CAIN: The First Hell Ever Raised

Adam and Eve raised Cain, the first human being ever produced by sexual intercourse. ("And Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived, and bare Cain." Eve considered him to be a blessing from Yahweh: "I have gotten a man from the Lord." See CONCEPTION: "MADE IN SECRET.") Cain grew up to be a farmer but also the Bible's first murderer, slaying Abel, his sheepherding younger brother. (There is an extrabiblical tradition that Satan, not Adam, was the murderous Cain's father. In this version the devil--in the form of the serpent--tempted Eve into more than the eating of forbidden fruit [Ginzberg 1:107].)

Later "Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch." This wife is a mystery woman, since at the time of Cain's birth the whole world's population totaled only three (being, of course, Cain and his parents Adam and Eve). Remarkable also is Cain's founding of a city, which implies a considerable number of inhabitants.

The best explanation for such a population explosion from one created couple is the obvious one: inbreeding was originally extensive, indeed unavoidable. Thus Cain in the pseudepigraphical book of Jubilees marries his sister Awan (Adam and Eve's second child, says Jubilees, before Abel), and all the other descendants of Adam, from Seth to Noah, marry sisters or cousins. (Gen. 4:1-17; Jub. 4:9-28) (On to METHUSELAH)

William Blake, The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve / Mark Harden's Artchive



CANTICLES: "Our Bed Is Green"


CELIBACY: "Not to Touch a Woman"


CHILDBIRTH: "A Woman in Travail"


CHRIST: "The Marriage of the Lamb is Come"


CIRCUMCISION: "Sign of the Covenant"

In Genesis (17:10-12,24), the cutting off of the prepuce or foreskin of the penis is first ordered by the Hebrew God Yahweh to symbolize the covenant made between Yahweh and his people. "Every male among you shall be circumcised," God tells the Hebrew patriarch Abraham, "and it will be a sign of the covenant between me and you." Abraham dutifully goes first, being circumcised at the age of ninety-nine.

Circumcision as a sign ordained by God may well be an Old Testament explanation for a custom--one not easy to explain, but found in other ancient cultures--that predates the covenant. ("To make a covenant" in biblical Hebrew is literally "to cut a covenant." This use of "to cut," however, is coincidental, referring not to circumcision but to the ritual cutting in two of a sacrificial animal.)

Circumcision may have originated as a rite of passage into manhood. In the Old Testament the practice is sometimes referred to metaphorically. "Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart," says Deuteronomy (10:16), "and be no more stiffnecked." The prophet Jeremiah (6:10) describes those who do not listen to the word of God as having uncircumcised ears. In the New Testament, there is "no small dissension and disputation" within the Christian community about whether or not circumcision is necessary for salvation. "Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses," argue "certain men" from Judea, "ye cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1-2). The Apostle Paul's view, which eventually prevails among Christians, is that "there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek" (Rom. 10:12), that "neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, only faith that works by love" (Gal. 5:6). (Paul adds that he would like to see those who disagree with him "cut themselves off" [Gal. 5:12].)

Whatever its origin and spiritual value, circumcision is a custom still practiced by Jews (as well as many non-Jews) today, though critics argue that it is of no real advantage hygenically and is traumatic for the recipient. (Jewish males are circumcised when they are eight days old.) (Note added 2007: Studies in Africa have shown that circumcision halves a man's risk of contracting HIV infection. Science News 170:405.) Female circumcision (cutting off of the clitoris and often the labia minora), not mentioned in the Bible but still practiced today in some Arab cultures among others, is mutilation designed to lessen a woman's sexual pleasure, thus presumably helping keep her a virgin till marriage and faithful thereafter.

Notable episodes involving circumcision in the Bible are Zipporah's circumcising of her son to save Moses' life (see MOSES AND ZIPPORAH); the circumcision by Joshua at Gibeath-haaraloth ("hill of the foreskins"), after crossing the Jordan, of all the Hebrew males who had been born in the wilderness (Josh. 5:2-9); David's delivery of two hundred Philistine foreskins to Saul (see DAVID AND MICHAL); the trick played on the men of Shechem by the vengeful sons of Jacob (see SHECHEM AND DINAH); and (in the Apocrypha) the forcible circumcision by Mattathias and friends of all the uncircumcised boys found in Israel (1 Macc. 2:46)

Luca Signorelli, The Circumcision / National Gallery, London

CONCEPTION: "Made in Secret"

In the biblical world, conception, aside from the prerequisite sexual intercourse, was a biological mystery: "I was made in secret," says the Psalmist (139:15), "and curiously wrought." That the male must contribute was of course taken for granted. Thus Levi before conception is considered to be "yet in the loins of his father" (Heb. 7:10), and Onan is punished for deliberately spilling his semen (Gen. 38:9-10). But the ovum, as Tikva Frymer-Kensky points out, is a relatively recent discovery. Conception in the Bible is therefore viewed as miraculous, a gift from God: "children are a heritage from the Lord, and the fruit of the womb is his reward" (Ps. 127:3). Thus when her husband Boaz "went in unto" Ruth, it was "the Lord," not Boaz, who "gave her conception" (Ruth 4:13).

Just as progeny was a sign of divine favor, so barrenness was a sign of divine punishment or of the woman being forgotten by God. There was no worse fate in a patriarchal society in which a woman's main function was the bearing of children. Hence the barren Rachel's anguished cry to Jacob: "Give me children, or else I die!" (Jacob angrily replied, "Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?") Yahweh finally "remembered" Rachel, and she conceived and bore Joseph (Gen. 30:1-2,22-24). Similarly Elkanah's wife Hannah was barren, for "the Lord had shut up her womb," till God "remembered" and "visited" Hannah (after her husband again "knew" her), "so that she conceived," bearing Samuel (1 Sam. 1:1-20). Abraham's wife Sarah (Gen. 17:15-21; 21:1-3), Isaac's wife Rebekah (Gen. 26:21), the unnamed mother of Samson (Judg. 13:2-3), the Shunammite woman who shelters Elisha (2 Kings 4:8,14-17), and John the Baptist's mother Elizabeth (Luke 1:7-24) were all barren women who conceived by the grace of God--for whom "nothing shall be impossible" (Luke 1:37)--along with a little help from their husbands. (See also VIRGIN BIRTH: "CHILD OF THE HOLY GHOST".)

Aside from Onan's coitus interruptus (Gen. 38:6-10), there is no mention in the Bible of birth control or contraception. While some plant-derived potions and other contraceptive measures were known in the ancient world, contraception would be generally inconsistent with the early Hebrew notion of family planning, which may be summed up by the modern phrase "think big." (The family of Jair, a judge whose thirty sons "rode on thirty ass colts," and that of Abdon, a judge whose seventy male offspring "rode on seventy asses," come to mind [Judg. 10:3-4; 12:13-14].) God said, "Be fruitful and multiply"--and Onan, it should be noted, paid dearly for interrupting his coitus (see ONAN AND TAMAR).

There is also no mention in the Bible of willful abortion (on miscarriage, see Ex. 21:22, and on stillbirth, Job 3:11-12), unless one so interprets a trial by ordeal described in Numbers 5:11-31 (see ADULTERY) and two utterances by Hosea. The prophet asks Yahweh to punish unfaithful Israel with "a miscarrying womb" (9:14)--asking God, in effect, to be an abortionist. And Hosea quotes God as saying this of his wayward people: "Their infants shall be dashed to pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up" (13:16). The prophet Jeremiah seems to wish that he himself had been somehow aborted: "Why did I come forth from the womb," he asks (20:18), "to see labor and sorrow, with my days spent in shame?"

In the Hebrew Bible a woman suffering the pangs of childbirth is a recurring metaphor or simile for God's people in times of trouble (Isa. 13:8, 21:3, 26:17, 42:14; Hos. 13:13; Mic. 4:10), with the term "a woman in travail" used six times in Jeremiah (4:31, 6:24, 13:21, 22:23, 30:6, 49:24). In contrast, the new Jerusalem, prophesies Isaiah, will give birth painlessly to her sons (66:7-8).

In the Christian Bible, John of Patmos has a Messianic vision in which "a woman clothed with the sun," crying in travail, gives birth to a manchild, with Satan standing poised to devour him (Rev. 12:1-5). The Apostle Paul describes how "the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain" (Rom. 8:22), with the coming judgment bringing destruction for the wicked "as travail upon a woman with child" (1 Thess. 5:3), and he likens himself to a childbearing woman: "I travail in birth," Paul tells the Galatians (4:27), "until Christ be formed in you."

Visitation (15th-century manuscript) / Musée de Condée, Chantilly

CONCUBINES: "Many Strange Women"

Polygyny, or having more than one wife or mate, was accepted practice among the early Hebrews, who highly valued large families. The English word concubine (from "one to lie with" in Latin) translates the Hebrew pilegesh, a woman bought as a slave or otherwise acquired by a man for his sexual pleasure, or to serve as a surrogate childbearer if his wife, or one of his wives, was barren. Thus Sarah gives her handmaid Hagar to her husband Abraham (Gen. 16:1-2), and Rachel gives Bilhah, and Leah gives Zilpah, to Jacob (Gen. 30:1-5,9), for the purpose of having children. The sons of concubines could inherit equally with those of wives, unless the father chose not to recognize them. (Thus Abraham, at his wife Sarah's insistence, disinherits his firstborn son Ishmael, the offpsring of Hagar [Gen. 21:10-14]. See Richard H. Hiers on inheritance and bequest.)

A woman sold by her father into concubinage had certain rights, so to speak, under Hebrew law (Ex. 21:7-11). A dissatisfied buyer could not resell her to a foreigner; he had either to sell her back to her father, or give her to one of his own sons and treat her as a daughter-in-law. Otherwise she was free to go, with the man who had bought her unreimbursed.

Having intercourse with another man's concubine was seen as a deliberate challenge to that man's power or authority. Thus David's son Absalom, as an act of political rebellion, has sex with ten of his father's concubines "in the sight of all Israel" (2 Sam. 16:22). When the Israelite king Ishbosheth accuses Abner, his military commander, of "going into" the royal concubine Rizpah, Abner, without denying the charge, becomes so indignant over being charged ("Am I a dog's head of Judah?") that he switches allegiance, joining Judah's king David, with Ishbosheth soon losing his head (2 Sam. 3:7-12, 4:5-8). King Solomon has his brother Adonijah executed for having the gall to ask for the royal concubine Abishag the Shunammite in marriage (1 Kings 2:13-25).

Reuben has sex, apparently out of pure sexual desire, with his father Jacob's concubine Bilhah, for which Reuben loses his birthright as firstborn son (Gen. 35:22; 49:3-4; 1 Chr. 5:1).

One of the grimmest passages in the Bible involves the rape of a visitor's concubine in the town of Gibeah, an outrage that leads to the marital ostracism of the Benjaminites--with a resultant shortage of women--by the other Israelite tribes (see BENJAMIN: "A RAVENOUS WOLF".)

The kings of Israel and Judah took polygyny to the extreme, with Solomon being the ultimate extremist, having three hundred wives and seven hundred concubines (1 Kings 11:3). The fact that Solomon had so many "strange women" (meaning foreign ones) led later Israelite religious leaders to frown on the practice. Thus the Deuteronomic law, promulgated during the reign of Josiah, prohibits a king from "multiplying wives" (Deut. 17:17), and Ezra and Nehemiah call upon Hebrew men to stop marrying foreign women (see EZRA: "YE HAVE TAKEN STRANGE WIVES"). By the close of Old Testament times, having multiple wives and concubines, whether foreign or domestic, was no longer kosher. (See also GENDER and MARRIAGE.)

Matthias Stomer, Sarah Leading Hagar to Abraham / Gemaldegalerie, Berlin


Encamped on the plains of Moab, the children of Israel under Moses begin "to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab," who entice the Hebrews into Baal worship at a place called Peor (see BAALIM AND ASHTAROTH). For this the Israelites are hit by Yahweh with a plague, which is threatening to wipe them out. He has also ordered that several Hebrew leaders be impaled.

As the Israelites sit bemoaning their plight by the door of the tabernacle or tent of meeting, they behold Zimri of the tribe of Simeon come traipsing home with Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite prince. This rubs the priest Phinehas (not to mention Yahweh) the wrong way, notwithstanding the fact that Moses himself is married to a Midianite woman. (Yahweh tells Israel in Deut. 7:1-4 not to marry foreign women, for they will turn men away from the Lord "that they may serve other gods.")

Zimri takes Cozbi into the haqqudah (KJV and NRSV "tent," RSV "inner room"), which prompts the priest Phinehas to go fetch a javelin. Entering the haqqudah, Phinehas finds Zimri and Cozbi in a position that allows him to slay them both with one thrust of the spear. This double execution turns away God's wrath and stays the plague, which claims twenty-four thousand lives.

Translators have taken stabs in the dark at haqqudah, a word occurring nowhere else in the Bible. If the word refers to Zimri's tent or a room therein, the story is a cautionary tale about bringing home the wrong kind of woman. If haqqudah refers to the tabernacle or its inner room, making love therein is a desecration of God's sanctuary (see Lev. 15:16-18)--a stronger motive, perhaps, for the action of Phinehas, praised by Sirach as "zealous in the fear of the Lord" (45:23; see also Ps. 106:30). If haqqudah refers to some other tent, in particular one associated with Baal worship, the story supports the view (once widely held but now seriously questioned by scholars) that cultic sex was practiced in ancient Israel and elsewhere. (See PROSTITUTION.) (Num. 25) (On to RAHAB THE HARLOT)

Parmigianino (1503-1540)
The Circumcision
© The Detroit Institute of Arts
Gift of Axel Beskow

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