Question: "What is the meaning of the phrase raising Cain?"

Answer: The phrase raising Cain is an American idiom first recorded in the early to mid-nineteenth century, but its origin traces back to the Bible. To raise Cain means to cause a lot of trouble, to create a great commotion, or to behave in an uncontrolled, disruptive way. The word Cain is capitalized in the expression because it refers to the Old Testament Bible character Cain, the firstborn son of Adam and Eve who killed his brother Abel.

Cain’s story takes place in Genesis 4 and begins with the two brothers bringing an offering to God. But there was something wrong with the offering Cain brought; in fact, there was something wrong with Cain himself: “The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor” (Genesis 4:4–5). Cain became angry because God rejected his offering. God warned him that he must control his anger, because “sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you” (verse 7). Cain refused to heed God’s word, and in a fit of jealous rage he murdered his brother Abel.

For his crime, Cain was punished by God. The earth would no longer yield its fruitfulness to him, and he was destined to be “a restless wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:12). God marked Cain in some way so that he would be protected from those who sought to avenge Abel’s death: “The Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him” (verse 15). Cain lived the rest of his life under God’s curse.

In the phrase raising Cain, the verb raising means “conjuring or summoning something like a spirit, demon, or ghost.” The usage of the verb in this sense has been around since the Middle Ages. Thus, raising Cain means literally “conjuring up the murderous spirit of Cain.” The idea is that the risen spirit of Cain would be a destructive force, capable of making serious trouble, acting wildly, violently, or causing a significant disturbance. For example, we might say, “The students are raising Cain while the teacher is out.” We don’t mean that the students are literally conjuring Cain’s evil spirit from the dead, only that they are completely out of control. Raising Cain also describes criminal activity or mischievous acts. For example, we might say, “The rival street gangs are raising Cain tonight.” It’s not that the street gangs are practicing necromancy but that they are engaging in criminality. To raise Cain is to act “in the spirit” of Cain.

The phrase raising Cain is similar in meaning to the expressions raising hell and raising the devil. In fact, some use raising Cain as a euphemism to avoid saying the more profane raising hell. Incidentally, the first published example of the idiom appeared in this pun-based joke in the Daily Pennant, a St. Louis newspaper, on May 2, 1840: “Why have we every reason to believe that Adam and Eve were both rowdies? Because they both raised Cain.” A newer version of the joke goes something like this: “Adam and Eve were the world’s first troublemakers. They both raised Cain.”

The Bible does not use the idiom raising Cain, but it describes that type of behavior: “They get drunk, carry on at wild parties, and do other evil things as well” (Galatians 5:21, CEV). Those who raise Cain are acting according to the flesh, not the Holy Spirit, and they must repent of their deeds: “I told you before, and I am telling you again: No one who does these things will share in the blessings of God’s kingdom” (verse 21).