According to a literal reading of the Hebrew text, “Adam knew his wife Eve.” This indicated that he knew her sexually or had intercourse with her. She gave birth to a son whom she named “Cain,” seemingly drawn from the verb meaning “acquire” and fitting the significance that Eve attached to his birth. “I have acquired a man with [the help of] YHWH,” suggesting that God had made it possible for her to have a son. (4:1)
Eve gave birth to another son. His name “Abel” may mean “emptiness,” “vanity,” or “exhalation.” Likely this name was not given to him at birth, but came to be attached to him when his life was cut short through Cain’s violent act against him. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus described Abel as a “lover of righteousness” who believed God to be “present at all his actions” and as a person who “excelled in virtue.” (Antiquities, I, ii, 1) Abel became a shepherd, and his brother Cain cultivated the soil. (4:2)
On the occasion that Cain and Abel brought their respective offerings to YHWH, they were grown men in a family that included sisters. According to Genesis 5:4, Adam fathered daughters and other sons besides Cain and Abel. So there is a possibility that there may have been offspring from sons by their sisters, for later Cain feared that he would be killed for having murdered his brother. (4:14)
Targum Jonathan says that it was the fourteenth of Nisan when Cain and Abel presented their offerings. Perhaps this was at a location near the place where the cherubs were stationed to prevent access to the garden in the region of Eden. Cain brought an offering from the produce of the ground that he had cultivated, and Abel brought an offering from the firstlings of his flock and their fat portions. YHWH approved the offering of Abel but did not look favorably upon Cain’s offering. This infuriated Cain and his countenance became downcast. (4:3-5) Regarding this development, Josephus expressed a view that may have been common among the Pharisees of the first century. It pleased God more when he “was honored with what grew naturally [firstlings from Abel’s flock] of its own accord” than “with what was the invention [cultivated plants] of a covetous man, and obtained by forcing the ground.” (Antiquities, I, ii, 1) The reading of the extant text of the Septuagint suggests that Cain failed to make the offering in an acceptable manner. “If you offer properly but did not divide properly, did you not sin?” (Genesis 4:7, LXX) According to 1 John 3:12, Cain was not in the right condition before God to make a proper sacrifice, for his “works were evil.” Josephus (Antiquities, I, ii, 1) also referred to the evil works of Cain, saying that he was “very wicked in other respects” and “wholly intent upon getting.”
After his asking Cain why he was angry and why his countenance had become downcast, YHWH, probably the “angel of YHWH,” is quoted as saying, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door and its desire is for you, and you should master it.” (See the Note regarding the “angel of YHWH.”) Targum Jonathan (thought to date probably from the second century CE) expresses the thought with additional interpretations. “If you do your work well, will not your guilt be forgiven you? But if you do not do your work well in this world, your sin is retained until the day of the great judgment, and at the doors of your heart lies your sin. And into your hand have I delivered the power over evil passion, and to you will be its inclination, that you may have authority over it to become righteous or to sin.” (4:6, 7) Cain chose not to get the mastery over the inclination to harm his brother.
The extant Hebrew text does not say what Cain said to Abel, but the Septuagint does. “Cain said to Abel his brother, Let us go into the plain.” While there alone with Abel, Cain killed him and, according to Josephus (Antiquities, I, ii, 1) hid the dead body to escape discovery. (4:8) Targum Jonathan includes the words of an argument between Cain and Abel before Cain killed him. Cain is quoted as saying, “I perceive that the world was created in goodness, but it is not governed [or conducted] according to the fruit of good works, for there is respect to persons in judgment; therefore, it is that your offering was accepted, and mine was not accepted with good will.” Abel replied, “In goodness the world was created, and it is governed according to the fruit of good works. And there is no respect of persons in judgment; but because the fruits of my works were better than yours,” my sacrifice was “accepted with good will.” Cain countered with the words, “There is neither judgment nor judge, nor another world; nor will good reward be given to the righteous, nor vengeance be taken on the wicked.” Abel replied, “There is a judgment, and there is a judge; and there is another world, and a good reward is to be given to the righteous, and vengeance is to be taken on the wicked.” Thereafter Cain rose up against his brother and “drove a stone into his forehead,” thus killing him.
When YHWH questioned him about the whereabouts of his brother Abel, Cain lyingly claimed that he did not know and, with an impudent question, callously denied any responsibility toward him. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (4:9) After having told him that his brother’s blood was crying out from the ground for vengeance or justice, YHWH pronounced his judgment against Cain. The ground that had received the blood of his brother from his hand would be cursed ground for him. Cain would toil to cultivate the soil, but it would not produce the expected yield, and he would be a “wanderer and fugitive” on the earth,” likely meaning that he would be exiled from the land where the offspring of Adam and Eve resided. The Septuagint does not refer to his being a “wanderer and fugitive.” It says that Cain would be “groaning and trembling on the earth.” (4:10-12)
Like a hardened criminal who may regard his penalty as too harsh, Cain (according to the Hebrew text) replied that his punishment was greater than he could bear. The Septuagint rendering represents Cain as saying, “Too great [is] my sin to be forgiven.” Targum Jonathan conveys a similar thought. “Heavier is my rebellion than can be borne [away].” These words are then followed by a positive expression regarding God. “Yet there is power before you to forgive it.” Cain felt that, in view of his banishment, he would be hidden from the face of YHWH and thus left totally vulnerable. As a fugitive and a wanderer, he thought that whoever might find him would kill him. Targum Jonathan designates the one who might find Cain as “any just one,” but Josephus wrote (Antiquities, I, ii, 1) that he feared that “he should fall among wild beasts, and by that means perish.” (4:13, 14)
YHWH said to Cain that sevenfold vengeance would be exacted from anyone who would slay him, and he put a mark on Cain to indicate that he should not be killed. (4:15) Many have concluded that thereafter an identifying mark appeared on Cain’s forehead. Targum Jonathan identifies the mark as “the great and honorable name,” apparently meaning the name of God, and says that it was “sealed upon the face of Cain.”
Cain went away “from the face” or the presence of YHWH, suggesting that any past relationship with YHWH had ended. Thereafter Cain began dwelling east of the region of Eden in what came to be known as the “land of Nod.” Targum Jonathan refers to this land as “the land of the wandering of his exile.” The wife of Cain, either one of his sisters or possibly a niece, accompanied him. He “knew” her sexually or had sexual intercourse with her, and she gave birth to a son named Enoch. The city Cain later built and named after this son may have consisted of a group of dwellings surrounded by a protective wall constructed from stones or timber. (4:16, 17) Josephus (Antiquities, I, ii, 2) wrote concerning this development, “He built a city, and fortified it with walls, and he compelled his family to come together to it.”
Enoch’s line of descent is traced through Irad, Mehujael, Methushael, and Lamech. With Lamech, polygamy had its start. His two wives were Adah and Zillah. According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, ii, 2), Lamech had 77 children by these two wives. The sons of Lamech made a name for themselves with their inventions. Jabal, the son by Adah, became the “father” or founder of those who lived in tents and tended flocks and herds. Jubal, Jabal’s brother, invented musical instruments — stringed instrument and pipe — and playing songs with them. Tubal-cain, Lamech’s son by Zillah, devised forging implements of copper (or brass) and iron. (4:18-22) Josephus (Antiquities, I, ii, 2) referred to him as a man who “exceeded all men in strength, and was very expert and famous in martial performances. He procured what tended to the pleasures of the body by that method.” Apparently the implements made from metal could be used as weapons, and violence came to be associated with the descendants of Cain. According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, ii, 2), “the posterity of Cain became exceedingly wicked, everyone successively dying one after another more wicked than the former.”
Lamech had a daughter by his wife Zillah, and her name was Naamah. The fact that this daughter, the sister of Tubal-cain, is mentioned by name suggests that she had a prominent role in the family, but nothing specific is mentioned about her. (4:22)
Lamech may have used a weapon his son Tubal-cain fashioned when killing a young man. Seemingly, to assure his wives Adah and Zillah that there was no reason for them to fear that vengeance would be taken against him, he said to them: “Hear my voice, you wives of Lamech; give ear to my saying. A man I have slain for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is to be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” The poetic words of Lamech imply that he had far stronger reason than Cain for being avenged, for he had acted in self-defense. Targum Jonathan represents the words of Lamech as having an entirely different significance. “I have not killed a man, that I should be slain for him; neither have I destroyed a young man, on whose account my children should perish. For Cain who sinned and was converted by repentance [had protection] extended to him unto seven generations.” To Lamech, “who had not sinned, it is just that it shall be extended unto seventy-seven.”
Adam again “knew” his wife Eve or had sexual intercourse with her, and she gave birth to another son. Eve named him Seth, meaning “appointed one,” because, as she said, “God has appointed for me another seed [or offspring] instead of Abel whom Cain killed.” (4:25) Josephus (Antiquities, I, ii, 3) referred to Seth as an outstandingly good man. He “became a virtuous man; and as he was himself of an excellent character, so did he leave children behind him who imitated his virtues. All these proved to be of good dispositions. They also inhabited the same country without dissensions, and in a happy condition, without any misfortunes falling upon them till they died.”
During the lifetime of Seth’s son Enosh, certain ones “began to call on the name of YHWH.” (4:26) While some have attributed a positive meaning to this development, Targum Jonathan says the very opposite. “That was the generation in whose days they began to err, and to make themselves idols, and surnamed their idols by the name of the Word of the Lord.” The Septuagint rendering, however, does not support this significance. It indicates that that Enosh “hoped to call upon the name of the Lord God.”
As in chapter 3 and also here in chapter 4, it is probably the “angel of YHWH” who did the speaking. See the comment on Genesis 3:8 regarding this.