A fate worse than death

In the Garden, Adam and Eve are told not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, or they will surely die. They chow down anyway.

This morning, it occurred to me that the first person to die in the Bible isn’t Adam or Eve. You’d figure, just offhand, that since they were the ones who ate the fruit, they’d be the ones who paid the price first, except they aren’t. The first person is their son Abel.

And it’s worse than that: he’s murdered by Cain. By his brother. Their other son.

In one afternoon, they effectively lost both their sons: one to death and the other to shame and escape. And if you think about it, isn’t that exactly how God lost them, both the first humans He created…? In one afternoon, He lost them both to disobedience (and the death they’d die in the future) and to their own shame as they hid from him.

As a bereaved parent myself, I can tell you it would be easier to be the one dead than the one grieving your own child. I’ve participated in and moderated an infant loss forum for several years now, and I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard bereaved mothers say “I wish I could trade places with my baby.”

The murder of Abel must have made the reality of death hit home for both Adam and Eve in a way that their own deaths wouldn’t have managed to. They probably thought, “I would have deserved it, but he didn’t!”

They’d have seen the world go from vegetarian to carnivorous. We suppose they went from climbing trees as they harvested fruit for the lions’ lunch to climbing trees to avoid being the lions’ lunch. They’d probably witnessed small animals snapped up by larger ones, dead animals, dead insects, beautiful things rendered still and then decomposing back into the ground.

Then they saw it happen to their son. At the hands of their other son, the one who should have been a comfort to them at that time when they needed to grieve.

A fate far, far worse than death to themselves.


  1. Ivy

    And then you get the disturbing Genesis 4:25:

    Adam lay with his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth, saying, “G-d has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him.”

    So Seth is a “replacement baby” for Abel. Leave aside the stunning parallels to the other Seth of ancient Near Eastern mythology (who ended up loosing his name to this Seth, thus taking the female name Set). How must Seth have felt at being the one who had to be Cain returned rather than himself? We know almost nothing about him. He was born. He sired kids. He died. The strivings are always between two brothers. Cain and Abel. Jacob and Esau. Arguable, Ishmael and Isaac. But a third brother? We don’t normally see those. So Seth is like a third wheel, an extra person who isn’t Seth-as-Seth but a stand-in for Abel.

    As an aside, the carnivore thing didn’t happen until Noah.

    Genesis 9:3

    Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.

  2. philangelus

    The humans-as-carnivore thing didn’t happen until Noah, but one presumes that lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) were carnivorous at that point. …no?

    The replacement child thing is absolutely disturbing, but one supposes Eve did her best in the absence of parental bereavement support groups. The most common bystander-response to the loss of a child is “You’ll have another one,” as if children are boxes of Wheaties and if the box expires, it’s no biggie to go get another one.

    Personally, I always tried to keep as much emotional distance as possible between Emily and Kiddo#2 because it’s hard enough to go through life as one person. It must be darned near impossible to do it as two. But Eve wouldn’t have been able to pick up a copy of “Still To Be Born” over at SHARE Atlanta, so I’ll cut her some slack.

    About the older brother/younger brother thing… Is that a “type” of the struggle between Israel and Judah?

    (I wonder what the Prodigal Son parable would have been like with a third brother involved…? That may be a future entry.)

  3. Ivy

    The older brother/younger brother thing is a story archtype. We get it repeated many times, and alluded to in places like the story of Tamar and her twins. The Joseph story is a play on that, only to show how truly blessed Joseph was, he bested not one brother, buy a minyan of them. Ten is probably not an arbitrary number.

    Seth just comes along after as if he’s somehow the consolation prize. We don’t even get his wife’s name. We find out he has Enos and other kids, unnamed. I find it telling that his grandson is named Cainan, which could easily be read as a derivation of Cain. Makes me wonder what he thought about the brothers he never met.

  4. mercurial scribe

    I never thought about that before. Especially now that I’m a mother, I can at least see how Eve would have been grieved more by the death or her son than her own mortality.

    Great post.

  5. Jenni

    Except that Seth then became the new firstborn (or at least had the birthright) and King David and Jesus came from his line. Some “consolation” prize, huh?
    That’s how God works – there’s no “close one door, open a window” (it’s a window only from our limited perspective). God usually closes one door so He can open French doors! =)