Adam, Cain, Abel, Seth PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Monday, 11 January 2010 12:19

Genesis 3 ends on a decisive, and decisively negative, note.  Yahweh “drove the man out” of the garden, and, in addition, “at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim, and the flaming sword which turned every direction, to guard the way to the tree of life.”  Because he seized that fruit, he lost it all, and the Lord drove him out, away from the tree of life, to the east of Eden.

Given that context, Genesis 4:1 is good news.  Outside Eden, we might expect to find a barren, howling waste, without water, without fruitfulness, without life.  We might expect that Adam would be incapable of fulfilling the Lord’s command to multiply, fill, subdue, and rule the earth. But the next thing we read, Adam knows his wife, and she conceives and gives birth to Cain.  In the flush of excitement, Eve greets the first birth in human history with the exclamation, “I have made a man with the Lord” (4:1).  Even though Adam and Eve are cut off from the tree of life, Eve’s potency especially appears to be unimpaired.  Outside Eden, she is still Eve, still Havah, whose name means “life,” so named by Adam because she is the “mother of all living” (3:20).

Cain is the first fully human human, the first man about whom we can speak of “cradle to grave” and of “from womb to tomb.”  Adam was formed from the dust by Yahweh Himself, who breathed life directly into his nostrils, and Eve came from Adam’s rib.  Cain is the first to be born of woman, the first to complete the chiasm of mutual dependence that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 11: Woman comes from man – Eve from Adam – but man comes from woman.  Cain is the firstfruits of the woman’s womb.

But Cain, the first to be born of woman, is altogether his father’s son.  Adam seized fruit in a garden; Cain seizes his brother in the field.  Yahweh came to the garden calling, “Where are you?”  and He asks Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”  The Lord asked Eve, “What have you done?” and he repeats the question to Cain.  In the garden, Yahweh cursed the serpent and the ground; in the field, He curses Cain himself.  Cain has not just repeated his father’s sin; he’s gone his father one worse.

Tragically, Cain proves to be as productive as Adam.  He knows his wife, and she conceives and bears a son, Enoch, who becomes the father of Irad who becomes the father of Mehujael, and on through the generations, all bearing the image of their father Cain.  Cain is not just the first, but the prototype of all humanity, and it will be only seven generations before Cain the fratricide, Cain the murderer, begins to look rather tame.  There are cultural advances, but alongside the music of lyres and the pipes, among the tents and the livestock, along with implements of bronze and iron, comes the heroic boast of the polygamist Lamech: “I have killed a man for wounding me.”  Eve boasted of giving life to Cain; Lamech, Cain’s seed, boasts of killing, and many join in the same boast.

With Lamech, we are on the verge of the flood.  The Lord is grieved in His heart and threatens to blot out everything from the face of the earth: “I am sorry that I have made them,” He says.  Just when we get to the edge of that precipice, the text takes us back to Adam, and begins an alternative history, which begins just like the first history: “Adam knew his wife again, and she gave birth to a son.”  This third son they name him “Seth,” a pun on a verb that means “to establish.”  Seth is the foundation for a new house of Adam, the cornerstone of a second human race.  When Cain was born, Eve responded with an exuberant declaration of her own power to make a man, with the Lord; at Seth’s birth, she confesses that Seth is a gift of God.  Seth is not forged in Eve’s womb; he is given, set up, appointed, fixed, and established by God’s mercy.  Seth’s birth seems to spark a revival.  Soon after he is born, Genesis tells us, “men began to call upon the name of Yahweh.”

Seth too is productive, but at the end of his line we find not another Lamech, but Noah, a righteous man who finds favor in the eyes of Yahweh, the man who will become a new Adam after the world is cleansed in the flood.  Despite appearances, history belongs to the line of Seth, not to the strongmen of the line of Cain.  Genesis lists none of the ages for Cain’s descendants, but we know the life spans of all of Seth’s seed.  The chronology of Genesis doesn’t follow the generations of Cain; time, history, the past and the future belong instead to the children of the younger son.

The first family is deeply dysfunctional.  Together, Adam and Cain exemplify all the sinful habits and attitudes that tear families and societies apart – impatience, cowardice, disobedience, fear, anger, hatred, deception, blame-shifting, hiding from God.  But the passage also contains assurance.  It shows that even outside the garden, even after sin and death have entered the world, men and women retain the creative power with which they were created.  Even outside the garden, men know their wives, and their wives conceive and bear sons and daughters.  East of Eden, the loving knowledge of a man for a woman is generative; they will return to the dust, but even so, the Lord makes it possible to believe that love is stronger than death. That is a great mercy.

But this passage points us to a greater mercy. When Cain was born, Eve called him a “man,” but when she gives birth to Seth, she calls him “seed”: “God has established me another seed in place of Abel, for Cain killed him.”  With that word “seed,” the end of chapter 4 takes us back to the middle of the previous chapter, to the promise of chapter 3:15, the promise that is known as the protoevangelium, the first announcement of the gospel.  There, for the first time in the Bible, the word “seed” refers a human being, to the seed of the woman who crushes the serpent’s head.

When Eve gives birth to Seth, she sees him as confirmation of that promise, and she expresses her confidence that the Lord will bring the promised seed.  With the birth of the replacement son, she recognizes that the seed who will deliver humanity and overthrow the Cains will have to come from the Lord.  Beyond Seth and even beyond Noah, Eve confesses her faith in the promise of the great Seed of the Woman, Jesus Christ.  Jesus is an Abel, murdered by His brothers, whose blood speaks a word better than the blood of Abel.  In His resurrection, Jesus is a greater Seth, the new “foundation,” for in Him the human race starts over again once and for all.  Jesus is the love that is stronger than death.

Despite it all – despite Adam’s sin, despite Cain’s murder, despite Lamech’s violence, despite the fact that Cain’s children grieve the Lord so much that He turns the world back to water – despite it all, God has still chosen to redeem the human race through generations, through families, as men know their wives so that their wives conceive and bear children.  The redemption of the world comes because Noah begets Shem who begets Terah who begets Abraham who begets Isaac who begets Jacob who begets Judah who begets David and so on until the birth of David’s greater son, the Seed, the new Seth, who will subdue Cain once and for all.

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Last Updated on Monday, 11 January 2010 12:25