“Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error; they have been destroyed in Korah’s rebellion” (Jude 11).
A murderer might seem like an odd choice for a Biblical character study, yet there is something fascinating about criminals: they pique our curiosity because their crimes exist on the periphery of our imaginations. Among the pantheon of Bible villains, Cain, as the world’s first murderer, ranks among the most notorious. Yet in spite of his notoriety, there is not a single reference to him or his crime in the Old Testament beyond the account in Genesis 4. That fact alone may strike us as surprising: however even more remarkable is that after 4,000 years of absence from the Biblical record, there are multiple references to Cain in the New Testament.
“Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous” (1John 3:12 NIV).1
“By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead” (Heb 11:4).
“Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error; they have been destroyed in Korah’s rebellion” (Jude11).
“And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar” (Matt 23:35).
“Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary” (Luke 11:50-51).
“You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:23-24).
Several questions arise concerning these references about Cain in the New Testament: Why did New Testament writers consider Cain relevant to their first century audiences when none of the Old Testament authors, other than the author of Genesis, refer to him in a 2,000 year-period of divinely-inspired writing? What is it about Cain that was particularly significant to the first century ecclesia? And what does Jude mean when he refers to Cain’s “way”?
In order to understand Cain’s new relevance in the first century, we must peer back through antiquity and examine in detail who Cain was; his relationship with his brother and with God; his offering; the murder of Abel, and his legacy. The difficulties in undertaking such a task are obvious: Cain lived approximately 6,000 years ago and the truth of who he was has been obscured by tradition and myth. Further digging, however, unearths a wealth of information; not only about Cain, but also about the antediluvian era in which he and succeeding generations lived; an era, like the murderer himself, about which we know so little.
(1) Cain: The Messiah
“Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, ‘With the help of the Lord I brought forth a man’ ” (Gen 4:1).
The Bible is extremely economical with its choice of words. There is no better demonstration of this in the Old Testament than in Genesis, which devotes a mere four chapters to the period of time from Adam to the Flood. The smallest, most mundane details must be carefully examined in order to illuminate approximately 2,000 years of history. One way Genesis conveys information without a great deal of text is through people’s names. Unfortunately, readers often pass over names included in genealogies, because they seem to be mere lists.
Names are important because much can be derived from their meanings. For example a name can indicate how that person was remembered, as is the case of Tubal-Cain, a descendant of Cain. His name means “smithy” or “metal-smith,” since he was the first to work with metal, particularly bronze and iron (Gen 4:22). Names can also reflect historical moments. Such is the case of Peleg, a descendant of Shem, whose name means “division,” because “the earth was divided” during his life (Gen 10:25). Names can also reflect a parent’s hope or expectations. Noah’s father, Lamech, gave him a name that means “comfort” (Gen 5:29), in the hope that his son would alleviate “the labour and painful toil” of his hands, which he experienced as God’s curse upon the earth came to fruition (Gen 5:29; 3:14).
Concerning Cain’s name, one might expect that it would reflect his infamy as the world’s first murderer. Instead, it reflects his mother’s hope for salvation from sin and death, which had entered the world through her action in eating the fruit from the Tree of Good and Evil (Gen 3).
Even the coming Lord
Eve gave her firstborn son the name Cain: “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord” (Gen 4:1). Interpreting Cain’s name has been problematic for translators. In The Creation Text: Studies in Early Genesis, David Levin sums up the confusion surrounding the interpretation of his name:
The exact meaning of her [Eve’s] proclamation is ambiguous. The Hebrew text reads, ‘I have gotten a man the Lord.’ Translators’ efforts to fill in the apparent gap include… ‘from the Eternal’ (Moffatt), ‘with the Lord’ (Alter), ‘with the help of the Lord’ (RSV, NIV, JPS, NASB), and ‘with the help of the Lord’ (RV, bold indicating words not in Hebrew).” (p. 306)
In An Old Testament Commentary for English Readers, Charles John Ellicott suggests that Gen 4:1 — the passage concerning the birth of Cain — is more accurately translated as: “I have begotten a man, even Jehovah” (p. 27). He further notes that the Hebrew word eth, which is translated in Gen 1:1 as “even (eth) the heavens and even (eth) the earth,” should continue to have the same meaning in Gen 4:1: “even Jehovah.”
Obviously, Eve did not birth the Lord himself. Therefore she must have intended the meaning of her words to suggest that her offspring would share the name of the Lord at some future time. Ellicott suggests that the phrase, “even Jehovah,” might also be interpreted as “even the coming Lord,” a title that later came to be associated with Jesus as the Messiah. (p. 177)
A mother’s hope
If Eve believed in the concept of a Messiah (a coming Lord), how might she have arrived at this conclusion? Recall the words of the Almighty when he cursed the serpent in the Garden:
“I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman [Eve], and between your offspring and hers; he [the woman’s seed] will crush your [the serpent’s] head, and you [the serpent] will strike his [the woman’s seed’s] heel” (Gen 3:15).
In this verse, God promises to destroy the power of sin and death through Eve’s offspring. Having been witness to this prophecy, what conclusion could Eve have reached other than that her son would redeem the earth from the curse she had brought upon it through her disobedience?
Consider Mary, the mother of Jesus, who found herself in a similar situation. In response to the angel Gabriel’s message about her unborn son, “Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Undoubtedly, Eve reacted in a similar way. God’s words influenced her faith, which she expressed by naming her son “even Jehovah.” As further evidence of Eve’s faith, Paul writes:
“Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman [Eve] who was deceived and became a sinner. But women [Eve] will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety” (1Tim 2:14-15).
The translators of the NIV note that “women” in this verse should be translated as “she” and suggest it refers to Eve, since she is the subject of the preceding verses. Therefore the verse should be read: “Eve will be saved through childbearing.” At first glance, it might appear as though Paul believed that Eve (and women) would be saved only through procreation, rather than through belief, baptism, and in following Christ’s example. If this is what Paul espoused, then he would be contradicting himself since, in writing to the Galatians, he wrote that there is “neither male nor female . . . for you are all one in Christ” (Gal 3:27). Thus the verse in Timothy cannot refer to her procreative abilities, but must instead refer to Eve’s faith: her belief that her seed, as promised by God, would bring about a Messiah and through him, she and the world would be saved from the conditions brought about as the result of her error.
This interpretation credits Eve with a degree of spiritual understanding and faith: two characteristics that are not often attributed to this ancient woman. Instead, she has traditionally suffered the ignominy of her transgression. Paul’s comment in his second letter to the Corinthians takes this view:
“But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may be somehow led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2Cor 11:3).
Eve has also been remembered for her procreative abilities as “the mother-of-all-living” (Gen 3:20).
Eve did disobey the Lord by eating of the forbidden fruit. Moreover, as the first woman to bear children, she was, quite literally, “the-mother-of-all-living.” Nonetheless, we should also view this woman as a person of faith, who placed her hope in God that he would restore the earth to its former glory through her son.
Eve had a second son called named Abel. Levin notes an oddity in the announcement of his birth: “Remarkably, the text does not record that she conceived first. It might seem obvious that women conceive before giving birth, but Genesis accounts almost always specify this sequence” (p, 307). He suggests that this could indicate that Cain and Abel were twins.
Regardless, Cain was the eldest, whether he was birthed first as a pair of twins, or whether he was the sole result of Eve’s first childbirth. Given the ancient hierarchical system whereby the first son inherits the father’s birthright and is typically esteemed greater than subsequent children, Abel would have been regarded as an afterthought.
The more common interpretation of Abel’s name is “a thing unstable, not abiding, vapor,” which reflects the fact that Abel’s life was cut short. Thus his name is a product of remembrance and was most likely attributed to him after his untimely demise. Ellicott affirms this conclusion:
“We can scarcely suppose that Eve so called her child from a presentiment of evil or a mere passing depression of spirits; more probably it was a title given to him after his untimely death.”
Although Abel lived for only a short time (relative to the abnormally long life spans of most antediluvians), his life was marked by faith. In testifying to this, Hebrews says:
“By faith he was commended as righteous when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith, Abel still speaks, even though he is dead” (Heb 11:4).
Moreover, God directly endorsed Abel’s faith by “accepting” his offering (Gen 4:3).
The cast of this antediluvian drama
Eve, Cain, and Abel — these are the key players in this antediluvian drama. The meaning of their names reveal much about the awful events that transpired: Eve’s expression of faith in salvation was placed upon her firstborn son.
Consequently, Cain grew to believe that he was a man of destiny, the coming Lord, the Messiah, whose appearance had been foretold in Gen 3:15. His belief, however, was based on a faulty assumption that God assigns people honor regardless of their character or actions. This set him up for a fall, since it was only a matter of time before God revealed to Cain that he was not the man he thought he was. This occurred when God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and rejected Cain’s; a decision that had profound consequences — not only for himself, but also for his brother, Abel, who Cain perceived as having stolen or usurped his namesake.
Likewise Abel’s name reveals much about his fate. Not only was Abel born second, but his mother had already placed her hope in Cain, and as such he was perhaps regarded as an “afterthought.” Perhaps “vapor” better expresses Abel’s fate, given his untimely death at the hands of his brother.
With the cast assembled, the drama unfolds “in the course of time,” when, upon reaching maturity, Cain and Abel “presented offerings to the Lord” (Gen 4:3).
Matthew Harrison (Ottawa, Quebec)
1. All Translations are from the NIV except where indicated.