Click here to view CMI's position on climate change.
This article is from
Creation 36(2):16–17, April 2014

Browse our latest digital issue Subscribe

How old was Cain when he killed Abel?


iStockphoto.com/SergeylT Cain-killed-Abel
“And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.” Gen 4:8

The story of the first murder in world history is a sad one, but it also raises many questions about the Bible. Some of these questions seem difficult to answer, but they are not at all tricky when put into the proper biblical context.

Recently, a new (to me) question came up in a discussion with a Christian writer: how old were Cain and his younger brother Seth when they each married? He insinuated they would have waited a long time to get married—time for sisters younger than Seth to be born and to grow up. From context, he thought there were no other women around at the time for them to have been marrying. After all, Seth, the third named child of Adam and Eve was born when Adam was 130 years old (Genesis 5:3), so Cain would have had a long wait, right?

“When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. The days of Adam after he fathered Seth were 800 years; and he had other sons and daughters.” (Genesis 5:3–4).

Actually, Cain and Seth may not have had to wait at all to get married once they came of age. It is true that Cain was firstborn (Genesis 4:1), but Scripture does not say anything about when sisters were born, nor does it say that Seth was the third child or even the third son. We know that Seth was born when Adam was 130 years old, but also after another brother, Abel, was killed:

“Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.” (Genesis 4:8).
“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.’” (Genesis 4:25).

Seth being the third named son means little in regards to birth rank. And think about it: 130 years is a long time for Eve to have had a mere three children! That’s only one child every 43 years. Seeing that Adam and Eve were commanded to reproduce (Genesis 1:28), it might be assumed that Cain was born pretty early, perhaps a year or two after Creation Week. Abel was born after that, but not necessarily next. His name appears next, but this is because he is an important part of the story. Yet even if Abel was the second child, it is unlikely that Seth was the third.

Since Seth was prophetically named by his mother (his name sounds like “he appointed” in Hebrew), it is reasonable to suspect that he was the first son born after Abel died. This means there may have been sons born between Abel and Seth. It is true that Seth was in the lineage of Noah, but the rest of the men in that line are not likely to have been first-born children either. In fact, the likelihood is vanishingly small. If sons and daughters are equally likely to be born, there is less than a 0.2% chance that a son will be the firstborn nine generations in a row.1 This is also assuming the named son is the oldest son, which is not at all stated in the text. In fact, if they were all oldest sons, the average age at which each father had his first son over those first nine generations is 117! It is more likely that Genesis simply records the lineage of Noah and does not mention other children in each family. If you think being the oldest is important,2 this is only really true in Scripture for the person of Jesus Christ, the firstborn of Mary.3 Nearly all the important men in the biological lineage of Jesus, including Seth, Shem,4 Abraham,5 Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and David were younger brothers. Other significant younger brothers include Joseph and Solomon, among others.

In context, Cain may have been approaching 130 years old when he murdered his brother. Thus, somewhere in that 130-year window, and likely close to the birth of Seth, was the world’s first recorded murder. One caveat is that Abel does not seem to have left any offspring, so he was possibly not yet married and therefore probably still a young man.

I know the formula “and he had other sons and daughters” sounds like the daughters always come after the first son is born, but I would argue it is more likely that Cain was of marrying age (and quite probably was already married, although we can never know), that there were already sisters present, that it is likely there were already unnamed brothers, and that Cain was perhaps already in his 120s when he murdered Abel. This is speculative, true, but this is more likely than Cain waiting to get married until after Seth was born and after sisters were born after Seth, and then waiting for them to grow up. It is even worse if he had to wait for nieces or grandnieces to come of age. The reproductive potential of people even in modern times (one child, on average, every 3–5 years when heavily nursing) suggests the named biological lineage is just a selection of all children born in the Genesis years.

The old question, “Where did Cain get his wife?” is answered in this way: he married his sister, and may have been married before he killed his brother, for she is mentioned as soon as Cain moves away.

“Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. 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.” (Genesis 4:16–17).

By the way, God did not institute any law against marrying close kin until 2,500 years later, in the time of Moses (Leviticus 18:10). Consider some of the important instances listed in the Bible: Noah’s grandchildren must have married each other (all of whom were cousins or siblings). Abraham married his half-sister Sarah (Genesis 20:12). Abraham’s son Isaac married his closer-than-a-cousin Rebecca.6 And Jacob married his much-closer-than-cousins Leah and Rachel.7 In those early years, there was no law against marrying close kin.

Another old argument is that Adam and Eve were not the first people and that the Bible talks about other people around at the time:

“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.’” (Genesis 4:13–14).

But there is no need to argue that there were other people on earth at the time of Adam and Eve! First of all, the context is about 130 years after the initial creation. And it is quite likely that Cain feared retribution from the living relatives of the murder victim, that is, the individuals born during those many decades. From context, from the genealogical data, and from the order of events given to us in Genesis, there is enough time for all these things to be true at the same time.

References and notes

  1. The probability = ½ to the power of the number of generations, or 1/29. Return to text.
  2. While it is true that the oldest son had a special status, including receiving a double portion of the inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:15–17), God seems to have ignored the importance of birth order for much of biblical history, especially that portion of the history that includes the line of Christ. Return to text.
  3. Jesus was demonstrably the firstborn of Mary, but the New Testament specifically names James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon as brothers, and also mentions unnamed sisters. See Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55–56, John 7:3, Acts 1:14, 1 Corinthians 9:5, and Galatians 1:19. Return to text.
  4. Sarfati, J., creation.com/timing-of-events-noahs-life, 12 March 2011. Return to text.
  5. Note that Abraham was not Terah’s firstborn. Genesis 12:4 says Abraham was 75 when he left Haran. If this was soon after Terah died at 205 (Genesis 11:32), the difference (205–75) means Terah was at least 130 years old when Abraham was born, not 70 (Ussher seems to have been the first modern chronologist to have noticed this point). The latter figure refers to Terah’s age when the oldest of the three sons mentioned was born, probably Haran. See Sarfati, J., Biblical chronogenealogies, J. Creation 17(3):14–18, 2003; creation.com/biblical-chronogenealogies. Return to text.
  6. This gets complicated very quickly. Rebecca was a granddaughter of Isaac’s uncle Nahor, making them first cousins once removed, but also a great-granddaughter of Isaac’s uncle Haran, so they were approximately cousins. But, since Isaac’s parents were half-siblings, this makes his relationship to Rebecca more like uncle to grand-niece (equal to full cousins) plus uncle to great-grandniece (an additional ‘first cousin once removed’ status). Thus, they were closer than cousins. Return to text.
  7. Because of multiple generations of intermarrying within the family line, they were simultaneously his cousins, twice second cousins once removed, and twice second cousins twice removed. If you find this confusing, and you would be in good company, see the genealogical chart and the calculations of inbreeding coefficients in Carter, R.W., Inbreeding and the Origin of Races: an analysis of Terah‘s family tree, J. Creation 27(3):8–10, 2013. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

The Genesis Account
by Jonathan Sarfati
US $39.00
Hard Cover

Readers’ comments

Shane B.
I have a question in regards to the age of those in the early years of the bible. I know that God says that man's years will be 120, because He will not strive with man's erring, "he is flesh". Genesis 6:3. and Job is questioned in Job 10:5 - Are Your days like the days of man? Are Your years like man's days... Would these years that man lived, e.g. Adam lived 930 years, be proportionate to the years man lives today in skin complexity and degeneration? I have always wondered how man could have lived for so long.
Robert Carter
You can find these answers by digging through creation.com. Try the handy search box on the top right of the page. But I'll help you out. Start with Living for 900 Years.
Glenn G.
Cain was born in the year 70 and Abel born in the year 77. Cain killed Abel when Cain was 29, Abel was 22, the earth was 99. Cain married his sister. Cain died in the same year that Adam died when his house collapsed on him.
Robert Carter
You seem to be getting your numbers from the book of Jubilees (the 'house collapsing on him' was the giveaway), which I believe is only considered canonical by Bete Israel and the Eastern Orthodox church. All other Jewish, Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant denominations consider it pseudoepigraphical. While the stories in Jubilees are interesting, one needs to be careful when referencing them as the book is not part of the Bible. See the Authority of Scripture and How Did We Get our Bible? for starters.
Rofhiwa T.
In this context the next question would be, which year did Adam and Eve fall? Did any of their children experience Eden?
Robert Carter
Standard, historic, Christian theology says that we are cursed ‘in’ Adam (cf. Romans 5:12–19, 1 Corinthians 15:21–22) and that no children were born before the Fall. I would add that no children were conceived before the fall. One reason people believe the Fall happened quickly is because Adam and Eve were commanded to reproduce, but the order of events indicates a sequential Creation->Fall->conception->birth of Cain. Thus, the Fall happened before the conception of Cain. Another is because of the great theological difficulties that would ensue if children were born before the Fall. think about it: if there were ‘uncursed’ children running around, one of them could have stood in the place of Christ! To get around this, one ID supporter teaches that the effects of the Fall were retroactive. The ‘progressive creationist’ Hugh Ross believes Adam would have died anyway. And there are other escape mechanisms, but all are designed to steer around a giant, gaping logical hole that is created when one attempts to add time between Creation and the Fall. Thus, none of Adam’s children experienced Eden. See When was Cain conceived and is CMI male-dominated?
Sal H.
Where did Cain get his wife? The scripture says that Adam named his wife Eve because she was the mother of all living.
Garry S.
It would be interesting to know how old Adam was when Eve was created. After all, he said, "At last" etc. and how old was he when the first child was born?
Robert Carter
We will never know how old he was when his first child was born, but one might assume ‘not very’ (that is, at least 9 months), because God had commanded them to procreate (Genesis 1:28). Likewise, we cannot know how old Adam was when Eve was created, but it cannot be more that a few hours for she was created on the same day (Genesis 1:24–31). It would not have taken Adam long to notice that animals come in pairs, and that he, the human, had no partner. Thus, "at last" could easily have been uttered, appropriately, toward the end of a long day of activity.

Addendum: My good friend Dr Jonathan Sarfati says, "'At last' is not a good translation of happa’am, but old-earthers like Hugh Ross love it. It is better translated as “this time”, as explained in Refuting Compromise ch. 2, section “Too little time for all the tasks of Day 6?”; also see The Genesis Account ch. 12, section “Did Adam need to wait longer than Day 6 for Eve?” and William Lane Craig’s intellectually dishonest attack on biblical creationists, section “Happa’am = ‘at last’?”

Dr Don Batten notes that different Bible translations phrase it differently, see the Geneva Bible, KJV, NIV and NASB.
J. R.
140 years of age at that time was considered a young person with people regularly living to over 800 years.
The prohibition against marrying within your immediate family was brought about much later with the appearance of mutated DNA, which started to result in genetic diseases. Adam was created with perfect DNA, because he was created to live forever before the Fall. Eve was formed from Adam's rib so she should have had his DNA also. In a purely scientific sense, the fall started the mutations and they would be recessive for many generations.
Just as the dietary restrictions came about because of the harmful effects of some foods on the body and God wanting to save the early people from diseases, not because the foods are inherently "evil" but just because they are not healthy, the restrictions on procreating with a close relative were brought about to keep His people healthy. Other than the huge genetic problems, marrying your cousin, or even your sister, is not inherently "evil", but the genetics are a very real reason not to do it.
The Bible has many instances where only the historically important people are mentioned, and usually the women were not considered important in the whole scheme of things, unless as in the case of Ruth or Naomi, and of course Mary.
Robert Carter
Most of this was discussed in the article, so thank you for the recapitulation, or other places on creation.com. The only thing I take exception to is the idea that the dietary laws were necessarily for health reasons, but that is not something to debate here!
Dan M.
No sir Dr. Carter.
You make good sense from what is written in scripture and I'm with you. I'm just generalizing, (a bad habit of mine) that Christians must be scholarly in their arguments as I believe you have been. Sorry for the confusion.
God Bless
Dan M.
This is a well written article and makes some very good points that help us understand the word of God better to give a defense. Although we have to be carful not to read to much into or out of Gods word and rely on what is reveled. We shouldn't read anything into Gods word that doesn't fit with the rest of scripture but we likewise shouldn't make literal assumptions and rule out anything Gods word doesn't say that makes sense and aligns with the rest of scripture. For instance, as Dr. Carter mentioned the book of genesis says in 5:4 Adam had sons and daughters. It doesn't say when they were born. After or if they were in between the three sons mentioned. I personally think in between makes good sense but who knows. God chose not to reveal that bit of information to us and I think Gods primary concern is with sin and its solution, (the lineage of Messiah). And remember a 900 year life span is a long time for either argument. As to where Cain got his wife? Biologically speaking there is only one possibility, (with the super natural anything is possible). So that is not a valid argument against scripture any longer, (we've answered that one). As to how old was Cain when he did the deed. Again I think God is primarily focused on and concerned with the deed.
God bless and keep your head buried in his word and the spirit will enlighten.
Robert Carter
Thank you, but I hope you don't think I was reading things into this passage that are not there! I chose my words carefully to avoid most such accusations. And see my earlier comment about the focus of the passage vs. the content in the passage.
Robert B.
Great analysis.

A likely reason for the Bible's failure to provide a full accounting of Adam's children and (great)grandchildren is genealogical.

It's reasonable to expect that many unnamed relatives would have been excluded from any genealogies kept by those who were in the surviving line of descent that led to Noah.
James V.
Great article.

But what about Gen. 4:3-4, which seems to suggest or imply that this was the first time that Cain and Abel presented their offerings before the LORD, being pleased with Abel and his offering but displeased with Cain and his offering.

If this implication is correct, why would it have taken close to 130 years before Cain presented his first offering directly? And if Abel was much younger, why was the timing different for him than for Cain? And why is it that, of all of Cain's siblings, it was Abel that accompanied him?

Is it possible that Cain and Abel were not the first children of Adam & Eve? Is it further possible that both Cain and Abel were relatively young, possibly twins, and that they had just reached the age (whatever that is) where they had the responsibility to start presenting their own sacrifices directly to the LORD at the appointed time and place? This would seem to resolve the questions/concerns I have, and seems plausible. What do you think? I'm sure their may be other solutions.
Robert Carter
Most of the difficulties inherent in this passage are due to the fact that so much time is being crammed into so few verses. The point, obviously, is not to give an all-comprehensive history of those early years, but to flesh out the most salient points.

Note the operating phrase in 4:3 "in the course of time". This indicates the sequence of events being described are not right on top of each other. Also, while the assumption is generally made that this was the first offering, this is not actually stated anywhere. Also not stated is that Cain and Able presented their offerings at the same time, or at the same place, or that they were the only ones doing so.

It is highly unlikely that Cain was not the firstborn. Specifically, see Eve's statement in 4:1. It is also unlikely, but not impossible, that Cain and Able were twins.

There are many different solutions to these chronological questions. Some are better than others. Some of the more traditional ones bring up additional problems. Hence, William Jennings Bryan was stumped by Clarence Darrow while on the stand during the Scopes trial when asked, "Where did Cain get his wife?" Had Bryan delved a little more deeply, as I have attempted to do here, the answer would have come readily. Instead, he was made to look foolish.
Jack L.
My personal opinion slant has always been that Cain was young, because jealousy and murder is typically the error of a young man and Cain had no other role models to compare things to.

I think all questions like this will be answered in the afterlife and I too want answers to questions like this.

Good article.
Robert Carter
Most people have assumed that they were young, but, as I point out in the article, the evidence is not pointing in that direction.
Caleb C.
Very interesting article. I've never thought about Cain's age before. On a somewhat related subject, do you think that Noah could have had other children before the Flood, besides Shem, Ham, and Japheth? I just find it strange that Noah would wait 500 years to have children, and then only have 3. Is it possible that Noah had other children, who became 'prodigals', and the three named sons were the ones who remained faithful to their father and the Lord?
Robert Carter
There is a 'conspicuous absence' of any mention of other children. Specifically, Genesis 6:9 says Noah had three sons, and names them (they were first named at the end of chapter 5). And in v. 18 it says, "But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons' wives with you." So, while there is always a possibility that Noah fathered other children, the weight of evidence says he did not.

Comments are automatically closed 14 days after publication.