The Bible’s primeval history, as this is found in the early chapters of the book of Genesis, is arguably the most supple and satisfactory explanation of human experience ever written.
One aspect of this paradigmatic story involves the matter of guarding (Hebrew שׁמר).
The second panel of the two-paneled creation story sees ‘YHWH Elohim’ (commonly in English, ‘the Lord God’) planting a garden in the east and installing the man there. Although the text speaks here only of the man, the joint commissioning of man and woman in chapter one and the organic and relational union of the man and the woman subsequently in the second panel provide a more inclusive context. Significantly ha-adam (האדאם, commonly in English ‘Adam’ or ‘the man’) suggests ‘humanity’ and is linked in the text to ha-adamah (האדמה), meaning the soil.
When YHWH Elohim places the man in the garden, the latter is assigned to that place with a double purpose: to serve it and to guard it. Some readers, not unreasonably, discern priestly resonances in this assignment and relate garden and temple as almost interchangeable features of YHWH’s living space on earth. More straight-forward—if not exactly prosaic—translations choose words like till and keep.
And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Genesis 2:8–15 NRSV)
Famously, the first couple fails at this task. The appearance of an astute serpent invades the garden’s equanimity with deceptive guile, so fracturing the relational web that might have developed it as a paradise. It is plausible to assume that the couple possessed both the authority and the means to guard the garden from the usurping presence. Sadly, they did not do so.
In consequence the man and the woman find themselves exiled not only from each other but also from the garden itself. Like their eventual Israelite successors, the community divides and the people are expelled to a place of wandering that lies to the east of the soil that had been promised to them.
Then the LORD God said, See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’— therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:22–24 NRSV)
Humanity, in the persons of its progenitors, finds itself the object rather than the subject of guarding. Insofar as access to and care of YHWH’s living space is concerned, they are no longer the guards but now the intruders. In addition, the guarding role no longer appears in their relationship to the place. They now simply serve or till it. They have become, in a sense, the enemy, albeit one clothed and watched over by YHWH in an arrangement that has become decidedly distant.
Yet even east of Eden, the dignity of humankind’s commission has not become entirely lost. After one of the couple’s sons (Cain, lance) murders another (Abel, a vapor) in a jealous rage related to the now mediated access to their Maker, YHWH questions the fratricide.
Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ (Genesis 4:8–9 NRSV)
With tragic pathos, the son of a couple doomed by their illicit acquisition of knowledge professes ignorance about the community’s most basic fact: the whereabouts of one of its own. What is more, he rejects the very purpose of his race. Virtually de-humanizing himself in the act, Cain spits damning words in the face of his Creator: ‘I will not be my brother’s guard!’.
Cain chooses bitter solitude. His shadow falls heavy upon us.