So, where did Cain get his wife?
This question is a real head scratcher, a favorite of skeptics and a longtime puzzle for those who want to understand the Bible. The difficulty in trying to resolve this question is that the Bible does not give us an obvious answer. We have to look at different clues from within the text to try to figure this out. Nevertheless, the question of Cain’s wife allows us to explore some of the challenges when trying to interpret difficult passages within the Bible.
The Genre of the Tragic Story of Cain and His Brother Abel
The first thing to consider is the genre of Genesis 4. When we read this famous story of Cain and his brother Abel, we rightly get the sense that this is speaking of history. But it would be a bit premature to think that the writer of Genesis is merely giving us a type of 21st century, modern historiography. After all, it would be strange to imagine David McCullough neglecting to tell us about the origin of Cain’s wife.
It would appear that there is more going on in Genesis 4 than simply a type of CNN news report. Bible scholars are divided on the specifics, but most recognize that Genesis fits into a particularly unique literary genre: part history, and part theological polemic against ancient worldviews that are hostile to the faith of the Hebrews. It is a type of writing that would have made complete sense to the intended audience thousands of years ago when it was written. Nevertheless, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we can be confident that God sought to use this ancient literary style to reveal His timeless truth that transcends every age, including our own. As Wheaton College Old Testament scholar, John Walton, reminds us, the Bible was not written to us, but it was written for us.
The answer to the rather obscure, “Cain’s wife” question is not obvious to us today, nor is really that important. On the other hand, we are held accountable to the clearly God-given, central teaching that Genesis 4 places in front of us. For example, archaeological discoveries mainly in the 19th century have shown us that there were competing narratives among the nations that surrounded ancient Israel that sought to describe early human history. According to conservative evangelical British Old Testament scholar, Gordon Wenham, the ancient Sumerian flood story tells us that the gods rescued the early humans from a nomadic, wandering lifestyle. Genesis, on the other hand, gives us a completely opposite picture. God’s judgment on Cain for killing his brother Abel sent him away as a fugitive and a nomad (Genesis 4:12). God punished Cain for his rebellious sin, a theme of moral and spiritual accountability to the Creator that is absent in those other pagan stories. (Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary, Genesis 1-15, pp.98-99)
Nevertheless, the mark that God placed on Cain as a sign of God’s judgment was also a sign of God’s grace and mercy for Cain’s protection. God had every right to destroy Cain for his sin, but the Lord spared Cain. Other characters within the story, such as Cain’s wife, do not serve the main purpose for which the writer of Genesis is writing. The author’s focus here in Genesis 4 is on Cain, his moral failure, and God’s dealings with him, as a means of instructing us today about God’s righteous character. God indeed punishes sin, but God also has in mind His purposes of redemption, a theme that anticipates the coming of Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the one who would conquer sin and death once and for all.
The tragedy for skeptical readers of Genesis is that it becomes all too easy to dismiss the story of Cain and Abel as some type of clumsy narrative, simply because we have no appreciation for this unique, ancient literary genre. Instead, as one explores the delicate nuances of the text, you begin to appreciate just how absolutely brilliant the sacred writer is in doing his work, masterfully focusing on the right details to expose the deceptive nature of the human heart, as well as pointing towards the ultimate cure!
The Difficult Context for Discovering the Identity of Cain’s Wife
Ah, but what about the origin of Cain’s wife? That still nags in peoples’ minds, does it not? So for the still curious, this is where things can get speculative. Here is where the importance of context comes into play when trying to interpret the Bible. But we must be careful here. Caution is in order as the contextual evidence is not very clear.
There are commonly two different answers given to the “Cain’s wife” question. Neither solution is without difficulties, but both solutions appeal to other evidence within the text.
The first and most common solution observes that in Genesis 5:4, Adam, and therefore Eve, had many sons and daughters. This would imply that over time, Cain would have had no difficulty in finding a mate.
The difficulty with this solution is that it would require that Cain had married his sister, or possibly even a niece. Does this not conflict with the prohibition against marrying one’s sister, or another close relative, as in Leviticus 18:6-18?
Defenders of this view argue that, while there have always been certain prohibitions against incest, such as marrying one’s mother, there are other prohibitions against incest that only became prohibitions later in human history. In those early years, the genetic code carried by these first humans was still relatively intact and undamaged by human sin. Therefore, it would have been permissible, and sometimes even necessary, to marry one’s sister, as with Cain, or even in the case of Abraham, to marry one’s half-sister (Genesis 20:12). Only later, as sin progressed throughout humanity did the genetic makeup become so deformed that the prohibitions against incest were expanded to protect humans against further degeneration.
Honestly, I have never been particularly impressed by this answer. I find it ironic that in making such an answer, it actually creates another, more serious problem. Effectively, this view argues that God’s moral law changes over time. It suggests that God’s moral law, at least in certain matters, is not bound up to reflect God’s righteous, immutable character. Rather, it is subject to practical considerations. Who is then to say that God could not change His moral law in certain areas yet again, and therefore permit some traditional forms of incest, particularly in view of the continuing advances in contemporary genetic medicine, that may potentially correct the spread of genetic corruption?
This sounds too much like the argument that God permitted King David’s or Solomon’s polygamist relationships with multiple wives as a practical means of giving provision and protection for women who could not find a husband, as well as securing progeny. This would be despite the fact that God, in general, only affirms monogamy. Joseph Smith used this type of logic to revive polygamy in nineteenth century Mormonism, to supposedly provide the persecuted restoration movement of the Latter-Day Saints with plenty of children and guarantee salvation for unmarried women.
Furthermore, if we really take seriously the biblical command that “a man leaves his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife (Genesis 2:24 ESV),” the thought of Cain marrying his sister as being somehow “OK” is terribly unnerving. The idea of a man leaving his parents gives the sense of starting a new family with his wife. But if his wife is his sister, living in his parents’ home, then how does that work? Does Cain, and other early humans like him, somehow get some sort of special pass on that?
We live in a day and a age when many are trying to say that God’s moral law, particularly in matters related to sexual ethics, changes over time. To then argue for changing standards for incest throughout history sounds particularly dangerous to me. One could argue back and say that such changes in God’s moral standards are only in the past and that matters are currently fixed now as they are set forth in the Bible. Therefore, as declared by the Law of Moses, incest is always wrong for us today, and we are not at liberty to alter God’s command. Such a caveat is reasonable, but not entirely convincing. It still seems like it leaves the door open for trouble.
So while this view is surely possible, I simply find it difficult to accept without some serious reservations. Frankly, the whole thing is just a bit too weird for me.
Another Approach to the Identity of Cain’s Wife
A second solution to the “Cain’s wife” problem appeals to another observation of the biblical context, this time within the same verse. In Genesis 4:17, we read:
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 (ESV).
Perhaps the question is too obvious, but if Cain and his parents were pretty much the only people around, who were the other people who would occupy such a city that Cain built? Here is another clue: earlier in verse 14, Cain is fearful that other people might find him and kill him after God sent him out to live a nomadic type of existence. Again, we can ask, where did these other people come from who might threaten his life?
The solution then proposes that there were other humans around at the time of Cain. These other people would have helped Cain to settle this city of Enoch, as well as providing for Cain a wife who is not strictly a blood relative. Would it not be possible for God to have created other humans not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, creating them in the image of God as well, so that Cain and others might have other possible mates?
A modified proposal suggests that there could have been other human-like creatures around at the time, thus providing a strange but possible mate for Cain to intermarry. C.S. Lewis wondered about something like this. In view of some of the recent scientific evidence that the early humans did sometimes intermarry with the Neanderthals, this could not be too far from the truth.
Whatever the specific proposal, such a view preserves the idea that an historical Adam is indeed our common ancestor. But on the other hand, Adam would not be our sole progenitor.
The advantage of this view is that it fits in well with the latest scientific research regarding the origins of the earliest humans. Genetic research over the past twenty years or so suggests that the earliest human population must have been within the neighborhood of some 10,000 people to then account for the type of genetic biodiversity we see today in modern humans. This “genetic bottleneck” negates the idea that there were only two original humans. Is it merely a coincidence that 10,000 is about the size of a decent city, possibly even the size of the city of Enoch? (for an Evolutionary Creationist positive case for this, see Dennis Venema here. For a Young Earth rebuttal, see Brian Thomas here. For an Old Earth rebuttal, see Fuz Rana here).
The disadvantage of this view is that it goes against the traditional idea that Adam and Eve were the sole human parents of all subsequent humans, as implied by Genesis 3:20 (unless you accept something like the Neanderthal intermarriage possibility). Some argue that if Adam and Eve were not the physical parents of all subsequent humans that this would somehow interfere with the transmission of original sin through the human lineage (see this selection from 4 Ezra 3:7-22, otherwise known as 2 Esdras, apocryphal Jewish literature that would have been well known at the time of Jesus).
Do Not Get Too Hung Up On the Mystery of “Cain’s Wife”
As a I mentioned in the beginning of this blog post, the Bible does not give us an obvious answer. Speculation is, after all, speculation. I, for one, am perfectly content to leave this question simply as an unresolved mystery hidden within the mind of God, and that might be the best way to handle these type of difficulties. One should not be too dogmatic in requiring a specific answer for where the biblical context is not completely clear. In considering this type of question, it should be sufficient to know that there are reasonable possible solutions available, with pros and cons to each possibility. Our faith does not hinge on such questions. Rather, we should be more concerned about the clear teaching of Genesis 4, keeping in mind that God indeed punishes sin but nevertheless extends His gracious mercy towards us, in full anticipation of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ!