How old was Cain when he 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
- The probability = ½ to the power of the number of generations, or 1/29. Return to text.
- 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.
- 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.
- Sarfati, J., creation.com/timing-of-events-noahs-life, 12 March 2011. Return to text.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.