Watch full episode here!
How can we apply the Bible story of Cain and Abel to our modern lives? Swedenborg answers this question in his multivolume work Secrets of Heaven, in which he combs through the meaning and symbolism behind the stories in Genesis and Exodus. In this episode of Swedenborg and Life, host Curtis Childs takes us through the story of Cain and Abel, examining the symbolism, meaning, and application that Swedenborg finds within each passage of the story.
Part One: Two Brothers, Two Offerings
“And the human knew Eve, his wife, and she conceived and delivered Cain; and she said, “I have acquired a man: Jehovah.”–Genesis 4:1
In Swedenborg’s assessment of the Bible story, each character corresponds to an idea, and the journey of that character tells us about that idea through different stages and changes. These concepts change through life, just as characters do. Swedenborg uses these associations or correspondences to explain aspects of human nature.
In Secrets of Heaven, Swedenborg writes, “The human and his wife, Eve, symbolize the earliest church.” Here, the word “church” does not refer to an individual building. It refers to a mindset, a group of people who shared the same ideas. Swedenborg harkens back to an idea almost like the golden age, where people have access to heaven and communication with God. At first, this group of people, or “church,” had everything—they could communicate with the heavens and feel that heavenly love. However, nothing perfect can stay perfect, so the golden age began to fall. In this story, the catalyst in the fall was a spiritual shift represented by Cain.
Swedenborgian Symbolism: “I have acquired the man Jehovah” means “the faith among those called Cain was recognized and acknowledged as a thing in itself” (Secrets of Heaven #338)
Cain symbolizes a shift in thought in this “golden age,” when people began writing down the truth or faith they perceived. Cain represents the creation of a doctrine that can be separated from pure spiritual love. In this “golden age,” people originally just knew how to act and knew what was right without any sort of doctrinal discussion. But after the appearance of “Cain,” people started to drift into a written, conceptual theology and treated the development of theological ideas as something you discover rather than as a universal truth. In that way, they gave doctrine more power than love.
Swedenborgian Symbolism: Cain represents faith or truth. (Secrets of Heaven #338).
“And she went on to deliver his brother Abel. And Abel was a shepherd of the flock; and Cain was one who cultivated the ground.”–Genesis 4:2
As Genesis introduces a new character, Swedenborg introduces a new concept: love. Abel is Adam and Eve’s second-born or “the church’s second-born” (don’t forget what the first two people represent: the golden age church). As this second-born, Abel represents charity or love (Secrets of Heaven #341).
Swedenborgian Symbolism: Abel represents charity. (Secrets of Heaven #341)
Abel is a shepherd of the flock, which refers to the “people who do the good that charity inspires . . . One who leads and teaches is called a shepherd, or pastor, while those who are led and taught are termed the flock. . . . What purpose is there to faith, or to the facts, insights, and teaching of faith, except that we may become what faith teaches us to be?”–Secrets of Heaven #341-5
Cain, however, is called a cultivator of the ground, which refers to the “people who lack charity, however attached they may be to a faith separated from love, which is no kind of faith. . . . People whose sights were set on bodily and earthly interests were said to cultivate the ground” (Secrets of Heaven #341-5). A cultivator of the ground invokes a harsh image of digging through the dirt to get food, forcing the ground to produce what one wants from it instead of working with the earth. This concept of removing something from an ecosystem would have been a well-known idea during Swedenborg’s lifetime. At 11:50, Lincoln Smith talks about forest gardens—gardening within the limits of the land and working with the land to keep the forest whole and still benefit from the food it produces. This is in contrast to the idea of Cain cultivating the ground–working within the land is better than taking a bulldozer to it.
“And it happened at the end of some days that Cain brought forward some of the fruit of the ground as an offering to Jehovah. And Abel, too, brought forward some of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat.”–Genesis 4:3-4
Without any symbolism, this part is confusing. Those both sound like nice things to give to God—wouldn’t God like both offerings equally? However, in Swedenborg’s symbolism, they represent different things. Cain’s offering represents acting on the right thing without loving other people. On the other hand, Abel’s offering represents everything connected with love, including all the heavenly loving qualities.
Swedenborgian Symbolism: “The end of some days means the passage of time. Fruit of the ground means doing what faith requires without loving others. An offering to Jehovah means the worship rising out of those deeds.” (Secrets of Heaven #346)
Swedenborgian Symbolism: “Abel here symbolized charity. The firstborn of his flock symbolized holiness, which is exclusively the Lord’s. The fat symbolizes the actual quality of heaven, which is also the Lord’s. Jehovah looked on Abel and his offering means that everything connected with charity was pleasing to the Lord, as was all worship springing from charity.” (Secrets of Heaven #349)
Through these representations, Swedenborg writes that God was pleased by the acts of love, while the acts of faith separated from love upset him. This is not the only place where Swedenborg writes that God dislikes faith without love—Swedenborg often says that truth is nothing unless there’s love to go along with it.
Part Two: A Murder
“And Jehovah looked on Abel and on his offering. But Cain and his offering he ignored. And anger kindled strongly in Cain, and his face fell. And Jehovah said to Cain, ‘Why has anger kindled in you and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will it not raise you up? And if you do not do well, sin lies at your door. And [Abel] longs for you, but you rule him.’”–Genesis 4:4
With this passage, the tension begins; God likes one brother and doesn’t like the other. Just looking at the characters, it doesn’t seem to make sense—they’re both trying, right? However, with the symbolism, the concepts each brother represents are very different.
Swedenborgian Symbolism: Cain “symbolizes faith detached from love” with the anger that meant, “charity took its leave.” (Secrets of Heaven #355)
This passage explains the human tendency to speak of love without acting from love. Cain’s anger holds particular significance in this scenario because it demonstrates that when he pushed love away, he was incapable of acting with understanding and graciousness.
Swedenborgian Symbolism: “Anger is a generalized emotion—our reaction to everything that stands in the way of self-love and the desires that go along with it . . . Whatever does not favor self-love and materialism arouses opposition, which displays itself as anger.” (Secrets of Heaven #357)
At the end of this passage, Abel longs for Cain, meaning the charity longs for the faith to go with it; however, when faith rules over charity, or when ideas are more important than people, nothing can be good. Love needs to lead, and ideas have to follow the love.
“And it happened when they were in the field that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.”–Genesis 4:8
This symbolizes the moment religion–in the form of organized, formal doctrine–killed love. Detached from love, ideas can kill.
Swedenborgian Symbolism: “Cain said to Abel,” means a length of time, while a field means every point of doctrine. (Secrets of Heaven #366)
We can see the killing of love through ideas all over the place, especially in the name of religion. Just think of all the religious wars that have occurred in our history and the ones still being waged today. On a smaller scale, Curtis mentions online bullying, parents judging parents, etc.—all committed by people attached to ideas that stem from love.
Part Three: Consequences
“And Jehovah said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel, your brother?’ And He said, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s guardian?’”–Genesis 4:9
Swedenborgian Symbolism: Jehovah said to Cain means “a certain perception from deep down that spoke of charity, which is Abel, your brother. He said, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s guardian?’ means that he considered charity worthless, not wanting to act as its servant. So it means that he totally rejected anything having to do with charity. This is what their doctrine had become.” (Secrets of Heaven #370)
Love isn’t a thought in Cain’s mind—or love isn’t a thought in the mind of ideas that have run rampant. Detached from love, true ideas find love worthless, because in that state, only the truth matters.
“And he said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!’”–Genesis 4:10
This symbolizes an internal realization that something wrong has happened. Guilt sets in . . .
“And now, a curse on you from the ground, which opened its mouth, receiving your brother’s blood from your hand!”–Genesis 4:11
Our true identity comes from love. When we lose sight of that, we lose sight of ourselves and become spiritual drifters.
“’When you cultivate the ground, it will no longer yield its strength to you. A wanderer and fugitive you will be on the earth.’ And Cain said to Jehovah, ‘My wickedness is too great to be taken away. Look, you have thrown me out today, off the face of the ground. And I will be hidden from your face, and I will be a wanderer and fugitive on the earth. And it will come about that anyone who finds me will kill me.’”–Genesis 4:12-14
Swedenborgian Symbolism: “Being a wanderer and fugitive on the earth means not knowing what is true or good” (Secrets of Heaven #380).
This passage symbolizes a state of internal wandering that leads to confusion and despair. “When we deprive ourselves of charity, we cut ourselves off from the Lord” (Secrets of Heaven #388-9). Being cut off from the Lord is like a spiritual death, having no love from God. It is from this separation of love and faith, Swedenborg asserts, that fear arises.
Swedenborgian Symbolism: “This place and others in the Word depict those who are subject to falsity and evil—how they flee, and how they fear they will be killed. Everything causes them fear because no one is protecting them. All who have evil and falsity inside hate their neighbor; therefore each of them is eager to kill the others.” (Secrets of Heaven #390-91)
Cain doesn’t die because he’s cut himself off from the Lord, but he does suffer in a personal state of hell since his feelings of happiness come from causing hurt.
Part Four: A Mark
“And Jehovah said to him, ‘Therefore anyone who kills Cain will suffer sevenfold vengeance.’ And Jehovah put a mark on Cain, that no one who found him should strike him.”–Genesis 4:15
While religious doctrine has led to death and destruction, there have also been countless benefits and positive outcomes for humanity. That’s why Jehovah saved Cain. He protects Cain with a mark—protecting Cain is worth it, because the truth has to survive. Even though it has the potential for evil, preserving faith is worth it; more good will come out of faith than evil.
Part Five: Outside Eden
“And Cain went out from before Jehovah; and he lived in the land of Nod, to the east of Eden. And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and delivered Enoch. And [Cain] was building a city, and he named the city after his son, Enoch”–Genesis 4:16
Swedenborgian Symbolism: “Cain went out from before Jehovah means that he was cut off from the good inherent in a loving faith . . . His living in the land of Nod is living outside truth and goodness . . . Living to the east of Eden means living by the dictates of the intellectual part of the mind, where before love had reigned supreme; it is also living by the dictates of the rational mind, where before charity had reigned supreme. This is established by earlier statements concerning the symbolism of Eden’s east, in which the east is identified with the Lord, and Eden, with love.” (Secrets of Heaven #397-8)
Cain leaves the land, just as cut-off faith runs from the places where love rules. He builds a city, which represents the many ideas that comes from a single idea—usually in the form of heresies. Cities often correspond with the idea of the mind, especially in the way it is organized. Cain then finds a wife. The wife represents the ideas that come with a false doctrine of life, when one has to start bringing in ideas that don’t come from God, just as the wife comes from outside.
Despite the sins of Cain and all humankind, there is always a chance for rebirth. In this story, it comes in the form of a child.
Part Six: The Child
“And the human knew his wife again, and she delivered a son and called his name Seth, ‘Because God has restored other seed for me in place of Abel, since Cain killed him.’ And to Seth in turn a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. Then people began to call on the name of Jehovah.”–Genesis 4:25-26
Swedenborgian Symbolism: “When a church has been so thoroughly devastated that no more faith remains, it makes a new start; a new light shines out. In the Word, this is called “morning.’” (Secrets of Heaven #408)
Seth comes along and shows that there is a new love. Then, when Seth has a son, people once again start to call on the name of God.
Swedenborgian Symbolism: Seth “symbolizes a new faith that will allow charity to take hold.” (Secrets of Heaven #434).
What would happen if Abel (love) leads Cain (faith) instead of Cain (faith) killing Abel (love)?
In this perfect world, all churches join together into one because there is no doctrinal differences. Faith always follow love, which would act like heaven, working together as a single body to follow God and his commandments as one.
Doesn’t that seem like a perfect world?
Free E-Book Downloads
Read more Swedenborg and Life episode recaps >
About Swedenborg and Life
Host Curtis Childs from the Swedenborg Foundation and featured guests explore topics from Swedenborg’s eighteenth-century writings about his spiritual experiences and afterlife explorations and discuss how they relate to modern-day life and death in a lighthearted and interactive live webcast format.
View the entire Swedenborg and Life Playlist[/column][column]
When we wake up in heaven, Swedenborg tells us, angels roll a covering from off of our left eye so that we can see everything in a spiritual light. The offTheLeftEye YouTube channel uses an array of educational and entertaining video formats to help others look at life and death through an uplifting spiritual lens.
View our offTheLeftEye YouTube channel