With the summer upon us and the high holy days looming early on the horizon this year, I am already contemplating starting the Torah reading cycle again, particularly the early history of humanity found in Genesis. Genesis is unparalleled among ancient literary works for teasing out God’s stormy and difficult path from the lone Creator of a perfect Garden of Eden world to a regretful, angry, first time parent of human beings.
There we read not only about God’s journey but about our own: about people being made in God’s image, the heartbreaking tales of Adam, Eve, and the serpent, the fratricidal tragedy of Cain and Abel, and God’s deep disappointment with humanity that leads to the Great Flood.
Tucked in among these classic stories is a brief and often overlooked detail that says so much about the indelible nature of love, hope, and human perseverance, specifically as a response to the monstrous realities of human evil. Genesis, 4:25 tells us the following:
Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, meaning, ‘God has provided me with another offspring in place of Abel,’ for Cain had killed him.
This verse is part of a genealogical list that identifies the mythic founders of cities, musical instrumentation, tool and weapon making. We would expect it to follow directly after the end of the story about Cain murdering Abel, his brother. However, it is more directly connected to the strange story fragment about Lamech and his two wives. Lamech is described by the Bible as a man who loves to crow about his violent tendencies, so perhaps this verse about Adam and Eve’s new child, Seth, is well placed here: its theme of new life, especially after fratricide, seems to be a direct and forceful response to Lamech’s arrogant emphasis on violent death.
Commentators on the Torah going back as far as the early rabbinic midrash, Genesis Rabbah, have a somewhat different take on this verse. Based upon later genealogical hints in the Torah, the rabbis of that era assert that, after their expulsion from Eden, Adam and Eve refrained from relations for 130 years. Lamech and his wives were, in the rabbis’ imagination, also celibate. When Adam criticized Lamech for threatening the survival of humanity by not procreating with his wives, Lamech countered Adam’s complaint by accusing him of hypocrisy. With a “new and improved” sex drive and a new sense of existential urgency, Adam made love to Eve and they bore Seth as a literal replacement for Abel, so that humanity could survive those early traumas of expulsion from paradise and of fratricide.
Taken together with these comments, Genesis 4:25 can be understood as more than a mere fragment in the book’s early genealogy of the human race. In the midst of many painful stories about the corruptions resulting from human desire, our lust for power, and the murderous origins and results of familial jealousy, this verse returns Adam and Eve – and us – to sexual intimacy and reproduction as one of the most potent, hope filled responses to all of this human heartache. Somehow, despite – or perhaps because of – the tragic disruption of their family by their son’s murderous outburst against his brother, Adam and Eve managed to find each other once again in the mystery of sex, thus rebuilding their family and humanity. This is because the human capacity to love is one of our greatest weapons against engulfing despair and self-destruction. This verse and its midrashim seem to be telling us that Adam and Eve used their physical and emotional desires for each other to fight despair at a personal and a universal level. They refused to allow their horrible grief to destroy them personally, or nascent humanity globally.
Rochelle Krich, the renowned mystery and crime series author who is a religious Jew and a child of Holocaust survivors, spoke at a Yom Hashoah program sponsored by my community a number of years ago. She told the story of how her father’s entire family, including his first wife and children, were murdered by the Nazis. He survived the Shoah, came to the United States, and began a new family, the one from which Rochelle is descended. When she asked him why he did this after so much personal trauma, he responded with deceptive simplicity: “Because I met your mother.”
Krich’es story is one among many from the Shoah and other atrocities throughout history that are part of an even longer human narrative. It actually is the Torah’s counter narrative to its tale about our darkest human impulses and their destructive capacities: the one about our equally powerful impulses to love, to create, to heal, to hope and to build. These are, as Abraham Lincoln famously called them, the angels of our better natures, whether they are expressed through intimate relationships or otherwise. Our noblest and most difficult challenge is allowing those angels to take wing.