Adam and Eve’s wayward son Cain is most well-known for killing his brother Abel. But he also represents evil more generally, and, it turns out, a surprisingly modern vice.
According to 1 John 3:12 in the New Testament, Cain was Satan’s offspring, a lineage also recorded in the Jewish “Targum Pseudo-Jonathan,” a mainstream ancient Bible translation and commentary.
In this context, it’s not surprising that Cain represents heretics in the NT book of Jude, an approach that has since been widely adopted in Christian circles. After all, heretics, like the Devil, oppose God.
The Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt around the time of Jesus, used Cain to represent sophists who value rhetoric more than morality.
The great historian Josephus (also around the time of Jesus) relates a remarkably relevant aspect of Cain’s wickedness: he was materialistic.
Josephus was perhaps preserving the original intent of the biblical Cain. Cain’s name in Hebrew is kayin, from the root K.Y.N, which means “to acquire.” The text of Genesis explains that Eve’s first child was called “Cain” because upon his birth Eve said, “I have acquired a person.” Josephus, more reasonably, connects the name to Cain’s desire for acquiring things. Though he may have made that up, it’s more likely that he was conveying an older tradition that was cut from the Bible.
Particularly at this “holiday season,” as many of us struggle not to let joyful gift-giving turn into materialism, I think it’s interesting to reflect on how the Bible itself may warn us about the pitfalls of wanting things.