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One of the most-asked questions about the Bible is “Where’d Cain get his wife?” Skeptics have found that many Christians are easily stumped by this query, but the answer isn’t as hard as you might think.
Several years ago I purchased The Golden Children’s Bible to use with my young daughter Elizabeth during devotion time. It was originally published in 1965, and I was attracted to the realistic illustrations that were reminiscent of those I had grown up seeing in Sunday school. The Bible was not a specific translation but rather a paraphrase of selected events from Scripture. When I got to the section entitled, “Cain and Abel, Sons of Adam,” I read,
After that [when God put a mark on Cain], Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, to the east of Eden.
And later in the land of Nod, Cain took a wife and she gave birth to a son who was named Enoch.
This paraphrased account of Scripture highlights a very common misconception related to where Cain got his wife. Many Christians have been taught that Cain went to Nod, found a wife, got married, and had a son. But if Adam and Eve were the only two people that God created, where did the people of Nod come from?
First, let’s read the actual words of Genesis 4:16–17, which The Golden Children’s Bible attempted to paraphrase:
Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden. And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he built a city, and called the name of the city after the name of his son—Enoch.
The Bible does not say that Cain went to Nod and later found a wife there. Rather, the implication in Scripture is that he already had a wife when he went to Nod. The event that took place in Nod was that he “knew” his wife—had sexual relations with her—and she conceived and gave birth to a son.
If Cain didn’t marry someone living in the land of Nod, we still have the question, “Where did Cain get his wife?” or, “Whom did Cain marry?” Again, we need to look to Scripture for the answer.
In Genesis 2:7 we read of the creation of Adam, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”
Genesis 2:21–22 recounts the creation of Eve, “And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. Then the rib which the Lord God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man.”
And in Genesis 1:28 we read God’s command to Adam and Eve, “
Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.’”
Genesis 5:4 makes it clear that Adam and Eve had multiple sons and daughters.
God created only two people, Adam and Eve, and told them to have lots of children—“Fill the earth!” Scripture mentions only three of Adam and Eve’s children by name (Cain, Abel, and Seth). However, Genesis 5:4 makes it clear that they had multiple sons and daughters:
After he begot Seth, the days of Adam were eight hundred years; and he had sons and daughters.
In addition, Genesis 3:20 states,
And Adam called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.
Scripture is clear that every human being is descended from Adam and Eve. Although it is common to classify people into “races” based on skin tone, eye shape, and so on, there is actually only one race.
So, since we are “one blood” descended from Adam and Eve, the only person Cain could have married would have been a sister or a niece.
It’s true that the human race is now composed of multiple people groups. How did this happen? The later history in Genesis helps us understand why people now look so different from each other, even though they all came from only two people.
Adam and Eve’s offspring multiplied and filled the earth for approximately 1,500 years before Noah’s Flood. At that point, an important event happened in human genetics: the population was reduced to Noah’s family of eight aboard the Ark. After the Flood, the human race multiplied again, but in disobedience to God they did not fill the earth. So God judged their disobedience by confusing their language at the Tower of Babel, and from there they migrated, filling the earth, as God intended. As people became isolated in different groups around the world, certain physical characteristics became dominant, such as dark skin in Africa and almond-shaped eyes in Asia.
Regardless of the diversity in physical characteristics we see today, the Bible (and the science of genetics) confirms we are all one race. As Acts 17:26 states, “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings.”
The immediate reaction to Cain marrying his sister or niece is often shock or disgust. Today, marrying close relations is called incest. However, approximately 6,000 years ago God did not forbid marriage between close relatives. Why?
Adam and Eve were created perfect. It wasn’t until after the Fall that suffering and death affected mankind and every other living thing. One aspect of this suffering would have been mutations in the DNA that result in disease. Since Adam and Eve were created genetically perfect, their children would have had few mutations. Mutations in subsequent generations would have continued to increase and accumulate. Eventually, it became too dangerous to marry a close relation because of the increased likelihood of inherited disease.
During the time of Moses, approximately 2,500 years after creation, God forbade marriage between close relatives (Leviticus 18:6–18). It seems that one reason was health. Although the Israelites knew nothing of DNA, God did, and He knew close relatives were likely to have the same mutations. Since many diseases occur only when a child has two copies of the same mutation (one from Mom and one from Dad), marriage between close relatives would be harmful to the Israelites. This is one of the reasons that such marriages are prohibited today, too—to prevent diseases that can afflict children of this kind of union.
I have often heard Christians say that it doesn’t matter whether Genesis presents true history, such as the marriage of Cain. Creation is a side issue, it’s not a primary doctrine, and the most important thing is to “trust in Jesus.” While I agree wholeheartedly that the gospel is our central message, people must depend on the Bible to know what the gospel is. If the Bible that relates the gospel is not accurate and truthful in Genesis, then how do we know it is telling the truth about Jesus Christ?
In addition, the history of Adam’s race in Genesis is foundational to understanding how the gospel applies to all people. Because all people are descendants of Adam and Eve, all people are sinners (Romans 3:23, 5:12). Christ died and rose again to redeem Adam’s race (Romans 5:15, 5:17; 1 Corinthians 15:21–22, 15:45). If Cain married someone other than a descendant of Adam and Eve, that would contradict the clear teaching of Scripture, not only in Genesis but also as it relates to the gospel. If there are other races, then how can the gospel be for all people (1 Timothy 2:4)? It can’t—the gospel depends in part on the accurate biblical answer to where Cain got his wife. So it’s not just a side issue, it’s part of the main issue!
Peter admonishes us to be ready always to give an answer for the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15). The history in Genesis, including the identity of Cain’s wife, is crucial to understanding that we are all sinners and in need of the forgiveness and salvation offered through Jesus Christ.