Time in the Bible and the Development of Cities

At the Q&A session last Sunday the question was asked: Where did Cain get enough people to start a city (Genesis 4:17)? Many questions like this arise partly due to the way time is represented in the bible. Often an explicit answer to these questions is not given in the bible. The author didn’t consider this information important to his presentation because it didn’t contribute to the big story of God’s relationship with people. However, there are often enough cultural hints for us to make an educated guess.


The authors didn’t write events in chronological order. They grouped events to illuminate the story they were telling or to support the argument they were presenting. They often repeated events from a different perspective to make a point. Some times they follow events to their conclusion before returning to earlier events. Time may jump forward or backward between events but In the narrative it can appear to be sequential.


We have been brought up to think sequentially. So when the bible tells the story of Cain (Genesis 4), we think the following events all happened one after another with little time between them. While it may appear to be chronological it doesn’t have to be.


  1. Cain killed Abel
  2. The Lord put a mark on Cain
  3. Cain left the Lord’s presence
  4. Cain settled in the land of Nod
  5. Cain had sexual relations with this wife who gave birth to Enoch
  6. Then Cain founded a city
  7. Enoch had a son, whose descendants in the 7th generation from Adam raised livestock, played musical instruments and forged tools.
  8. Eve gave birth to another son named Seth.


When we are interpreting the bible what we are not told may be as important as what we are told. First we are not told how long after Cain settled in Nod Enoch was born. We are not told that Enoch was Cain’s first son. We are not told how long after Enoch was born Cain founded a city. We are not told which of Cain’s descendants where alive when the city was built. Also, we are not told how many years before the 7th generation from Adam Seth was born.


A city is defined as a large and permanent human settlement, typically with 1000 residents or more. One early city, Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley, is believed to have started in 2600 BC and grown to over 50,000 residents. Cities formed when there was an advantage to be gained by grouping together.


The activities of raising livestock, playing musical instruments and forging tools mentioned above all imply the existence of a city in the seventh generation from Adam. A city would have provided security for the development of music and its defence would have required the development of weapons.


It is probable that Cain founded a city (Genesis 4:17) to protect himself and his descendants because he was worried that someone would kill him (Genesis 4:17). He  was a murderer and so were some of his descendants. He chose to trust in the security of a city to protect himself rather than the promise of God (Genesis 4:15-16).


With some simple maths we can show that it doesn’t take long for the population of the earth to become large enough to support a city. Genesis mentions 3 of Adam and Eve’s children by name: Cain, Abel and Seth. Genesis 5:4 says that Adam had other sons and daughters. We don’t know how many and we don’t know when. We do know that God told them to be fruitful and multiply to fill the earth (Genesis 1:28).


The length of a generation is the age of women when they start having babies. In developed nations the average familial generation is as high as 30 years. If the population increases 8 fold each generation (i.e. every woman has 16 children) then half a million people would be born in the 7th generation from Adam. At 30 years per generation that is 210 years.


On these calculations, there were enough people born in the 5th generation to provide the security of a city environment suitable for the inventing of musical instruments in the 7th generation. The bible does say that people lived for a long time (Adam lived 930 years – Genesis 5:4). We are not told how long Cain lived but he could easily have lived long enough to found a city.


While we can not confirm these population growth numbers, they show us what is possible. The actual growth was probably higher in the early generations and decreased as the population grew to develop cities. The thought to take away is that the bible is correct when it says that Cain founded a city.


Our faith is based on the historical accuracy of the bible. Whenever the historicity of the bible is questioned diligent research has shown it to be a reliable historical document. For example Luke based his story of Jesus on eye witness accounts that he related to historical events. His dating has been validated by archeological research. We can trust the bible. It is God’s word in our language.


Further Reading

Phillip McKerrow