The book of Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel. After Cain kills Abel and settles in the land of Nod, we read that “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch” (Gen 4:17). But where did Cain’s wife come from?
Since Adam, Eve, and their sons are the only humans the Bible has mentioned so far, the sudden appearance of Cain’s wife has troubled readers from ancient times to the present. This question even came up in the Scopes trial in 1925: Clarence Darrow asked his opponent, William Jennings Bryan, “Did you ever discover where Cain got his wife?” as a way to question the Bible’s historical reliability. In answer to this, conservative readers point to a later verse, Gen 5:4, which states that Adam had “other sons and daughters,” arguing that Cain’s wife was his sister (or perhaps his niece) and that in the early days of humanity, marriage between brothers and sisters was both necessary and genetically safe.
Such “continuity problems” in the biblical plot cry out for explanation—if we expect the Bible to read like history in the modern sense. But these issues may not have troubled the Bible’s earliest writers, who were composing a different kind of literature. The story of Adam, Eve, and their children is a legend of origins, not a historical chronicle. And some episodes in the early chapters of Genesis circulated separately, probably orally, before they were compiled into a continuous story.
But it is not only modern readers who try to fill in gaps in Genesis. Some ancient Jewish writers who retell the story mention that Adam and Eve had daughters early on and even give them names. The book of Jubilees, a second-century B.C.E. retelling of Genesis, calls Eve’s daughter Awan; and the first-century C.E. writer Pseudo-Philo mentions a daughter named Noaba. It was common practice for early Jewish writers to supply names for female characters who were unnamed or outright missing in the biblical texts.
Later Jewish and Christian interpretations from the first few centuries of the Common Era are more elaborate. Some ancient readers speculated that there was more to Cain and Abel’s rivalry than God’s unexplained preference for Abel’s sacrifice (Gen 4:4), suggesting that it was a fight over a woman—their sister—that let to the first murder. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sources all transmit some version of this motif, but the details vary widely. Some ancient sources, for example, say Cain and Abel each had a twin sister but fought over who would marry the one who was more beautiful; others give Abel two sisters and Cain only one. The midrash takes this motif further, saying that Cain and Abel fought over three things: how to divide property, in whose territory the temple would be built, and who would marry the additional twin sister born with Abel (Genesis Rabbah XXII.VII).
These creative interpretations come from hundreds of years after Genesis was written down. They don’t reveal anything about what the first biblical writers were thinking or, even less, about what actually happened early in humankind’s history. But they do show the continued life of the biblical text in the hands of its interpreters: its gaps and silences become fertile ground for new traditions.