Grief, Loss, And The “Replacement” Of Abel

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My mom and I love watching sad movies together, and Steel Magnolias is one of our favorites. Toward the end of the movie, Sally Fields gives one of the most heartbreaking and powerful speeches about the loss of her daughter. It brings us to heavy tears every time. As I read the text for today, I found a story about a woman processing loss. And it seemed highly important to address what her grief means for us.

We left off yesterday with a recap that led us through most of Genesis 4. In the last verses of Genesis 4, we learn that Eve births Seth. Seth means “to place,” and in this story Seth is “placed” in for Abel, meaning that in this context the word is really, “to replace.” Eve clarifies this meaning for us by stating, “God has given me another child in place of Abel, whom Cain killed” (v. 25).

We must be precise with our reading here: the text is not commanding us to think of new children as replacements to any who we have lost. It simply tells us that Eve specifically considered Seth as a compensation after she lost Abel. 

If you read my post on The Calling of Genesis 3, you’ll remember the distinction between reading the text as descriptive or as prescriptive. That principle applies here as well. We should read these verses as a description of how Eve processed the loss of her son, because if we read them as a prescription for how we should process grief, the outcomes can become pretty ugly.

For example, I have done a lot of pastoral care and grief work with people who experience perinatal loss, and one of the sayings that I have heard family and friends tell the parents is, “You’re still young enough to have another.”

I can’t say this firmly enough: that’s not helpful. If we’re ever with someone who’s facing and processing loss, we must refrain from making these appeasing statements. I know that grief can feel uncomfortable, and out of a very genuine place in our hearts we want to say something to make the others feel better. But please remember: most often silence is more helpful than words in these situations. And if we feel we must say something, we should affirm how much sadness we feel along with them.

These two verses in Genesis 4 give us a picture of Eve, who received Seth as a blessing after having endured great loss, arguably of both sons, since Cain was sent out from God’s presence to a new land as well. She is hurting and pained, and the gift of birthing Seth leads her to praise God for giving her another child in Abel’s place.

Eve came up with that on her own, and from what we can tell it brought her comfort and peace. I worked with many people who came up with incredible ways of framing their loss that made sense to them, that calmed their hearts, and that gave them hope for the future. We can’t create it for them, though. It is most often in our sitting quietly with others that they are able to find ways to grieve and to hope again.

Grief isn’t foreign to any of us — we have all experienced loss in one form or another. The greatest takeaway from how Eve processes the loss of Abel is that we have freedom to create the meaning that brings us the most peace. And in grieving and mourning, we find that perhaps there is still hope after despair, still peace after mourning, and still love after loss. And through bravery and courage, may we offer those gifts to one another in our greatest times of need.

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Finding Eve Among Cain And Abel

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Genesis 4 could be a Lifetime movie. Often we refer to that chapter as “The Story of Cain and Abel.” But if we look at the broader narrative, we see a whole family experiencing jealousy, guilt, murder, grief, loss, and estrangement. If we read the story from the perspective of Cain (which is easy, since he’s arguably the main character), we see what appears to be a vengeful and murderous villain, with so little compassion that he’s willing to kill his own brother.

If we read the story from the perspective of Eve, though, we see a mother who God fills with hope and joy at the birth of her sons; and then we see that hope and joy violently torn away from her in two of the most heartbreaking stories.

We left off yesterday discussing the importance of names. They remain equally important in this story:

So in verse 1, Eve possesses/creates (canah) a son with the help of God. Can you hear what that Hebrew word sounds like? Eve names her son “Cain,” meaning “possession,” because she canah-ed (possessed/created) him with God. In the following verse, she gives birth to Abel (hevel), which means “breath.” This one seems a bit confusing since (spoiler alert), Cain kills Abel very soon. As I researched, though, my brilliant husband pointed out that hevel shows up again in Ecclesiastes 1, but we don’t translate it “breath.”

Ecclesiastes 1:2 states, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever…” The chapter goes on to emphasize repeatedly the fleetingness of life. That word “vanity,” which the biblical translators note can mean, “mist,” “vapor,” or “mere breath,” is the word hevel, or Abel. In context, then, reading Abel’s name shouldn’t make us necessarily think about a physical breath; it’s actually foreshadowing how fleeting his life would be. Just as a vapor or mist disappears as soon as it appears, so too would Abel quickly disappear from the scene.

As the story progresses, we see Cain working the ground and bringing God an offering of fruit, and Abel tending to a flock and bringing God one of the firstborns, along with some extra fat. God looks at Abel’s gift, but snubs Cain’s, which leads to Cain becoming upset and killing his brother (Gen. 4:3-8). 

What follows is a throwback to God meeting Adam and Eve in the garden shortly after they ate of the tree. 

God meets Cain and asks him where his brother is (in Genesis 3 God calls out to inquire where Adam and Eve are). After some back and forth conversation, God realizes what has happened, stating, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth… Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Gen. 4:10-12;16).

We know that Cain’s vocation is to work the ground; God points out that he has now spilled his brother’s blood on that same ground, and states that the blood has cried out to him. Just as in Genesis 3, a series of punishments follow, but they’re so much worse than what Adam and Eve faced.

One of my posts on Genesis 3 focused on how God never cursed Adam and Eve. After Cain murders his brother, however, God curses (arar) Cain. The mark of a curse is that something about the entity’s being changes; in this case, the mark of Cain’s curse is that he no longer dwells in the presence of the Lord.

God punished Adam by filling the land with thistles and weeds and making it especially difficult to till; in the punishment, the land will still produce for Adam, and Adam remains outside of Eden but very much grounded in the presence of God. When God curses Cain, He makes the ground entirely infertile and sends him out from His presence entirely.

At this point, it’s easy to focus solely on what Cain then faced going into the wilderness, away from his family and from God. But I want to draw our attention back home. 

Over the course of this story, Eve, who experienced estrangement from Eden, but then received overwhelming joy upon birthing Cain and Abel, her “possession” and her “breath,” lost Abel at the hands of Cain, but also lost Cain himself. The amount of loss and pain that sweet mother experiences in this story is heart-wrenching.

And this is the sort of thing that happens over and over again in the biblical text and in our lives — the main characters who have the most going on, the most drama around them, get the attention, while there are quiet sufferers sitting on the sidelines. I got a call from a friend yesterday, whose family members continue to make decision after decision that cause frustration and pain for those around them. And my sweet friend watches them, listens to them, and pleads for them to do otherwise.

Those often are the overlooked heroes of the story. The ones who beg for the best out of those who often deny them their best. The ones who continue to love and to strive to provide strength and peace to their beloved family and friends. So may we recognize them today. May we not read over the Eve’s of our lives; let us honor them today, and give them the attention, the care, and love that they have always craved and always deserved.