Sons of Cain and Seth
Genesis 4 and 5
Adam and Eve had sons Cain and Abel. Cain murdered Abel. Adam and Eve then had another son Seth. So now we have on earth, in chapters four and five of Genesis, Adam & Eve and two sons Cain and Seth.
We’ll find out in the upcoming chapters of Genesis that Cain’s line of offspring is eventually wiped out by the great flood. But for now both Cain and Seth will have lines of descendants.
Let’s look at the names in each line of descendants — descendants of Cain and those of Seth. Read from Genesis 4:17 thru all of chapter 5 in your Bible. Cain’s line is delivered quickly in 4, while Seth’s line is rolled out over the entirety of 5. (Yes, there is significance in this, but not for us in this Bible Bit.) Here is an excerpt of the relevant bits for this Bible Bit from the New American Standard Version. Look closely at the names:
Gen 4:17-24 Cain had relations with his wife and she conceived, and gave birth to Enoch…. Now to Enoch was born Irad, and Irad became the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael became the father of Methushael, and Methushael became the father of Lamech. Lamech took to himself two wives: …Adah gave birth to Jabal…. His brother’s name was Jubal…. …Zillah, she also gave birth to Tubal-cain… and the sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah…. (NASB)
And now Seth:
Gen 4:25-26 Adam had relations with his wife again; and she gave birth to a son, and named him Seth…. To Seth, to him also a son was born; and he called his name Enosh…..
Gen 5:1 This is the book of the generations of Adam….. Adam … became the father of a son … and named him Seth…. Seth … became the father of Enosh…. Enosh … became the father of Kenan…. Kenan … became the father of Mahalalel…. Mahalalel … became the father of Jared….. Jared … became the father of Enoch…. Enoch … became the father of Methuselah…. Methuselah … became the father of Lamech…. Lamech … became the father of a son. Now he called his name Noah…. Noah … became the father of Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (NASB)
If you are like us, your eyes glaze over while reading these lengthy Bible genealogies. You may leap right over those old Hebrew names.
But if you do, you will in this case miss the similarities and equivalencies in the two lists. We’ll make this somewhat easier to see with a table. Here, where Adam & Eve are in generation one:
Why the similar names? How did our Bible come to have these similar names in these two lists?
This is our Bible Bit.
We’ll try to make the matches even clearer in the next table. The right hand column below is equivalent to the left hand column. Yes? No? Merely similar? Not at all?
With the options for names wide open, you might think that Cain, Seth, and their descendants would have come up with highly original and unique names down each path. Yes? Instead they seemed to have copied each other.
Sort of. Maybe. If they copied each other, they didn’t do a very good job. Not in spellings and not in generational match-up.
Perhaps we see the beginnings of family naming conventions, where the first son is named after, say, the mother’s father, the second son is named after the father’s brother, the third son is named after the father’s father, and so on. But in this case, Cain and Seth and their descendants made up their own conventions, or swiped names on a whim for whatever reason.
We cannot examine this hypothesis. We don’t have the data. We have here only the names of the first born sons. If we had the complete family genealogy, perhaps we’d see naming patterns emerge. But without the names of siblings we cannot analyze this hypothesis.
Instead, this has all the appearance of source documentation gone awry. There was one source with Cain’s line and another with Seth’s line, and some copyist/editor misplaced one and used the other for both lines.
Let’s assume a copyist mistakenly copied the Seth list, say, to both Seth and Cain lines. If so, he did a poor job of making this mistake. Or perhaps a series of copyists followed this initial mistake with a series of other corruptions.
The lists are not identical in length. When and how were names in the Cain line dropped?
The names are out of order. A B C D E F G H has become B D C F E.
The Cain line ends up today in a single short paragraph. The Seth line takes an entire chapter using formulaic sentence structure. Its a bit more difficult, we submit, to make replacement errors when the design of item A is substantively different from that of item B.
And then we have the spelling/rendering differences. It is easy to make these in any language, but especially in Hebrew with its tiny jots and tiddles. This is the easiest form of possible corruption to accept.
If our hypothesis is that sources C and S were mistakenly copied to become S and S, then we still have to explain the abundance of follow-on transmission errors. Our hypothesis of a copying duplication error is not looking too good.
In any event, if we allow for transmission error in the Cain column, then we must allow it in the Seth column. Yes? Either or both columns could be corrupted from the original source.
Furthermore, we cannot be sure that Genesis 4 and 5 records an exhaustive list of generations from Cain and Seth to Noah. Perhaps the names we have are representative, with several generations deliberately left out for insignificant reasons. There’s no theological harm done if the original writer leaves out a few generations, and we recognize that “father,” “son,” “begot,” and so on do not strictly imply single generation direct lineage.
We will accept a certain amount of textual corruption, and for that matter, oral corruption, in today’s text of Biblical Hebrew, but this doesn’t have to be the case. The writer of Genesis (Moses?) wrote accurately from his own remembered record of God’s revelation, and correctly from oral and written memories at his disposal. Future scribes very well may have in turn made accurate copies of the Mosaic originals, and then accurate copies of these copies. Over hundreds and then thousands of years, scribes certainly may have copied and transmitted with accuracy the true facts.
Your Bible Bits writers allow for this. We do believe that to some extent God guided and guides the hand of those copying and translating His Biblical text. We are not sure at what point he takes away his hand, and we do know that we have today thousands of manuscripts of Bible passages — all of them copies, nearly all of them tiny scraps, and nearly all of them created hundreds of years after the originals — showing variations in the copied content.
So, manuscript differences aside (we have not studied them for this Bit), perhaps we have the names just as the parents produced them, with no corruption and also no hidden message from God via this non-duplication.
In any event, for the two lists that we do have, what is the significance of the matching (more or less) names?
This, again, is our Bible Bit.
What does your commentary suggest about this ten-generation list?
Let’s look again at the alleged matches, this time with the Hebrew. We don’t expect you to read and understand Hebrew, but you can examine the Hebrew characters and get some sense of how well the names match. Does the Hebrew match better or worse than our Anglicized English names? Can you tell?
(We pulled our transliterations from two separate sources, with our 2nd source adding more vowel sounds. See the wonderful interlinears at Scripture 4 All and the “official” original language texts at the German Bible Society’s Academic-Bible sites. Get to know these sites!)
Is there theological significance to the ten generations from Adam to Noah? Does it matter that the count is ten, and not nine or seven or thirteen?
And is there theological significance to the matching of names? Did God intentionally place descendants of the same name into the lines of Cain and Seth? And did God place these (more or less) matched names of sons into the generational positions recorded in our text? Or did God place these matched names into side-by-side ordered positions, with text transmission garbling these nicely-aligned original positions into the places we have at hand today?
Or are the names just names? Do they actually match? Is Irad supposed to by Jared? Or is each name just as it is supposed to be? Is our first glance appearance of matching a mistake?
And whether they match or not, do the names invented by Cain, Seth, their wives, and their descendants represent only the matter-of-fact reality of parents making up names? With no underlying, hidden, theological significance?
By the way, we are focusing on name-matching in this Bible Bits, but there is quite a bit more of substantive curiosity in just the short passage we have chosen.
For example, there is much in the etymology and meaning of the names themselves, with this and other indications of the (im)moral and (un)Godly characters of these persons and their relationships with God. Then there are those perplexing long lifetimes, plus the possible meaning of specific lifespan numbers (365 = one year?), Lamech’s (Cain) taunts of do-it-myself violent power and God’s reply with the death of his line, Cain’s desire for protection vs grandson Lamech’s desire for confrontation, Noah’s Godliness and his favor and the continuation of his line, the Anglicization of names Kenan, Cainen and their correspondence with the English profession smith and name Smith, and the replacement of 2nd son Abel with 3rd son Seth and God’s habit of extending his favor to the second born rather than the first. There are many things going on in these two chapters we are ignoring.
Regarding our question, Ephraim Speiser, in the Anchor Bible, notes the Cain line, and then has this to say about what he says is an appended Seth line:
[I]t duplicates some of the Cainite names (Enoch, Lamech), and approximates others. Two separate streams of tradition seem to be indicated, both ultimately derived from the same distant source. The departures may be ascribed to a long period of intervening oral transmission. (E.A. Speiser. Genesis, Anchor Bible, 1962)
Speiser goes on to observe some incidental similarity of older Akkadian names from the earlier Sumerian Kings List (Jacobsen) and those which have found their way into our Hebrew Bible’s genealogy records. He sees no substantive connection between the Sumerian Kings List and the Bible in this place, suggesting that time and retellings scrubbed any equivalence away from the earliest Mesopotamian traditions before they made their way into the Hebrew.
Derek Kidner points out in his Tyndale commentary that the similarities of names, other than the identical names of Enoch and Lamech, are more apparent in English than in Hebrew. Even if you cannot read Hebrew (and we at Bible Bits do not) you can still observe differences between Methushael (left) and Methuselah (right):
By the way, the Hebrew reads from right to left. To our eyes, the differences in the Hebrew are about the same as the differences in the English.
Our table above shows the Hebrew for each pair of interest. Is Kidner’s observation regarding Hebrew variance vs English variance apparent with your own eyes? Kidner points specifically to Irad and Jared, and their lack of equivalence. This puts our entire Bible Bit into question, with our assumption that we do indeed have the fact of matching names.
The King James Version adds interest (and confusion) with its Anglicization of the NASB’s “Kenan” with “Cainan.” Where the NASB translators choose Kenan, those of the KJV chose Cainan. Either of these resemble Adam’s firstborn son Cain, and later, in chapter 10, Ham’s son Canaan. None of this may be of significant meaning.
Older English translations spell the name in the 4th generation of Seth’s line as “Cainan” rather than today’s “Kenan.” It seems that at some point scholars and translators switched their preference from Cainan to Kenan, even in the NRSV, which descends from the KJV line:
When Enosh had lived 90 years, he fathered Kenan. (ESV)
Enosh lived ninety years, and became the father of Kenan. (NASB)
Enosh was 90 years old when he fathered Kenan. (Holman)
When Enosh had lived 90 years, he became the father of Kenan. (NET)
Enosh was 90 years old when he begot Kenan. (Speiser/Anchor)
When Enosh had lived 90 years, he begot Kenan. (JPS Tanakh)
Enosh lived ninety years and fathered Kenan. (David Stern CJB)
When Enosh lived ninety years, he fathered Kenan. (Lexham)
When Enosh had lived ninety years, he became the father of Kenan. (NRSV)
And Enos lived ninety years, and begat Cainan: (KJV)
And Enos lived ninety years, and begot Cainan. (Douay-Rheims)
And Enosh lived ninety years, and begot Cainan. (Darby)
And Enos liveth ninety years, and begetteth Cainan. (Young’s)
Those scholars following the Source Critical school of thought (missing sources J, P, E, D, J1, J2, and so on) must find our two name list a great tangle. Our suggested source to copy to copy to copy conjecture above demonstrates a simple version of this Source Critical thicket.
Source Critical reasoning is exemplified in the 1952 Interpreters Bible (which has since been completely redone), and exegesis from Cuthbert Simpson yielding the conclusion that the J source never named Adam (only “man”) and the first child born to humanity, per J, was Seth. The J has no Cain and Abel. Cuthbert goes on to say that the Priestly source P is the basis of almost all of chapter 5, but that P borrows from Yahwist J. The source for the Cain line in chapter 4 is J, and that for the Seth line in 5 is P, which borrows from J.
Cuthbert also declares that Mahujael/Mahalalel are equivalent, and that he has been transposed with Enoch. Looking at our charts above, we do not follow this thought regarding transposition.
Bible Bits likes the Jewish Christian Bible translator and commentator David Stern. His Complete Jewish Bible has Stern’s take on the Anglicization of our Hebrew names. In the table below, we present Cain’s line on the left and Seth/Shet’s (Stern) line on the right. How well do the names match using Stern’s renderings?
So what do we make of all this? For the most part we are left scratching our heads.
We do know that using the Anglicized versions of Hebrew (or sometimes Akkadian rooted) words is not helpful, and only confuses our search for patterns in names. Better compare Hebrew with Hebrew. We also know that sometimes translators reject a better Anglicization of Greek or Hebrew because the reading audience is familiar with an older, traditional spelling and pronunciation. A Jewish audience might be happy with the rendering “Noach” while the Protestant middle American audience will only accept “Noah,” not matter what the Hebrew says.
So we don’t have a good answer to our Bit question, other than to say that we follow the general principle that our Hebrew and Greek texts provide translators the texts God wants us to have, and that seriously translated English Bibles, translated carefully by imperfect but faithful men and women, provide the same.
Can you find a scholarly article that weighs-in on our narrow question?
Blessings to you, and always read the actual Bible for yourself!