Q. Isn't it really just an assumption that Cain was the first and Abel the second child born to Adam and Eve?
A. This question raises an issue which relates to more than the simple idea of birth number in the "first family." It is an excellent example to remind us that careful, thoughtful study is important when we interpret the Bible. It is normal to add our own assumptions to a text, even as we are reading it, in order to "fill out" the story in our own understanding. However, just because certain details may naturally follow in our thinking, those details--which we have added--may or may not be correct. In the case of whether or not, e.g. Abel was Eve's second baby, an incorrect understanding is not a crucial matter for faith or practice. But incorrect assumptions or conclusions concerning various Biblical passages can be made which have important, even drastic impact on one's faith and practice. (This is not the place to refer to a long list of examples, but consider this one. How do you interpret the meaning of the word "all" in Romans 3:23, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God"?)
So let's consider this question of
the birth number of Cain and Abel. We
will also discuss where Seth fits in this deliberation since he is the only
other child of Adam and Eve named in
the Bible. The texts relevant to this
question are in Genesis chapters 3 through 5.
At the end of Genesis chapter 3 we are told that Adam (and Eve) is
driven from the Garden of Eden, "So He drove the man out; and at the east
However, though we can be certain that Cain was born outside the Garden of Eden, does the text indicate with certainty that he was the first-born to Adam and Eve? I have found no reference anywhere in the Bible which states that Cain was Adam's first-born. Yet, I do think he was the first human being ever born. My reasoning is based upon the statement made by Eve at the birth of Cain, which also explains his name. When Eve gave birth to her son she said, "I have gotten a manchild with the help of the LORD." The name, Cain, means "gotten one," and I think the context of this event in conjunction with the significance of the name indicates that the birth of this child is the inauguration of this new phase in human history, i.e. the procreation of the human race has begun. So, I do think we can be fairly certain, from the text that Cain was the first- born, but what about Abel?
Generally when you read what is written about Abel (excluding the Bible itself), he is referred to as the second person ever born, e.g. the New American Standard Concordance and Dictionary on CD which I often use, offers as the definition for Abel, "the second son of Adam." But can we be certain of this? We can be certain from the text that Abel's birth followed Cain's. Genesis 4:2 states, "And again, she gave birth to his brother Abel." The word translated "and again" has the sense of adding to something. Thus, after Cain was born, Abel was added to the family, but the Bible nowhere indicates whether or not Abel was the next child born. He obviously is the next child of great significance born to Adam and Eve as we learn from the events related in Genesis chapter 4. And Abel may have been the second born. The issue we are addressing is whether or not we can be certain of Abel's birth number, and we cannot be certain. Therefore, in answer to the question, "Isn't it really just an assumption that Abel was the second child born to Adam and Eve?" the answer is, yes.
Finally, let's consider one other aspect to the birth numbers of Adam and Eve's children. Where did Seth fit in? It may seem as though Seth was Eve's third child. Genesis 4:25 explains, "And Adam had relations with his wife again; and she gave birth to a son, and named him Seth, for, she said, 'God has appointed me another offspring in place of Abel; for Cain killed him'." The name, Seth, means "appointed one." We're told God specifically gave Seth to Adam and Eve in place of Abel--surely as a comfort and as the one chosen by God to ultimately be a progenitor of the promised Seed (Genesis ). But how old might Cain and Abel have been when Cain killed Abel? Cain was a farmer and Abel a herder which would require some maturity. Would Adam and Eve have had no other offspring while Cain and Abel were maturing? We again must speculate, because the text does not say, however, it is reasonable, in fact likely, that Adam and Eve continued to fulfill the Lord's mandate to "be fruitful and multiply." (One might imagine that as humans possessing virtual genetic perfection they would have been pretty fertile!) Many sons and daughters were born to Adam and Eve besides Cain, Abel and Seth (Gen 5:4), and it's very likely many more than just Cain and Abel were born during the 130 years before Adam and Eve had Seth (Gen 5:3). After all, Cain had to have taken one of his sisters as a wife. It is reasonable to assume she was born before Seth, and it can only be an assumption that she wasn't born before Abel!