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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 4

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter details the tragic story of two Adamic brothers, Cain and Abel, in whose lives there appeared a dramatic acceleration of the disastrous consequences of the Fall, just related in the preceding chapter. Not even the source-splitting critics dared tamper with the placement of this chapter, despite the use of a different name for God. Not only is it a logical development and consequence of events in Genesis 3, but it lays down the basis for the destruction of the world in the Great Deluge, showing how Cain started a wicked generation that ultimately corrupted mankind and "precipitated the Flood,"[1] the narration of that event apparently being already in the mind of the narrator. This, of course, is a marvelous demonstration of the unity of Genesis and another confirmation of the fact that the multiple sources theory postulated upon the use of different names for God "has no substantial basis in the Biblical text."[2] Nor can we accept the assertion that this story is merely a myth. Jesus Christ himself referred to Abel as a "righteous man" (Matthew 23:35; Luke 11:50); and both Cain and Abel are repeatedly referred to in the N.T. as real characters, as in Hebrews 11:4,12:24; 1 John 3:12; and Jude 1:1:11.

The great message of the chapter is that sin is a cancer that grows progressively worse and worse. Eating of the forbidden tree might have appeared to Adam and Eve as a minor event, but when they stood by the grave of Abel, the true nature of what they had done began to be visible. But even that heart-breaking sorrow was only the first little pebble of that tremendous avalanche that would soon engulf all mankind in the floods of the Great Deluge.

Verse 1

And the man knew Eve his wife; and she conceived and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man with the help of Jehovah.

"And the man knew Eve ..." is an expression used in the Bible for sexual intercourse, but it does not mean that this was the first such action on their part, for it is used repeatedly in the same sense, as in Genesis 4:25.

"I have gotten a man with (the help of) Jehovah ..." The italic words are not in the text, making possible an alternate rendition: "I have gotten a man, even the Lord,"[3] or, "I have gotten a man from the Lord."[4] Most scholars today deny that Eve's remark here has any reference to God's promise in Genesis 3:15, but their only reason for this lies embedded in one of their own petty rules, blinding them to the fact that a Great Deliverer is surely promised there. But Eve's mention here of her tragically mistaken view that Cain would be that Deliverer not only confirms the fact of the Deliverer's having been promised, but also the fact of Eve's having believed it. Kline and Ellison both discerned this: Eve's words were "a believing response,"[5] to Genesis 3:15, and, although Ellison designated this rendition as "improbable,"[6] he nevertheless admitted that it is possible. Our own conviction receives this unequivocally as Eve's believing response to the great Protoevangelium in Genesis 3:15. That she was tragically mistaken does not diminish the weight of this.

Verse 2

And again she bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.

The speculation has long prevailed that Cain and Abel were twins, based on the omission of a second statement that Adam knew his wife. This may "very well be the meaning,"[7] but it should not be pressed. Also, it appears that the names of these two brothers were "bestowed by the mother,"[8] which is another hint of the matriarchate, when a man left his father and mother and went to live with his wife, at a time long prior to later customs when the right of naming children was the prerogative of the father. This is another indication of the extreme antiquity of the events of this chapter.

"Keeper of the sheep ... tiller of the ground ..." Both of these occupations were shown to Adam by the Lord, the tilling of the ground by direct commandment, and the keeping of sheep through the provision of clothing by the slaying of animals. It was natural that one of the sons would choose one department, and another the other.

It should be particularly noted that nothing in this chapter indicates either that Cain was the firstborn of Adam and Eve, or that these two were the only children they had. Commentators who speak as if such conclusions were true are ignoring the fact of this entire section of Genesis being an extremely condensed and abbreviated narrative. Adam and Eve lived many centuries and had "sons and daughters" (Genesis 5:4); and the total number of their children could well have been fantastic. Furthermore, the arbitrary placement of this episode in close proximity to the expulsion from Eden is forbidden by the words, "In process of time," in the very next verse. Right here is the true explanation of why Cain was afraid that he would be killed, following the murder of his brother, and also the true explanation of where he got his wife.

Verses 3-5

"And in process of time it came to pass that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto Jehovah. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof, and Jehovah had respect unto Abel and to his offering: but unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell."

"In process of time ..." is an expression that moves this episode to a point long after the events of the preceding chapter.

"Fruit of the ground ... firstlings of his flock ..." The reluctance of present-day exegetes to find the reason for God's displeasure with Cain's offering is due solely to their failure to read the event in the light of N.T. revelation concerning it. Hebrews 11:4 categorically states the reason for the acceptability of Abel's sacrifice as being solely due to his having offered it "by faith," a truth which emphatically declares that he offered in harmony with what God had commanded him to offer. The denial that the institution of sacrifice existed at this early time is a gross error. Could it possibly be supposed that these two brothers spontaneously, voluntarily, and simultaneously decided to honor God with a sacrifice at a time when the instruction was unknown and in the absence of any divine regulations whatever concerning such things? How impossible is such a thing even to be imagined. The N.T. reveals "The Lamb slain from the foundation of the World," (Revelation 13:8, KJV), and there can hardly be any doubt that the offering of a lamb as a sacrifice also dated from the foundation of the world - a truth attested both by type and antitype. Of course, after the intervening millenniums of time, we may easily see why the "firstlings of the flock" pleased God. But, of course, Cain and Abel could not know the future; and their only guide to pleasing God was to do what God had commanded, exactly the thing that Cain did not do.

Having missed the true explanation of this, many of the commentators demonstrate their error by advancing all kinds of contradictory reasons for God's rejecting Cain's offering; "Cain's heart was no more pure,"[9] "He resented having to accept God's Lordship,"[10] Cain's offering was "stinted," and Abel's "unstinted,"[11] "Cain offered ... merely to keep on good terms with God!"[12] Some even allege that it was the "disposition" of the two brothers that made the difference. All such explanations of why God rejected Cain's offering are absolutely unsupported by the text. The evil attitude of Cain did not appear until after his offering was rejected. The amount, or value, of either sacrifice is not even mentioned, nor is there any evidence whatever that Cain resented God's Lordship. John Skinner referred to all such explanations as "arbitrary," and identified God's displeasure as resulting from "the material" of Cain's sacrifice "not in accordance with primitive Semitic ideas of sacrifice."[13] This of course is true, provided that it is also understood that those primitive Semitic ideas of sacrifice had been specifically conveyed to them by the Almighty. Only by this could it possibly be said that Abel's faith enabled the "more excellent sacrifice." Here again is an example of how the man-made rules of the seminarians sometimes throttle their minds and make it impossible for them to see the truth.

There are many things which we do not know about this episode, one of them being how the brothers knew that God had accepted one sacrifice and rejected the other. Speculation is vain; we still do not know.

Verse 6

"And Jehovah said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?"

"Why is thy countenance fallen ..." As in the case of God's asking Adam, "Where art thou?" the Lord was not asking for information but to elicit a response from Cain whose anger flared up instantly. The fallen countenance is still the result of sin and guilt, and one may see a hundred fallen countenances on a street corner on any given day.

Verse 7

"If thou doest well, shall it not be lifted up? and if thou doest not well, sin coucheth at the door; and unto thee shall be its desire; but do thou rule over it."

This is one of the most difficult and disputed verses in Genesis, the problem being the identity of what is referred to in "sin lieth at the door." The usual theory that "sin" is here characterized or personified as a "savage beast," or a "wild demon" about to spring upon Cain, and that God was warning him to rule over the "sin" and thus refrain from committing it, has nothing whatever to commend it. The word for "sin" in this passage means "sin offering, a common meaning of the word in Scripture, as in Hosea 4:8; 2 Corinthians 5:21; and Hebrews 9:28."[14] This understanding of the passage is ancient. Clement of Rome, quoting the Septuagint (LXX) (which of course is incorrect), nevertheless correctly concluded that something was wrong with the sacrifice.[15] Understanding "sin offering" as the thing mentioned here strongly reinforces the necessary conclusion that the institution of sacrifice was already established and that God had laid down certain rules with reference to it, which rules Cain violated. The fact that many "moderns" deny this is no problem at all; the glaring evidence is right here. Adam Clarke wrote, "I have observed more than a hundred places in the O.T. where the word here is used for sin offering";[16] and there is positively no reason whatever for understanding it differently here. To borrow Clarke's paraphrase of what God said, "An animal proper to be offered as atonement for sin is now couching at the door of thy fold."

Thus, the great sin of Cain was simply this - he offered to God what he supposed would be just as good as what God commanded. He was the first innovator.


It is not accidental that the first innovator was the first murderer and that he founded the wicked generation that eventually corrupted the whole world. The innovators, or changers, of God's instruction always attempt to justify what they do. No one can show anything wrong with Cain's offering, except that it was Cain's idea, instead of God's. With all the specious logic of modern innovators, Cain might have tried to justify his action thusly:

If God wants smoke, my haystack has that fuzzy lamb beat a hundred ways.
If God wants value, my wheat will buy fifty lambs.
And all that messy blood; I never liked that anyway!
God can save us if we never go near a drop of blood.
Surely, God doesn't care about a thing like that;
It's the spirit of the thing that counts anyway!

One may say that Cain would never have spoken like this, but his descendants do. And there is every reason to suppose that he fortified his disobedience with the same sort of rationalizing that men today use to defend their sinful tampering with the laws of God.

Verse 8

"And Cain told Abel his brother. And it came to pass when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him."

This is another disputed text, and the older version to the effect that "Cain talked with his brother," would appear to be preferred. "Under the guise of brotherly familiarity, he concealed his premeditated purpose until a convenient time and place for the murder."[17] The tragedy of this event is emphasized by the seven-fold repetition of the word "brother" in the passage.

Verse 9

"And Jehovah said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: am I my brother's keeper?"

When the original parents were caught in their rebellion, they admitted it reluctantly, but Cain told an outright lie about his sin, showing, as Willis suggested, "the growing power of sin's grip over the human race."[18]


What a brutal and selfish response was this! All men are obligated to one another, and no man has the right to seek his own selfish ends without regard to what the effect may be upon others. Did not our Saviour teach us to pray, "Our Father who art in heaven!" There is a community of interest in the welfare of humanity that makes it incumbent upon all to be concerned and thoughtful for the well-being and prosperity of others as well as themselves. The utter depravity and selfishness of sin appear here in a very ugly light.

Verse 10

"And he said, What has thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground."

"What hast thou done ... ?" This is a similar thought to that expressed in Genesis 3:13. (See the comments there.)

"The voice of thy brother's blood ..." This is a figurative expression showing that God would avenge the type of heartless and brutal sin that Cain had committed. The idiomatic statement of this, as here, has captivated the attention and imagination of the men of all generations. The writer of Hebrews mentioned, "The blood of sprinkling that speaketh better things than the blood of Abel" (Hebrews 12:24).


"Abel ... he being dead yet speaketh" (Hebrews 11:4).

  1. The blood of Abel says that God will one day avenge the crimes perpetrated against the innocent (Romans 12:19).
  2. The blood of Abel says that the righteous are hated without cause (1 John 3:11-13).
  3. The blood of Abel says that it DOES make a difference how men worship Almighty God.
  4. The blood of Abel says that faith is the only key to winning approval of God (Hebrews 11:6).
  5. The blood of Abel says that the only righteousness is in obeying the Word of the Lord (Romans 1:16,17).

Verse 11

"And now cursed art thou from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand."

Adam and Eve were not cursed for their sin, but the far greater offense of Cain resulted in his being cursed, along with the ground itself. Aalders was correct in viewing this as an "extension"[19] of the cursing of the ground "for Adam's sake" in Genesis 3:17,18.

Verse 12

"When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee its strength; a fugitive and a wanderer shalt thou be in the earth."

Cain is later represented as going out and building a city; and from this we should conclude that the principal thing in view in this was probably the constant flight of wicked people loaded with guilt and apprehension. The grossly wicked are precisely the people in every community that are "fleeing." "The wicked flee when no man pursueth" (Proverbs 28:1). This does not exclude the other meaning, namely, that of a nomadic existence.

Verse 13

"And Cain said unto Jehovah, My punishment is greater than I can bear."

Like any vicious criminal apprehended today, Cain bitterly complained of his punishment. Note that there was no expression of remorse or sorrow, only the typically criminal attitude that deplores getting caught, but never the dastardly deed. Fitting progenitor indeed was this vicious killer to father the wicked generation that corrupted the whole world and resulted in God's summary destruction of it by the Great Flood.

Verse 14

"Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the ground; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer in the earth; and it will come to pass, that whosoever findeth me shall slay me."

The critics have had a field day with this passage. The mention of Cain's fear that someone would kill him led them to conclude that this episode is a myth or legend from a much later period after the world was populated, alleging that some redactor placed it here where it allegedly contradicts what was written in the preceding chapter. Of course, if such a thing really happened, the "redactor was nothing but an ignorant blunderer."[20] Of course, the true explanation was cited under Genesis 4:2, above.

Verse 15

"And Jehovah said unto him, Therefore, whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And Jehovah appointed a sign for Cain, lest any finding him should smite him."

What was the sign or "mark" that God placed upon Cain? As far as we are able to find out, there is utterly no way whatever to determine this. Ancient traditions about it are worthless, and certainly the notion that it "was some kind of tatoo" (Neil) is equally so. Some have supposed that it was something in the visage or appearance of Cain, but there is nothing substantial that we may find in any such opinions. Of interest is the supposition by some that it was a certain kind of dog that God gave to accompany him, but there's no dependability in that either. Of greater interest is the fact that God did not punish Cain with death immediately. But this was not done, in all probability, because it was God's purpose to allow those generations immediately after Adam to run their course in headlong wickedness which would issue ultimately in a new beginning for humanity, following the Flood. Of significance too is the thought that the mercy of God for Cain was still available had he been willing to seek it.

Verse 16

"And Cain went out from the presence of Jehovah, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden."

The withdrawal of Cain from his home area meant particularly his removal from the visible presence of God, apparently still existing at that time in the Cherubim and the sword. It did not mean that he was beyond the perimeter of God's knowledge and watchfulness over all the affairs of men.

"Nod ..." The geographical location of this place is not known. The word means "wandering," and is apparently derived from the nomadic and fugitive life to which Cain was condemned.

We may not suppose that Cain's punishment did him any good at all; Josephus relates the old Jewish tradition that:

"He augmented his substance with rapine and violence. He excited men to procure pleasures and spoils by robbery ... His posterity became exceedingly wicked; he was bold in his profligate behavior, in acting unjustly, and doing injuries for gain."[21]

Here is the beginning of God's record of how the frightfully wicked generation prior to the Deluge came into existence.

Verse 17

"And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bare Enoch: he builded a city and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch."

"He builded a city ..." according to Aalders, should be translated "He was building a city."[22] There is no record of his having completed the city mentioned here. The fanciful notion that Cain built some magnificent metropolis should be summarily rejected. The city that he built, or was trying to build, was probably nothing more than a stronghold base of operations for his depredations. There were evidently many people on earth at that time, placing this event centuries, perhaps, after the expulsion from Eden. (See under Genesis 4:3.)

Verse 18

"And unto Enoch was born Irad: and Irad begat Mehujael; and Mahujael begat Methushael; and Methushael begat Lamech."

The similarity of some of the names in this genealogy to some of those in the genealogy of Seth is used as an excuse for some to claim that these are actually garbled accounts of the same genealogies, but there is no evidence whatever to support such a view. The very variations in the names used demonstrates their belonging to separate lines. Besides, as Willis expressed it, "The names are similar because people are fond of repeating names of important ancestors."[23] Abraham had a brother and a grandfather named Nahor; there were two Judas' among the Twelve, two Simons among the Twelve; and in the genealogy of Christ one finds such names as Amos, Nahum, Judas, Jesus, two Matthats, Eleazer, and a number of others that may easily be identified with persons outside of Jesus' ancestry. There are so many Marys in the Bible that sometimes it is difficult to determine who is meant! (See further note at the end of the chapter on the reasons why these two genealogies cannot be the same.)

Verse 19

"And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah."

The purpose of the writer of Genesis is clear, namely, that of recounting the beginnings of various things concerning mankind. The origin of sin in the Fall was given in Genesis 3. Here is the beginning of sacrifice, of the sinful changing of it, of the first murder, of the building of cities, of polygomy and especially the origin of that depraved section of mankind that precipitated the Flood by their wickedness. Lamech was the first polygamist, thus breaking the original intent of God.

Adah means pleasure[24]; Keil gave the meaning of "Adah" as "the adorned," and the name of "Zillah" as meaning "the shady" or the "tinkling" (bell).[25] Several commentators have suggested that the very names of these wives suggest that they were chosen for sensual or lustful reasons. In any case, a great harm came to humanity as a result of Lamech's bad example.

Verse 20

"And Adah bare Jabal: he was the father of such as dwell in tents and have cattle."

What is visible here is the development of a tent-dwelling population, Jabal being the leader of this. The word "cattle" is also different from "flocks," visible earlier, perhaps indicating the increase of the number and kinds of domesticated animals. Adah is also the name of a wife of Esau, and she was a Hittite, indicating that some of the names were beyond tribal connections.

Verse 21

"And his brother's name was Jubal: he was the father of such as handle the harp and the pipe."

What is visible in these verses is the technical progress of the human race accompanied by a deteriorating morality. This has been the characteristic of "civilization" throughout the course of Adam's race. The enthronement of sin in the cities of the world begins also to appear in these early records of human development. "The Bible puts a large question mark against all human endeavor that is not directly related to God."[26] Technical progress and moral decay seem to be a pattern established quite early in Adam's race.

Verse 22

"And Zillah, she bare Tubal-cain, the forger of every cutting instrument of brass and iron: and the sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah."

"Naamah ..." This name means "pleasantness" (Peloubet), but there does not appear any special reason why she was included here. This was also the name of one of Solomon's wives; and there were apparently a number of repetitions of the name for various women in the history of Israel.

Like all the inventions of humanity, the cutting instruments were both a blessing and a curse. They were invaluable in aiding man in cultivation, wood-working, house-building, and food preparation (besides many other useful and necessary things), but here also was the origin of the sword and the dagger! The "Song of the Sword" that follows at once is a boastful threat supposedly founded upon the thought that with such a weapon as that invented by his son, Lamech would be able to avenge himself.

Verses 23-24

"And Lamech said unto his wives:
Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
Ye wives of Lamech, hearken to my speech:
For I have slain a man for wounding me,
And a young man for bruising me:
If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold,
Truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold."

Although this little poem is somewhat uncertain as to the meaning, it is nevertheless recognized as the oldest poem ever written, at least the oldest that has come down through history, and, tragically, it is a song of murder and vengeance. Perhaps the significant thing in it is the arrogant egotism of Lamech. It was God who had promised to avenge any slayer of Cain, but Lamech does not rely upon God. He apparently thinks that with the new weapons which his son has invented, he does not need God at all; he is fully able to take care of himself. Furthermore, he will do a much bigger and more effective job of avenging himself than God had mentioned in regard to Cain! Whereas, Cain would have been avenged sevenfold, Lamech will execute his own vengeance on a scale ten times as terrible as that God promised upon behalf of Cain!

The religious value of these verses includes the information that the technical advancement of the race and the inventions which they made are clearly presented as the achievements of men, "whereas in heathen mythologies they were thought to be due to various deities."[27] This is another instance in which the Bible differs from and rises above the false views of the heathen.

Verse 25

"And Adam knew his wife again; and she bare a son and called his name Seth: For, she said, God hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel; for Cain slew him. And to Seth, to him also there was born a son; and he called his name Enosh. Then began men to call upon the name of Jehovah."

The purpose of the narrator here is to introduce the institution of public worship and to announce the appearance of the Messianic line in the person of Seth and his posterity. It is clear that the evil course of mankind had already been charted by the godless behavior of the descendants of Cain; and this is the introduction of a new and higher element into the history of mankind.

"God hath said ..." The name Eve used here for God was "[~'Elohiym]"; however, she used the word "[~Yahweh]" (Jehovah) in speaking of God in Genesis 4:1. One of the great misassumptions of the current crop of Bible-splitters is that the name Yahweh (Jehovah) was unknown until God revealed it to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3). But right here in this chapter Eve used two different names for God: [~Yahweh] (Genesis 4:1) and [~'Elohiym] (Genesis 4:2). The Exodus account, however, says nothing whatever about God's revelation to Moses concerning the sacred name being the first time that it had been known on earth, but merely reveals that the children of Israel at this stage of their development after four hundred years of slavery in a pagan land were at that time totally ignorant of that holy name. Nor could it be safe to suppose that Moses, before the burning bush event, had knowledge of it. If he knew it, where had he learned it? At the court of Pharoah? Nothing in Exodus denies that Eve knew the names of God, at least two of them, for she walked with God Himself in the garden of Eden. And, furthermore, Moses in this very passage reveals that Eve knew at least two names for God including both [~Yahweh] and [~'Elohiym]. This, to be sure, is proof that, "There is no basis for using the names ascribed to God as grounds for dividing sources."[28]

"Another seed instead of Abel ..." What seems to be indicated here is that, following the death of Abel, Seth was the next man-child born to Eve, not that Seth was the next child born after the birth of Abel.

"He called his name Enosh ..." This is different from the name Enoch in Genesis 4:17; and there are a number of reasons why the two genealogies visible here refer to two different lines of people and are not inaccurate accounts of one line. (See note on this below.)

Of course, the great reason for the introduction of Seth and his posterity lies in the fact of their being the line through whom the Messiah would eventually be born, but there is another significant thing here:

"Then began men to call upon the name of Jehovah ..." What a hullabaloo the critics make of this! The verse flatly contradicts their notion that mankind knew nothing at all about the name of [~Yahweh] (Jehovah) until long centuries afterward (at the burning bush). So what do they do? Instead of correcting their false views, they merely try to get rid of this verse, or the whole chapter, or move the troublesome passage to a point in time far removed from where the Sacred Scriptures place it. The documentary evidence upon which such an arbitrary decision is postulated is nil!

But what does Genesis 4:26 mean? It has no reference whatever to anyone's becoming aware of the name [~Yahweh] for the first time, a thought absolutely foreign to the verse, but it is a reference to the beginning of the public worship of God. As Yates put it, "Seth was the originator of public prayer and spiritual worship."[29] Dummelow allowed the meaning to be that, "In his day men began to worship Jehovah by public invocation and sacrifice."[30] Kline summarized it thus: "Now the religious worship of the community of faith was organized for their corporate covenant consecration to the name of Jehovah."[31] Full agreement with these views is felt. Thus, two great streams of humanity become visible in this chapter - the descendants of Cain rushing headlong to destruction, and the feeble beginnings in the descendants of Seth (whose very name meant weakness) of the followers of God.


The postulation by some that the genealogies of Cain and Seth are but garbled accounts of a single genealogy is an example of a favorite device of Bible critics who like to meld similar parables, or merge two miracles into one, or two anointings into one, etc. Whitelaw outlined the reasons why these genealogies must be viewed as pertaining to two different lines of people thus:[32]

  1. Similarity of names does not mean definitely identical persons.
  2. Similarity of names signifies a social connection between groups of people, not identical groups.
  3. The similarity of names was due to the shortage of names at that period.
  4. The particulars related of Enoch and Lamech in line of Cain absolutely forbid their identification with those of similar names in the line of Seth.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 4". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/genesis-4.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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