Falling Forward & Keeping East of Eden (Genesis 3-4)

Monday, January 10, 2022


Works Cited

Episode Notes (not an exact transcript, but close)

Thank you to Patreon members, the people who left us such kind reviews, and to Heather B for working on our transcripts!

Chapters: Genesis 3-4, Moses 4-5, for the dates January 10 through 16th

Today we are talking about the Fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3 and the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4.

In prep for this episode, we discussed many potential avenues for exploration of these two stories. We wish the manual took more time in these chapters! There is so much goodness to explore, especially in these iconic and well-known stories. We wish we had the opportunity to discuss everything, but due to the limitations and nature of the podcast, we can’t. We understand that whatever we choose to focus on means the exclusion of something else that is equally worthy of exploration.

We encourage our listeners to continue their exploration of the text and understand that we are one source among many. We will miss things. We cannot cover everything. It doesn’t mean that we don’t value it or hold it to be true or otherwise. But we share this as encouragement because we are reminded that it is not possible to know everything, and that makes it very hopeful. So we hope you’ll take this understanding and run with it. Check in with other sources. Our friends at Beyond the Block podcast and wHoly Human are fantastic sources that will offer a flavor on these chapters that is just as nourishing and yummy. We have a reading list on our website that offers up more avenues of exploration and interpretation. And maybe something we share today will pique your interest. Follow your inspiration.

Before we dive right into the text, we want to offer some of our thoughts on themes or ideas that we believe are playing in the background of the Eden/Eve story.

The Necessity of the Death Nature

Generally, we don’t like to talk about death. Not only is it a large and ever-looming reality for us, but it is painful to remember all we have lost to it. But I want to move from death in the human realm, zoom out just a little bit and focus on the important role death plays in nature’s realm.

In nature, death is an essential part of the life cycle. When plants die, they fall to the earth and begin to decompose. Nature has many helpers which assist this process of decay. Insects, worms, and fungus and mushrooms process the decaying material and, with time, the dead plant becomes soil, rich in nutrients and ready to nourish new life.

When seeds fall into or are planted into soil like this, soil which contains death, they grow and thrive. They fruit and flower and multiply and replenish and beautify the earth. But, when seeds fall into or are planted into soil that is void of death, that is sanitized from all appearance of decay, those seeds either do not sprout, do not live long after, or do not flower or fruit.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a Jungian psychologist, writes in her book Women Who Run With the Wolves, “In much of western culture, the original character of the Death nature has been covered over until it has been split off from its other half, Life. We have been taught that Death has always been followed by more Death. It is simply not so. Death is always in the process of incubating new life. Rather than seeing the archetypes of Death and Life as opposites, they must be held together as the left and right side of a single thought.”

And while this certainly applies in nature’s sphere, if we circle back again to our own lives, our own experience, the necessity of the Death nature is no less important. Death plays an important role in our lives. We often celebrate beginnings in our culture. For example, we just celebrated one, with the advent of the new year on January 1st. And among the midnight kisses and obnoxious party horns welcoming in the birth of a new year, the old year quietly slips away into memory. In a subtle way, the celebration of new life is also a gratitude and celebration of the death of the old, the worn, the composted way-that-was-before, which graciously gives way to new life.

We also experience the death nature in our own personal lives. For example, when I (Channing) became a mother, the Death was very pronounced for me. With the birth of my first child, I definitely welcomed in new life. But in doing so, I also left behind aspects of myself and my life that will never be resurrected. What died at her birth was a portion of my freedom, a certain innocence of the world, a certain relationship with my partner. And it wasn’t all loss, either. What her birth gave me was hope, a renewed sense of purpose, a joy and a sense of wonder at the delicate beauty of life.

The death nature nurtures life in all aspects of our lives - from the earth that nurtures and feeds us, to our relationships, to our inner selves and experiences. The death nature has shown up in so many instances for me: death was a part of my faith transition, my feminist awakening, my children attending school, my marriage falling apart and coming back together again. 

Death is so woven into my life at the deepest levels that I now understand it to be an essential part of my lived experience. It has not always been so. Growing up LDS, I really believed death was to be avoided at all costs. There was such a focus on the resurrection, life after death, so much language about “overcoming” and “defeating” death that I came to understand that death was something to avoid, ignore, and fear, just like sin was. I understood my life as linear: that I was born once, reborn once more at baptism, and died at the end of my life just real quick before I was alive again forever.

But I see things differently now. As my attention shifted to checking off boxes at church and instead to paying attention to being present, to staying with the moment, to honoring the experiences and sensations and wisdom of my body, I began to notice that life does not move in a linear fashion. It moves in circles. It moves in cycles, or in spirals. And once I realized this, I realized that I was dying and being born all the time. That the Death nature was always quietly doing her sacred work within me, composting old beliefs, old ways, old selves into revelations and change. At some point Death became something I did not fear, but learned to welcome with a measure of peace and acceptance. 

So all this talk about Death might seem out of place in discussing Genesis 3, which focuses on the fall of Adam and Eve, but stick with us! We wanted to gently illuminate the beauty of the death nature because we believe it is an essential, subtle part of the fall from Eden story.

The absence of the Death Nature in Eden

As we move to the text and to the Garden of Eden, we immediately understand that among the perfection of this idyllic garden is the absence of death.Everything grew, fruited, and flowered easily. Not much work was required to obtain the goodness thereof. Adam and Eve could eat freely of every fruit, including the fruit of the tree of life, or the tree of eternal life. Death was present only in one place - the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. 

Gen 2:16-17, it says, “And the Lord God commanded the man saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat, for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”

So, from our reading of the text, we understand that with the exception of this tree, the death nature was not at play in the Garden. 


Now that we have a background understanding of death, its necessity in the life cycle, and the absence of the death nature in the Garden of Eden, we are ready to turn our focus to Eve.

In last week’s episode, we covered the creation of Eve in the Genesis account in chapter 2. Some of the things we covered was the creation of Eve and her subsequent creation from Adam’s rib being a derivative work created only in the framework of consideration of Adam. We also provided a critique of complementarianism, which is the idea that Adam and Eve, and men and women, are equal but necessarily different, in that they each provide something that the other is missing and therefore complete one another.

Something that I noticed last week in studying the text is that God never gives the commandment to not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil to Eve. If we read the text linearly and literally, God only gives the commandment to Adam. It is implied in Genesis 3 that Eve also received the commandment, but it is never explicitly given to her. We assume that she receives it through word of mouth from Adam, and not directly from God. While not explicit, the failure to communicate this commandment directly to Eve indicates to me that God relates to Eve through Adam instead of face-to-face with her. If this is the case (and it appears from the text that it is) Eve is denied the same intimate relationship with God that Adam has. From a feminist view, this is indicative of a heirarchy in place in the Garden of God-to-man and man-to-woman. 

There appears to be no direct link between Eve and God in the text. We do not receive the same treatment of her creation as we did of Adam - she was made of rib instead of clar and there is no explicit mention of God-breath to animate her.

So as we move into the Genesis 3 account, we begin to hear from Eve and see her acting and moving within the text, which is exciting! But before we dive into her story, We want to preface this saying that there are countless interpretations of the character of Eve and the story of the Fall from Eden from feminist theologians, from traditional Christian narratives, traditional Jewish tellings, traditional LDS narratives. Today, we are sharing our interpretation of the character of Eve, in the iteration of her that feels most liberating and loving to us, and our interpretation of her story that feels most liberating and loving to us. 

Eve Mirrored in the Myth of Psyche

For us, this means that the story of Eve is a nested story, an embedded story - a story within a story. So today, while we are sharing the story of Eve, we will also be sharing other tales and myths that may not be born straight from the KJV text itself, but stories occurring alongside in time or alongside in theme which layer increased understanding to the story of Eve.

The first of these is a story we’ve told before in other places, but not sure if we’ve shared its entirety on the podcast. This is the story of Psyche, of Greek myth

Psyche was a beautiful mortal woman whose beauty was said to rival that of the Goddess Aphrodite. Aphrodite, not liking being compared to a mortal, sent her son, Cupid, to punish Psyche by making her fall in love with the ugliest man in the world. Unfortunately, upon seeing her, Cupid fell in love with Psyche. Some say he was accidentally pricked with his own arrow. So it happened that Psyche was married in secret to Cupid - so secret, in fact, that she herself did not even know who her husband was. Cupid carried her off to his castle in the sky to live, where everything was perfect. Ghostlike hands prepared and served her delightful meals, made her clothes and dressed her in them every morning, kept this beautiful home in which Psyche had everything one could ever wish for - except someone to share it with.

Cupid made Psyche promise that she would never try to discover his identity. She agreed, and so it was that for some time, every day Psyche would live in this idyllic castle alone, and every night she would be visited under cover of darkness by her husband.

We see a lot of similarities between Eve and Psyche here. An idyllic living circumstance, a love unknown to her, a restrictive commandment, a kind of innocence.

And so it happens that Psyche has two sisters who love her greatly. They are worried for her, and want to see her. So Psyche invites them to her home, the castle, and they begin to ask questions. “Psyche, how is it that you do not know who your lover is? Why, he could be anyone! A thief, an ugly man, a dishonorable man! Worse, he may not be a man at all! What if he is a monster, who is keeping you until the day he decides to devour you?” 

Her sisters recognize that Psyche’s ignorance is not only dangerous, but unsustainable. The dangers are exaggerated into forms of dangerous beastly monsters, but there is a recognition that whatever this marriage arrangement is, it is not based on love. For how can one love what they do not know?

Psyche brushes her sister’s concerns away, but they leave her with a single candle. Psyche returns to the castle, but after her conversation with her sisters, she can’t help but notice how strange it is that ghostly hands prepare and serve her food, how strange it is that everything needed to sustain her appears out of nowhere. She notices how her curiosity of who her lover-husband is grows and grows with each nightly visitation - how she is no longer satisfied with the mystery of piecing together his face, his body, his love in the dark. Somehow his promises seem empty - I love you, Psyche, he says, but she wonders, you may love me, but do I love you? I don’t even know you!

And so it is that one night, when the breath of her lover becomes steady and rhythmic, his body relaxed, Psyche’s curiosity becomes too much to bear and she tiptoes to her candle and lights it. She holds the flame close to her chest in her cupped hand as she returns to the bedside. As her hand moves and reveals the light of the flame, she sees her lover for the first time. As she notices the curves of his body, the softness of his face, the rise and fall of his chest as he rests, she knows love, perhaps for the first time - or at least, for the first time like this. As she takes in the sight of her lover, she does not notice the drip-drip-drip of the candle. And so it happens that three drops of wax from the candle of knowledge fall on the body of Cupid, and he awakens. In anger and embarrassment and betrayal, he leaves Psyche, the castle crumbles, and she is left in the woodland naked and abandoned.

Again, we see so many similarities here between Psyche’s story and Eve’s story. A conversation. A curiosity or inner knowing. An act. A perceived betrayal. A change of circumstances.

The motifs (circumstances, characters, themes and ideas) in the Psyche story also show up in many other well-known stories. Maybe one of these works better for you: Beauty and the Beast. East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Pandora’s Box. 

The Story of Lilith

So as we sit with this idea of Psyche as Eve and Eve as Psyche, we want to explore another myth that has some really beautiful potential here, and that is the myth of Lilith.

Who is Lilith?

Her character has evolved throughout the years. Began as female demon common to many Middle Eastern cultures and appeared in the book of Isaiah, the Babylonian Talmud, and incantation bowls from ancient Iraq and Iran

Described as threatening the sexual and reproductive aspects of life, especially childbirth. A medieval Jewish text called the Alphabet of Ben Sira describes her as Adam’s first wife who disobeyed him and God and asserted her equality to Adam, giving a legendary origin to her demonic behavior. She also appears in Kabbalah as an evil reflection of the feminine aspect of God along with Samael. Jewish feminists, seizing upon her assertion of equality, have reclaimed Lilith as a symbol of autonomy, independence, and sexual liberation.

From “The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets” by Barbara G. Walker: “Lilith was said to be Adam’s first wife, but when she refused to lie beneath him during intercourse, because missionary was purported to be the best positon as it is a male-superior position, she cursed Adam and flew away to make her home by the Red Sea. God sent angels to fetch Lilith back but she cursed them too, ignored God’s command, and spent her time coupling with “demons” (whose lovemaking evidently pleased her better) and giving birth to a hundred children every day. So Gad had to produce Eve as Lilith’s more docile replacement.”

In 1972, Judith Plaskow, feminist theologian and Religious Studies professor, wrote a beautiful midrash (commentary, retelling, imagining), “The Coming of Lilith.” The midrash re-imagines a version of the story where Eve escapes the garden as well, where she joins Lilith in the wilderness as a companion. For Plaskow, Eve has heard of Lilith only as a demon, but when she sees she’s a woman, she’s suddenly drawn to her. Eve escapes Eden to find this other woman who welcomed her as a peer:

“And they sat and spoke together of the past and then of the future. They talked for many hours, not once, but many times. They taught each other many things, and told each other stories, and laughed together, and cried, over and over, till the bond of sisterhood grew between them.

From there, Eve leaves permanently, “And God and Adam were expectant and afraid the day Eve and Lilith returned to the garden, bursting with possibilities, ready to rebuild it together.”

We want to mention really quickly, for those listeners who maybe bristle at the idea of a demon being a feminist figure, that it frequently happens in myths and stories in patriarchal cultures that women who do not behave in the prescribed "feminine" way are demonized. Either the authors of the story believe that women who do not follow the expected feminine role are incapable of being women, or they want to discourage other women from following suit, so they essentially say, "these women do not act like women, therefore they are demons." Its not that Lilith is necessarily a demon, but that her demonic nature is applied to her by the authors of the story.

Lesbian or queer relations between Eve and Lilith have also been noted, such as in Jacquline Lapidus’ poem “Eden:”

ever since I discovered
Lilith, things
have been different around here.

the first time we met
by accident she
came back one night
for a seashell she’d forgotten to pack

Adam was asleep
and I, restless, strolling
in the orchard
climbed the apple tree
for exercise and heard her
singing in its branches

touch me, she said, see
how my flesh fits
the folds and hollows
of your body smell
the flower between my legs
feel my muscles
listen to the life
in my womb

oh, she was beautiful!
I thought I had never seen
anyone quite like her
before next morning, though
bathing in the waves
her image came dancing to me
like sunlight, reflecting

now I go looking
for Lilith everywhere
inventing with her names
for swallow quartz anemone
learning to breathe like
dolphins, laughing as our bellies grow
round as the moon

notices but says nothing
this knowledge of our power
sticks in his throat

Lilith, with her connection to the earth and to herself is a mythic embodiment of what CPE calls the “wild nature”

“The word “wild” here does not mean “out of control,” but means “to live a natural life, one in which the creature has instinctive intuition, innate integrity, healthy boundaries. It is the wise and knowing nature. The wild nature carries the bundles for healing; she carries everything a woman needs to be and know. She carries the medicine for all things. She sees, not through two eyes, but through the eyes of intuition, which is many-eyed. She carries stories and dreams and words and songs and signs and symbols. She is the health of women.”

This wild nature, embodied in the figure of Lilith, is someone who knows what she knows and is not afraid to know it. She sees what she sees and is not afraid to see it. She feels what she feels and is not afraid to feel it.

She also has an instinctive sense about the cycles and spirals and circles of the world. I imagine Lilith knows of the necessity of death in the cycle of life. I imagine her as a wise and wild woman.

What role might Lilith play in the story of the Fall?

One of the ideas I’m enjoying playing with is the idea that Lilith and Eve meet sometime in the Garden. Some stories imagine a queer relationship between Eve and Lilith, which I really enjoy. Returning to the Psyche story, right now I’m particularly enchanted by imagining Lilith in the role of Psyche’s sisters, saying, Isn’t it strange, the way things are? That fruit and plants just pop out of nowhere? That you don’t really know God, but are commanded by God all the same? I like imagining Lilith as bringing awareness, asking questions, sharing with Eve about the death nature, about what it means to be a person who sees, knows, and feels. I like the idea of Lilith sharing with Eve what it means to experience pleasure, which author and psychologist Carol Gilligan describes as the joy of being fully and authentically seen and known in relationship with self and others.

The Tipping Point

So as we move from the story of Lilith into the text, Genesis 3 begins with “Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field. And he (the snake) said unto the woman (Eve), Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the Garden?” 2: And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the Garden, but of the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden (which is implied to be the tree of knowledge) God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

4: And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die. For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing Good and Evil.”

It is interesting to note here that some artists have rendered the snake in the narrative with the head of Lilith, including Michaelangelo. The KJV of Genesis says, however, that the snake is Lucifer.  Whatever and whoever the snake is, Genesis 3:6 “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food (see), and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired (feel) to make one wise (know), she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat.”

Eve eats the fruit. Psyche lights the candle. Pandora opens the box. This is the tipping point in the narrative. This is the point of no return. 

Again, we reiterate that there are countless interpretations as to why Eve ate the fruit. Current LDS rhetoric is that eating the fruit was a part of Eve’s foreordained purpose, and that her act of partaking was a brave fulfillment of her Divine Nature, and that her doing so paved the way for humankind to be born and the plan of salvation be initiated. It is true that this is one of the more generous interpretations of Eve’s story, and that is a point of pride for many LDS members, LDS feminists included.

Other traditions and schools of thought assert that Eve’s choice to eat the fruit indicated her inherent nature of disobedience and betrayal of God, as well as weakness to resist temptation and sin, and that God’s punishment of pain in childbirth and ejection from the Garden was evidence of God’s displeasure with Eve. Drawing from this, it is assumed that all womankind embody this betrayal/disobedience/weakness as well.

Our Interpretation of Eve’s Transgression

For us, the following interpretation is the one we’ve been working with as we’ve studied this story, is first, that Eve did not sin, and potentially did not even transgress a commandment because there was no commandment given to her. She may have stepped outside the role someone else set for her, but is it possible to break a commandment you have not been given?

Either way, Eve’s transgression may have been inspired by two things: Her knowledge of the necessity of the death nature, which was absent in the Garden of Eden and Her desire for full recognition by God, a desire for her full personhood to be recognized and respected by God through a direct relationship of full and accountable face-to-face interaction, as opposed to a top-down-then-sideways hierarchy, or implied relationship, or a relationship of translation through Adam. She desires to be recognized as an equal not only by Adam, but to Adam, as equally deserving of an intimate relationship with God.

In either case, her transgression was daring. Her actions demand accountability for her creation, which was not founded on autonomy and full personhood, but on a masculine-centric assumption of her passive ignorance which relies on her continual state of denial, of not seeing/feeling/knowing, to function as intended.

In this context, I imagine Eve as Psyche, understanding that she cannot love a God who will not speak to her face to face, who will not show God’s self to her, who will not trust her with God’s self. I imagine Eve recognizing herself as deserving of a relationship which honors her personhood fully.

I don’t imagine Eve to have all the answers. I don’t imagine that she knows exactly what is going to happen when she eats the fruit. But I do imagine that she intuits that Eden is not the place for her. It was not created with space to accommodate her fullness. Knowing this, she may not know where she wants to go, but she knows that she cannot stay here.

On a larger scale, Eve’s choice illuminated a fundamental flaw in the Garden of Eden with the absence of the Death Nature. I’m honestly unsure if it would have been possible to perpetually exist in the Garden. I wonder if it was never meant to be a permanent state. Eve’s eating of the fruit brought the necessary presence of the Death nature into the world.

Looking at the text, we want to focus in on the word “beguiled,” in Gen 3:13. “The woman said, the serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.”

Beverly Campbell, author of the book “Eve and the Choice Made in Eden” wrote the following in a 1993 speech she gave, which was then published in her book, about the word beguiled.

“I came to sense that some of that word’s true meaning must have been lost in the translations. The Hebrew word used in the Genesis story that has come to be interpreted as “beguiled” is a rare verb form of unusual depth and richness. As it is a form no longer in use, it is almost impossible to translate. It is safe to say that it indicates an intense multilevel experience which evokes great emotional, psychological and/or spiritual trauma.

Eve is caused to step back, reevaluate, reassess, and ponder the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We are given some insight into Eve’s thought process in the biblical text, which indicates that this [experience] has evoked in Eve a vision of the total range of the human experience. Eve recognizes that the gifts offered by the symbolic fruit were essential gifts of mortal life.”

Campbell also illustrates that an unknown amount of time passed between the beguilement and the eating of the fruit. It could have been that Eve took great care in her choice.

Popular narratives about Eve’s choice put her in the same category as Pandora and Psyche - impulsive, disobedient, curious creatures who did the thing without thinking about it. We don’t think that is true in any of those cases, but it appears to be especially untrue in the case of Eve.

Consequences of the Story of Eve on the Lived Experience of Women

The story of Eve’s choice in Eden has been used as another point of justification in the oppression of women. Rosemary Radford Ruether writes “Both the Jewish and the Greek traditions contributed to the compounded Christian scapegoating of women for both sin and death, the source of both impurity and finitude. Limitless victimization of women is justified by attributing the origins of sin and death to feminine insubordination.”

I kind of feel like we don’t need to list the ways this shows up. We’d be here all day. I think its easier to say that it is likely a common experience that somewhere, sometime a woman has brought up an injustice against her, and her concern is waved away with reference to Eve. Its not necessarily that Eve’s story is the only one of its kind. We’ve mentioned other stories today that contain similar, if not identical motifs.

But again, the story we tell about the Fall does not have to be the one we have always known. It doesn’t even have to be the one we read from the text. There have been times on the podcast where we have critiqued the text for failing to honor love, liberation, and life. There have been times where we’ve condemned the text. And though that’s not necessarily what’s happening right now, we are reminded that there are more options than just critique and abandonment, more than celebration and acceptance. A valid approach to the text can also include imagination, breaking then re-membering the pieces of story into something new, something that does honor love and liberation and life. And I think for the story of the Fall, this creative approach is the one that feels right for us.


Falling Forward Into the Sacred, Life/Death/Rebirth nature

One of the concepts I’ve come to love from Mary Daly is the language of falling into the sacred. She writes, “Rather than a Fall from the sacred, the Fall now initiated by women becomes a Fall into the sacred and therefore into freedom.” Daly goes on to illustrate that Eve’s initiation of the Fall into the sacred is also a claiming of her inner wholeness.

I am enchanted by seeing Eve this way. She boldly launches God, Adam, and herself into a new world. She disrupts the utopia of Eden, which was an illusion not only destined to fail because it did not allow for the necessity of the Death nature, but the utopia of Eden which failed her - failed Eve - in denying her personhood and ultimately, an authentic, intimate relationship with God of their own.

Perhaps Eve saw, or understood, that Eden, in its perfection, was complete. That because of this, there was no way forward, no avenue for progression for anyone in this space because it was already full. In this fulness, it was empty. Empty of potential because the completion was stagnant. There was no death in Eden. There was no decay, no composting, so no new thing could grow. Eden was a still image that carried its own kind of death in the form of an eternal impotence.

Perhaps Eve recognized that she was capable of more than simply being a companion. Perhaps she understood that the story of Creation need not end in Eden, that the life force in and around her begged to be reborn. I like to think of Eve sinking her teeth into the possibility of a new world, a clean slate, a space of equal footings, a brand new beginning in which possibilities were endless. East of Eden is a new world, on new terms. Its not Eden on Eve’s terms. It is a world entirely unprecedented. The rules are different - for everyone.

In this story, Creation is incomplete until Eve’s Fall Forward. Her bravery initiated the world into cyclical, moving, and self-renewing world. 

And finally, we speak of the Fall of Adam and Eve from Eden as if it is the only story in the text which initiates a death cycle. But this is simply not true. We see the world die again and again in order to give birth to something new throughout the Biblical text and throughout history. Adam and Eve are not the end-all-be-all of the world. They are a beginning.

We recognize again that in sharing this more imaginative and creative interpretation of Eve's falling forward that we only covered the first half of the Genesis 3 narrative. There is more there that we have not explored in sharing the interpretation which called to us, so we encourage our listeners to continue their own study of the text.

Introducing Cain & Abel

Cain is a tiller of the ground and Abel is a keeper of the sheep. Cain brings an offering of fruit to God while Abel brings the firstlings of his flock and the fat thereof

4:4 “And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering” 4:5 “But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.” The text doesn’t give us very many clues about why Cain’s offering was disregarded. 

Some interpretations offered here address Cain’s own desire to be accepted by God and perhaps by his family and brother who could have seen Abel as the dear baby child. 

Five verses in and we already get a taste of life outside Eden. In the article “Care and Keeping East of Eden” Kristin M. Swenson writes: “It’s an imperfect world with injustice, ambiguity, and disappointment”

Figuring out Life and Roles East of Eden

4:6 “And the Lord said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? And why is thy countenance fallen?”

Swenson encourages us to think about what it might be like to consider God not as omnipotent and omniscient, but as simply another character in the story. What if God is really and truly asking, Cain, what’s the matter? Why are you upset? 

Swenson writes: “Is it possible that because God is new at this human being business, God cannot understand Cain's reaction to God's capricious favor? We cannot hear the tone of God's question. Is God being sarcastic? Does God assume that Cain knows why he's angry and asks the question in order to suggest that Cain should not be angry? Maybe, on the other hand, God is simply trying gently to suggest to Cain that he should not be angry, embarrassed, or sad—that that's just the way it goes some times. Whatever the case, God advises Cain that under the circumstances he needs to be careful how he handles himself” as followed in the rest of the verse “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him”

The next verse addresses, with hardly any detail, the murder of Abel where Cain talks with Abel in a filed and then Cain “rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him” 4:9 “And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?”

If we continue with the framework that this life outside of Eden is really everyone’s first go-around at it, then perhaps Cain’s question is not sarcastic or belligerent, but sincere. Something like, “Wait, God, I thought I was supposed to be keeping and caring for the land as I am a tiller of the ground. But wait, am I also my brother’s keeper? Am I supposed to engage in such caretaking of people as I am the land?”

This has big implications too because if we answer rhetorically to Cain’s question, “yes, you ought to keep care over Abel” then as Swenson reminds us that there is thus “a two part mandate for human beings that guarding the welfare of Eden’s garden is inseparable from guarding the welfare of others, even (perhaps especially) in the rough land east of Eden…Cain’s is a fractured world of “real life,” with disappointments, limited understanding, and inequity. Cain learns that even in such conditions, service to and protection of his place is inseparable from service to and protection of others.”

Ecofeminist Implications in Genesis 4

From here one could offer a really lovely ecofeminist reading of the land/ground/earth as she plays an active role and cries, curses, opens her mouth, and testifies against Cain, 4:10-11 “And he said, What hast thou done? The voice of they brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thous cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive they brother’s blood from thy hand”

Thus we see an intimate, inseparable connection between caring for the land and caring for each other. Not only is Cain’s relationship with his brother and community broken, but so is his relationship to the earth.

A. A. Boesak, whose career has included ministry, anti-apartheid activism and politics in South Africa writes “the earth can no longer bear fruit for [Cain]. The earth mourns. The earth chokes in blood, and cannot respond to Cain. The earth can no longer converse with him. The earth can no longer return anything to him. Cain’s relationship to the land is ruptured.”

Swenson writes: “Yet the web of relationships does not stop there. Cain also learns that damaging the welfare of others damages his relationship to the greater earth and perverts his experience of God. Cain finds, and we as readers discover with him, that right relationship to both others and the land affords the desirable experience of the presence of God. 

Cain’s Consequences

Cain’s response is quite sad to me. For after learning of the broken relationship and consequences, which include being driven out, hiding his face from God, being a vagabond, and that everyone in his community will want to kill him when they learn what he has done, he cries out “My punishment is greater than I can bear.”

This is interesting to me because God is not acting in a vengeful way. From what we read, God is simply stating to Cain that because of his own actions (killing Abel and thus not tending to the land) Cain will have to suffer consequences. But it is not God who drives Cain out of the land. It is not God who hides their face from Cain but instead, it is Cain who offers understandings of his punishment this way.

And of course, we see God show up in a surprisingly loving response to Cain and the community. In their essay “Cain and ABel: Reimagining Stories of Violence” Jen Dresser makes the argument that by sending Cain away from the community, God is saving both Cain’s life and the community’s life by stopping the cycle of violence. Even though Cain may feel this consequence is too much to bear, the mark of protection that God places on Cain offers him redemption and possibility for new life, even if it means he has to wander and work for it.

Dresser writes: “God’s allegiance seems to be with anyone who is outside the community or at risk in some way. This allegiance has shifted from Abel, to the earth and now includes Cain.”

I appreciate these new interpretations of the story because it makes me stop and question what is fair, merciful, and just.  Why am I so quick to think of Cain as bad guy and Abel as good guy? In what ways do I expect God to intervene or withhold their action, and when? If God or the community kill Cain would this be fair, but not just?

Cain goes on to marry and have kids and establish a city, and create a life that is perhaps quite different than what he expected. 

Dresser writes: “It is important to remember that Cain is cut off from his community and spends his life forming new relationships and new community. He must struggle with his memory of violence as he attempts to re-member himself so he can heal himself and thus be able to trust others enough to form new relationships. Since his relationship to the earth is damaged, Cain is no longer able to till the land for produce and instead must rely on his own strength instead of the earth’s to provide for him. This is the life of someone who will live with the consequences of violence, even as he attempts to create a different life for himself.”

What if we read this as humans and God’s first attempts at being in a worldly relationship. How do we care for one another, the earth, and God, east of Eden where things are complex and emotions are big and work is laborious? How can God see us as beings capable of good and bad? And in what ways are consequences invitations to new life?

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