What do you mean God speaks?

S2E8: When Life becomes your Enemy (The Fall to Cain)

November 25, 2021 Paul Seungoh Chung Season 2 Episode 8
What do you mean God speaks?
S2E8: When Life becomes your Enemy (The Fall to Cain)
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

From the Fall, Exile from Eden, to the first Murder

What "death" did the Fall bring upon humanity? One way to answer is, "how do we live forever?" I'm not asking how do we avoid dying forever; rather, if we don't die, how do we live? Because after the Fall, Life has become our enemy. And Cain murders his brother because of it.  (Genesis 3 ~ 4)

 1:48     What we lost in Eden 

 6:27     Religion and Philosophy seeks what we lost 

 13:17    What kind of death, to whom? 

 18:31     We cannot live forever, even we don't die 

 22:44     Cain and Abel and their offering 

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[ pendulum ]

The modern notion of the undead is a very interesting one. It sits eerily between death and life, neither truly dead, nor really alive; and the idea is that we can be dead even while seemingly alive, sustaining ourselves by killing and feeding upon the living, who in turn become like us. Nowhere is this idea presented more vividly than the modern figure of the vampire. Since Bram Stoker’s Dracula, vampires have often been depicted as creatures of immense power, perpetual youth, and unending life; yet, these creatures are dead, and their seemingly exalted existence is profoundly cursed—so much so, that in more recent retellings, from Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, and onward, some vampires even long for death. 

And all this has a strange resonance with the Genesis narrative of what happens to humanity after the Fall. After we become severed from God, we’re not quite dead, but not truly alive either. And this Fall is swiftly followed with the first murder. So, let’s return to Genesis, for another episode of…

[ music / ]   

…"What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs. And everyone in between. 

I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our eighth episode of the second season, "Enmity to Life and God: Exile from Eden to the first Murder.” 

[ / music ]   

I don’t think we can fully understand what it is that we’ve lost in the Fall when we ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We did gain knowledge—that we are vulnerable. But, if I were to describe this with a broader brushstroke, I’d say that what we gained was knowledge about possibilities. In the very first episode of this series, when I connected the idea of “God,” with that of “Reality,” I stated that “Reality” includes not just what exists now, but every possibility that can ever come to be. And in Season Two, we explored how the fathomless waters in Genesis that God brings forth, separates, and commands, represented for the ancient Hebrews, the infinite possibilities of what a world can become, and how things can unfold. So, to that extent, we did become more “like” God, as the serpent insinuated.

We had gained greater knowledge of God, for our eyes were opened to peer into the unending seas of possibilities that God speaks forth and wields. The problem was, what humanity learned was more than just the knowledge of possibilities; after all, they were already caretakers of the Garden of Eden and its Trees, which represent the possibilities that Life holds and the “fruits” it can bring forth. However, humanity’s awareness of what is possible is now tainted by how they took hold of their new, expanded knowledge; they did so by rejecting what God spoke to them, due to their distrust of God. So, it is with distrust and suspicion that our opened eyes now peer into the myriad of possible ways that our world can become—what God may speak forth. And we see the possibility of suffering, loss, and even death; we realize that, that is what God may yet speak forth, and that we are vulnerable to what God speaks. And because we distrust God, we become afraid. Reality can hurt us; God may not be on our side. To put it more pointedly, God is our potential enemy. So, finding ourselves naked and vulnerable, humanity hides from God. 

This is also when God becomes That which we must contend with; we now know that what God wills may not align with what we will; what God speaks forth may not be what we want our world to become. So, there is now a contest between us and God—we accuse God of constraining our desires, our goals, and our freedom. And we’re afraid because this contest is so one-sided; God makes the game, sets up the rules, defines the scores, and decides the moves, so that we find ourselves at the mercy of God. And this is what the Fall did. When we distrust someone and consider them a potential enemy, everything we do together is at best an uneasy collaboration, and at worst, outright sabotage. We’re afraid that God is hostile to us, or at least, indifferent—the uncaring and implacable Reality; so, we desperately grasp what we desire with our own hands, and frantically fling away what we fear. And when we live like that, every frustration, every set back we experience is no longer a part of the long process through which fruits form and ripen upon a tree in Eden that is planted and blessed by God; these become a curse from God that produces thorns and thistles on the ground instead of the crops we desire. This is the knowledge of good and evil we gained at the serpent’s behest. 

However, isn’t it naïve to simply believe that Reality—that God—is on our side? All too often, things won’t go the way we hope, and we are vulnerable to suffering and loss. So, why not strive for what we want, and take for ourselves whatever we can get? And that’s a fair point. But, I think it is here that taking a brief, sweeping view of some different religious traditions will give us helpful insight. I should emphasize beforehand that there is great diversity and difference between these traditions, so, remember that what I’ll be describing is just a very general, common insight. 

So, take Buddhism, for example. Gautama Buddha lived and taught in Northern India around 500 years before Jesus—which, by the way, is right around the time the compilation and editing of the final version of the book of Genesis likely took place. And it is said, at least according to Buddhist traditions a few centuries later, that he had this following insight. First, suffering, or dissatisfaction, is an intrinsic part of living. And this is because things come, and things pass away, and that’s just how things are; but, we cling and hold on to things that we desire, even though they will pass away, and we recoil and flee from the things we fear, even though they will come. Thus, we must learn how to let go, so that we neither cling nor flee, and only then—and this is my phrasing—can we properly engage what is Real.  

Or, take Daoism, which began in Eastern China, again around 500 years before Jesus. Daoism teaches that we should live in accordance with the Dao, which is the Way, or the Principle, of how everything happens, and how everything comes to be—or to use a more physical imagery, the Dao is the “flow” of the Universe. You may remember that back in episode 6 of the first season, I mentioned the idea of the Dao, and compared it to the idea of the Logos, which is “God speaking.” And in fact, the Logos, or “the Word of God” in the Gospel of John is often translated as the Dao in the Chinese Bible. Now, according to Daoist teachings, everything we do should be done in harmony with the Dao—and if we do that, it would look as if we’re not doing anything at all. But, what’s really happening is that we’re moving along with how the universe flows, how things naturally unfold, so that it’s like we are riding the current. But, to do this, we must first detach ourselves from selfish desires, so that we don’t go against the Dao.1 

Now, if all of this so far sounds like living a passive life, just letting things happen, abandoning our goals, or a will of our own, that would be a misunderstanding, or at least, an oversimplification. Think of it instead as dancing—you move with the music, and you move with your partner, and they move with you. Or, think of it as joining a jam session. Music is playing, and you join in. You have your own voice, your instrument, and you can perform as you will; but, the music is beautiful when everyone plays together. If you just play your own tune without any regard for the music that is being played, it will ruin not just the performance of others, but your own as well. And within that larger music, you can improvise, or introduce new tunes with the right timing, and if done properly, everyone will join you, and the entire music will move in a new direction. And so, these different teachings are telling us to listen. Let go of your obsession with your own voice and movements; listen, because your voice, your song, and your movements, will become more alive in that music, than when you forcefully strike out on your own.

And in this analogy, God speaking is like the entire music that is being performed, or perhaps the theme or the melody of the music, and everyone is performing their own variant of it. And we’re being invited to join—to dance, to play. Or, perhaps more fundamentally, God speaking is the very principle of harmony and rhythm, as well as the beauty and joy of music itself. How we dance, perform, improvise, play new songs, are God speaking. And that, for Christianity, is what we need to listen.

Then, why would we not listen? Say, you distrust others in the jam session? You think they’re not performing with you in good faith, or that they’re not good enough and will fail, and you need to go solo. Say, you distrust your dance partner? That they will misstep, make you stumble, and maybe do so deliberately. Or, say, you think the song will be terrible, not worth playing or dancing to? Or worse, say, you come to suspect that all of music itself, the harmony, beauty, and the joy, is just sentimental BS, and not worth your time? So, the concert, the jam session, the dance—music of every kind—is at best, meaningless frivolity and at worst, means to lure and distract you. Then, you cease listening. Then, every tune, every note, every beat, becomes merely noise that drowns out your voice. You cease dancing. Then, your every move is forced by something else—by the song, the tempo, your partner—and every misstep is meaningless suffering inflicted upon you. 

It is only when you love music, everything you do regarding it, becomes worth it. If you enjoy the dance, or better still, your partner, their misstep or yours is worth it. If you love the jam session, then it is worth performing together, even if that means you can’t always play what you want. And the stray note, missed beat, or even time and effort spent on practice, is all worth it. And that is the life that could have been in the Garden of Eden; it is the life that humanity fell away from. 

From the Christian perspective, teachings in philosophical or religious traditions, like Buddhism, Daoism, and many others, are trying to have us return to Eden—to reclaim a life, to regain the way of thinking and living that we could have had, if we had not eaten from the Forbidden Tree in our distrust of God. But, it’s easier said than done. Which is why there’re so many teachings, training, discourses, debates, and disciplines within these traditions; and even then, there are only a few, if any, who reach the ideals that these traditions teach us to aspire for. Yet, the Genesis narrative presents this problem in an even more vivid and alarming manner. 

The path back to Eden is closed, and a flaming sword from God bars our way.  

[ pendulum ]

So, in the previous episode, we went over how the judgments from God, at least those in the primeval history in Genesis, is God speaking to us about how Reality unfolds in response to what we do. Keep that in mind as we explore what happens in Genesis after the Fall. 

God first speaks to Adam and his wife that due to their Fall, their lives will now be about seeking power over each other, and working upon a world that seems to be against them, producing thistles and thorns. And as creatures formed from dust— that is to say, since they’re physical beings—they will eventually become mere dust, even though they could have been something more. Then, God gives them garments of skin to protect themselves. Thus, humans now would take the life of other creatures from then, in response to their vulnerability. 

By the way, you may have been wondering why all this time, I have not called the woman by her name. This is because it is only here that she is given a name. “Adam,” is not quite a name, as it means humanity—the word is used in Genesis to describe both male and female humans—literally, these verses say, “God created Adam, male and female.” It is after the Fall that the male Adam calls the female Adam, “Eve,” which in Hebrew is, “Hauua,” meaning “living,” or “life-giving.” This is because she will be a mother that will bring forth the next generation of life, which has become profoundly important because the Fall has brought death. 

Now, one question that came up for Christianity regarding the Genesis account of the Fall has been this: what was this “death” that was brought about by eating from the Forbidden Tree? A related question was whether the Fall brought death just to humans, or to all of Creation. Of course, according to modern science, there was death long, long before humans ever appeared on this world. But, what about the Genesis account? And answer to that remains ambiguous. Some Christians have thought that when the first humans ate from Forbidden Tree, death came to every living thing. But, in Genesis, God speaks specifically to humanity that they will die. So, Thomas Aquinas, whose writings in the 13th century form the foundational framework to Roman Catholic Christian thinking, wrote that other creatures, like animals, died before the Fall. Humans eating from the forbidden Tree changed us, so that death came to us; the other creatures did not change, but remain as they always have been—subject to physical death. We will go over what our change means to the rest of Creation, in a later episode of this season.

The next question though is, if the Fall brought death specifically to humans, what was this death? Was it physical death, or, was it a spiritual death—whatever that means? For example, the Gospel of John defines “eternal life” as “knowing God,” rather than as simple, physical immortality, even though it does testify that Jesus rose physically from death to live forever. And John Calvin, whose writings in the 16th century form some of the early foundations of Protestant Christian theology, thought that if humanity had not fallen away from God, we would’ve passed gently from this life to the eternal life beyond without the kind of violence, destruction, and separation that now comes with physical death. But, there is one key reason why I also think that according to the Bible, humanity were not physically immortal before the Fall. In Genesis, humanity is prevented from living forever. 

So, after pronouncing His judgment on Adam and Eve, God speaks, “Humanity has become like us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to take and eat also from the Tree of life, and live forever.” 

Then, God banishes humanity from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which they were formed. And cherubim, which is an angel of God, and a flaming sword, blazing back and forth, is placed on the way back to Eden, so that humanity cannot return and take from the Tree of life.  

So, it seems as if Adam and Eve were physically mortal, but there was a way for them to live forever; that was one, possible way human life could have unfolded before the Fall. But, after eating from the Forbidden Tree, that way is now beyond our reach, barred by a “flaming sword,” whatever that is. The question is why would God do this? According to the Jewish, Rabbinic traditions, which Christianity came to also adopt, God is limiting the consequence of the Fall of humanity and their sin, so that it does not extend forever. And to explain what that means, I think this question sums it up best. 

How do we live forever? 

I’m not asking how we may extend our life indefinitely; that is, how we may not die forever. I’m asking, if we don’t die, how do we live? How do we live, hundreds, and then thousands, then, millions, then, billions, and uncountable years, without going insane? In almost every story where someone lives seemingly unending life, that person views their life as a burden, or even a curse. They question the meaning of living so long; they become exhausted; they long for it to end. Time wears them down, like a river grinding rocks to sand. Our problem is not merely that we die; it’s that we do not know how to live. 

What are we missing? Well, on a number of occasions, Albert Einstein is reported to have explained his theory of relativity regarding time, as the following. “If you sit with a girl you’re in love with on a garden bench, and the moon is shining, then for you the hour will be a minute. If you sit on a hot stove, the minute will be an hour.” When you love—love the person you’re with, love what you’re doing, love where you are—time simply flows past you, without wearing you down. Perhaps, that’s why stories that feature characters who are immortal usually have romance and love as a key theme; their long, weary life is given meaning, or at least, reprieve by finding love. Except of course, our love don’t really last, and certainly not forever; according to statistics, typical marriage in North America on average lasts around a decade, before ending in divorce. 

In the Genesis Creation account, God speaks forth the world and declares in delight that “it is good.” God loves that there is Light and darkness, and that things happen; God loves that there are seas of possibilities, and that there can be things different from each other, with different shapes and forms; God loves that physical world can produce seeds of Life that expands forth like Trees; God loves that there are stars and planets, that move in order and sequence in the cosmos; God loves that diverse life fills the seas, the skies and lands, including the great monsters of the depths; and God especially loves that there are creatures like God, invited to explore and love all of this—all that God speaks forth and created. 

And so, God invites humanity to bring new goodness and beauty to the world that only they can, to join His music, which lasts forever, which will forever bring forth something new and never heard. Yet, humanity falls, and with their distrust of God, they become afraid of what God speaks. So we are driven to say, perhaps not immediately, but will eventually, “Maybe it would have been better if there was no world at all. If nothing happened; if nothing else existed. A world without pain; a world without hardships; a world without others; a world without life.”

According to Genesis, we can no longer love forever, and so cannot live forever. We can at best, avoid dying forever, but if we do so, we will eventually say, “Let there not be a world.” So, God speaks, “Humanity cannot live forever.”  

But, if you are getting the impression that not dying forever, merely will make us like those brooding, angst-ridden protagonists in some Twilight novels, yearning for meaning or love, or what-not, you have not quite grasped the full implication of what the Fall means. Because when Adam and Eve is cast out of Eden, they give birth to a son. And his name is Cain—the first murderer. 

[ pendulum ]

So, after being banished from Eden, Adam and Eve have sex—what? That’s what it says—and Eve gives birth to a son, named Cain. Eve thanks God, because God enabled her to give birth to new life. Later, she gives birth to another son, Abel. These two brothers are humans as we now know them, after the Fall, with proper names. Cain grows up to raise crops, and Abel grows up to tend to livestock. Now, Genesis likely presented Cain and Abel with these two occupations, because agriculture and livestock were the two fundamental forms of economy for the ancient Hebrews; this is how people in general made a living in their day.  

The problem arises when they come to make offering—to sacrifice the fruits of their work to God. This is the first time humanity makes a sacrifice. Why? Well, whenever you engage Reality in any way, you’re bringing something of yourself. So, say you want to learn how to play a guitar; you spend time, you put in the effort—maybe even get cuts on your fingers from your practice. And this is part of what it means to make a sacrifice, but not quite yet—because if you really love doing it, you probably won’t consider all that a “sacrifice.” And if you trust that the time you spend and the effort you put in will enable you to do what you love—you will put in that time and effort without fear or complaint. 

Living with God in Eden, humanity walked alongside God. Everything humanity did, was done in trust and love, delighting in the fruits that will form from the Trees God planted. But, now humanity is confronted by God—who may not be on our side, and may speak forth what we do not want—and so, our engagement with Reality is tainted with distrust and fear. We feel that what we bring to our engagement with God is something that’s taken from us, and even worse, there’s no assurance that God will speak forth what we want, in response. What we bring thus becomes a sacrifice. God is no longer our Companion with whom we spend our life together; God is now That to which part of our lives are given over as sacrifice.   

And it seems Cain really did think of it as sacrifice, and an unwelcome one at that, when he gave some of his crops that he raised to God. Genesis does not say that Cain’s offering was bad—only that he gave some of it as an offering. This is contrasted with Abel though, because Genesis specifically says, gave the best of his flock to God; the wording here is the “first-born,” which means, Abel offered up livestock when there was no guarantee that others would be born afterward. Why? The Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament refers back to this story, and comments that Abel brought his offering to God, because of faith. That is, Abel engaged Reality in good faith, bringing the best he has, because he trusted that whatever God speaks forth, will be worth the sacrifice. 

Genesis then says that God regarded Abel’s offering with favor, but did not regard Cain’s offering with favor. And Cain grows very angry. It isn’t merely that what God spoke forth in response to what he did was not what he wanted. It’s that he was compelled to compare himself to someone else. It’s one thing to see that Reality does not unfold in your favor; it is something else entirely to see that Reality does not unfold in your favor, while it does so for someone else.

But, what sets Cain off is when God speaks to him. The voice that speaks the truth, speaks to him, asking, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?”

Of course, the answer is because God responded differently to Cain than with Abel. But, why? There could be many reasons. Perhaps, Abel is more privileged—but, that cannot be, since they are born of same parents, and both have jobs that they can make a living out of. Perhaps, Reality is uncaring, and indifferent, and there’s no meaning to the difference. But, God is speaking personally to Cain right now, so that can’t be. Perhaps, God will regard him with favor later? It’s none of these. 

God speaks and says, “If you do what’s right, will you not be accepted? Sin is crouching at your door, desiring to have you, but you must master it.”

The voice says, Cain has fallen short. Cain has not been engaging Reality in good faith—meeting God with trust and goodwill. Even worse, there is something he can do right now, to engage God properly, and God will accept him. 

At this point, Abel becomes a proof that Cain is in the wrong. Humanity fell, due to their distrust of God, fearing that God is their potential enemy. So, when God did not respond to Cain’s sacrifice with favor, and Reality didn’t unfold for him in ways he wanted, Cain could’ve justified this suspicion toward God. God really couldn’t be trusted! But now, Cain cannot say that God is hostile to him, because God is not hostile to Abel. And if Cain engages God as Abel does, God will respond.

And what Cain does is to remove the proof. Life is his enemy; things happened and unfolded against him. And he wants to blame Life—to blame God, rather than acknowledging that what he had been bringing to it, was insufficient, and that he had engaged God in bad faith. So, he removes the one person that proved Life— that God—was not his enemy. 

He kills his brother. 

And with that, a dark path opens for humanity that we have not been able to close since. It changes humanity—like a plague that is unleashed upon the world.

[ closing music ]   

So, please join me next time, as we continue to explore the reverberations of what Cain did, as the Fall of humanity continues to unfold to its full measure: “When death becomes our instrument.”

Thank you for listening, and please continue to support this series, by following, subscribing, and sharing this series with others. Also, please take a moment to rate this series on Apple podcast and Google—especially listeners outside Canada! 

And you can also support this series by buying me coffee! www.buymeacoffee.com/PaulSoC. The link is provided in the episode description. 

What we lost in Eden
Religion and Philosophy seeks what we lost
What kind of death, to whom?
We cannot live forever, even we don't die
Cain and Abel and their offering