The Story of Cain and Abel, 1-16

4:1 Now the man had marital relations with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. Then she said, “I have created a man just as the LORD did!” 4:2 Then she gave birth to his brother Abel. Abel took care of the flocks, while Cain cultivated the ground.

She gave birth to his brother Abel – ‘The second son of Adam and Eve may have been a twin because Genesis 4:2 literally reads, “And she continued to bear his brother Abel.”’ (Holman)

4:3 At the designated time Cain brought some of the fruit of the ground for an offering to the LORD. 4:4 But Abel brought some of the firstborn of his flock—even the fattest of them. And the LORD was pleased with Abel and his offering, 4:5 but with Cain and his offering he was not pleased. So Cain became very angry, and his expression was downcast.

Both Cain, v3, and Abel, v4, brought offerings to God, but only one was acceptable. As MHC notes, ‘hypocrites and evil doers may be found going as far as the best of God’s people in the external services of religion. Cain brought an offering with Abel; nay, Cain’s offering is mentioned first, as if he were the more forward of the two. A hypocrite may possibly hear as many sermons, say as many prayers, and give as much alms, as a good Christian, and yet, for want of sincerity, come short of acceptance with God.

Why did the Lord accept the offering of Abel, but not that of Cain? We cannot be sure, although it may have been because Abel brought a blood sacrifice. What is clear is that we have here the first instance of election in the Bible.

4:6 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why is your expression downcast? 4:7 Is it not true that if you do what is right, you will be fine? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to dominate you, but you must subdue it.”

‘God is here reasoning with Cain, to convince him of the sin and folly of his anger and discontent, and to bring him into a good temper again, that further mischief might be prevented. It is an instance of God’s patience and condescending goodness that he would deal thus tenderly with so bad a man, in so bad an affair.’ (MHC)

4:8 Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him – This is cited by the Sceptic’s Annotated Bible as the first instance of ‘cruelty and violence’ in the Bible.  So it may be, but this is very far from saying that ‘the Bible’ approves of Cain’s behaviour.  Too often, sceptics ignore the rather obvious rule that the Bible does not approve of everything it records.

4:9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he replied, “I don’t know! Am I my brother’s guardian?” 4:10 But the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! 4:11 So now, you are banished from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 4:12 When you try to cultivate the ground it will no longer yield its best for you. You will be a homeless wanderer on the earth.”
‘In 1928, a very interesting case came before the courts in Massachusetts. It concerned a man who had been walking on a boat dock when suddenly he tripped over a rope and fell into the cold, deep water of an ocean bay. He came up sputtering and yelling for help and then sank again, obviously in trouble. His friends were too far away to get to him, but only a few yards away, on another dock, was a young man sprawled on a deck chair, sunbathing. The desperate man shouted, “Help, I can’t swim!” The young man, an excellent swimmer, only turned his head to watch as the man floundered in the water, sank, came up sputtering in total panic, and then disappeared forever. The family of the drowned man was so upset by that display of callous indifference that they sued the sunbather. They lost. The court reluctantly ruled that the man on the dock had no legal responsibility whatever to try and save the other man’s life. In effect, the law agrees with Cain’s presupposition: I am not my brother’s keeper, and I have every legal right to mind my own business and to refuse to become involved.’ Gary Inrig — James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988) p. 116.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” – ‘I put it to the consciences of many silent Christians, who have never yet made known to others what God has made known to them – How can you be clear from guilt in this matter? Do not say, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” for I shall have to give you a horrible answer if you do. I shall have to say, “No, Cain you are not you brother’s keeper, but you are your brother’s killer.” If, by your effort you have not sought his good, by your neglect you have destroyed him.’ (The Best of Spurgeon, 228)

4:13 Then Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is too great to endure! 4:14 Look! You are driving me off the land today, and I must hide from your presence. I will be a homeless wanderer on the earth; whoever finds me will kill me.” 4:15 But the LORD said to him, “All right then, if anyone kills Cain, Cain will be avenged seven times as much.” Then the LORD put a special mark on Cain so that no one who found him would strike him down. 4:16 So Cain went out from the presence of the LORD and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

“My punishment is more than I can bear” – Probably ‘not to be understood as a complaint about his punishment but rather as an expression of remorse over the extent of his “iniquity.”‘ (EBC)

“Whoever finds me will kill me” – This detail raises questions about the traditional, literal, interpretation of early Genesis.  Among the more conservative interpretations offered are these:-

  1. Adam’s existence was preceded by that of other ‘humanoid’ populations, who were now widely scattered;
  2. Adam is expressing fear of future populations (according to v25, Adam would go on to have further descendants);
  3. Adam’s fear is groundless: he did not know that he and his family were the only humans who existed. But his fear appears to be validated by the Lord himself, in v15.
  4. The supposed ‘killers’ were not other people, but wild animals.

The existence of other populations is supported by v14, where we learn that Cain had a wife, and that he ‘was building a city’.

Enns (The Evolution of Adam) says,

‘There are evidently other human beings assumed to exist outside of the garden, people whom Cain fears will retaliate for his murder of Abel and from whom he picks a wife and settles in the “land of Nod” (Gen. 4:16). If Adam is the first human, how can this be? I do not find conventional explanations helpful here, such as the hypothesis that Adam and Eve actually had many more children—boys and girls not mentioned in the narrative, who apparently procreated with each other and then, for some undisclosed reason, left Eden to settle elsewhere and from whom Cain would have found a wife among his sisters or nieces.’  Enns suggests that if Adam is regarded as ‘proto-Israel’ (rather than as a literal historical figure and the first human being) then the presence of other people is no longer a problem.

The Lord put a mark on Cain so that no-one who found him would kill him – more literally, ‘…gave a sign to Cain’.  It may be that the city built by Cain (v17) is to be regarded as a city of refuge, Num 35:9-34), and would thus be the protective ‘sign’ given to him.

East of Eden – and thus no longer associated with his parents.

The Beginning of Civilization, 17-26

4:17 Cain had marital relations with his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was building a city, and he named the city after his son Enoch. 4:18 To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad was the father of Mehujael. Mehujael was the father of Methushael, and Methushael was the father of Lamech.
Billy Sunday was once interrupted in his harangue by a heckler, who shouted the question, then famous in all agnostic or atheistic circles, “Who was Cain’s wife?” Billy Sunday shot back the reply, “I respect any seeker after knowledge, but I want to warn you, young man, don’t risk being lost to salvation by too much inquiring after other men’s wives.”

Cain lay with his wife, and she became pregnant – But where did Cain’s wife come from? On a narrow reading of the text, it is apparent that she must have been a daughter of Adam and Eve, Gen 5:4. Hartley: ‘We may surmise that Cain married one of his sisters.’  So also Matthews (NAC), Waltke & Fredricks. But if Cain married his own sister, was he not guilty of incest?   If the human race was propagated from a single couple, then this would have been inevitable. By Moses’ time, various laws governing incest had been introduced, Lev 18:7-17; 20:11-21; Deut 22:30; 27:20-23. But prior to that time, close marriages were not unknown, as in the case of Abraham, who married his half-sister, Gen 20:12. Genetically, marriages between the children of Adam and Eve would have been much safer than those occurring in similar circumstances in later times. (See Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Old Testament, 39f; Geisler, Baker’s Encyclopedia of Apologetics)

But such a narrow reading of the text may not be the best reading.  The idea that there were other people (or, at least, other hominids) around at the same time has already been implied in v14f.  The present verse not only mentions Cain’s wife, but also the building of a city, suggesting that there were not merely some, but many, potential inhabitants for it.

Instone-Brewer (Science and the Bible ch. 20) argues that Cain and others married ‘human animals’ who lived outside the Garden of Eden, thus widening the gene pool.

A ‘mainstream’ critical view is that the entire account is legendary:

‘Such “continuity problems” in the biblical plot cry out for explanation—if we expect the Bible to read like history in the modern sense. But these issues may not have troubled the Bible’s earliest writers, who were composing a different kind of literature. The story of Adam, Eve, and their children is a legend of origins, not a historical chronicle.’ (Eva Mroczek,
How much does it matter to you?

Richard Bewes tells us that when he was asked the question, beloved by hecklers, “Who was Cain’s wife?”, he delayed his reply, asking first the following questions: “How serious are you in asking this?”, “How would it change your attitude to Christianity if there was an answer?”, and “If I give you an answer to your intellectual satisfaction, will you become a Christian tonight?”

(The Top 100 Questions, p229)

4:19 Lamech took two wives for himself; the name of the first was Adah, and the name of the second was Zillah. 4:20 Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the first of those who live in tents and keep livestock. 4:21 The name of his brother was Jubal; he was the first of all who play the harp and the flute. 4:22 Now Zillah also gave birth to Tubal-Cain, who heated metal and shaped all kinds of tools made of bronze and iron. The sister of Tubal-Cain was Naamah.

According to the Apologetics Study Bible:

‘Mormons cite this verse and their own scriptures (Doctrines and Covenants, section 132) in order to justify polygamy. Polygamy, however, came into existence only after the fall in the garden. The creation mandate directs that a man shall be joined to one wife (2:24). Other verses that teach monogamy include Pr 5:18–19; Mal 2:14–15; Mk 10:2–8; 1 Co 7:2, 10; 1 Tm 3:2, 12; and Ti 1:6. While there are examples of polygamy in the OT (2 Sm 5:13; 1 Kg 11:3), they did not receive God’s approval. Instead God, in His mercy, issued laws to protect the many wives and children of polygamists.’
Calvin on the achievements of the heathen in art and science, Gen 4:20-22

‘Moses now relates that, with the evils which proceeded from the family of Cain, some good had been blended. For the invention of arts, and of other things which serve to the common use and convenience of life, is a gift of God by no means to be despised, and a faculty worthy of commendation. It is truly wonderful, that this race, which had most deeply fallen from integrity, should have excelled the rest of the posterity of Adam in rare endowments. I, however, understand Moses to have spoken expressly concerning these arts, as having been invented in the family of Cain, for the purpose of showing that he was not so accursed by the Lord but that he would still scatter some excellent gifts among his posterity; for it is probable, that the genius of others was in the meantime not inactive; but that there were, among the sons of Adam, industrious and skilful men, who exercised their diligence in the invention and cultivation of arts. Moses, however, expressly celebrates the remaining benediction of God on that race, which otherwise would have been deemed void and barren of all good. Let us know then, that the sons of Cain, though deprived of the Spirit of regeneration, were yet endued with gifts of no despicable kind; just as the experience of all ages teaches us how widely the rays of divine light have shone on unbelieving nations, for the benefit of the present life; and we see, at the present time, that the excellent gifts of the Spirit are diffused through the whole human race. Moreover, the liberal arts and sciences have descended to us from the heathen. We are, indeed, compelled to acknowledge that we have received astronomy, medicine, and the order of civil government, from them. Nor is it to doubted, that God has thus liberally enriched them with excellent favours that their impiety might have the less excuse. But, while we admire the riches of his favour which he has bestowed on them, let us still value far more highly that grace of regeneration with which he peculiarly sanctifies his elect unto himself.’

(Commentary on Genesis, 217f)

4:23 Lamech said to his wives,
“Adah and Zillah! Listen to me!
You wives of Lamech, hear my words!
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for hurting me.
4:24 If Cain is to be avenged seven times as much,
then Lamech seventy-seven times!”
4:25 And Adam had marital relations with his wife again, and she gave birth to a son. She named him Seth, saying, “God has given me another child in place of Abel because Cain killed him.” 4:26 And a son was also born to Seth, whom he named Enosh. At that time people began to worship the LORD.

Adam – This, according to Richard Hess, is the first clear use of ʾadam to designate the personal name of Adam.

At that time men began to call on the name of the Lord – See Gen 12:8; 21:33.