We asked a question a little while ago that I’d like to start turning our attention back to now: would Cain, the first person ever recorded to have offered something to God, choose to bring merely average produce in that offering? would an innovator choose to do something half-way?
In looking around for some clues that might help us with this, it’s hard to know where to turn. The text itself is very sparse, which is to say, it doesn’t tell us all that much about Cain before he goes and offers his offering, before he goes and kills his brother, but it does tell us something. We are told Cain’s name and his profession. He is a man called Cain, and he chooses to become a farmer, a worker of the land.
I mentioned in the previous article that these two things we know about Cain seem related: They both appear to revolve around land. But I also left you with a homework assignment: To see if you could discern an even deeper level of connection between these two facts, the fact of his name and the fact of his livelihood. If we can succeed in doing this, it may help us understand what motivates Cain, and why he makes the choices he does.
It’s time, then, to get to your homework.
The truth is we know more about Cain’s name than just what it was. We also know how he got it. The text clues us in to the words his mother spoke when she was giving birth to him: “[Eve] conceived and bore Cain. And she said, ‘I have acquired a man with God’” (Genesis, 4:1).
At first glance Eve’s exclamation seems a trivial piece of information -- a nice bit of color commentary to be sure -- but rather unrelated to a larger story that revolves around offerings, jealousy and murder. Surely though, the Bible is not reporting mere delivery room banter here. Eve has said something significant. She has said something that matters to our story, otherwise, we wouldn’t be hearing about it. But why does it matter?
To see the true significance of her words, the first thing we have to do is gently un-tether ourselves from our English translations. In English, the verse seems to be telling you two disconnected facts: That Eve, after having a child named Cain, just happened to utter such and such a phrase. But the Hebrew tells an entirely different story. Listen to the Hebrew for a moment, “...vateled et kayin, vatoma, ‘kaniti ish et Elokim” (Genesis 4:1).
After giving birth to kayin, Eve says kaniti ish et Elokim. The name Cain, or in Hebrew kayin, is a paraphrase of the words his mother utters when giving birth to him -- that she has “acquired,” kaniti, a man with God.11
Evidently Cain’s name derives, somehow, from what his mother had to say when birthing him. It behooves us then, to see if we can understand what she was trying to say.
The Wonder of it All
“I have acquired a man with God.”
Eve didn’t just experience any run-of-the-mill act of childbirth. She was a principal in the first human birth in the history of mankind.
The phrase, at first, seems kind of strange and cryptic. We might understand it though, if we consider what we might have said had we found ourselves in Eve's position.
Eve just went through an event we've gotten used to calling “childbirth.” Yet Eve didn’t just experience any run-of-the-mill act of childbirth, if indeed one can call any birth ordinary. She was a principal in the first human birth in the history of mankind.
As a father I am obviously limited in my ability to talk from experience here. But if I can extrapolate anything from the way my wife looks back at the moments she gave birth to our kids, I can tell you that a woman experiences this event as a supreme wonder. Yes the experience is usually painful beyond words -- but at least in my wife’s case, the enormity of the pain mixed with her palpable sense of awe at what was happening. She was experiencing the creation of a new being, literally, from the inside out. She was not a passive bystander in that experience. She was herself a partner in a new, bold, visceral act of creation.
A partner with whom?
Well the obvious answer would be me, the father. But I’m actually not referring to myself here. It is humbling to say so, but the man’s role in all this is rather fleeting, and a woman, in the throes of childbirth, can easily overlook it. At least Eve apparently did. The partner I am referring to is another being -- the force, as it were, behind the womb.
The womb is an astounding organ. Hundreds of years of medical technology and billions of dollars of research have proven unable to replicate it, let alone design one from scratch. We have learned how to conceive fetuses in test tubes, but we cannot grow them into children without a womb. A child that leaves this special place more than a few months before his time simply has no chance of surviving. There is no such thing as an artificial womb.
The uniqueness of the womb is a bit surprising, since at first glance, it doesn’t seem to do all that much. But it is precisely the womb’s quietness -- its ability to be still, to listen, and to gently respond -- that is its genius. Modern science has revealed the womb to be an exquisitely sensitive organ, a vehicle that senses its occupant's every need, and tailors itself to accommodate that need. It provides a precise and ever-changing balance of nutrients; it maintains perfectly calibrated PH levels; it discreetly disposes of toxins; it provides the right enzymes and antibodies at precisely the right time, and in just the right doses. The biochemistry is complex beyond imagining. A womb is not the work of humans. We could have never devised it. Through her womb, a woman encounters not just her child, but the Almighty Himself. In her creativity, she experiences the nearness of the Creator of All.
If every woman who goes through childbirth is at least dimly aware of this mystery -- if every woman, at least to some extent, senses the “science-fiction-like” quality of childbirth -- think of how Eve must have felt. What she went through didn’t just seem utterly new and unprecedented. It was utterly new and unprecedented. This was the first human birth in history. No one had ever been through this before. She must have experienced herself as being part of a miracle beyond imagining.
God had taken a partner and had ushered her into the great secret of Creation. That partner was Eve.
Eve saw clearly, perhaps, the breathtaking implications of her experience. Until now, there was only one Creator in the world. He alone was responsible for the existence of everything, from moon and stars to grass and trees, elephants and zebras, sky and earth. But all that changed now. Now, God had taken a partner and had ushered her into the great secret of Creation. That partner was Eve.
“I have acquired a man with God!” Eve cries exultantly. Look what G-d and I have done. We have created this little man together! Yes, of course, Adam was involved too, but his piece was relatively incidental. A moment and it was all over. Eve carried the child and brought it successfully into the world. I have become a partner with the Divine in the very secret of the Universe. I have shared with him the sweet taste of Creation.
Moshe and the Tomato Plant
We are now, I think, in a position to see a deeper, more vibrant, link between Cain’s name and his profession. It is not just that both of these revolve around land. Rather both Cain’s name and his profession speak to one of the most intoxicating pursuits that we as human beings can hope to be engaged in. Each speaks to the possibility of becoming a partner with God in the act of creation.
Think about it: What’s the big deal about being a farmer? Yes, you get the obvious utilitarian benefits. You can get food by raising crops. Plus you remain connected to land, you remain “grounded,” as we suggested before. But there is something more. There is a great joy to be found in farming. A joy that many of us moderns have become too jaded to see.
In our world, we are used to seeing fruits and vegetables as mere things. We either consume them at our table, if we care about nutrition, or we trade them on the commodities exchange, if we care about our pocketbook. Tomatoes, as any good city-child will tell you, come from the supermarket, not from the ground. But there is another story that fruits and vegetables tell, and it is a story that can leave us awe-struck. We can still access that wonder if we try.
I personally discovered that wonder through my child. It sounds ridiculous to say it now, but when my son Moshe was maybe three or four year old, I used to regale him at bedtime with stories about him and his imaginary friend, his ceiling fan. Yes, “Moshe and the Fan” had all sorts of adventures together. There were the usual cops and robbers tales of course, but the story that really captured my son’s attention was the one about the tomato garden. It goes like this:
Once upon a time, Moshe took some little seeds from a pouch and sprinkled them on the ground. “What are you doing?” asked his trusty fan. Moshe explained that he was planting tomatoes. “Don’t be ridiculous,” said the fan, “those aren’t tomatoes. Those are little tiny crumbs. And why are you wasting them by putting them on the ground?” Moshe told his fan to be patient, and went to fetch his shovel. “Why are you burying those things?” shrieked the fan, “Now you’re really ruining them!” But the fan had seen nothing yet. Soon, Moshe started dumping water on the ground with his bucket. “You’re drowning everything and just making a muddy mess,” said the fan, “Let’s go home.”
But Moshe would not be deterred. He patiently explained to his friend that he was planting seeds; that these would soon grow into green, leafy plants, and that these plants, in turn, would soon give him lots of tomatoes. The fan couldn’t contain his laughter. He thought Moshe had lost his mind.
Every day, Moshe would drag his chortling fan back to the same spot in the backyard and would look to see if his plants were growing. And every day, the fan would make fun of him. “This planting thing is ridiculous,” chided the fan, “When are you going to outgrow these childhood notions?”
Well, you know what happens next. One day, as Moshe was dejectedly walking back from his plot of land, he turned around for one last peek. “There!” he shouted, “Do you see that little green shoot? That’s my plant!” And sure enough, there it was. The tomato plant continued to grow, and suffice it to say that, by the time bedtime was over, a vindicated Moshe and his no-longer-skeptical fan were delighting in a feast of newly harvested tomatoes.
Every time I would tell this story, my four year old son would be enthralled. It was just the most fabulous tale in the world to him. He wanted to hear it over and over. And he wanted to start planting his own tomatoes.
Living the Dream of Eve
Children aren’t dumb. One of the big differences between us and them is that we’ve seen the world more than they have. Often, that translates into valuable life experience -- but sometimes, it just means we’re more jaded than they are. In the case of Moshe and his tomato plant, I am convinced that it is the child’s unabashed wonder and joy that is the more genuine human response to the saga of the tomato plant. A little child knows to pay homage to its spectacular journey from seed to stalk. A grown-up's failure to stand in awe at the tomatoes he puts in his supermarket bag is not, by comparison, anything to be proud of.
Cain cannot bear fruit of the womb. But he can cultivate the fruit of the land.
So Cain chooses to be a farmer. A strange coincidence wouldn’t you say? Eve exclaims that she has become a partner with God in creating new life. And then, Cain, her son, chooses his own path to that same thrilling goal. He is not a woman. He cannot bear fruit of the womb. But he can do the next best thing. He can cultivate the fruit of the land. He can do through land what Eve does through her body. He can place a seed in that which is fertile, and become a partner with the Divine in the wondrous unfolding of life.
Cain’s name and his profession both point to the intoxicating wonder of the tomato plant. Eve’s jubilant exclamation is the seed of Cain’s name, and Cain, in turn, devotes his life to planting seeds -- seeds which carry forth his mother’s dream, bringing it to fruition in the new dimension of agriculture.
Our quest to understand Cain though, is not over yet. For all of this, somehow, must be relevant to the rest of the story; to jealousy, to offerings and to murder. In order for us to see how, we need to look a little more carefully at Eve’s exclamation of wonder. For in fact, there is something just a little bit odd about what she is saying. Instead of exclaiming, as we might have expected, that she has “created,” barati, a little man with God, or that she has “formed,” yatzarti, a little man with God, she says something else entirely. She says kaniti... that she has “acquired“ a man with God.
What does she mean by such strange words? The odd part of her declaration cannot be dismissed as incidental -- for it is precisely that odd part of what she says that is the genesis of Cain’s name: Kayin is named for her word kaniti -- I have acquired.
Eve was trying to say something more. And that thought, whatever it was, found living expression in her son. Now we just have to figure out what it was.
1 Kayin is actually an anagram formed from the first three letters of kaniti. “Kuf”, “Nun, “Yud” is transposed, and becomes “Kuf”, “Yud”, “Nun”.