Commentary on Genesis 4

Last updated: May 1, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.” 2And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, 5but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

8Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. 11And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. 16Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

17Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch. 18To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad fathered Mehujael, and Mehujael fathered Methushael, and Methushael fathered Lamech. 19And Lamech took two wives. The name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. 20Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. 21His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. 22Zillah also bore Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron. The sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.

23Lamech said to his wives:

“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
24If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold,
then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.”

25And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.” 26To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the LORD.

Notes

1 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.”

“There is a play on the name Cain, something like ‘I have gained Cain’”1. “Man” is used nowhere else to describe a baby boy2. Eve is the first person in the Bible to pronounce the divine name Yahweh.

2 And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground.

“The lack of the formula ‘she conceived and bore’ led to the tradition that Cain and Abel were twins”3. Abel’s name means “(transitory) breath”4. There must have been domesticated animals for Abel to be a keeper of sheep. Since mankind was vegetarian until after the flood the animals must have been used for milk, hides, and wool. Cain is a worker of the ground, like Adam (2:15; 3:17-19, 23).

3-5 In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.

The reason for God’s acceptance of Abel and his offering but not Cain and his offering is not explicitly stated and has been the subject of disagreement among commentators. Abel offers the firstborn of his flock but Cain does not offer the firstfruits of the ground. In Israelite religion, the heart of the one offering the sacrifice determined whether the sacrifice was effective5. Cain’s keeping of the best produce for himself indicates his heart was not as upright as Abel’s. The subsequent narrative also shows that Cain does not have an obedient heart.

6-7 The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

The remedy to Cain’s anger is to do well. God’s questions are an invitation to Cain to reflect on his heart and actions. “The Hebrew word for ‘crouching’ is the same as an ancient Babylonian word referring to an evil demon crouching at the door of a building to threaten the people inside. Sin may thus be pictured here as just such a demon, waiting to pounce on Cain — it desires to have him. He may already have been plotting his brother’s murder”6. At this point in time it is still possible for Cain to master sin through repentance.

8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.

The Masoretic Text (MT) does not contain the words spoken by Cain, while the Samaritan, Greek (LXX), Syriac, and Latin (Vulgate) have Cain say, “Let’s go out to the field”. The scribe may have skipped from the first phrase containing the word “field” to the second7. Cain speaking to his brother shows that the murder was premeditated8. “Rather than accept God’s decision, he rejects the one God has accepted. But this reaction only exacerbates Cain’s dilemma. He has eliminated Abel, but what will he do with God?”9

9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

God’s question to Cain is reminiscent of his question to Adam in 3:9. Adam reluctantly admitted his sin (3:10) but Cain responds with a lie. Cain’s question is an attempt to absolve himself of responsibility. He expected a negative reply to his rhetorical question. God’s reply makes it clear that humans have a moral responsibility to each other.

10 And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.

In the previous story God asked Cain’s mother what she had done (3:13). The word for “voice” is singular while the word for “blood” is plural. Therefore the blood must be the subject of the plural verb “crying”. For this reason Richard Elliott Friedman10 sees the voice, or sound, as an interjection: “The sound! Your brother’s blood is crying.” The cry of Abel’s blood refutes Cain’s claim that he does not know where Abel is.

11-12 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.

In 3:17 the ground is cursed on Adam’s account and he has to work the ground to feed himself. Here Cain is cursed from the ground and will no longer receive its bounty even when he does work the ground. This is the first curse of a human. The language of the curse of the serpent (3:14) parallels the curse language in this verse. “A fugitive and a wanderer” is a hendiadys meaning Cain will be a “ceaseless wanderer”11. “Cain is not being condemned to a Bedouin-like existence; the terminology is too extreme to describe such a life-style. Rather it seems likely that the curse on Cain reflects the expulsion from the family that was the fate in tribal societies of those who murdered close relatives”12.

13-14 Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”

Cain reacts with self-pity, not remorse. Since Eve is the mother of all the living (3:20), Cain must fear being killed by his own relative.

15 Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him.

Just as in chapter 3, there is some mitigating grace alongside the punishment13. The sevenfold vengeance expresses the certainty and severity of God’s vengeance against a vigilante.

[The mark] has been persistently misunderstood. The reference is not to a stigma of infamy but to a sign indicating that the bearer is under divine protection. Hebrew ‘ot here probably involves some external physical mark, perhaps on the forehead, as in Ezekiel 9:4-6, serving the same function as the blood of the paschal lamb smeared on the lintels and doorposts of each Israelite house in Egypt. It is also possible, though less likely, that the “sign” consists of some occurrence that serves to authenticate the divine promise as being inviolable. In that case, the text would be rendered: “The LORD gave Cain a [confirmatory] sign that no one who met him would kill him.”14

16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

Nod is a play on the Hebrew nad, the participle of “to wander” in verses 12 and 1415. The wanderer ends up in the land of wandering. Cain is expelled (further) east of Eden like his parents in 3:24.

17 Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch.

Where did Cain’s wife come from? From the other sons and daughters of Adam (5:4).

Why is the ceaseless wanderer Cain building a city? Nahum M. Sarna thinks it was for his son Enoch16. Victor P. Hamilton suggests “that Cain’s act of city building is an attempt to provide security for himself, a security he is not sure that God’s mark guarantees. In the words of J. Ellul, Cain ‘wants to find alone the remedy for a situation he created, but which he cannot himself repair because it is a situation dependent on God’s grace’”17. Other commentators propose an emendation whereby Enoch is the builder of the city and the city is named after Irad, which sounds similar to Eridu, the oldest city according to Mesopotamian tradition18.

18 To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad fathered Mehujael, and Mehujael fathered Methushael, and Methushael fathered Lamech.

The Hebrew allows (not requires) for their to be a gap between the generations listed in this verse19.

19-22 And Lamech took two wives. The name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. Zillah also bore Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron. The sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.

This is the Bible’s first polygamous marriage and it goes against the ideal of monogamy (2:24). Nearly every polygamous household in the Bible suffers domestic struggles20.

The names of the sons rhyme21. Jabal means “to bring in procession”, Jubal means “brought in the procession”, Tubal means “procession”, and Naamah means “pleasant, graceful, gorgeous”. The names of the sons are festive ones22.

In Mesopotamian tradition the founding of the elements of culture were ascribed to seven antediluvian sages (apkallu, fish-men). Genesis is different in that it shows that cultural achievements are the works of humans and not sages or deities23. The line of Cain is responsible for important cultural discoveries like husbandry, music, and metallurgy. Its seven generations parallels the seven days of creation in 1:1-2:3.

It is often suggested that there is both an inconsistency and an anachronism with two of these three sons. Jabal is identified as the ancestor of tent dwellers and those having livestock. Was not Abel already described as a keeper of sheep? How then can Jabal be identified as the progenitor? The answer is found in the fact that the word that describes Jabal’s animals (miqneh) is a much broader term than that used to describe Abel’s flocks (so’n). This second term refers only to smaller cattle, sheep, and goats. miqneh is a comprehensive term, including, for example, even camels and donkeys, and should be treated as livestock.

Tubal-cain is identified as the hammerer of (those) fashioning bronze and iron. According to most reconstructions of ancient history, human advancement in civilization proceeded through four periods: Stone Age (100,000 B.C. – 4000 B.C.); Chalcolithic Age (4000 B.C. – 3200 B.C.); Bronze Age (3200 B.C. – 1200 B.C.); Iron Age (1200 B.C. – 330 B.C.). By contrast, this verse seems to suggest the simultaneous use rather than the sequential use of bronze and iron. Also some translations (RSV “forger”) suggest the advanced disciplines of smelting and forging. The participle we have translated hammerer (lotes) is from the verb latas, “to hammer, sharpen, whet.” The reference here may be to meteoric iron and surface deposits of copper, of which there are examples from the 3rd millennium B.C. (iron magnet amulets) and even from the 6th millennium B.C. (copper objects from Turkey).24

23-24 Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.”

Lamech celebrates his violence, signaling that Cain’s violence has been passed on despite cultural advancements. Lamech’s so-called “Song of the Sword” suggests he had no problem taking the law into his own hands. Note that he kills those who wound or strike him. His revenge is excessive.

25 And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.”

This is the only verse in 2:4-4:26, outside of the dialogue between the woman and the serpent in 3:1-5, where Elohim occurs alone. “There it is found in the setting of deception and distrust, but now it appears to be Eve’s deliberate, though late, rejoinder to the serpent’s cynicism toward God’s goodness”25.

26 To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the LORD.

“The most important cultural institution of civilization, authentic worship, was not founded by a son of the wrathful Cain, but by the replacement of the favored Abel”26.

According to the custom of primogeniture, the firstborn received the bounty of parental inheritance (Deut 21:17), but from the viewpoint of Genesis as a whole, it is not surprising that the firstborn in whom Adam and Eve had so much hope would be refused for another. This rejection of the firstborn for the younger son (in this case Seth) portends the common pattern witnessed among the patriarchs where the custom of primogeniture is superseded by divine election and the outworking of covenant promise. God’s gracious dealings with Israel also were initiated by his elective love (Deut 4:37; 7:7-8), but the Mosaic covenant included moral demands. Israel’s acceptance was not automatic due to their status as God’s “firstborn.” Cain and his unrighteous offspring served as a reminder to Israel that its destiny was measured in the scales of ethical behavior.27

Many commentators have attached special significance to the mention of the LORD here: they interpret it to mean “This was the first time men began to address God in prayer as the LORD.” It is said that whereas E (Exod 3:14-15) and P (Exod 6:3) date the introduction of the name “Yahweh” to the time of Moses, here J brings it back to primeval times. However, this view is not tenable for the following reasons: First, J has already allowed Eve to mention Yahweh’s name in 4:1 in a prayerlike exclamation, so J can hardly be supposed to be laying stress on the newness of the name in Enosh’s time. Second, as Westermann points out, such an interpretation puts the historical remarks in Exodus on a par with the stories in Gen 1-11. These stories are concerned with universal human institutions and experiences, not with a particular event in the history of Israel. It makes better sense to take this remark as a comment on the fact that all nations worship, not as a comment on the name under which they worship God. Third, it is dubious whether even in the patriarchal narratives the phrase “call on the name of the LORD” means that they were worshiping him as Yahweh. A careful reading of Gen 12-50 suggest that the narrators do not imply that the name “Yahweh” was known before Moses. With Delitzsch, Konig, and Westermann it seems wisest to regard this verse as simply noting the beginning of public worship, a conclusion that receives further support from the Sumerian flood story, which mentions the building of the first cities and the establishment of worship in the pre-flood era.28

Bibliography

CGLLTC: C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary, 2006

FCT: Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, 2001

HCBC: James L. Mays, HarperCollins Bible Commentary, 2000

JPSTCGen: Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 1989

NACGen1: Kenneth A. Matthews, The New American Commentary: Genesis 1-11:26, 1996

NICOTGen1: Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 1990

NIVSB: Kenneth Barker, NIV Study Bible, 1995

NJBC: Raymond E. Brown, New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1990

WBCGen1: Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15, 1987

1[NJBC] 13

2[WBCGen1] 101

3[JPSTCGen] 32

4[NJBC] 13; Ecclesiastes 1:2; Psalm 144:4

51 Samuel 15:14; Hosea 6:6; Matthew 5:24

6[NIVSB] 12

7[FCT] 26

8[NJBC] 13

9[NICOTGen1] 230

10[FCT] 28

11[NJBC] 13

12[WBCGen1] 108

13[HCBC] 87

14[JPSTCGen] 35

15[NJBC] 13

16[JPSTCGen] 36

17[NICOTGen1] 238

18[WBCGen1] 111

19[CGLLTC] 203-207

20[NICOTGen1] 238

21[NJBC] 13

22[NICOTGen1] 239-240

23[NACGen1] 283-284

24[NICOTGen1] 239

25[NACGen1] 290

26[NJBC] 13

27[NACGen1] 269

28[WBCGen1] 116

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