Cain, in the Bible, the eldest son of Adam and Eve (Gen. iv.), was a tiller of the ground, whilst his younger brother, Abel, was a keeper of sheep. Enraged because the Lord accepted Abel's offering, and rejected his own, he slew his brother in the field (see Abel). For this a curse was pronounced upon him, and he was condemned to be a "fugitive and a wanderer" on the earth, a mark being set upon him "lest any finding him should kill him." He took up his abode in the land of Nod ("wandering") on the east of Eden, where he built a city, which he named after his son Enoch. The narrative presents a number of difficulties, which early commentators sought to solve with more ingenuity than success. But when it is granted that the ancient Hebrews, like other primitive peoples, had their own mythical and traditional figures, the story of Cain becomes less obscure. The mark set upon Cain is usually regarded as some tribal mark or sign analogous to the cattle marks of Bedouin and the related usages in Europe. Such marks had often a religious significance, and denoted that the bearer was a follower of a particular deity.
The suggestion has been made that the name Cain is the eponym of the Kenites, and although this clan has a good name almost everywhere in the Old Testament, yet in Num. xxiv. 22 its destruction is foretold, and the Amalekites, of whom they formed a division, are consistently represented as the inveterate enemies of Yahweh and of his people Israel. The story of Cain and Abel, which appears to represent the nomad life as a curse, may be an attempt to explain the origin of an existence which in the eyes of the settled agriculturist was one of continual restlessness, whilst at the same time it endeavours to find a reason for the institution of blood-revenge on the theory that at some remote age a man (or tribe) had killed his brother (or brother tribe). Cain's subsequent founding of a city finds a parallel in the legend of the origin of Rome through the swarms of outlaws and broken men of all kinds whom Romulus attracted thither. The list of Cain's descendants reflects the old view of the beginnings of civilization; it is thrown into the form of a genealogy and is parallel to Gen. v. (see Genesis). It finds its analogy in the Phoenician account of the origin of different inventions which Eusebius (Praep. Evang. i. 10) quotes from Philo of Byblus (Gebal), and probably both go back to a common Babylonian origin.
On this question, see Driver, Genesis (Westminster Comm., London, 1904), p. 80 seq.; A. Jeremias, Alte Test. im Lichte d. Alten Orients (Leipzig, 1906), pp. 220 seq.; also Enoch, Lamech. On the story of Cain, see especially Stade, Akademische Reden, pp. 229-273; Ed. Meyer, Israeliten, pp. 395 sqq.; A.R. Gordon, Early Trad. Genesis (Index). Literary criticism (see Cheyne, Encycl. Bib. col. 620-628, and 4411-4417) has made it extremely probable that Cain the nomad and outlaw (Gen. iv. 1-16) was originally distinct from Cain the city-builder (vv. 17 sqq.). The latter was perhaps regarded as a "smith," cp. v. 22 where Tubal-cain is the "father" of those who work in bronze (or copper). That the Kenites, too, were a race of metal-workers is quite uncertain, although even at the present day the smiths in Arabia form a distinct nomadic class. Whatever be the meaning of the name, the words put into Eve's mouth (v. 1) probably are not an etymology, but an assonance (Driver). It is noteworthy that Kenan, son of Enosh ("man," Gen. v. 9), appears in Sabaean inscriptions of South Arabia as the name of a tribal-god.
A Gnostic sect of the 2nd century was known by the name of Cainites. They are first mentioned by Irenaeus, who connects them with the Valentinians. They believed that Cain derived his existence from the superior power, and Abel from the inferior power, and that in this respect he was the first of a line which included Esau, Korah, the Sodomites and Judas Iscariot.
(S. A. C.)