Thursday, 20 February 2014

Even some conservative theologians agree that Cain did not marry his sister

One of the ironies of the evolution-creation debate is that the fundamentalists, who pride themselves on reading the creation narrative literally are in fact guilty of selectively applying this exegetical metric in order to preserve their view of Genesis from contradiction. Evading the clear teaching of Gen 1:6-8 that  the Earth was covered with a solid firmament separating waters above from waters below is perhaps the classic example [1-2] of this gross inconsistency in fundamentalist / YEC interpretation of the creation narratives. The other is the allusion to the existence of people at the time of Adam and Eve.

Many Sunday School teachers would have had to deal with the penetrating questions of the student who pointed out that if Cain and Abel were the only children born to Adam and Eve, the references to Cain taking a wife and fleeing from possible murder would make no sense since apart from Cain, the only other people around were his parents. Those students are correct to point this out, as a plain reading of the text makes no reference to anyone else other than these four people.

Fundamentalist explanations of this problem are frankly pathetic, as they postulate the existence of scores of unnamed children to Adam and Eve, despite the fact that a literal reading of Gen 4 - one that the fundamentalists pride themselves on following - clearly states that the only two children born to Adam and Eve were Cain and Abel. Only in chapter 5 do we see any reference to other children, and tellingly there is no explicit reference to them existing before Abel's murder. Any attempt to insert these children into the narrative of Genesis 4 frankly smacks of desperation, and flatly ruled out by the fact that in Gen 4v26, Eve states that Seth had been given to her as a replacement for Abel, a statement which is meaningless if Adam and Eve had scores of other children at this time.

A plain reading of Gen 4 ironically solves the problem; the fact that Cain was worried about being killed implies the existence of people other than his immediate family. It's also a reading that has considerable support among conservative scholars. Dale Moody, writing over 45 years ago flatly stated that the narrative implied the existence of people other than Cain and his parents:
‘The origin of Cain‘s wife is an old debate, but the mark of Cain assumes the presence of other tribes that would attack Cain as he went as a vagabond through the earth. It is little help to hear the fundamentalists explain how this would be done by his brothers and sisters born later or his nieces and nephews. The famous four (Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel) are only representative human beings at the dawn of civilization, not the only human beings. There is plenty of room here for L. S. B. Leackey’s discoveries in Adam‘s Ancestors.’ (Emphasis mine) [3]
Hamilton likewise argued that:
This statement suggests that at this point there are people in the world besides Adam, Eve, and Cain. The existence of others is also indicated later by the reference to Cain‘s wife (v. 17).’ [4]
Claus Westermann warns against the common fundamentalist error of reading the narratives with inappropriate modern historiographical standards:
"Even if Cain is described as the son of the first couple (and this information belongs to the genealogy, not the narrative) then the conclusion does not necessarily follow that at that time there could not have been other human beings. One should not apply criteria belonging to historical thought patterns to the presentation of the primeval events. When Cain presumes that there are other people “out there”, he is speaking in an utterly unreflective manner." [5] (Emphasis mine)
Moody, Hamilton and Westermann correctly note that a plain reading of the text lends no support to the fundamentalist argument that Cain ran in terror from his brothers and committed incest. The narrative simply assumes the existence of other people, and accepts that its readers would realise this fact as well.

Of course, for those who accept the essential historicity of the narratives, it is a valid question to ask from where Cain took a wife. It is impossible to answer this question with certainty, but our understanding of the history of Mesopotamia at this time suggests a few possibilities: 
‘The identity of the group from which Cain secured his wife is unknown. The setting is obviously in southern Mesopotamia and possibly the settlement involved flourished in the Ubaid period. Alternatively, Cain‘s wife may have come from some such group as the Rephaim or the Nephilim, both of which lived before the Flood. Certain writers have suggested the presence in southern Mesopotamia of pre-Adamic species, perhaps dating from the Neolithic period, which were subsequently drowned by the Flood, but this is speculative.’ [6]
It is surely a sign of the intellectual bankruptcy of fundamentalist interpretations of Genesis that they are prepared to postulate incest (the male children of Adam and Eve would be marrying their sister according to the demands of fundamentalist exegesis) rather than abandon monogenism and their irrational fear of evolution, and actually take the text on its own merits.


1. Enns P "The Firmament of Genesis 1 is Solid but That's Not The Point" Science and the Sacred Jan 14th 2010
2. Seely PH "The Firmament and the Water Above Part 1: The Meaning of raqia' in Genesis 1:6-8" Westminster Theological Journal (1991) 53:227-40
3. Moody, ‘Tabletalk on Theology Tomorrow’, Review & Expositor (1967) 64:345
4. Hamilton, ‘The Book of Genesis’, New International Commentary of the Old Testament, p. 223 (1990). 
5. Westermann, ‘A Continental Commentary: Genesis 1-11’, p. 311 (1994). 
6. Harrison, ‘Cain’, in Bromiley (ed.), ‘The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia’, volume 1, p. 517 (1988; rev. ed. 2002)