Christians are often taught to interpret the Bible literally, which can lead to some pretty interesting questions like, “Did Yahweh Father Cain?”
I wrote about the problems that can come out of overemphasizing literal interpretation, but I should point out that most people who advocate literalism do so to prevent self-serving or idiosyncratic interpretations. If we interpret the text at face-value, so the idea goes, we’ll more often than not be interpreting Scripture correctly. This approach—though well-intentioned—isn’t always the best strategy, for several reasons. One is that the most straightforward reading can produce bizarre outcomes.
Genesis 4:1 is a case in point: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.’” We might look at this verse and see nothing amiss, but the English translation is concealing a controversial problem. In Hebrew, Eve says, “qanithi ish eth-YHWH.” The English words “the help of” were supplied by the translator of the ESV; they are not represented in the Hebrew text.
In addition, the Hebrew verb qanah (the basic form of the word qanithi, translated “I have gotten” in the ESV) elsewhere can speak of creating. For example, it is the verb in the psalmist’s famous statement about God’s role in his birth: “For you formed (qanah) my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps 139:13).
Insisting on the most straightforward reading of Genesis 4:1 easily produces an interpretation that has Eve saying, “I have created (or procreated) a man with Yahweh.” While this translation might sound very odd to our ears, certain cults and religious sects held the view that Yahweh had a sexual relationship with Eve. In one respect, such a translation is a gross misreading of the text, as the verse begins with a clear statement that Eve’s sexual partner—and therefore the father of Cain—was Adam (“Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain”). But that doesn’t resolve what the second half of the verse means to say.
The verb qanah is not among the Hebrew words used most frequently to describe conception and childbirth (such as harah and yalad). In fact, this meaning for qanah is rare. Most Hebrew scholars believe that the writer chose to use qanah in Genesis 4:1 to produce wordplay, as it sounds a lot like the Hebrew name for Cain: qayin. Consequently, the second part of the verse was not intended to describe Eve procreating with Yahweh, especially since the first part has just made clear that Adam was Cain’s father.
Statements elsewhere in the Bible—particularly several made by women who had difficulty bearing children—confirm the problem with taking Genesis 4:1 too literally. Sarah, who clearly was unable to have children because of her age (Gen 18:11–12), knew that Yahweh had enabled her to have Isaac (Gen 18:13–15; 21:6–7). Hannah credited Yahweh with the birth of Samuel after she had been barren for many years (1 Sam 1:19–20).
Like these other women, Eve’s statement that she had “created a man with the Lord”—after becoming pregnant by Adam—is an idiomatic expression: She is crediting God for blessing her with the mystery of childbirth. Translations of Genesis 4:1 like the ESV express this idea correctly. Eve believed that God had played a role in bringing Cain into the world.
This article is adapted from Dr. Heiser’s book The Bible Unfiltered. He’s taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.