The Death of Cain. The World’s First Murder

05 Aug

by Rabbi David Fohrman

George Frederic Watts RA, The Death of Cain

The Death of Cain, ca. 1872-1875
George Frederic Watts

Does the one who brings death into the world deserve protection from God?

How did Cain die?

We don’t know for sure. The Bible doesn’t tell us. But the sages of the Midrash had something to say about the matter. Working with various clues from the Biblical text, they patched together an account of how the man who committed the first murder met his own demise.

The story they tell is bizarre and haunting. At face value, it borders on the absurd. But Midrashic stories are not necessarily meant to be interpreted at face value. They often use the language of allegory to point to deeper, underlying currents in a story. For all its improbability, then, the story the Midrash tells about Cain’s death may be quite “truthful” indeed.

Let’s begin our look at the Midrashic elaboration with an eye towards the Biblical clues that it is based upon. As near as I can figure it, these are some of the issues that nudged the sages towards their view of how Cain died:

An Unexplained Fear

The Torah records that after Cain killed Abel, the Lord imposed a number of punishments upon Cain. In response, Cain turned to God and expressed his concern that his own demise will not be long in coming:

And Cain said to God, “My sin is greater than I can bear… anyone who finds me will kill me.” God replied to him, “Therefore — anyone who kills Cain will be avenged seven-fold,” and God placed a mark upon Cain, so that all who find him would not kill him. (Genesis 4:13-15)

The Lord has not posted any “Cain: Wanted, Dead or Alive” signs around the neighborhood. So why is Cain so worried?

We might ask: Why, exactly, does Cain feel so vulnerable? It is true that God has imposed a number of punishments on him, from difficulty farming to exile, but He has not decreed that Cain deserves to be killed. The Lord has not posted any “Cain: Wanted, Dead or Alive” signs around the local neighborhood. Why, then, is Cain so worried? Moreover, who exactly are these other people that Cain fears will do him in? The world’s aggregate population was pretty tiny at the time. Besides his parents and Mrs. Cain, there weren’t too many others around. Who, really, is Cain afraid of?

Rashi, grandfather of the medieval commentators, is bothered by this question. His answer, which originates in the Midrash, is that the killers Cain feared were not men but animals. That is, Cain was worried that, in the wake of his act of murder, a beast might devour him.

Does Rashi solve the problem? Well, perhaps he explains who might kill him, but he doesn’t seem to explain why. Why would Cain all of a sudden worry that animals would kill him? God didn’t command animals to avenge Abel’s blood. What’s more, if Cain had the means to defend himself adequately against the animal world before he killed Abel, he presumably had these same capabilities afterwards, too. Why, all of a sudden, does he become afraid?

The Mystery of “Seven-Fold Vengeance”

So Cain’s fear of death is one oddity — but it is not the only one. Another strange thing is God’s response to this fear, his promise to Cain that whoever kills him will suffer sevenfold vengeance. Why, for starters, would God want to promise such a thing to Cain? It is one thing to soothe Cain by telling him that he will be protected from would-be-killers — but why extend to Cain, a murderer, the assurance that one who kills him will be punished seven times more severely than the crime warrants? God didn’t extend this courtesy to Abel, the innocent victim of murder. Why extend it to Cain, Abel’s killer?

And there’s another problem, too: What exactly does “seven-fold vengeance” really mean? Presumably, the worst thing God could do to a killer of Cain, by way of vengeance, would be to kill that person himself. But that’s not sevenfold vengeance — that’s just plain vanilla vengeance — a simple tit-for-tat. Where does the “seven” part fit in?

A New Theory

A strange verse, tucked away at the end of the story of Cain and Abel, may hold the key to answering these questions.

Just after the Torah tells us of Cain’s punishments, it goes on to give a long list of genealogical tables. We hear all about Cain’s descendants — who gave birth to who, and how long they lived. Many might wonder why the Bible felt it necessary to include all this apparently trivial information. But if you stop and actually read these genealogical tables, you will find something curious: The Torah goes into a great amount of detail about one particular family, a family which appears at the very end of the chain of descendants. We are told the names and professions of each child, and then, strangely enough, the text quotes, verbatim, a short and cryptic declaration made by the father of these children.

In that speech, the father speaks about having killed a man. And he also speaks of the “sevenfold vengeance” of Cain, as well as vengeance that will be exacted against him, this latter-day killer. And what’s more, if we bother to count all the “who-begat-who’s” in between, we will find that this mysterious mention of murder occurs precisely at — wouldn’t you know it — the seventh generation removed from Cain.

An interesting possibility begins to unfold. Maybe these verses are describing, somehow, the carrying out of the mysterious vengeance of Cain. Maybe the phrase “sevenfold” didn’t refer to the severity of the vengeance (that someone would be killed seven times over) but to the time at which it occurs. Maybe the promised vengeance would take place after a seven-fold lapse in generations, and maybe this is precisely what we are reading about at the very end of Cain’s genealogical table.

Such a possibility bears, at least, further exploration. So let’s take a closer look at these strange events that occur seven generations removed from Cain. What, in fact, happened at that promised “seventh generation?”

The Lemech Connection

Only a few details are clear. We are introduced to a man named Lemech, and we are told that he has two wives and four children — three boys and a girl. We know their names. The three boys are Yaval, Yuval and Tuval-Kayin, and the girl is named Na’ama. Yaval becomes “the father of all shepherds and tent-dwellers.” Yuval becomes the “father of harps and cymbals” — i.e. the inventor of the first musical instruments. And Tuval-Kayin is the inventor of ironworks, the first to fashion metal weaponry.

The Torah then tells us that one day, Lemech convened his two wives, and made a strange speech to them:

Listen to my voice; wives of Lemech, hearken to my words: For I have killed a man to my injury, and a child to my wound. Yes, sevenfold was the vengeance of Cain; and Lemech, seventy-seven. (4:23-24)

Lemech’s declaration is difficult to decipher, to say the least. He talks about having killed a man and a child, and refers, strangely, to the promise of his ancestor’s sevenfold vengeance. What does he mean to say?

The Sages Parable

The sages of the Midrash gathered the various puzzle pieces of this story, and constructed a parable that seeks, I think, to give meaning to it all. And it is here that the Midrash tells us how it thinks Cain died. According to the Midrash, here is what happened:

Lemech was a seventh generation descendant of Cain. He was blind, and he would go out hunting with his son, [Tuval-Kayin]. [His son] would lead him by the hand, and when he would see an animal, he would inform his father, [who would proceed to hunt it]. One day, [Tuval Kayin] cried out to his father: “I see something like an animal over there.” Lemech pulled back on his bow and shot. … The child peered from afar at the dead body… and said to Lemech: “What we killed bears the figure of a man, but it has a horn protruding from its forehead.” Lemech then exclaimed in anguish: “Woe unto me! It is my ancestor, Cain!” and he clapped his hands together in grief. In doing so, though, he unintentionally struck Tuval-Kayin and killed him, too. (Tanchuma to Genesis, 11)

What exactly was Cain doing parading around the forest in a unicorn costume?

What a strange story. We hear of a hunt gone awry, with a blind Lemech shooting arrows at the beck and call of his over-eager son, little Tuval-Kayin. We hear of an elderly Cain being mistaken for an animal, walking around with a strange horn protruding from his head. What exactly was Cain doing parading around the forest in a unicorn costume?

One thing seems clear, though. According to the sages, the “man” Lemech killed “to [his] injury” was none other than Cain, and the “child” he struck “to his wound” was his own son, Tuval-Kayin. If we put two and two together, the Midrash seems to be saying that when God talked about “sevenfold vengeance” for Cain, He wasn’t talking about punishing Cain’s murderer. Instead, God was talking about punishing Cain himself. He was promising that Cain himself would be killed in vengeance for Abel’s murder — but that this would occur only after a sevenfold lapse in generations.1

The Advent of the Unicorn

So where did Cain get that unicorn costume from? Why did he have a horn, of all things, sticking out of his forehead?

It is time to revisit, one last time, the story of Adam and Eve in Eden — the story where the cascade leading to Cain and Abel first begins.

We noticed a while back that the Cain and Abel narrative is speckled with connections between it and the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden. A triad of consequences — exile, difficulty farming, hiding from God — beset mankind after they eat from the Tree, and these same consequences reappear, only more intensely, after Cain kills Abel. The Torah, as we noted, seems to be saying that the Cain and Abel episode is a further chapter in the story of the Tree of Knowledge; that Cain’s act of murder was fundamentally similar to Adam and Eve’s eating from the Tree. It was just another chapter in the same saga.

If we had to boil down that saga to just a single, simple sentence — what would we say that these two, linked stories, are about?

They are about, we might say, what it really means to be a human being and not an animal.

In Eden, humanity was accosted by the primal serpent — an animal that walked, talked and was apparently an intelligent being. The snake was very nearly human, and earlier, we argued that the challenge the snake proffers to humanity touches on how we define ourselves in relation to him — that is, “what makes us human and him a snake.” The snake begins his words with: Even if God said don’t eat from the tree, [so what?]. God may have told you not to eat of the tree, but those words are belied by your desires. Do you want to eat? If so, God is talking to you through that desire. He put those instincts inside you, and you obey God by following them.

Animals follow God’s will by obeying their passions, their instincts — the “voice of God inside of them.”

In making this argument, the snake was faithfully representing the perspective of the animal world. The dividing line between man and animal, we argued, lies in how one perceives that God “speaks” to him. Does God speak to you in the form of commands, or in the form of desire? Animals, such as snakes, follow God’s will not by listening to God’s words, His verbal commands, but by obeying their passions, their instincts — the “voice of God inside of them.” The snake, quite innocently, holds out the possibility that perhaps man should adopt the same approach. The voice of desire, for an animal, always reigns supreme.

In the act of reaching for the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve succumbed to the snake’s argument. In buying the argument that, for man too, one’s internal desire could be the final arbiter of God’s Will, mankind lost a little bit of who he was, and became a little more snake-like.

In the wake of that failure, God punishes all the relevant parties. The snake’s “punishment,” though, is particularly interesting. He is told that from then on, he will eat dust, will crawl on his belly, and that hatred and strife will henceforth reign in the relationship between his progeny and the children of Eve. The common denominator in these three punishments of the snake seems evident: The snake will become more obviously different — a being that crawls rather than walks, a being that subsists on food that men would never touch; and a being whose sight and presence registers instinctive alarm and enmity in the collective psyche of humanity. The snake will become more obviously animal-like, more clearly removed from the realm of man. Having failed once to distinguish himself from the animal world, mankind will no longer be faced with as subtle and dangerous a temptation.

But man’s struggle to define himself in relation to the animal world is not yet over. The story of Cain and Abel was a further battle in the same war — a war centered on how man is meant to relate to the passions, the creative will, that surges inside of him. Cain became enamored with his ability to create in partnership with God, and became entranced by the products of that enterprise. In the end, he sacrificed everything — his relationship with God, and the life of his own brother — on that altar. As the verse suggests, he had in effect used Abel’s blood as fertilizer for the ground. The life of a brother had become a regrettable but acceptable casualty of Cain’s continuing, intoxicating quest to bring forth life from the ground. Blind desire had once again had its way.

In the wake of that basic failure, Cain intuited a self-evident truth: He would now fear the world of beasts. Not because beasts would be interested in avenging Abel. But simply because they would perceive that Cain really was not all that different from them. The days of comfortable distance from the world of the jungle were now behind him.

Cain pleads to the Almighty for protection from these newfound threats. And the Lord accedes to the request, giving to Cain a mark that will protect him from those that would molest him. We wondered earlier why it is “fair” that Cain, a murderer, would merit special protection from death at the hands of others. But that mark, the Midrash is saying, was not some “supernatural” sign promising heavenly retribution to anyone who would harm Cain, nor was it some artificial device that would convince the animals that Cain really was a human to be feared after all. Instead, the sign, as the Midrash tells it, was a simple animal’s horn. Having become vulnerable to his new compatriots in the world of the jungle, it is only fair that Cain be given a horn, the same means of defense available to any other beast.

In a savage twist of irony, it is precisely the horn given to Cain for protection that does him in.

In a savage twist of irony, though, in the end it is precisely the horn given to Cain for protection that does him in. Little Tuval-Kayin sees Cain’s horn and immediately assumes that he has sighted a beast. Upon closer examination, though, the boy isn’t so sure. The body of the figure is man-like and he can’t figure out whether the being he killed is man or beast. He can’t tell, perhaps, not because he can’t see well — that’s his father’s problem, not his — but because the identity of his prey really is uncertain: Cain has crossed into the no-man’s land between man and animal. Cain, the person who feared he would be killed by an animal, is killed because a person couldn’t tell whether he was, in fact, man or animal.

The Child and the Blind Hunter

The story the Midrash tells is interesting not only for the way it portrays Cain, but for its view of Cain’s killer as well. The image of Tuval Kayin and Lemech, the child and the blind hunter, is a memorable one. To fully understand its significance, I propose we take a quick look at the larger, extended family.

Tuval Kayin, the child weapon-maker, has two brothers — men by the names Yuval and Yaval. If you replay the names of these three siblings over in your mind, they should sound vaguely familiar. Yuval, Yaval, and Tuval Kayin. What do they remind you of?

Well, to tell the truth, if you are used to reading the Bible in English, they may not remind you of much. But if you switch to Hebrew, the resonance in these names is unmistakable. The Hebrew original for the word “Cain” is Kayin — a word that reappears in the appellation given his descendant, Tuval-Kayin. Likewise, the Hebrew name for “Abel” is Hevel or Haval, which sounds suspiciously similar to “Yaval,” the brother of Tuval-Kayin.

The resemblance goes beyond names, too. Just as we are told the professions of Cain and Abel, we are told the professions of Tuval-Kayin and Yaval, too. And wouldn’t you know it — the professions adopted by these seventh-generation descendants bear an eerie similarity to the arts practiced by their forebears. Cain/Kayin was the word’s first killer — and Tuval-Kayin, his namesake-descendant, makes weaponry. Abel/Haval is the first shepherd in history, and his namesake-descendant in the seventh generation, Yaval, is the “father” of traveling herdsmen.

These connections did not go unnoticed by the sages of the Midrash. The rabbis commented about Tuval-Kayin, for example, that his name signifies that “he perfected [metavel (1)] the arts of Kayin.” Cain killed without benefit of tools; Tuval-Kayin comes along and, by forging weaponry, gives the art of killing a technological boost. One can argue that Yaval, the seventh-generation heir to Haval/Abel, does likewise: He “perfects” the art of Abel. Abel, the ancestor, grazed his flocks, but Yaval pushed the envelope further. As Rashi puts it, he — the “father of herdsmen” — constantly moved his tents, transporting flocks from pasture to pasture, to ensure a virtually never ending supply of grassland. (2)

These “great leaps forward” all take place in the seventh generation from Cain and Abel. Seven, in the Torah, is a number laden with symbolic significance. It often signifies completion — the bringing of a process to its culmination. God finished Creation in “seven” days, bringing the Universe to its finished state of being. After forty nine years — seven times seven — we celebrate Yovel, the Jubilee year, in which “freedom is proclaimed throughout the land.” Everything attains a new homeostasis, everything achieves a new balance: Debts are forgiven and slaves are released from servitude. Here too, at the end of seven generations, the lines of Cain and Abel reach their “perfection,” their final fruition.

In the case of Cain, that destiny bears ominous overtones. His seventh-generation descendant, Tuval-Kayin, the metalworker, takes the art of killing to new and more powerful levels — levels that would have been unimaginable to Cain himself, the ancestor of it all. But such is the way of things. We don’t always have control over forces we put in motion.

Cain is powerless to stem the lethal forces he has begun to unleash — forces that culminate in the personage of Tuval Kayin. But ironically, Tuval Kayin and Lemech — the new killers — are, in their own ways, just as powerless as well…

The image of a child weapon-maker leading around his blind father on hunting expeditions is comedic but chilling.

When you get right down to thinking about it, the partnership of Tuval-Kayin and Lemech has to be the craziest hunting duo one can possibly imagine. Tuval-Kayin spots a leopard at a hundred paces, and calls out the coordinates to his father. Lemech, who can’t see a blasted thing, wheels around sixty degrees to his left, takes a moment to calculate range and trajectory, then lets his arrows fly. The image of a child weapon-maker leading around his blind father on hunting expeditions is comedic but chilling. Neither the father nor the child is in control. Neither is quite aware at the awesome power they so irresponsibly wield. Both are powerful engines — but nothing of consequence guides either of them.

Three Blind Men

A quick survey of blind men in the Bible turns up an interesting pattern. Lemech, according to the Sages, was blind. Isaac, towards the end of his life, suffered from failing eyesight. And so did Eli, the high priest mentioned at the beginning of I Samuel. Sensing a commonality here, the sages of the Midrash commented:

Anyone who raises a wicked son or trains a wicked disciple, is destined to eventually lose his eyesight…

The sages are not doctors, and the observation they are making, arguably, is not medical in nature, but spiritual. Why would a father who raises wicked children eventually become blind? Perhaps the sages are not talking about the physical inability to see, but an emotional blindness — a deep-seated unwillingness to see. Isaac can’t bring himself to face the true nature of Esau, and Eli can’t bear to face the sins his sons commit. These otherwise prescient fathers are blind to what is obvious to all others around them. When reality is too cruel to see, the best among us can easily make ourselves blind to its horror.

In the view of the Midrash, Lemech — like Isaac and Eli — is blind. It is not so much that his son is evil — after all, Tuval-Kayin is but a child — but the dangers of his craft are entirely lost on the oblivious father. There is a kid out there making sawed-off shotguns, and instead of restraining him, Lemech invites little Tuval out for hunting parties. Lemech can easily rationalize the deadly arts of his son — after all, it is not guns that kill people, but people that kill people — and if all my kid does is make the swords that others use… well, that’s a good, clean living, isn’t it? The mandate of parents is to guide their children, but in this case, it is little Tuval-Kayin who is the leader, guiding — with devastating inaccuracy — the arrows of his blind father.

The seventh generation is the apogee — and the generations of Cain are slowly spinning out of control. Tuval-Kayin really is, “Cain Perfected.” Cain failed to rule over the raging passions that beset his soul, and Lemech failed to rule over the raging power of his young son’s killing machines. Seven generations from Cain, nothing has changed; it is just the stakes that have gotten higher. The legacy of the forbidden fruit is alive and well. Mankind becomes ever more snake-like, as raw power, left to its own devices, consistently overwhelms its bearer.

The Second Lemech and the Wife of Noah

The children of Lemech are the last descendants of Cain that the world will ever know. The great flood — the ultimate destruction of humanity — is right around the corner. A glimmer of hope, though, beckons to humanity.

Right after the Torah finishes telling us of Cain’s seven generations of descendants — indeed, immediately after Lemech’s disastrous pronouncement of “seventy-seven times vengeance” — the Torah tells us something fascinating. We hear of a second chain of generations, which begins with the birth of a child named Shet (see Genesis 4:25). Shet was a third son born to Eve, a son born after Cain killed Abel, and the text tells us that Shet, in Eve’s mind, constituted a replacement of sorts for her murdered son, Abel (see 4:25). Interestingly, the list of Shet’s descendants is introduced with the words: These are the generations of Adam — as if to say, somehow, that these are the real generations of Adam. And they really are. After all, Abel was murdered and had no children. Cain’s children are wiped out after seven generations in the great flood. It is really only this last child, Shet, who allows the generations of Adam to continue in perpetuity. For, as the verses go on to tell us, Noah — the saving remnant of humanity — is a descendant of Shet.

Strangely, as you begin to go through them, the descendants of Shet sound a lot like the descendants of Cain. For example, Cain has a descendant named Metushael, and Shet has a descendant named Metushelech. Cain has a child by the name of Chanoch; and Shet has a descendant by the same name. Curiously, Shet’s immediate offspring is a child named “Enosh,” a word which has come to mean “man,” and the child of Enosh is Keinan — a word which seems a variation on Kayin/Cain. It is as if Shet’s own line of heirs contains a mirror of Adam himself, and a mirror of Adam’s son, Cain.

Well, it can’t come as too much of a surprise that, seven generations after Enosh, this second Adam — we are greeted with the birth of a child named… you guessed it, Lemech. (3) In case you missed the point, this second Lemech just happens to live to the ripe old age of — seven hundred and seventy-seven years. So, when all is said and done, at seven generations, each line — the line of Adam I and Adam II — come to their apex. But whereas the first Lemech gives birth to Tuval Kayin, a son who becomes a partner in the destruction of life, the second Lemech gives birth to a son who will allow for the perpetuation of life. The child of Lemech II is a man by the name of Noah.

While the three sons of Lemech I die in a flood, the child of Lemech II builds an ark. And yet, while the children of Lemech I perish in that flood, the legacy of Lemech I is not erased entirely. One of his children, according to the sages, survives. According to the Midrash, Na’amah — the sister of Tuval-Kayin — becomes the wife of Noah.

So a daughter of Lemech I survives by marrying the son of Lemech II. In that union, humanity comes full circle. The doomed line of Cain merges with a spark of life from Shet — the man who, according to Eve, was a replacement for Abel. At long last, the legacies of Cain and “replacement Abel” have come together, as a father from one line and a mother from the other unite to create Noah.

When we look back on Cain and his legacy, it is easy to disregard him; to feel that mankind is better off without having to deal with the wickedness he manifests. But evidently, Abel — or his replacement — is not enough of a foundation upon which to build a New World. Cain, for all the danger he brings to the table, is a necessary partner. Somehow, mankind needs the energies of both Cain and Abel — ground, coupled with nothingness; possession, bound together with breath — to move on, to build itself in perpetuity. And so it is that — in the personhood of Noah and Naama — under the life-saving roof of an ark, a fragmented humanity finally gains a semblance of unity, just as the storm-clouds of apocalypse gather on the horizon.


(1) In Hebrew, “metavel,” or “one who perfects,” is the verb form of the word “Tuval.”
(2)The middle brother, Yuval, seemingly has no analogue in the Cain and Abel saga, in which there were only two brothers. We might speculate, though, that his name — Yuval — seems to be a cross between Tuval-Kayin and Yaval. Indeed, his craft — the making of musical instruments, might be seen as a cross between the pastoral profession of shepherding, and the technological innovations of metallurgy and practical tool-making.
(3)In elaborating this point, Rashi notes a grammatical oddity in the verse in question and suggests that the phrase “whoever kills Cain / sevenfold he will be avenged” should actually be read as two entirely separate statements, one referring to avenging Cain — the other, to avenging Abel. First, God states “whoever kills Cain…,” and the rest of the thought is left unsaid, implying an unspoken threat: “Whoever kills Cain … well, we won’t even talk about what happens to him.” As for the rest of the phrase, “sevenfold will he be avenged,” Rashi suggests that this refers to the way Abel’s killer will be avenged. That is, the verse is telling us that Cain will eventually have to pay with his life for killing Abel — but that he has a seven-generation grace period before vengeance will do its ugly work.

As taken from,

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Posted by on August 5, 2019 in Uncategorized


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