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Moral Sins and Heresy from Adam until the Flood

  • Dr. Brachi Elitzur

The first parasha of Sefer Bereishit deals with the cosmo-political events of Creation; the earliest generations of mankind; the hierarchy of Nature ("And subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea…"); the relations between man and God (the Garden of Eden, reward and punishment); marriage ("It is not good that man is alone"); death ("…until you return to the earth"); Divine Providence ("the voice of your brother's blood cries to Me from the ground"); and the lifespan meted out to man ("his days shall be a hundred and twenty years"). The lessons gleaned from the stories recounted here are the foundations of the way in which God guides the world. Parashat Noach also deals with a cosmic event whose impact is felt beyond the realm of mankind and which remolds the relations between God, man, and nature. The events of the parashot of Bereishit and Noach cover hundreds of years and influence the entire course of the world.


The contents of these parashot and their location as an introduction to the history of the chosen people, starting with God's call to Avraham, "Get yourself out of your country…," is explained as follows by Rabbeinu Bechayei in his introduction to the Torah:


Therefore, [Divine] wisdom required that the Torah begin with the creation of the world, so as to inform His people of His mighty acts, and because all the roots of our faith rely and rest upon faith in the Creation – for the Creation testifies to Divine Providence, and Divine Providence testifies to the greatness of prophecy and of the truth that there is reward and punishment, and all of these great principles emerge from this parsha. It first tells us that the world was created ex nihilo, after it had originally been void and chaos. God [then] created all that exists in six days, and on the sixth day, He created Adam, and His Providence extended over him in three areas: in creation, in formation, and in making. And He commanded him with a positive commandment and a negative commandment. And all of this is a testimony and clear sign concerning Divine Providence and about prophecy, [teaching] that God speaks to man and commands him to do that which He wants and withholds from him that which should be avoided. And this explains reward and punishment for the righteous and the wicked, respectively. It explains reward, for God placed him in the Garden of Eden when he was in a state of innocence, as it says (Bereishit 2:15), "And He placed him in the Garden of Eden." And it explains punishment, when he sinned and was expelled from there, as it is written, (ibid. 3:24), "And He expelled Adam." It also explains the punishment to Kayin for committing murder, and the reward to Chanokh, who "walked with God," and the punishment to the generation of the Flood for their acts of sexual immorality, which brought the Flood upon them, and the reward to the righteous Noach, who found favor in God's eyes and was saved. Thus, we find that all of these tremendous principles are derived from faith in the Creation, and the entire Torah is based and built upon them, and each entails the other. The Creation of the world entails Divine Providence; Divine Providence entails reward and punishment; and it entails prophecy; and through prophecy there emerges Torah. Thus, the Torah had to begin with the Creation of the world.


The foundations of faith set down in these parashot are therefore a necessary precondition for understanding the process of formation of the nation through the selection of individuals who believed in these principles and followed them and the passing on of this choice to their offspring, who were similarly guided by these fundamentals of faith.


In light of the tremendous significance of the narratives included here, the story of Lemekh and his wives seems to stand out in stark contrast. Lemekh's family bequeaths to the world the culture of nomadism ("the father of those who dwell in tents and possess cattle"), the pleasures of music ("the father of all who grasp the lyre and the pipe"), and the art of metal-works ("forger of every sharp instrument of brass and iron"). These details sit well with the context of the foundations of Creation and its development, but what are we to make of the curious song that Lemekh declaims before his wives?


Lemekh said to his wives: "Ada and Tzila - hear my voice; wives of Lemekh – listen to my speech; for I have slain a man for wounding me, and a young man for injuring me. For if Kayin is to be avenged sevenfold, surely Lemekh [shall be avenged] seventy and sevenfold." (4:23-24)


Commentators throughout the ages have tried to make sense of this song. They are divided as to whether Lemekh is expressing remorse over an act of manslaughter or boasting about an act of premeditated murder. The debate turns on the following three questions:

1.    Are the words, "Hear… listen…" spoken with brazen arrogance or in a tone of pleading?

Malbim: "'Hear my voice' – and do not rebel against me, for a man wounded me and I killed him, and as I killed him, he inflicted an injury – which is less severe than a wound – and I killed his son, too, such that there was no one left to rise up against me and seek their blood at my hand, for there is no judgment against me in the land, for I possess power."

Rashi: "'Hear my voice' – [In a pleading tone], for his wives ceased engaging in marital relations with him because he had killed Kayin and Tuval-Kayin, his [Lemekh's] son."


2.    What is the syntactical status of Lemekh's words, "For I have slain [or, 'Have I slain'] a man for wounding me and a young man for injuring me"? Is Lemekh reporting something that he did or is he voicing a rhetorical question, implying that he did not do this?

R. Sa'adia Gaon, Sefer ha-Galui 174 (one possibility): "If we understand the words 'I have slain a man' as a positive assertion, then what he means is: If the killer of Kayin is to be killed and severe revenge is to be exacted from him – even though Kayin himself killed – then Lemekh, who killed a man and his son, is certainly liable to much greater revenge, especially since the child was altogether innocent."

Rashi: "He [Lemekh] says to them: 'Have I then killed a man for wounding me? Was it then I who killed Hevel, who had the appearance of a man, but was a child in years, such that my descendants deserve to be annihilated for that sin?'"


3.    Do the words "avenged sevenfold" imply a comparison between Kayin's punishment and that which awaits Lemekh, or do they describe the revenge to be unleashed on anyone who dares to harm them?

Rashi: "Kayin, who was guilty of killing, had his revenge held in abeyance for seven generations; I myself did not kill, so is it not proper that my revenge should be held in abeyance for many more sets of seven generations?"

Malbim: "If you wish to say that I will be punished by Divine justice, then my response is that if Kayin, who was the first murderer, was nevertheless told by God that whoever killed him would suffer seven-fold revenge, then how much more should this apply to Lemekh, who is more powerful than Kayin, and governs with a mighty rein. Whoever kills him shall suffer a seventy-seven-fold revenge, for his sons and servants will all exact revenge."


The defensive approach, which maintains that Lemekh is expressing remorse for his deed and seeking pardon in light of the punishment awaiting him, intensifies the problem posed by the location of this narrative in the midst of the stories of sin – the story of Kayin preceding it and the sins of the "distinguished men" (benei ha-elokim) and of the generation of the Flood following it. It would therefore seem that the approach that attributes to Lemekh the sin of murder and then boasting of this murder, convinced that he will suffer no Divine revenge, fits better in light of the series of narratives that forms the context for our unit. However, we still need to understand the meaning of this brief family episode among the descriptions of the sins of early figures who left a lasting impact on all of future humanity.


I wish to propose a general direction for the analysis of the stories of sin in the parashot of Bereishit and Noach and to clarify on this basis the reason for the selection of Avram as the patriarch of the dynasty of chosen individuals – the progenitor who would pass this unique selection on to his offspring.


Cassuto explains the punishment of the Flood as a rupture of the distorted equation of the early generations, in which civilization and morality moved in opposite directions: as civilization progressed and developed, there was a moral regression and decline. The Flood ushered in a new world in which cultural development would progress with the underpinnings of ethical values:


After setting forth the innovations that Kayin and his descendants introduced into human culture, [the Torah] records Lemekh's song, which shows that material progress had brought no noticeable moral development. Robbery was prevalent and acts of robbery were a source of pride for those generations. It was specifically the lowliest traits most hated by God that were considered praiseworthy in human eyes. Under such circumstances it was impossible for the Judge of the entire earth to perform justice. None of the achievements of material culture have any value if there are no positive moral traits. (Me-Adam ad Noach, p. 130).


Cassuto's view is that the narrative from Adam to Noach describes a series of moral sins that become increasingly severe with each new generation, up until the annihilation of Creation by the Flood. The Flood puts an end to all progress, re-establishing it upon the moral foundations that are dictated to mankind after Noach and his family leave the Ark.


The sins of Kayin, the "distinguished men," and the generation of the Flood do indeed reflect moral failings, but I wish to posit that alongside these intensifying moral perversions there is a deterioration that goes beyond the social realm. A deeper analysis of these events indicates a religious aspect characterizing each of the actions of the sinners in these first ten generations. Let us review these sins of the earliest people and examine the attitude of heresy behind them.[1]


The Sin of Eating from the Tree of Knowledge

In the story of the Garden of Eden, the man and woman are the only humans inhabiting the world, and so it is difficult to define their sin of eating the forbidden fruit as a moral perversion. Its religious aspect, on the other hand, is expressed most eloquently by Benno Jacob:


"Behold, I have placed before you this day life and goodness, and death and evil, that I command you this day to love the Lord your God, to follow in His ways and to observe His commandments…" – "Goodness" is loving God and observing His commandments, and "evil" is disobeying Him. Adam would learn this when he received the first commandment. If he failed to obey it, he would discover the evil that he had chosen, and would discover how it differed from the goodness that would have been his portion had he obeyed the command. The Tree is the test of choosing between goodness and evil, between that which is permitted and that which is forbidden, between life and death. And it has nothing to do with the content of the command. On the contrary, man is being tested to see whether he can avoid being influenced by practical considerations of the utility of the command, such that his desire is solely to obey the Source of the command. And he is given this command so that he will not think himself to be God; rather, he will know that there is a Sovereign above him who commands him. The fruit of the tree was not inherently harmful; there was no deadly substance in it. On the contrary, it was fit for consumption.


The greatness of a servant of God is his obedience of God's command, out of his recognition of the greatness of Him Who commands. Adam's sin lay in the sabotaging of the purity of Divine service amongst all of humanity. Until he sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, the motivation behind obedience in performing the mitzvot was subservience to God Who commanded them. After the sin, an additional consideration was introduced: the fear of punishment. Thus, Adam expresses a certain undermining of pure faith in the logic of the command by virtue of its having emanated from God when its reason is not clear to those who are commanded.


The Sin of Kayin

The act of killing is, first and foremost, a most severe moral crime. Nevertheless, it seems that in seeking the reason for the killing of Hevel, we cannot suffice with the motive of jealousy, since the act seems out of proportion with respect to it. A religious motive is proposed by Lord Byron in his drama Cain, which imagines a dialogue between Cain and Lucifer, lord of the winds, about Divinity and power. It presents the following reaction of the part of Kayin to the sight of Hevel's dead body:


Where am I? alone! Where's Abel? Where

Cain? Can it be that I am he? My brother,

 Awake! – why liest thou so on the green earth?

'T is not the hour of slumber: - why so pale?

What, hast thou! – thou wert full of life this morn!

Abel! I pray thee, mock me not! I smote

Too fiercely, but not fatally. Ah, why

Would'st thou oppose me? This is mockery;

And only done to daunt me: -'t was a blow –

And but a blow. Stir – stir – nay, only stir!

Why, so – that's well! Thou breath'st! breathe upon me!

Oh, God! Oh, God!


Byron depicts Kayin as being surprised and fearful in view of the results of his striking of Hevel; these results had not occurred to him. Kayin is the first individual in the world to be faced with death, and he cannot reconcile himself to this irreversible reality. How are we to explain the shock that grips him over the act that he himself has perpetrated?


Kayin's sin lies in a denial of the principle of Divine punishment. God had punished his father, Adam, with the cursing of the earth and with death:


"Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herbs of the field. By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread, until your return to the earth, for from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Bereishit 3:18-19)


Kayin's success in growing fruit from the earth leads him to think that man possesses the power to overcome God's decree. Kayin's offering is perceived by the midrash as an act of defiance against God: "But Kayin did not fear God. He was stiff-necked and said, 'I shall be a tiller of the ground'" (Midrash Aggada, Bereishit 4:2). God's warning addresses Kayin's heresy, telling him that it will lead him to the abyss, but Kayin – overcome with euphoria over his success in the field – goes on to try out his power at disproving God's decree of death by delivering a blow to Hevel. His shock at the sight of Hevel's corpse arises from his belief that the Divine decree may be controlled by human hands. The heretical orientation of Kayin's thinking leads him to continue ignoring the power of Divine control and providence over the world and to attempt to evade responsibility for Hevel's death through a lie: "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?"


The punishment of Kayin the heretic is that he is made completely dependent upon God, with no control over the elements from which he had previously drawn his own sense of power. For his heresy concerning the cursing of the land, he is punished by having an additional curse on the land that will apply only to him: "When you till the ground, it shall no longer give its strength to you." For his heresy concerning the decree "until you return to the ground," Kayin is punished with the looming threat of death that will follow him for the remainder of his life: "And it shall be that anyone who finds me, will kill me." For his heresy concerning God's observation of the actions of His creations, Kayin is punished with dependence on God's constant watching over him: "God placed a mark upon Kayin, lest anyone who find him smite him."


While Adam, Kayin's father, violates the purity of Divine service, introducing the threat of punishment as a motivation for obeying God's command, Kayin seeks to undermine the very obligation to obey God by removing the fear imposed by the threat of punishment.


The Sin of Lemekh

The moral deterioration represented by Lemekh's act is reflected both in its scope (the taking of two lives, in contrast with Kayin's taking of a single life) and – more importantly – in his attitude towards it. While Kayin attempts to conceal what he has done, and thereby evade responsibility, and is ultimately forced to confess to its severity,[2] Lemekh boasts to his wives about what he has done. Is Lemekh also guilty of heresy?


The commentators who attribute a religious failing to Lemekh cite as evidence the words, "For if Kayin is to be avenged seven-fold":


Ralbag: What Lemekh tells his wives is meant to indicate his lack of fear of Divine punishment, and that he would not try with all his might to return to God.


Ralbag depicts Lemekh as having little regard for the punishment that awaits him in the future and as questioning the chances of its actually being realized. However, it would seem that the formulation of his message also conceals another message, illuminating the motives behind his actions and his song.


The literary framework of Lemekh's story and his words to his wives conveys certain allusions arising from links to Moshe's parting speech from the nation and to Yeshayahu's unparalleled rebuke. Which messages is the text attempting to express through these allusions?


Bereishit 4

(22) And Tzilla bore, too – Tuval Kayin, forger of every sharp instrument of brass and iron, and the sister of Tuval Kayin was Na'ama. (23) And Lemekh said to his wives: Ada and Tzilla, hear my voice; wives of Lemekh – listen to my speech, for I have killed a man for wounding me, and a young man for injuring me. (24) For if Kayin is to be avenged sevenfold, surely Lemekh [shall be avenged] seventy and sevenfold… (26) And a son was born to Shet, too, and he called him Enosh; then men began to call the Lord by His Name.


Devarim 32:

(1) Listen, heavens, and I shall speak, and let the earth hear the words of my mouth. (2) Let my teaching drop as the rain, [and] my speech distill as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb and as showers upon the grass. (3) For I shall call out the Lord's Name; ascribe greatness to our God… (4) There is no corruption with Him, but the blemish of His sons; [they are] a perverse and crooked generation. (6) Shall you thus requite the Lord, foolish and unwise people? Is He not your Father, Who bought you (Konekha)? Did He not make you, and establish you?


Yeshayahu 1:

(2) Hear, heavens, and listen, earth, for the Lord has spoken: I have reared and brought up children, but they have rebelled against Me… (4) O sinful nation, a people laden with transgression, a seed of evildoers, children who act corruptly: they have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel to anger, they have regressed backwards. (5) Where could you still be smitten, that you still continue to revolt? Every head is sick and every heart faint. (6) From the sole of the foot to the head there is no soundness in it, but wounds and injuries and fresh sores; they have not been pressed, nor bound up, nor softened with oil.


Moshe and Yeshayahu rebuke the nation for their ingratitude towards God for all that He does for man. Moshe talks about betrayal of God and worship of foreign gods, while Yeshayahu, in the prophecy following the one that appears above, deplores the worship of man: "Cease from man, though he has breath in his nostrils – for what is he that he should be accounted of?" (Yeshayahu 2:22). The use of motifs from Lemekh's song by these two prophets creates an intra-biblical exegesis that helps us to understand Lemekh's sin, but before addressing this, let us for pay attention to another motif that arises from Lemekh's song.


The motif of "hearing someone's voice," with which Lemekh's song begins, appears in three other places in Parashat Bereishit. In two instances, it refers to listening to God's voice, while in the third instance, it is directed as criticism of someone who has chosen to listen to his wife rather than to God's word:


They heard the voice of the Lord God (va-yishme'u et kol Hashem Elokim) walking in the garden in the breeze of the day. (3:8)


He said, "I heard Your voice (et kolkha shamati) in the garden and I was afraid, for I was naked, so I hid myself." (3:10)


And to Adam He said, "Since you have listened to (shamata le-kol) your wife, and have eaten from the tree concerning which I commanded you, saying, 'You shall not eat of it' – cursed is the ground for your sake; in sorrow shall you eat of it all the days of your life." (3:17)


The message is that Lemekh is a complete heretic, who believes that his own powers exceed those of God. He proves his superiority by reporting the killing of His sons (shichet lo lo banav mumam) through wounding and injury, which suggest his rule over the world and his power to decide the fate of humans living upon the face of the earth.


Lemekh turns the obligation of listening to and hearing God into a demand that others listen to and hear his own speeches, and he seeks to threaten his wives by describing his vengeful capacity – which, to his mind, exceeds God's own capacity to exact vengeance. God punishes Kayin, killer of Hevel, concerning whom it is said, "the voice of his blood cries out to Me from the ground," only "sevenfold," while anyone who fails to listen to and obey Lemekh will be suffer a revenge that is "seven and seventy-fold."


Lemekh's sin lies in between Kayin's thinking that he has the power to neutralize the influence of God's curse upon nature and the sin that Chazal attribute to the Generation of the Dispersion – the desire to wage war against God's power. Lemekh does not seek to neutralize God's power, nor even to fight against Him. His aspiration is expressed in the words of the prophet Yeshayahu: "I shall ascend the heights of the clouds; I shall be like the Most High" (Yeshayahu 14:14).




The sins of the earliest men are, at face value, moral sins which become increasingly severe with each successive generation. The shame and regret that accompanied the first moral sin is replaced by a song glorifying evildoing, and later we find that moral corruption has become a behavioral norm, with the strong forcing their will on those unable to defend themselves. The motive for these evil acts and the way in which they are described by their perpetrators hints to their covert aspect. The deadly harm that one person is able to inflict on another has become a yardstick for man's ability to change God's decree; it has proved his dominion over his environment and has placed him in the position of one whose power equals that of God.


The destruction of all of Creation, with all of humanity's technological progress, re-establishes God's place as the Supreme Ruler of nature; He chooses from among His creations those who adopt His oral laws and recognize His authority.


The stirrings of recognition of God in the form of Shet, who has a son whom he calls Enosh – "then men began to call the Lord by His Name" (4:26) – develop and blossom 20 generations later, in the form of Avram, who is chosen for all eternity owing to his being the father of believers and a model of the moral path of "performing righteousness and justice."



[1] The essence of the sin of the "distinguished men" will be discussed in a different shiur.

[2]At least according to some of the commentators, who understand his words, "My sin (avoni) is too great to be borne," as a confession. (Avoni is interpreted by others as "my punishment"). Ramban, for example, comments: "The proper understanding of this, on the plain level, is as a confession. He says, 'My sin is truly too great to be forgiven; You are righteous, God, and Your judgment is proper, even though You have punished me very severely."