If the first two chapters of Genesis are about the goodness of creation, and the all-powerful God creating a masterpiece of nature and balance and abundance, then the next couple of chapters are where everything starts falling apart. Thanks to the humans.
ADAM & EVE
God creates the Garden of Eden (probably somewhere in present-day Iraq) and places there two trees — the Tree of Life, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. God tells Adam not to eat from the second one, but Adam never passes this information on to Eve, who is born after this exchange. A snake manipulates Eve into eating the fruit from this tree by convincing her that she won’t die. Adam also eats the fruit even though he knows better, because there is pain of death, and then there is a naked woman offering you fruit. Let’s be honest: we’ve all been there.
God punishes all three of them: the snake is made to crawl on its belly and eat dirt and would forever be the enemy of women and children. Eve is punished with labor pains while giving birth and would henceforth only ever desire her husband, and be his subject. Adam is punished by becoming a farmer — he will now have to toil the ground to make food, and he will now be mortal. God makes them clothing and kicks them out of the Garden of Eden.
Some points of interpretation for this story:
- Symbolic effort to move humans from the realm of blissful ignorance to freedom (knowledge, wisdom, choice), where freedom means having to accept the costs of our actions.
- God as a merciful entity: God didn’t kill Adam for eating from the tree, and didn’t abandon either of them even though they were kicked out of Eden. Casting Adam and Eve out of the garden was punishment for a moral choice — but in providing them with clothing, God indicated a plan to yet remain involved in human affairs, and to continue a close relationship with humanity.
- The notion of death. In leaving the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are cast out from the promise of permanent abundance and into a world that will eventually, for all humans, end in death, even though we’ve achieved knowledge and wisdom in the meantime.
CAIN AND ABEL
For thousands of years the story of Cain and Abel has captured the human mind as the ultimate avatar of conflict, violence, regret, and the fallacy of freedom of choice. With Cain as the first person to be born, and Abel as the first to die, the story provides a commentary of the nature of a humanity that has suddenly found itself mortal and with the knowledge of death. Conflict, the story seems to suggest, is part of our basic nature.
Abel is a shepherd and Cain a farmer, which reflects the actual history of early human conflict between wanderers like Abel, and settled farmers like Cain. Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his book Outliers that where a farmer has to depend on others in his community for survival, the wandering nomad can only depend on himself. The farmer is much more secure in his property and life.
Cain is jealous that Abel presented a better offering to God. Although God tries to explain to Cain that advantages of self-control — avoiding evil — Cain kills Abel. And then he compounds the evil by lying about it in his famous response to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The entirety of Jewish tradition from this moment is: Yes, you are.
Cain’s punishment is that the ground beneath him is cursed and he must become a fugitive wanderer across the earth. There is such a great irony here. Murdering Abel not only changes Abel’s life — by ending it — but it changes Cain’s life, too. In fact, he is forced to become much like his brother — a wandering, vulnerable nomad living in fear of death. As with Adam and Eve, the moral choice he makes carries real consequences, and the harm he visits upon others leaves him at risk, too. The Jewish tradition seems to be telling us that threatening the safety of others threatens ours, as well.
We tend to assume that the story ends there, but not quite. After this sorry tale Eve goes on to bear a third son, named Seth, and the Bible tell us that she and Adam bore together many more sons and daughters. Eve disappears from the story, but we’re told that Adam lived to be 930 years old.
That third son, Seth, who never knew his older brothers, had a long line of descendants whose names are recorded in the Bible on down through his generations, until we land on one particular ancestor of Seth: a guy named Noah.
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© 2017 Jason Harris