In many instances in the Bible, names have significant meaning.  They often relate to a theme of a story or function of a biblical character.  This is definitely the case with the three sons of Adam in Genesis 4 and 5: Cain, Abel, and Seth.

Cain and Abel

Cain is introduced via a strange comment by Eve: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, and said, ‘I have acquired a man from the Lord'” (Gen. 4:1).  I ask mothers if they said something like that when they first conceived.  Thus far, I have yet to meet a mom who announced her pregnancy by saying she “acquired a child.”  This peculiar verbiage is a good translation, which is intended to sound strange to our ears.

The name Cain is related to the Hebrew verb we translate as “acquired.”  As with the case of Eve being “built,” Cain being “acquired” tips us off that Cain will not be trustworthy.  Sure enough, shortly after his introduction Cain murders his brother, Abel, whose name means “breath” or “vanity.”  Abel disappears from the story almost as soon as he appears, just like our breath in the winter can be seen for just a brief moment before it disappears.  The significance of Cain and Abel, their names, and their function should become clear when we discuss Seth.

Seth

The name Seth means to be “appointed” or “posited.”  Thus, Eve announces Seth’s birth in quite a different manner from that of Cain.  She says: “God has appointed another seed for me instead of Abel, whom Cain killed” (Genesis 4:25).  In the next chapter, Genesis 5, the biblical story continues through Seth, the one “appointed,” rather than through the eldest son of Adam (as would normally be the case), Cain, the one “acquired.”

This distinction between Cain and Seth is of the utmost importance.  We learn the world, and more specifically, God’s plan for the world, continues through God’s appointment/providence rather than through human acquisition.  Genesis 4 and 5 teaches us to view all things (and especially our children!) as being appointed by God–to refer all things back to Him for His glory.  When we focus on what we acquire–a big temptation in our society–we will find ourselves estranged from God.

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