Cain, the Sinner

As has been previously discussed on this blog, Genesis 1-11 narrates three “falls.”  There are three distinct times described when human persons joined with spiritual beings in rebellion against God.  The first of these, in Genesis 3, led to the devil being cast into the underworld and humanity’s expulsion from Paradise, the presence of God.  Through Adam’s sin, death laid claim to the human race.  The second rebellion is described in Genesis 4-6.  Cain and his descendants join with rebellious angelic powers to bring sin and corruption into the world, culminating in acts of demonic sexual immorality which produced clans of gigantic tyrants.  This resulted in the cleansing of the world by the waters of the flood.  Finally, humanity’s sin at the tower of Babel resulted in Yahweh, the true God, distancing himself from the nations, placing them under the governance of intermediaries who rebelled and enslaved them as the principalities and powers opposed to Christ and his Church.

Within Second Temple and early Christian literature, various writers emphasized one or another of these events in regard to the sinful condition of the present age and the salvation brought about by Christ.  Eusebius emphasized the domination of the nations by hostile powers.  St. Irenaeus of Lyons emphasized the angelic sin of Genesis 6.  St. Augustine, famously, emphasized the expulsion from Paradise as the critical moment.  However, St. Augustine did more than that.  He rejected the traditional understanding of Genesis 4-6 and attributed not only the coming of death upon humanity to Adam’s transgression but also the origin of sin and corruption.  Sin and the resulting corruption described analogically in terms of guilt or debt or liability, became through Adam the inheritance of all of humanity.  Christ’s victory over death through the cross and the resurrection thus became conflated with the removal of this guilt or debt or liability.  This theological tendenz reached its denouement in the Protestant Reformation, in which it was taught that Christ’s death and resurrection impute to recipients Christ’s sinlessness and purity wholesale.

What St. Augustine lost was an important distinction.  The loss of that distinction, between mortality on one hand and sinful corruption on the other, would play out in manifold ways in the history of Latin soteriology.  What had been a minor point of distinction, mostly of emphasis, in the bishop of Hippo would, centuries later, create a massive divergence.  To recover what was lost, it is important to revisit the understanding of earlier centuries and the difference between two figures from the Scriptures:  Adam and his son Cain.  Genesis 4 is a direct continuation of Genesis 3.  It is also, however, a story told in parallel inviting comparison.  Similarities are brought to bear in order to accentuate differences.  The differences between these two figures and their legacy in the Scriptures represents a crucially important distinction for understanding the Scriptures as a whole and the teaching of the Orthodox Church.

Adam, the first-formed man, is presented in the Scriptures as an innocent.  What the devil promises he and the woman in partaking of the tree is the “knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 3:5).  This phrase is used throughout the Hebrew Bible to connote maturity and wisdom (eg. 1 Kgs/3 Kgdms 3:9; Is 7:15-16).  Adam’s disobedience in eating of the tree is a transgression which brings consequences upon himself and his progeny.  In order to prevent him from being confirmed eternally in evil, God cuts him off from the tree of life and expels him into the present world (Gen 3:22-23).  Thus, mortality and death allowed Adam the possibility of change and repentance.  Life for him would be a struggle and come through suffering, but that suffering itself could be transformative and healing to his soul through the amendment of life (Gen 3:17-19).  Emblematic of this was his need to struggle with the earth to subdue it and bring forth food to provide for himself and his family.

Though subject to death, Adam was still the image of God in the world.  To serve as God’s image is a verbal idea.  Adam was able to participate in God’s creative work in the world, ordering the creation and filling it with life.  Just as his ordering the world and bring it into subjection would be a struggle, so also bringing new life into the world would represent struggle and pain for Eve (Gen 3:16).  The life that God created humanity to live was difficult, but not impossible.  Faithfulness to God, including repentance, was open to Adam and Eve.  Being subject to death made this possible, even as it also made them weak, vulnerable, and prone to sin.  When St. Paul speaks of humanity’s subjection to death, he speaks of Adam (Rom 5:12-14).  Likewise, when Christ defeats death and sets humanity free, this is iconographically depicted as his salvation of Adam and Eve from their graves.  Adam is recalled, Eve is set free, and death is slain.  Freedom from death is granted to all of humanity.  Every human person who has ever lived will bodily rise from the dead at the glorious appearing of Jesus Christ to judge the living and the dead.  Redemption from death is universal and this universality is expressed in the rich hymnography of the Orthodox Church, particularly at Pascha.

Cain, however, is a radically different figure.  Though in modern descriptions the story of Cain and Abel is treated as a sort of epilogue to the fall of Genesis 3 and the genealogies are skipped over entirely to move on to the flood, the story of Cain and his descendants is critically important in describing the origin of sin and evil, as well as the resulting corruption and destruction of the created order.  This is utterly clear in Second Temple discussions of Cain or of sin, as well as in early Christian references to Cain and his progeny.  Though Adam, our first father, is treated with sympathy and his redemption is portrayed, Cain’s never is.  No such redemption is suggested in the Scriptures or any other source.  Cain is the archetypal sinner, rebel, and hater of God.  He sets a trajectory for his descendants and for escalating evil and contamination that requires the destruction of the flood in order to save Yahweh’s creation from Cain and his ilk.  Cain and his descendants hold this role in the hymnography of Great Lent.

Like his father Adam, Cain faced temptation.  In this case, the temptation was to turn his envy into violence (Gen 4:5, 8).  His envy over what he perceived as superior blessings given his brother parallels the envy of the devil which led him to seek humanity’s destruction in the first place.  Through his envy, the devil became a murderer by subjecting all of humanity to death (John 8:44).  In the murder of his brother, Cain, therefore, becomes an image of the devil on earth, again in the verbal sense.  His actions bring the works of the devil into the world and transform it through corruption and destruction.  In the same sense in which Adam was created to become the son of God (Luke 3:38), Cain becomes the son of the devil (1 John 3:10-12).

This is not merely a sort of similarity of action.  Cain has a relationship with an evil spiritual power in the same way in which Adam was created to relate to God.  Just as Adam had been warned against the eating of the tree despite the serpent’s temptation, Yahweh himself intervenes to warn Cain against what his heart plans (Gen 4:6-7).  Specifically, Cain is warned that “sin is crouching at his door” and that it desires him (v. 7).  This is the first time the word ‘sin’ occurs in Genesis.  Adam’s violation of God’s command is not, in the text of Genesis, called ‘sin’.  The word translated here from the Hebrew as “crouching” appears to be derived from an Akkadian word for a particular type of prowling demon through to emerge from the underworld through cracks in the ground.  This concept of sin as a malign spiritual force associated with demonic powers, entering into the world through human evil, is basic to St. Paul’s usage of the term.  Only rarely does the apostle refer to ‘sins’ in the plural.

In addition to Cain’s transgression being described in different terms from that of his father, it is likewise treated differently in regard to the resulting curse.  Adam and Eve, despite their banishment from Paradise, would continue to serve as God’s image in the world by setting the world in order and filling it with life, but this would take place through pain, hardship, and struggle.  Cain, on the other hand, is not told that he will work the ground with blood, sweat, and tears.  The ground is not cursed because of Cain.  Rather, Cain is cursed from the ground and it will no longer bring forth food or the other necessities of life for him at all (Gen 4:11-12).  The logical consequence of this is that, though God had yet to give any blessing for humans to kill and consume animals, hunting and killing would be the only means for Cain to gain the food needed for himself and his family.

Cain goes on, with his son Enoch, to found Erad, which the Sumerians regarded as the first city in the world to attempt to live through commerce rather than the work of his hands.  This theme of the city as the arena of wickedness and violence will play out throughout the book of Genesis (eg. Sodom and Gomorrah in the lives of Abraham and Lot).  His line goes on to create all the major aspects of human civilization.  One descendant begins the herding of livestock for food (v. 20), another music (v. 21), and a third, blacksmithing to forge weapons (v. 22).  The genealogy of Cain in Genesis 4 closely parallels the Sumerian and Babylonian king lists, with the wisdom delivered to succeeding kings by divine spirits.  This line culminates in Lamech, a polygamist who sings a song to his wives about his own greatness, proclaiming himself greater than Yahweh because of his superior brutality (v. 23-24).  This is not a portrayal of innocents misled by spiritual beings into acts of ignorance.  It is a picture of humans filled with hubris and violence who, in league with spiritual powers of weakness, rebel against God their creator whom they hate.  This is the picture of sin.

Because of this presentation, it is Cain, not his father, who became the archetypal sinner in later tradition.  Wisdom 10 gives a list of the enemies of Divine Wisdom who because of their hatred for God also oppose the righteous.  The first person on this list and the only one labeled as “unrighteous” is Cain (v. 3).  Wisdom goes on to ascribe to Cain responsibility for the flood which came to purify the creation from his sin and the resultant corruption (v. 4).  Josephus describes Cain as the originator of human sin (Antiquities, 1.53).  He calls Cain unrighteous and “most evil” (Greek ponerotatos).  Josephus further describes Cain as having taught evil to his descendants, making each generation more evil than the last (1.61-66).  This idea of teaching evil through demonic servitude led to later writers identifying Cain as the first heretic (eg. Jude 11, Philo, the Aramaic Targums, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian).  Despite the orientation of later Augustinianism and his reinterpretation of Genesis 6:1-4, St. Augustine saw Cain’s line as the development of sin and corruption in the world culminating in the person of Lamech (City of God, 15.17).

Adam and Eve, as well as their children, the entire human race, are redeemed from death through the death and resurrection of Christ.  Further, Christ through his death and resurrection has judged the powers and principalities which have enslaved the nations, breaking their power and establishing his kingdom.  All of humanity is accountable to his judgment.  Figures such as Cain and Lamech, or Judas in the New Testament, however, are not figures ever portrayed as redeemed in Orthodox writings, iconography, or hymnography.  They are the human representatives of sin and rebellion, just as the devil and his angels are the spiritual representatives.  The devil and the other fallen spiritual powers are likewise never portrayed as redeemed.  Rather, Christ has brought about another means for dealing with human sin and rebellion, which will be the subject of next week’s post.


About Fr. Stephen De Young

The V. Rev. Dr. Stephen De Young is Pastor of Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church in Lafayette, Louisiana. He holds Master's degrees in theology, philosophy, humanities, and social sciences, and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Amridge University. Fr. Stephen is also the host of the Whole Counsel of God podcast from Ancient Faith and author of four books, the Religion of the Apostles, God is a Man of War, the Whole Counsel of God, and Apocrypha. He co-hosts the live call-in show and podcast Lord of Spirits with Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick.


  1. Thank you for your posts. As a fairly new member of the Orthodox Church, I always gain a lot of insight and understanding. God bless you!

  2. I once heard a comment that we are all responsible for Adam’s sin. I had to really think about what this person was saying, because I have always been taught that Adam sinned and his fall left a mark or placed all of humanity in a state of sin. This, however does not mean we are responsible for Adam’s sin, but while being affected, we are responsible for our own sins therefore in need of repentance and forgiveness. If clarification is needed, please let me know.

    Thankyou and God bless!

  3. We continue today to see rebellions against God – in our world and more specifically in ourselves. If we could really overcome the big and small rebellions within ourselves, the world could overcome the rebellions against God too!

  4. Thank you Father for this teaching. There is indeed a clear difference between Adam’s transgression and Cain’s sin and rebellion. Very insightful “picture of sin”, as you describe.

    I have a question – and I apologize that it is an ‘aside’ – regarding an implication of these two statements:
    “mortality and death allowed Adam the possibility of change and repentance” and
    “Faithfulness to God, including repentance, was open to Adam and Eve. Being subject to death made this possible…”.
    We have been taught that fallen angels can not repent because they are bodiless, spiritual, immortal beings. My question is, what is it about a body that is necessary for repentance? If angels were once capable of rebellion, why then would they not be capable of repentance? I have come across several helpful articles/essays, but I can not find one that locks into my question.
    St John Damascene in his Exact Exposition makes an enlightening statement: what death is to humans, the Fall is to angels. After the Fall (or falls, as you describe three) repentance is not open to them, just as it is not open to humans after death.
    Father, I would be very interested to know your thoughts.

    1. For other readers, Exact Exposition 2.3 is the section in which St. John of Damascus discusses this issue, centering around angelic free will. Angels are free which allows them to fall at any time, as St. John still has the understanding of multiple angelic rebellions. St. John says that man is capable of repentance due to the weakness of his body. This is what’s going on in Gen 3:21-24. God says to his divine council, “Man is now like one of us, knowing good and evil.” I.e. man had joined in heavenly rebellion and so, had he been allowed to become immortal, would have been like the demons and shared their fate. So humanity was expelled from God’s dwelling place and clothed with mortal flesh. This makes humanity subject to corruption and death. It also allows for repentance and regeneration. It allows humanity, in Christ, to avoid the fate of the demons which the unrepentant share. The Devil, who was the first spiritual rebel, rebelled at the creation of man out of envy because of human destiny in Christ. So his, and subsequent rebellions, have been aimed at destroying humanity. So the redemption of humanity is God’s victory over his enemies.

      So our present life in this world ending in bodily death is a gift given to humanity by God to allow for our repentance. It is a gift that the angels who rebelled weren’t given because their rebellion consisted of attempting to destroy humanity. It also allows for humanity, just like the fallen spiritual powers, to maintain their free will and to remain hardened in our rebellion against God if we so choose and thereby share the fate of the spiritual rebels.

      1. “… I.e. man had joined in heavenly rebellion and so, had he been allowed to become immortal, would have been like the demons and shared their fate.”
        “mortal flesh… allows humanity, in Christ, to avoid the fate of the demons”
        Thinking aloud here…God could have left us as ‘one of them’…immortal, and fallen, but He had different plans for humanity. He saw His Son, before the foundation of the world, in human flesh, as the Lamb slain. Our Savior.
        Yes, the devil’s envy, we are. We would not be able to withstand him without Christ God and His angels as our defense. There is no way.

        “So the redemption of humanity is God’s victory over his enemies.”
        Ok, so – our salvation, or “human destiny” in Christ, was not only to save us, but at the same time “God’s victory over his enemies”. Now, my thoughts are frequently compartmentalized… here I had the impression that God’s victory is a result of spiritual warfare, Good vs Evil ( i.e. Michael and his angels, cast out Satan and his, from heaven) and we are just caught in the middle. But that just doesn’t jell with the ‘whole’ picture…from creation onward.

        Bodily death…” is a gift that the angels who rebelled weren’t given because their rebellion consisted of attempting to destroy humanity . ” Very helpful Father. Yes, those in His image…the image of Christ who put on our flesh. Satan knows he can not kill Christ, but in his envy, he pursues our destruction.

        Lastly, death allows us to maintain our free will. And so we pray for God to grant us mercy in repentance, as we pray to press into more so than before, a life of repentance – through the services, prayers, rites, and rituals of Great Lent.

        You should know Father how much I needed to ‘get this’…it all fits as pieces in a puzzle. Thank you kindly.
        Still, so very much to contemplate…it is all so good! Thanks so much.

  5. HI Father, I am a protestant christian and I just wanted to thank you for your posts. It it awesome the use that you do of the second temple literature and the semitic context. You and Dr. Heiser are a blessing for students!!!

    Nevertheless, I would like to ask you if you can provide a source ( I know for sure the source is there, I am not questioning its veracity) for the relation of the verb רָבַץ with the semitic demon you made reference to.

    Greetings from Barcelona. God bless you

    Miguel C.

  6. Father Stephen, could you please tell me which is the original term translated by “crouching”? I am interessed particularly regarding the name of that demon .

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