In my last post, I talked about the difference between essentialism and existentialism. This theme is probably going to come up a lot, so if you don’t know what those terms mean, I’ll refresh your memory. Essentialism is the belief that essence precedes existence, or in other words, the purpose of your life (essence) was determined before you were born (existence). Existentialism is the belief that existence precedes essence, meaning your purpose is somehow determined throughout your life. While most people probably don’t think about it in these terms, most modern people could probably be defined as existentialists. Today, most people do not think there is a predefined destiny laid out for them but rather that we create our own destiny. However, as you can probably imagine, in the old world, things were different. Your destiny was given to you by God before you were born, and you were powerless to change it. This is why kingdoms were passed down from father to son and this is one of the reasons why genealogies were important to ancient people. It mattered who your parents were because it said something about your destiny.
This point will be important in understanding Genesis 3 and 4. In Genesis 3, we see the final act of the creation story. Namely, the eating of the forbidden fruit which leads to “The Fall” as Christians will call it. Adam and Eve are convinced by a serpent to eat the fruit from the forbidden tree, thus committing the first sin. This appears to be a pretty important moment for Christians. According to Paul, it is the moment that both sin and death entered the world (Romans 5:12) and the folks at Answers in Genesis believe that literally nothing died prior to this moment. But the result of this which is undisputed by most Christians is the birth of Original Sin.
According to a Catholic Encyclopedia written by the people at New Advent, Original Sin may be taken to mean “a consequence of [Adam’s] first sin, the hereditary stain with which we are born on account of our origin or descent from Adam.” So, Adam, by committing that first sin, left a stain on all of us that requires us all to be dunked underwater as babies in order to cleanse ourselves. Thanks a lot, Adam.
If you’re anything like I was growing up, your first question is “What the hell did I do??” Adam’s the one that ate the apple, why did I get the “hereditary stain”? It’s hard to construct an answer to this question that would be satisfying to the modern person, since we tend to be existentialists. The closest thing to a satisfying answer that I could find was given by St. Augustine. Augustine argued that Adam was acting as a representative for humanity when he sinned. But when did we elect Adam as our representative? When was the referendum? While modern people read this text and feel that it is a bit lacking, to an ancient person, it would probably have been obvious that sin was inherited. In the same way that those who were descended from kings inherited some divine right to rule, human beings inherited Adam’s first sin.
Following Genesis 3 is Genesis 4 which is one of the more confusing and poorly written chapters of the Bible (sorry Moses). It starts with Adam and Eve bearing two children, Cain and Abel. God, who tends to play favorites, seems to like Abel a lot. So naturally, Cain murders Abel. This leads God to curse Cain, but it’s a strange curse. On the one hand, Cain is punished to restlessly wander the Earth but on the other, if anyone tries to kill him, God threatens that person with vengeance.
From there, the Genesis writers go on one of those genealogical rants that they like to do. The writers tell us about Cain’s descendants (though who exactly he procreated with is unclear…) and specifically they focus on a man named Lamech. The only things we’re told about Lamech is that he has two wives, and that he murdered someone. Some have also noted that he’s the Bible’s first polygamist but it’s not clear whether this is something the writers would have disapproved of. What is clear about Lamech, is that he was a murderer and he seemed to be proud of it. He told his wives “if Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times,” which presumably means he is a far worse person than Cain and he doesn’t appear to be ashamed of this.
It’s not immediately clear what the purpose of this little anecdote about Lamech is, but there are two commonly cited purposes for these verses. The first is to suggest that Cain’s bloodline was tainted. Lamech, Cain’s descendant, was a murderer just as Cain was. The second cited purpose was to establish that, in the days between the Fall and the Flood, there was a rich culture of sin that stemmed from Cain’s bloodline. To me the verse doesn’t successfully do either of these things, but I could imagine that, had I been living in the time when this text was written, it might have seemed obvious that the sins of Cain were passed down to his children.
When the Bible hints at this inheritability of sin, specifically through the curse on Cain, it is undoubtedly telling us that evil people will produce evil children. That a criminal’s children will be just as awful and evil as the criminal. That Grendel, the descendent of Cain, would be a horrid and grotesque monster. Of course, when put this way, it sounds horrible. How can you hold someone accountable for the shortcomings of their parents? But perhaps there’s something we can learn from this essentialist attitude.
Obviously I’m not saying that people should be held accountable for the actions of their parents, in fact, what I’m saying is quite the opposite. What I’m saying is that the Bible is absolutely right in thinking that who your parents are has an enormous affect on your life. Of course, the Bible went about it entirely the wrong way, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a nugget of truth here. The reality is, who your parents are determines where you will go to school, where you will live, what kind of food you will eat, what kind of teachers and mentors you will have etc. And it is the sum total of these things, in my opinion, that makes up our identity. Ultimately, it’s true that crime is often generational, though not for overly simplistic reasons such as “criminals beget criminals”. As I said earlier, nowadays, people tend to be existentialist, but I think that by ignoring the reality of essentialism we’ve actually limited our potential as humans.
What do I mean by this? I’m talking about socioeconomics of course. In America, where I come from, it has always been our belief that anyone can succeed. But time and time again, it’s been shown that this is not true. That it’s nearly impossible to escape from poverty. Is poverty then, its own kind of Original Sin? What about racism?
But this can be a dangerous belief. By hearkening to these religious metaphors, we run the risk of trying to absolve ourselves of these sins. After all, the point of Original Sin is that you’ve got it whether you like it or not. Descendants of Adam inherit this sin even if they’re flawless human beings. This can lead to a sort of nihilism when applied to the real world. If I refer to racism as “America’s Original Sin” in the way that many have, this removes my role in perpetuating it. Systems like poverty and racism exist partially because of some sort of inherited qualities, but they are also perpetuated by people who benefit from their existence.
They key here is to operate from a middle position between the two. We should be both existentialists and essentialists. We should acknowledge that we have the power to decide what we will do with our lives, while at the same time acknowledging that there are forces beyond our control that influence our lives tremendously. This position opens us up to a radical kind of empathy that we would be incapable of if we remained wholly in either the essentialist or the existentialist camp. The existentialist would look at a grown man working at Walmart for slave wages and say, “he should have applied himself more.” The essentialist would look at the same person and say “he is incapable of anything better because he is inherently inferior to me.” But from this middle position we can look at this person and see extraordinary potential trapped within an unforgiving system. An unforgiving system which we have the power to change.