Was Cain a “Wanderer” or a “Settler”?
After Cain killed his brother Abel, the Lord punished the first recorded murderer saying, “So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth” (Genesis 4:11-12, emp. added). Critics have accused God of error in His sentencing of Cain. According to Dennis McKinsey, Genesis 4:12 represents “one of the earliest false prophecies” in the Bible. “Instead of becoming a vagabond as was forecast, Cain took a wife, built a city, established a line of descendants and seems to have led a settled life” (McKinsey, 1995, p. 298). Skeptic Steve Wells contends Genesis 4:16-17 indicates that “Cain will settle down,” but “[t]his is not the activity one would expect from a fugitive and a vagabond” (2014, emp. added). So which is it? Did Cain become a wanderer or a settler?
Moses recorded fewer than 30 words (in Hebrew) regarding what Cain did after God conversed with him and sentenced him to being a vagrant and a wanderer. All we know about the rest of Cain’s life is that he “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” (Genesis 4:16-17).
Sadly, skeptics (once again) have assumed the worse about God and the Bible writers. They assume that the few words recorded about Cain in Genesis 4:16-17 must mean Cain could not have been a drifter the rest of his life. Yet a man can still be a wanderer while also having a wife and son. A vagabond may “settle” in various places for brief periods of time. What’s more, a man could work to build various structures that become part of a “city” without settling down for a long period of time in the city.
Of interest is the fact that the Hebrew of Genesis 4:17 does not indicate that Cain completed the city. The text actually says that “he was then building a city” (NIV; see Leupold, 1942, p. 216). And the “city” may very well have been nothing more than “a walled enclosure with a few houses” or tents (Leupold, p. 216). Bible writers frequently used the Hebrew term iyr to refer to a city “in the widest sense (even of a mere encampment or post)” (Strong, “iyr”). Thus, Cain very easily could have worked for a few months on building an encampment, post, or walled enclosure of some kind before drifting to another area of the world, or at least to another part of the land of Nod.
The fact is, nothing in Genesis 4:16-17 indicates that God’s prophecy failed. The skeptic may wish it had failed, but he cannot prove that it did. And if he cannot prove that it failed, then it cannot be justly assumed that it did. Indeed, God and the Bible writers are innocent until proven guilty.
Leupold, Herbert C. (1942), Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
McKinsey, Dennis (1995), The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus).
Strong, James (2006), New Exhaustive Strong's Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Wells, Steve (2014), Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/gen/4p.html.