births of Seth and his son Enosh are presented in Scripture, before we even come to ‘the generations of Seth’ (Genesis Ch.5); and comes as a conclusion to Cain’s line.  In 4:26 “”And Seth too had a son, and he named him Enosh.  Then people began (huḥal) to call on the name of the Lord.  Some interpret calling on the name of the Lord in a negative sense; but “calling on God’s name” does appear to reflect the beginning of a new relationship between God and Man.  There isn’t time to go into this any deeper, but the reader can study further, and perhaps correct any mistakes that I have made in my rush to finish in time!


Enoch was the seventh generation in the line of Seth, and he became the father of Methuselah.  Enoch walked faithfully with God (Genesis 5:22), until Enoch was not.  It is as though he was walking along with God, and they just walked right on into heaven together.  He was not seen on earth again.  Noah (Genesis 6:9) and Abraham were commanded to “Walk before Me and be blameless (Genesis 17:1).”


Noah is the tenth and final generation of Seth.  Not only did he walk with God, but he is described as being “a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (Genesis 6:9).  He was a partner in covenant with God – “I will establish my covenant with you”, as well as the rainbow covenant after the Flood (Genesis 6:18).  The name his father gave Noah shows that he was singled out at birth – “This one will comfort us (yenaḥamenu) ….” (Genesis 5:29).

We can never exhaust the book of Genesis, but we have to leave it there for now.  God willing, we will continue with the Haskama articles in September 2019.

Blessings and shalom,

Malcolm [29.07.2019]