The Spiritual Meaning of Cain and Abel


Genesis 4:1-16; Concordant Version.

1 And the human knows Eve, his wife, and pregnant is she and is bearing Cain. And saying is she, “I acquire a man, Jehovah!” 2 And proceeding is she to bear his brother Abel. And coming is Abel to be the grazier of a flock, yet Cain becomes a server of the ground. 3 And coming is it, at the end of days, that bringing is Cain, from the fruit of the ground, a present offering to Jehovah. 4 Abel also is bringing, he, moreover, from the firstlings of his flock, and from their fat. And heed is Jehovah giving to Abel and to his present offering, 5 yet to Cain and to his present offering He does not give heed. And hot is Cain’s anger exceedingly, and falling is his face. 6 And saying is Jehovah Elohim to Cain, “Why is your anger hot? And why does your face fall? 7 Would you not, should you be doing well, lift it up? And should you not be doing well, at the opening a sin offering is reclining, and for you is its restoration. And you are ruler over it. 8 And saying is Cain to Abel, his brother, “Go will we to the field. And coming is it, at their coming to be in the field, rising is Cain against Abel, his brother, and killing him. 9 And saying is Jehovah Elohim to Cain, “Where is Abel, your brother? “And saying is he, “I do not know. The keeper of my brother am I? 10 And saying is the Elohim, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. 11 And now, cursed are you by the ground, which opens its mouth wide to take your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 As you are serving the ground, it will not continue to give its vigor to you. A rover and a wanderer shall you become in the earth. 13 And saying is Cain to Jehovah Elohim, “Too great is my depravity to bear. 14 Behold, drive me do You out today off the surface of the ground, and from Your face shall I be concealed, and become shall I a rover and a wanderer in the earth. And it comes that anyone finding me will kill me. 15 And saying to him is Jehovah Elohim, “Not so. Anyone killing Cain, sevenfold shall it be avenged. “And placing is Jehovah Elohim a sign for Cain, to avoid anyone finding him smiting him. 16 And forth is Cain faring from before Jehovah Elohim, and is dwelling in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

Can anyone be so lacking in judgement as to believe that faith alone residing in the memory has the power to achieve anything, or that mere thought from the same source has? Everyone from personal experience knows that nobody places any value on another person’s words and assentings if these are not an expression of his will and intention. It is will and intention that make them acceptable and join one person to another. The activity of the will is the real person, not thought and utterance of that which he does not will. From the activity of his will he acquires a particular nature and disposition, for his will is what moves him. If his thoughts are of good, the essential element of faith, which is charity, is contained in his thinking, because it contains the will for good. But if he asserts that his thoughts are of good and yet lives wickedly, the activity of his will cannot possibly be anything else than the will of evil, and as a consequence faith does not exist.


There are two forms of life in every person – the life of the will and the life of the understanding.  The will is the seat of our affectional life while the understanding is the seat of our intellectual life.  Sacred Scripture and the Heavenly Doctrine deals with the complexity of the relationship between these two life forms within the human psyche and so far as the Sacred Scripture is concerned this is done through the use of stories, both made up stories and historical accounts of people and events.  But whether the narrative is made up or historical the Word is Divine Revelation provided by the Lord to convey knowledge regarding spiritual principles that govern the operation of the Word within the hearts and minds of those who are being regenerated.

The first 11 chapters of Genesis are a made up history and the characters and events are representative depictions of collective states of mind – i.e. ways of thinking and feeling specifically as it relates to the religious and spiritual dimension of life.  From chapter 12 on the events and people are historical, but again the facts of the historical accounts are structured so as to convey spiritual and celestial realities that relate to the regeneration of the human mind.

The Word has been provided so that we can better understand the Lord and how He undertakes to regenerate our minds – this understanding empowers us to be able to work cooperatively with Him in this work.  However all effort in this regard is not from us but is from the Lord working in us – we work as if of ourselves while acknowledging that it is the Lord alone who brings about the salvation of the human race.

Cain and Abel represent two different ways of relating to the Word and the kinds of thinking that develops as a result.  In Cain we have represented an emphasis on cultivating knowledge about spiritual things through an intellect engagement with the Word – whereas in Abel we have an emphasis on developing an understanding of spiritual things through practising what the Word teaches in relation to the life of our mind, which in the language of the Heavenly Doctrine is what is meant by charity.

The beginning of the story of Cain and Abel illustrates a state of mind in which both forms of life are active in us and can co-exist and during this period we may even find we switch between them – there are areas of our understanding of the Word that sit in the Cain camp and there are areas that fit into Abel camp.  But the first born is Cain, and by Cain being first born is meant that intellectual things are held in the first place of importance so far as our sense of spiritual life is concerned while the practise of the Word or self-examination and repentance on the inner plane of our mental life represented by Abel is less valued.

What does this look like in practical terms:  One idea the Hebrew root for the name Cain carries is the idea of what is fixed.  So as a form of life he might represent our fixed ideas, strong opinions, and the unexamined points of view we tend to push but have not really thought through for ourselves.  We can also see the idea of pushing our points of view in the Cain root – for in addition to the idea of what is fixed it also has the meaning, to thrust, in the sense of thrusting a spear.  Cain manifests in us when we are so identified with pushing our own point of view or what we want that any other perspective is taken as a personal affront to our ego that needs to be put down.

Cain can be seen when we enter into a battle of wills as a matter of principle.  The ego or proprium is only ever concerned with making sure it is on top.  So it will often take issue with what other points of view not because it is fundamentally against what others propose but because it is driven to set up a scenarios in which it can battle and win the day.  It’s reward is the delight found in a feeling of superiority.  If we reflect a little we can easily see where this has occurred – depending on the outcome we will either be bathing in the glow of victory – with troops of self-righteous rationalisations gathered all around us telling us how brilliant, or right, or justified we were in our behaviour, or if things didn’t go too well we might find ourselves wallowing in thoughts of the injustice done to us, feeling anger and hurt and maybe running scenarios in our imagination as to how we will get our own back.  This is what Cain has to offer.

I think we can all clearly see why the products, or the fruit of this ground of existence, of this form of life, is something that is only fit for rejection as a basis for worshiping the Lord.  Yet it carries a powerful pull so far as a mode of life for us, because while we might see intellectually that it is something opposed to the life of heaven, our sense of self is so invested in our proprium or ego and the delights this level of life offers us that we are inclined to rationalise away any need to use the Word to actually reflect on the quality of the motivations driving us.

The real casualty in all this is Abel. He represents the qualities of  mercy, compassion, love, charity, understanding or those things of a truly acceptable spiritual life or worship.  Yet in those states of life where Cain is put first these are all taken out onto the field of self-justifying rationalisations to be dispensed with.  Cain in us murders Abel in us whenever we justify unloving behaviours on the altar of our own self-interest.

What this story teaches us is that while we must be working with the Word to reflect on the quality of our motives we can’t avoid the process of Cain murdering Abel, or in spiritual terms, of our love for ourselves taking the first place in our life at the expense of love towards our neighbour.  You see, from a spiritual perspective the Word doesn’t describe what might or might not be, it describes what is, and what must come to pass if we are to be regenerated.  If the process is to move forward then the life of Cain in us must be exposed for what it is.

Cain as a spiritual condition in us has to run its full course if we are to be set free from it. This can be illustrated directly from our now knowing something of what this story means spiritually.  What’s being presented in this sermon is information regarding what Cain and Abel means so far as our inner life is concerned.  That information, purely as information, makes absolutely no difference to our life.  But as information it has now passed into your memory and there it sits as something without life or application, it’s what the Heavenly Doctrine calls memory knowledge.  And while it remains there, purely as information, we will find that the next time we are in a situation in which we are asserting our proprial rights we will happily justify our unloving behaviour as if this information about it never existed.  You see our own experience testifies to the fact that knowledge of our inner processes in itself cannot save us, or prevent old established rigid patterns of being asserting themselves every time an opportunity arises for them to do so.

Something more is needed, and that something more is being willing to compel ourselves to really sit with these ideas to find out how they apply to us personally.  Spiritual information only becomes something living, or saving, if we are in an effort to use it to identify what it teaches within ourselves.   This story if we take it on board can reveal Cain and Abel at work within our own minds, but for it to do that we have to accept that what these represent is something present within our minds and that we have a responsibility to examine our minds in the light of what the Word teaches through them.  Then when we find ourselves in a situation within which that mode of life called Cain begins to assert itself, we will have present and active in those truths we have in our memory the good of charity.  From that we are given the ability to see evils and acknowledge them as sins against the Lord or what is good, this is what is illustrated in the Lord confronting Cain in our story.

Spiritually the conversation between the Lord and Cain is the activity of conscience or what the Word says of our proprial states of life when we are in a reflective mode with a view to examining them in its light.  Cain is being revealed here for what he is. It’s a state of coming to see our proprial life in the light of the practise of the Word.  Progressively, this seeing that arises through the practise of the Word, enables the life called Cain or that life centered on our ego and the pride of our own intelligence to be pushed out from the center of our life to the extremities to dwell in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

From here the story goes on to describe the forms of life that are born of the Cain mode of life.  These generations all represent derivations of the love of self that culminate in the horrific destructive force called Lamech.  Lamech is the spirit of Cain at its worst, and is the end of the line so far as the proprium’s influence in this state of life is concerned.  When we come to truly see just how destructive our proprium is it is rendered powerless.  This is why there is such a pressing need to engage with the Word.  For it is only through allowing the Lord into our life that what is truly from the Lord can be born in us. This birth in which the things of love and charity take the first place is called Seth and his son Enosh through whom the story of the regeneration of our life continues…


About David Millar

My passion revolves around supporting people to engage with the Lord's Word, or Divine truths in the form of sacred texts, to cultivate an intentional spiritual practice. Through the works penned by Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) we find that the Biblical texts contain a deeper meaning that, once understood, enables them to be applied in ways that open the human mind to the realisation of its spiritual potential. The goal of the Divine Life is to free each and every human being from the pain of self centred living and bring them into the experience of all that is heavenly through the promotion of what is genuinely good and true. The material shared here is offered in the pursuit of that aim.
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