Where did Cain get his wife?
I hope you are doing well! I was reading Genesis tonight and got confused so I thought I would ask you about it. In chapter 4 we read about Cain and Abel and Cain’s punishment. He goes to live in the land of Nod and marries. Then at the end of the chapter it says Eve gives birth to another son, Seth, and says that God has replaced the dead son Abel. Next, chapter 5 verse 3 says that after Adam was 130 years old he had Seth. Then it goes on to say that he had many other sons and daughters. So my question is where did Cain’s wife and the people of Nod come from? It reads as if Cain and Abel were the only two until Seth came to replace the second. I know the commentaries say that Adam and Eve had many other sons and daughters and that is where the people From Nod came from, but the text seems to read in such as way as leading you to believe that the pain of losing Abel was replaced by Seth and if there were lots of other sons then I want to ask why was Seth the one to ease that pain and not the countless others. The timeline also seems strange because you have these two brothers born from Adam and Eve and all of a sudden one leaves to another land where other people are. Any insights?
In short, there are two options: first, there is no particularly good reason to think that Cain and Abel were the only children in existence at the point that the murder occurred. Second, even though it was logically possible for Nod to have been populated by descendants of Adam when Cain was exiled, it is more likely that Cain’s fear was of wild animals rather than other humans, in spite of the way we tend to read this particular text. There are several Biblical observations to be made in support of both options…
Adam & Eve almost certainly had other children between the birth of Cain and the murder of Abel.
When Cain killed Abel, did that make him an only child? Probably not. It might seem like this is the case, but the only argument that can be made for that is really an argument from silence; that is, the only reason we think there were no other children is because no other children are named or directly mentioned.
But consider this: Gen 5:1 says that Adam was 130 years old when he had Seth. Since Gen 4:25 says that Seth was conceived after Cain killed Abel and was exiled, the implication is that the murder happened roughly 130 years after Adam and Eve’s creation. It seems unlikely that they waited several decades after Abel’s murder before having another child…and how would they have prevented this, anyway? Sexual abstinence, which would have likely constituted disobedience of God’s command to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28)? Birth control? Moreover, Gen 5:4 says that Adam had “other sons and daughters” during the additional 800 years he lived after Seth was born. This suggests that having children was an ongoing thing for Adam and Eve after Seth was born, so isn’t it natural to think that they were doing the same before Seth was born as well? In other words, there were probably a lot of sons and daughters born between Cain and Seth. Abel was one of them, but he was almost certainly not the only one.
So why are only Cain, Abel and Seth named? Several answers to this question are possible: first, Cain and Abel are mentioned because they were the first and second-born and had a rather serious conflict. This is a theme that recurs regularly throughout the O.T., most notably in the stories of Esau and Jacob (but also Ishmael and Isaac, et.al.), so from a literary perspective this first-born/second-born conflict sets the stage for later material in Genesis. Second, they are mentioned because this was, apparently, the first murder, so it is natural to mention them directly. Third, Seth is named because he was the “replacement” for Abel, which, incidentally, strongly suggests that Eve had not previously lost any of her children. Since this was the first time that a child had been lost, this was the first time that a child was filling an empty slot in her heart and Seth was named because of this special significance.
While it seems likely no other children had been lost during this 130-year period (or at least not to murder), it is likely that there were many other sons and daughters born between Cain and Seth’s births. If Eve had a child every two years, we’re probably talking 65 kids during the 130 years between Cain’s birth and Abel’s murder. If 50% of those children were female, there would have been 32 girls (we’ll round down) born directly from Eve. If we assume the average age for child-bearing for those girls was 14 (rabbis in the first century set 12 as the minimum age for marriage so this is actually quite conservative an estimate), and those 32 girls also had children at a rate of one every 2 years, then Adam and Eve would have had 936 children and grandchildren by the time that Cain murdered Abel. And that’s just 2nd and 3rd generation descendants…we’re not even talking about great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren, of which there would have been hundreds and hundreds more by this time.
So, if Adam and Eve almost certainly had lots of other children between Cain and Seth, which seems likely both physiologically (there wasn’t any birth control was there?) and textually (other than the fact that Seth is the only other one named – because of his status as a “replacement” for Able – there is nothing in the text that really suggests Seth was the third child) then there could have been plenty of people to inhabit Nod by the time Cain was exiled.
However, while this makes the population of Nod possible, I still think it very unlikely that this is actually what Genesis is saying. Instead:
Cain was most likely concerned about being killed by wild animals, rather than other humans.
1. “Whoever finds me” does not necessarily imply that Cain was worried about other humans.
In Gen 4:14, Cain says: “Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Your face I will be hidden, and I will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” The “whoever” there is a big part of our struggle with this text because it implies that there were already folks living outside of Adam and Eve’s community. As we saw above, that was logically possible, but there may be another, better solution to this issue. The word “whoever” in 4:14 is a little misleading. This English word tends to imply human subjects rather than animals because we don’t typically use “who” pronouns in reference to animals. However, the Hebrew word (kōl) is far more generic and does not necessarily imply a human subject be in view. It’s a very common noun which just means “all” or “every” and while it was used for human beings as in Gen 4:21 (…all those who play the lyre…) it was also used of animals and plants and other non-human things. Kōl has been used of animals or other non-human things 22 times in Genesis before this particular text. Actually, before Gen 4:14, there are no instances of kōl being used to indicate human beings. So far, it has only been used of animals or other non-human things (e.g. 1:21 – every living creature/every winged bird; 1:25 – everything that creeps; 2:6 – the whole surface of the earth, et.al). So the question becomes, does Gen 4:14 indicate Cain’s fear that other humans would kill him or his fear that he would be killed by wild beasts as he wandered the earth away from the protection of his family? The language allows for either option. In my opinion, other considerations make the latter option the more likely one:
2. “Vengeance will be taken on him” is a proper, though perhaps misleading translation.
While the Lord’s declaration in 4:15 (LORD said to him, “Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold”) sounds like it is intended as a warning for human beings, this is again more a matter of the connotation of the English than the original Hebrew. Literally it says “any that kill Cain will sevenfold [experience vengeance]”. Most English translations include a masculine word here, as in “vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold,” which is perfectly fine since the Hebrew here is masculine. However, while the use of the masculine form of nāqam (avenge) may seem to suggest a human subject, this is not required because Hebrew does not have a neuter gender; in other words, this word would have to be masculine even if animals were in view. There is no reason at all to think that the masculine ending means that humans rather than animals are Cain’s concern. So all 4:15 says is that anything that kills Cain will experience vengeance. The sevenfold bit is likely intended to convey the certainty of this divine promise. Interestingly, Gen 9:5 specifically says that God will exact vengeance on “any beast” (kōl chayyah) which takes the lifeblood of a human being because “…in the image of God He made man” (9:6). This is quite similar to the prohibition against killing Cain here in 4:15. In sum, 4:15 does not necessarily say anything about what would happen if another human were to kill Cain. It may simply be God’s statement of protection on Cain who is afraid that wild animals will kill him once he leaves the protection of the settlement where his parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, etc. lived.
3. The “mark” of Cain need not be restricted to something humans would respond to.
There has been a great deal of ultimately useless speculation about the “mark” or “sign” that God put upon Cain, but one thing that has tended to be overlooked is the use of this same Hebrew term (ōth) in Gen 9. We assume that the “mark” was a warning to humans, but in Gen 9, this same term is used of a “sign” (in this case a rainbow) given to signify a covenant between God, man and “every living creature” (9:12). In other words, there is a context within Genesis for this term being used as a sign to animals. My point is simply that the “mark” on Cain could have been something that would warn animals off, though we still have no idea what precisely this might have been.
4. Cain probably took his wife with him rather than finding her in Nod.
What about Cain’s wife? Where did she come from? Well, she probably came from the community from which Cain was exiled. When we assume (probably mistakenly) that Cain was worried about other humans killing him after he left the protection of his community, we read the following verse in light of this assumption. So, when we read in v. 17 that Cain “had relations with his wife” we assume that he must have found this wife somewhere in the land of Nod. But why? The text doesn’t say that he found her there. The text only says that they had children while they were living there. There are two possibilities: 1) he might have found his wife there or 2) she might have traveled there with him after he was excommunicated. In nearly every respect, #2 is the more likely option since there is absolutely nothing in the text itself to suggest that he found her in Nod. So why do we assume he found her in Nod? Simply because we have misread 4:14 as implying that other humans were “out there” and then reinforced that misinterpretation by misinterpreting a subsequent text: “Cain was worried about other people killing him so they must have been out there and, look, he found someone else ought there and married her, so there must have been other people ought there to be worried about!” That’s actually a pretty tangled interpretive web, but the alternative is much more plausible: Cain was worried about being killed by wild animals when he left the protection of the settlement he (and all humans so far!) had been living in, but when he left, he took his wife (and probably some kids and grand-kids) with him and they started a new settlement in Nod. Had Cain really waited 130 years to take a wife? Probably not and in the Ancient Near East, if the patriarch of a family moved, so did the rest of the clan.
5. The name “Nod” was familiar to Moses’ audience and doesn’t imply that people were already living there before Cain arrive.
But doesn’t the fact that Nod was already named mean that there were people already living there? Not necessarily. The fact that the area is identified by name doesn’t require that there were already people living there who had named it. Remember, Genesis was being written quite some time later to the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt. So, Moses identified places by names with which his audience was familiar. In effect, he said “Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land [which we know as] Nod, east of Eden” (4:16). We find this sort of practice throughout Genesis (cf. 2:14).
6. Cain and his family were likely the first humans to leave the original community.
If we think about it for a moment, it’s a little strange to think that there were already been people who had left the settlement established after Adam and Eve were excluded from Eden. The point of this whole narrative seems to be that Cain’s punishment was exclusion from the community, and it seems that he was so upset by this punishment precisely because he couldn’t imagine any human being surviving outside that community. Once we set aside what is likely a false perception of his fear being about other humans, this is the most natural reading of his statement in 4:14: “I will be a vagrant and a wanderer.” Both terms imply a man without a community. But if there were other communities out there, then two questions would have to be answered.
First, we would have to answer the question of why those descendants of Adam would have already left the community. It wasn’t like the modern world where people leave their hometown all the time for better opportunities elsewhere. In the ancient world, people only left their community because they had to. In other words, something big would have had to have happened to force them out…something like what happened with Cain. But if something else like this had already forced some people out of the community, then why wouldn’t it have been mentioned in Genesis? The flow of the text strongly implies that Cain is the first person being forced to leave the community. The idea that people had already voluntarily left the community to start new ones simply doesn’t make a lot of sense.
The second question we would have to answer is this: even if there were other humans who had voluntarily left the original community to start new ones, why would Cain have been worried that they would kill him? This would imply either some kind of serious conflict between the exiles and the remaining inhabitants of the original community or the idea that murder was relatively common among human beings at this point. But if there had been such a serious conflict that the exiles who had been forced out were just waiting to exact their revenge on the remaining inhabitants, then wouldn’t that have been mentioned in Genesis? And if murder was common enough among humans at this point for Cain to be worried about it, they why is Cain’s murder given such prominence in the text? It might be the case that Cain’s murder was worse than any other because it involved the direct descendants of Adam, but it seems far more likely that Cain’s murder was a big deal because it was the first murder ever.
7. Enoch was probably not Cain’s first child.
Gen 4:17 says that after arriving in Nod, Cain and his wife had a child and built a city, naming the city after the child, Enoch. On the surface this might suggest that this was their first child, but this is actually unlikely. If this was all happening some 130 years after Adam’s creation, then that would make Cain 128 or so, assuming Adam and Eve started having kids right away (which again seems likely given the command to “be fruitful and multiply”). Even if Cain had to wait a while for other humans to come of age before marrying (and let’s just not think about that too, too much, ok? icky) is it likely that Cain waited a century or more to take a wife? Chances are, Enoch was not their first child. Far more likely is the idea that the child is specifically named not because he was their firstborn, but because he was the first child born outside of the community from which Cain had just been excommunicated. It is also likely that Cain’s family (wife plus previously born children and maybe even grand-children) together built the city they named after the first child born in that land. After all, building a city is a lot of work for one man! And on a related note: if there had already been inhabitants in Nod, then why was Cain building what appears to be the first city there?
All together, it seems likely that Cain wasn’t worried about meeting other descendants of Adam who would kill him. He was worried about what would happen to him after he and his family left the protection of the only human community in existence at the time. Rather than finding people in Nod, he brought the people with him, just like Abraham would later do, though for far more pleasant reasons!