The First Birth and the First Death

Adam made love to his wife Eve,
and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain.
She said,
“With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.”

Making love is a form of knowing that makes us unique. Sexual intercourse for other species hardly involves the same exchange of knowing inherent in human sexuality.

Maybe use Hebrews 11 as an intro scripture to several sections

While the New International Version says that Adam and Eve made love, the wording in Hebrew is closer to ‘Adam knew his wife’ than that he made love to her. To know someone in the biblical sense does, of course, refer to the act of making love and this method of referring to sex is used several times in the primeval history. Two people knowing one another is a specific reference to the knowledge of good and evil, the story of Cain and Abel does directly follow the story of Adam and Eve after all. The first thing Adam and Eve knew after tasting the fruit was the shame of their nakedness and the second thing they knew was one another. The joining of two bodies is entwined with the dualistic nature of our knowing. The healthy longing for one another which is symbolised by Eve being made from Adam’s rib was corrupted into a subjugation of women by their husbands. Eve was told she would desire her husband but would receive injustice. Their knowledge produced both good and evil – Eve could create another human but she was also given a grave injustice by virtue of her gender.

Even today sex is something which is both good and evil. The act of knowing one another, even the desire to know one another, can be either beautiful and life giving or destructive and harmful – perhaps even both simultaneously. We can make love and we can rape, we can lift one another up or we can put one another down. Sex can be healing and it can be harmful – and this is because our knowing encompasses both good and evil and sex is an act of knowing. The knowledge of good and evil became part of our very essence and the first children born of Adam and Eve embodied that dichotomy, just as each of us embodies it now. Immediately after leaving the Garden, Adam and Eve made love and produced children. Eve, with the help of the Lord, was able to create, to bring forth life into existence. This is, as with most of the story, a mixed blessing. While she loves her children they are destined for hardship. Birth and death are the most powerful experiences of human life. The human condition includes the joy of birth and the pain of death.

The children which Adam and Eve created were symbols of the human condition. Cain and Abel represent tendencies of humanity as a whole and also aspects of our interior conditions. While the scriptures do not explicitly say, it certainly seems implied that Cain and Abel were twins – with Cain being the first born of the two. The tendency towards selfishness and the tendency towards goodness are formed together in the same womb. They come forth into the world together, and each is inexplicably linked to the other. Yet, selfishness arises first – it is the immediate tendency of those who are born. As often is the case in the Bible, however, the first born who is supposed to inherit his father’s house is often usurped by his younger brother. It is the faith of Abel which is destined to rise to power and so the selfish rational mind tries to kill it. Our tendency towards forgiveness and peace is constantly attacked by our tendency towards war and conflict. Our tendency to trust in God is constantly attacked by our self reliance and cleverness. Yet with each murder, God brings forth a new hope – each time Cain kills Abel Seth is born to replace him.

In Hebrew, the name Cain most likely means to acquire or to create and Abel most likely means emptiness, or to become empty – like a breath which is so barely there that it might as well be nothing. These two names are representative of the two consequences of eating the fruit – the knowledge to create and mortality. In the end it is Cain, who is representative of knowledge, who kills Abel, who is representative of mortality. It is our knowledge which kills us. The name Abel is also associated with mourning and sorrow, which is fitting since we are told next to nothing about him other than the fact that he was a shepherd, that God was favourable to his offering, and that his story is one of tragedy and sadness. Cain’s name also seems to make sense when we look at the fact that his descendants were craftsmen and artists. Jubal, was the father of those who play the lyre and pipe and Tubal-Cain, who bore Cain’s name, was a blacksmith. The first sin, the original sin which cast humanity out of the garden, affected not only Adam and Eve but also the children they created.

Cain, the creator of things, the clever man who could make the tools needed to plow the fields and harvest the fruits of his labour (which if you remember is directly associated with our having tasted God’s knowledge) did not know how to use his knowledge properly. It was unfettered and led him down a path of selfishness and even murder. To use a saying we are familiar with today, we might say he was too smart for his own good. The scriptures tell us that Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

The scripture says specifically that “in the course of time” Cain brought an offering, you might say he finally got around to it at his own leisure, in the course of time Cain gave honour to God, when it suited him. Whereas Abel brought the firstling of his flock, he did not hesitate but prioritized God, he even brought him the fat, which would have been the best part. This same selfishness and lack of regard for others and the order of things was what led Cain to kill his brother, jealousy being a very selfish motive. Cain sounds very much like a teenager in this story, he disrespects his heavenly father and puts off the important things he ought to be doing, then he attacks his brother out of jealousy. I remember being a teenager, my mind grew faster than my maturity. I could reason and argue but my logic was always rooted in selfish desires and emotions. I had not yet come to accept the importance of caring for others and participating in the life of the community. I was only concerned for myself, and I took my sweet time doing what needed to be done. Many people told me I was too smart for my own good, perhaps you can understand this as well.

In this story, both Cain and Abel are representative of humanity. We are often selfish, short sighted, jealous, and even prepared to kill if we think it will help us climb the social ladder like Cain and some of us are destined to receive that wrath like Abel. It is the spirit of Cain which allows one nation to slaughter another, enslaving and murdering their brothers. It is the spirit of Cain which does not honour the one who created him, who thinks he knows better and does not need to give respect where respect is due.

The original sin, which comes from our knowledge, is that selfishness which is inherent in all of us paired with the capacity to scheme and manipulate. When wild animals are selfish they quarrel and steal, but they do not create intricate plans of murder and oppression, lying and hiding their deeds. It is humanity which has this curse, we are born with it. Children, who are innocent in this world, are still incredibly selfish and even jealous. Have you ever seen a child hit his brother because he was jealous of their mother’s attention and then lied about it afterwards?

It is part of the human condition that each of us individually and collectively has to overcome. When God disapproves of Cain’s offering he counsels him saying “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Sin is lurking at the door and desires after us, but we have the capacity, and the divine command, to rule over it. If we do not overcome our dualistic nature, which has one foot in the garden and one foot in the heavens, our sinful nature will take hold and we will become wicked people.

I see original sin all around us, we are born in to a world which seems to be inherently selfish if it does not struggle to be holy. And our cleverness amplifies this, Cain not only became jealous of Abel but he murdered him. His jealousy was so deep that he was willing to kill his own brother. It was the first murder in human history, in fact it was the first death in human history – and it didn’t take long. The knowledge which Adam and Eve had acquired was hereditary and their children were going to suffer the consequences.

The curse of Adam was passed on to Cain and to all of his descendants, as we will see when we talk about the flood. Cain’s entire line, Jabal and Tubal-Cain and all their children and grand children became lost in sin and were wiped out when God decided to destroy the earth. Even among the descendants of Seth, who was born after Cain and Abel, there was only one righteous family, the family of Noah. So immediately after the fall, immediately after humans tasted the fruit of knowledge, from the very first child born all the way down to today sin has been part of the human condition.

Every person ever born has to wrestle with selfishness, has to either give in to the temptation of jealousy and the urge to put others down who are getting ahead of you, or seek the greater way – submit to God, to the living Christ who is the Word of God through whom all things were created. And, unfortunately, both the Bible and history show us that more often than we would like to admit, humanity chooses selfishness over love, we choose greed over compassion, we choose to use our cleverness to kill, oppress, and exploit.

But what about Seth? The story tells us very little about Seth except that the Lord sent him to Eve to replace Abel and that when he was born people began to invoke the name of the Lord. It seems that in Seth there is hope, there are some people who invoke the name of the Lord. While there is a tendency in the human condition towards self satisfaction, there is still a part of us which turns to God. We are not completely lost in sin, we are not hopeless, but we do have an uphill battle. And, just like Seth showing up as an after thought in the story, God often chooses the unexpected to carry that hope forward.

Jesus talked about this in the beatitudes when he says that blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. He does not say blessed are the clever, blessed are the strong, blessed are beautiful, he says blessed are the meek. And we can see this echoed by the great King Solomon, who was known for his wisdom. In the book of Ecclesiastes Solomon says to himself, “With much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”

It is not Cain with his cleverness who will inherit the earth, but those with the likeness of Abel, for Jesus tells us that those who mourn will be comforted and the poor in spirit will be in the kingdom of Heaven. Abel, whose name meant mourning and sorrow, was the hero of the story. And Solomon was right, Cain’s great knowledge only brought him great suffering. And so we are faced again with the paradox of the human condition, to be clever is clearly useful and advantageous, yet it is also the cause of our suffering. Jesus taught us that it is not the clever but those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those merciful pure hearted peacemakers who are blessed in God’s sight and who will inherit the Kingdom of God, and live happily in the New Eden which Christ will one day create.

At the end of this story God tells us that no man can ever kill Cain without suffering greatly for it. If we try to abandon our knowledge and our ability to create we bring great peril on ourselves. We must instead help our rational minds to bring forth the right sort of sacrifice before God. The call of this story is not to do away with knowledge but to temper it and help it arise out of sin. If we are not careful sin will become our master, as it is lurking at the door and waiting for us. We must learn to temper our knowledge so that it does not become lost in sin but remains in harmony with God’s will. We can never return to the Garden, Cain is part of our condition now. He may have slain Abel but Seth replaced him. Both of these qualities will remain forever with us, the task becomes to reconcile the brothers, not to conquer one in favour of the other.

So, sisters and brothers, I encourage each of you to consider how this story can relate to your own life. Have you ever been selfish? Have you ever been jealous? Have you ever been slow to give what you have to God? Also ask yourself, what sort of sacrifice you offer, what do you bring to God and his work? How do you honour God in your life and how do you contribute to realizing his coming kingdom? Every day each of us must struggle with selfishness and resentment. It is in our nature, sin is lurking behind the door waiting for us, and if we do not master it, it will master us.

So be vigilant my friends, look inwardly to see what part of your nature serves God and which part does not. Look within yourself and find where Cain resides and where Abel resides, and do not let Cain overcome Abel, do not let sin become the master. Offer to God what you have to give, the first fruits of your love, the first fruits of your joy, the first fruits of your hope – and in this you will find that they multiply, that God is generous and will help you to grow and mature in love and humility. Help each other along, do not be angry with your brother who has more to offer than you do, do not be jealous of what others have to give, but do your best and God will accept you. For the answer to the question Cain asked of God, which was never explicitly answered, must be yes, yes you are your brother’s keeper.