Tossed out of their garden paradise, Adam and Eve now live east of Eden. John Steinbeck wrote a novel by that title. East of Eden is a multi-generational saga that is mostly unsavory. So is the rest of the primeval human story in Genesis. So, to be honest, is the rest of human history since then. Names and faces change over the centuries, but human nature doesn’t change much.
In the spring of 1991, Rodney King was driving drunk when he was pulled over by Los Angeles police. Four officers beat him savagely. A year later, riots erupted when the officers were acquitted of wrongdoing. King pleaded for calm, saying, “Can’t we all just get along?”
Well, no, we can’t. That’s the problem, and it’s not confined to the streets of Los Angeles. It’s a universal human problem, since the dawn of recorded time.
The Bible traces it back to the disobedience of Adam and Eve. When they disobeyed God in the garden, Adam and Eve became estranged from God, from God’s good creation, from each other, from their very selves. Their estrangement shows itself in many ways, but perhaps no more clearly than in the story of their two sons, Cain and Abel.
Cain is the eldest. He becomes a farmer. Abel, the youngest, is a shepherd. They make an offering to the Lord one day. This is long before rules for offerings were codified for Israel in the teaching of Moses. Still, it seems to be true that all ancient peoples had some sort of system of sacrifice to their gods, as if that were somehow written into human DNA.
Cain offers the fruit of the soil. Abel brings fat from the firstborn of his flock. For some reason, God has regard for Abel and his offering but not for Cain and his offering.
It’s hard to say why God accepts one offering but not the other. It’s not as if God favors shepherds over farmers, or deems animal sacrifices inherently superior to sacrifices of grain or produce.
Maybe it has to do with birth order. It is a common theme in the Old Testament that though society blesses the older sibling, God tends to favor the younger one. Count the times the younger one wins: Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over all his older brothers, David over all his brothers – and let’s not forget Rachel and her sister Leah.
However it might be explained, Cain sees God’s choice as arbitrary. And he can’t handle it. He is enraged.
“Why are you so angry?” God asks. Then God provides a sort of explanation. “If you do well, won’t you be accepted? And if you don’t do well, sin is lurking at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
It sounds like something Yoda might say in some “Star Wars” movie. Whatever does it mean? Did God really say, “If you do well, won’t you be accepted?” Whatever happened to unconditional love?
It seems that God sees something wrong in Cain’s attitude. The New Testament letter to the Hebrews says it has to do with faith. Abel is the first of the ancients to be commended for having faith, Hebrews says. By faith Abel offers a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Abel is righteous – that is, in right relationship with God – while Cain is not righteous. Cain’s heart is not in the right place. (Hebrews 11.4)
As you’ll recall, trust was the issue that alienated Adam and Eve from God in the first place. We can’t know what brought Cain to the point where he does not trust God. He can still talk to God, face to face, but he does not trust God. And God knows it. “Sin is lurking at your door,” God tells Cain. “You must master it.”
This is the first mention of the word “sin” in the Bible. Not even before, when Adam and Eve sampled the forbidden fruit, was the word “sin” used. It’s not a casual, one-time affair. Sin is a lingering attitude. It’s the opposite of trust, the opposite of faith. More than an attitude, it’s a state of being. It’s a state of being that is so natural to us that we cannot conceive of life without it.
We are immersed in sin the way fish are immersed in water. We are so surrounded by sin, it is so much a part of our existence, that we are not even aware of its presence. Like water, sin seeps into everything, becomes a part of everything, tries to take over everything, and becomes a living presence in our world.
Indeed, as the Apostle Paul says, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,” though we do have enough of them. Rather, our struggle is against those things that embody sin in our world. Paul calls them rulers and authorities, cosmic powers, spiritual forces of evil in the highest places. (Ephesians 6:12-13) These are institutions, traditions, tribes and gangs, political parties, economic and political systems and yes, even (and maybe especially) religions.
Sin is embodied in many culturally isms that we swim in unknowingly – sexism, racism, nationalism, ageism, classism, and imperialism, to name only a few. In whatever form it finds itself, sin is filled with desire. That desire is to perpetuate itself, expand itself, make itself even more powerful. It lurks outside your door. It’s there, even if you can’t see it. It’s waiting for a moment to pounce, grab you by the throat and rip the good out of you. “You must master it,” God tells Cain. That’s not what Cain wants to hear.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Cain says to Abel. And when they are in a remote place, Cain kills his brother. Soon God comes by. You wonder why God didn’t come by earlier. God asks Cain, “Where is your brother?” Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Just as God asked Adam, “What have you done?” now God asks Cain, “What have you done?” It’s less a question than a cry of despair.
“Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground,” God says. Earlier God cursed the ground because of Adam’s sin. Now God curses the ground that Cain has nurtured so that it will never again yield to his care or produce any abundance for him. Cain must become a fugitive and wanderer.
Now it’s Cain who cries out in despair. “This is more than I can bear! I’ll be wanted man wherever I go. I’ll live in fear of being murdered in revenge for what I’ve done.” No, God says. I’ll put a mark on you so that everyone knows that whoever kills Cain will suffer payback seven times.
So Cain leaves the Lord’s presence and settles further east of Eden in the land of Nod. There he meets a woman who is never named. Her sudden appearance in the story is never explained either, no more than the presence of those who might want to kill Cain is explained. There obviously are more people in this world than we have been told about. But our narrator shows no interest in satisfying our curiosity about where they came from or how they came to be.
Cain founds a city and names it after his son, Enoch. Time passes. Cain’s great-great-great grandson is named Lamech. Lamech has two wives. He boasts to them: “Listen! I have killed a man for wounding me and a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged seven times, I will be avenged seventy-seven times.”
This is how low those made in the image of God have sunk. And it keeps getting worse. Finally, in chapter six of Genesis we read: “The Lord saw that humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil. The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken.” (Genesis 6:5-6 CEB)
That summary is a bit of an exaggeration. In this family tree of scoundrels, there are a few notable exceptions. One is Enoch, not the Enoch who was son of Cain but another Enoch who is directly descended from Adam. “Enoch walked with God,” we’re told (Genesis 5.22). Enoch’s son Methuselah lives 969 years, the longest lifespan recorded in all the Bible’s genealogies. The Bible widely regards longevity as a sign of God’s favor, so Methuselah also must walk with God. So does his grandson, Noah, the hero of the great flood story.
They stand out because they live in right relationship with God, and so many others do not. What has gone wrong with humanity? Why does evil continue and even intensify?
The explanation we’ve all heard is labeled “original sin.” That term has about as many interpretations as there are interpreters, and few of the interpretations are remotely satisfactory. The idea is that we all inherit a sinful nature from Adam and Eve. How sin is passed down to us is hard to explain. Some say that sin is transmitted through sexual reproduction. Others say it’s transmitted through social structures handed from one generation to the next.
However we get it, it’s impossible for us not to get it. If we are human, we live in sin. It is a fundamental corruption of our nature. You’ll often hear the term “total depravity,” meaning that every aspect of our nature is marred. Try as we might, we cannot save ourselves. Only God can save us.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, does not speculate on how sin is transmitted. He says simply: “Adam sinned; his posterity suffers; and that, in consequence of his sin.” (“The Doctrine of Original Sin,” Part II; IX, 243) Note that it is not a punishment for Adam’s sin, but a consequence of it. We suffer because others sinned, and we perpetuate the sin in our own lives so that others suffer as a consequence of our sin.
Having inherited it, we spread it around and pass it on. It’s a vicious circle only God can break. The Christian message is that God breaks the cycle in Jesus Christ. Sin is an infection, Wesley says. It can be cured. The cure is the love of God shown to us in Jesus, who is both human and divine.
How does Jesus escape being caught in the trap of sin? The Virgin Birth is one answer. Conceived by the Holy Spirit rather than by sexual union, Jesus is born without the taint of sin. Does that mean that men are the carrier of sin? Some think so. Roman Catholics say it’s necessary that the Virgin Mary also was conceived without sexual union; hence, the doctrine of Immaculate Conception, the notion that Mary also was conceived without sex.
We won’t follow those rabbit trails of thought. They would lead us considerably astray from our simple inquiry into the origin of sin. Here’s the gist of it: Whether they realized it or not, Adam and Eve had a choice between following divine wisdom and seeking wisdom from the wrong source. They chose poorly, and their choice affects our choices today.
Here’s how it’s explained by such existential theologians as Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. The origin of sin, they say, lies with the fragility of human life. Our limits as creatures leave us feeling insecure and anxious. In our anxiety, we make poor choices. We could find true security trusting in God, but instead we depend on our own resources. Instead of trusting God, we try to be like God.
In the letter that bears his name, James the brother of Jesus offers as good an explanation of sin that you’ll ever hear.
Wisdom from God is gentle, peace-loving and full of mercy, James says. But human wisdom leads to bitter envy and selfish ambition, and from there to disorder and wickedness of every kind. (James 3.13-18)
James says: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from the desires that are at war within you? You long for something that you don’t have, so you commit murder. You are jealous for something you can’t get, so you struggle and fight.” (James 4.1-2)
You don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it, and you don’t dare ask God for it because “you ask with evil intentions, to waste it on your own cravings.” (James 4.3)
And doesn’t that go back to God’s cryptic message to Cain? “If you do well, won’t you be accepted? And if you don’t do well, sin is lurking at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
You can’t master it by yourself. You must rely on God for the strength. Cain wouldn’t. Most people won’t. Won’t you be among those who do?
“Murder” is a message in the series “Genesis: In the beginning…” preached Oct. 27, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood; Psalm 32:1-7, Genesis 4:1-17.