A biblical oldie, but goodie: So who was Cain's wife?

LIBBY ASKS:

If human origins began with one couple, Adam and Eve, how did Cain find a wife?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The famous biblical story of Cain, history’s first murderer, includes this old Bible head-scratcher about who his wife could have been. Genesis 4 tells of Cain’s birth, agricultural vocation, rivalry and killing of his younger brother Abel. God curses Cain to wanderings and hard toil in the fields, yet mercifully grants a mysterious “mark” for protection against those who might want to kill him. Cain enters exile “in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” Only then do we learn that Cain is married (verse 17). John Calvin’s classic commentary from 1554 thought the context indicates Cain married in Eden, though others say a wife from Nod is possible.

In the strictly literal reading, after Abel died there would have been only three true human beings, Adam, Eve, and Cain. So, skeptics demand, who was the wife?

At the 1925 “Scopes Trial,” pro-evolution lawyer Clarence Darrow used the wife to ridicule his opponent William Jennings Bryan as he quizzed him about Bible details on the witness stand. (Darrow: “Did you ever discover where Cain got his wife?” Bryan: “No, sir. I leave the agnostics to hunt for her.”) Similarly, scientist Carl Sagan’s novel and movie “Contact” employed Cain’s wife to undermine conservative belief in the Bible.

For modern-day liberals there’s no problem; they figure the early chapters of Genesis are pure myth. Others see some history here but question that Adam and Eve were literally humanity’s first couple. However, Jewish and Christian tradition holds that the Book of Genesis presents humanity’s actual origin with the first parents, Adam and Eve, and Cain as their first child. This sort of historical detail is especially important for evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants.

Ancient Jewish tradition explained that Cain married one of Adam and Eve’s daughters, who are mentioned in chapter 5. That’s the view of the Book of Jubilees (2nd Century B.C.E.), historian Josephus (1st Century C.E.), and the Talmud. Brandeis University exegete Nahum Sarna wrote that “in the present narrative context no other possibility exists.” One ancient midrash named her Awan while ancient rabbinical speculation thought Cain and Abel both married their sisters and Cain killed Abel out of envy and lust because Abel’s wife was more beautiful.

If Cain married his sister, that’s incest. Scandal! The customary explanation is that the Bible didn’t fully define incest alongside other sexual sins till much later, in the time of Moses (Leviticus 18, Deuteronomy 27).

Continue reading "Who was Cain's wife?" by Richard Ostling.

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