• Rav Chaim Navon
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Theological Issues In Sefer Bereishit

Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Rav Chaim Navon

Kayin's slaying of his brother Hevel was the first act of violence in the history of the world. A sarcastic British Lord once argued that today's youth are no worse than the youth of old: Even when there were only two young men in the world, Kayin and Hevel, one of them was a criminal. Indeed, the story of Kayin and Hevel is not only tragic, but also pessimistic. There are only four people in the entire world, all are members of the same family, and yet a murder is committed. In relative terms, Kayin killed a greater proportion of the world's population than did Hitler. Kayin sowed the seeds of evil and violence that would accompany mankind in the future. Chazal described the period of innocence that preceded the murder as follows:

Mishna: Know that capital cases are not like monetary cases. In monetary cases, a person gives money and atones for himself. In capital cases, his blood and the blood of his descendants hang on him until the end of the world. For thus we find regarding Kayin who killed his brother, as it is said: "Your brother's bloods cry out" (Bereishit 4:10). It does not say "your brother's blood," but "your brother's bloods" – his blood and the blood of his descendants…

Gemara: Rav Yehuda the son of Rabbi Chiyya said: This teaches that Kayin inflicted many bruises and many wounds on his brother Hevel, for he did not know from where the soul departs, until he reached the throat. (Sanhedrin 37a-37b)

Rav Yehuda the son of Rabbi Chiyya accounts for the plural form in the expression, "your brother's bloods." Kayin tried to kill his brother, but did not really know how one goes about killing another human being. Hence, Hevel's blood spilled out from many different wounds. This was the last time that a murderer did not know how to kill his victim.

After Kayin, we hear of another killing – the murder committed by Lemekh, one of Kayin's descendants:

And Lemekh said to his wives, Ada and Tzila, Hear my voice, wives of Lemekh, hearken to my speech; for I have slain a man for wounding me, and a young man for my hurt. If Kayin shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lemekh seventy and sevenfold. (Bereishit 4:23-24)

Chazal understood that Lemekh killed unintentionally. According to certain modern scholars, however – and this seems to be the plain sense of the text – Lemekh sings here a song of self-praise for having successfully killed his enemies. He proclaims that the revenge that he took from his enemies is far greater than the revenge that God took from Kayin. Murder is no longer a shameful sin, but an accomplishment to take pride in.

Kayin's murder of Hevel being an archetypal event, it is critically important to understand what led up to the killing. According to the plain sense of the text, Kayin killed his brother Hevel out of jealousy. Hevel was the younger brother, yet it was his offering that God favored. This is why Kayin killed Hevel. The plain sense of the passage describes a conflict that is rooted in inequality and the resulting jealousy.

The plain meaning of the text, however, leaves an important interpretative question unanswered. The verse states:

And Kayin said to Hevel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Kayin rose up against Hevel his brother, and slew him. (Bereishit 4:8)

What did Kayin say to his brother? And why did the Torah leave the sentence dangling? The commentators propose several approaches:

"And Kayin said to Hevel" – He began an argument, striving and contending with him, to seek a pretext to kill him. (Rashi, ad loc.)

Rashi teaches us an important principle of human psychology. Sometimes a person hates his fellow and conspires against him, and then looks for pretexts to harm him. According to Rashi, the Torah does not record the precise wording of the conversation, because it is unimportant: Kayin was merely looking for an excuse to kill Hevel.

Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra suggested a different interpretation:

"And Kayin said." It appears to me that Kayin related to Hevel the full account of the rebuke with which God had reproached him. (Ibn Ezra, ad loc.)

Ibn Ezra explains that this verse is a direct continuation of the previous incident: Kayin shares his troubles with Hevel, as a prelude to the murder. Seforno offers a similar explanation:

"And Kayin said to Hevel his brother." [He told him] how annoyed he was, and how his countenance fell because of his brother. (Seforno, ad loc.)

Ramban goes off in a different direction:

But in my opinion it is connected with the following words of Scripture: "And it came to pass, when they were in the field," meaning that Kayin said to Hevel, "Let us go forth into the field," and there he secretly killed him. (Ramban, ad loc.)

Ramban introduces an additional factor into the picture – premeditation. Kayin cold-bloodedly planned out the murder in advance. Rabbi Yosef Bekhor Shor takes this approach to the extreme:

"And Kayin said to Hevel his brother" – What the Holy One, blessed be He, had told him. He approached him with guile, for he sensed that Hevel was guarding himself against him. He said to him: "This is what the Holy One, blessed be He, said to me, and we made peace with each other, and I am no longer upset…" And Hevel thought that [Kayin] had been appeased, and so he no longer kept his guard up against him. (Rabbi Yosef Bekhor Shor, ad loc.)

We are not dealing here with a spontaneous reaction of explosive furor, but with cold and calculated planning. According to civil law, this would be reason to impose more severe punishment. Halakha does not recognize a formal difference between premeditated and unpremeditated murder, provided that the killer was fully aware of his actions. The Torah raises the level of responsibility that it imposes upon man; as a rule, it does not view a spontaneous outburst of anger as an extenuating circumstance. This is notwithstanding the fact that the requirement of previous warning means that a person is only liable for punishment if he clear-mindedly assumed responsibility for his action. In any event, Ramban's approach clearly magnifies Kayin's sin. An explanation appearing in Midrash ha-Gadol, however, implies just the opposite:

"And Kayin talked" – This teaches that they argued with each other ['nitamru']. (Midrash ha-Gadol)

Midrash ha-Gadol understands that Kayin and Hevel fought and argued with each other. According to this explanation, the murder may be viewed as the spontaneous consequence of a fraternal argument. We shall see below that Chazal enlarged upon this approach. Some even assigned blame to Hevel:

"And Kayin said to Hevel his brother" – This means that he related to him the words of the Holy One, blessed be He, and what he had said to Him. He indicated that he was very angry that God had not shown him the same regard that He had shown Hevel. AND HEVEL WAS GLAD. "And Kayin rose up against Hevel his brother, and slew him." (Da'at Zekenim mi-Ba'alei ha-Tosafot)

There are other interpretations as well. The author of "Ha-Ketav ve-ha-Kabbala," for example, understands that the first half of the verse is the answer to God's question, "Why are you angry?" Kayin answers: "Because of Hevel my brother." Cassuto suggests, on the basis of near-Eastern parallels, that Kayin arranged to meet his brother in the field. Others have proposed that the verse reflects Kayin's thoughts and musings, his designs with respect to his brother Hevel.

Thus far, we have dealt with the plain sense of the biblical account. Chazal exploited the obscurity of the passage in order to broaden the canvas with a midrashic interpretation. Chazal viewed Kayin's slaying of his brother as the archetype of all future acts of murder. Thus, they expanded upon the factors that led to the killing:

"And Kayin spoke unto Hevel his brother, etc." About what did they quarrel? "Come," said they, "let us divide the world." One took the land and the other the movables. The former said, "The land you stand on is mine," while the latter retorted, "What you are wearing is mine." One said: "Strip"; the other retorted: "Fly [off the ground]." Out of this quarrel, Kayin rose up against his brother Hevel. Rabbi Yehoshua of Siknin said in Rabbi Levi's name: Both took land and both took movables, but about what did they quarrel? One said, "The Temple must be built in my area," while the other claimed, "It must be built in mine." … Yehuda bar Ami said: Their quarrel was about the first Chava. Said Rabbi Aibu: The first Chava had returned to dust. Then about what was their quarrel? Said Rabbi Huna: An additional twin was born with Hevel and each claimed her. The one claimed: "I will have her, because I am the firstborn"; while the other maintained: "I must have her, because she was born with me." (Bereishit Rabba 22:7)

As pointed out by Nechama Leibowitz, Chazal saw the confrontation between Kayin and Hevel as the model for violence and conflict throughout human history. The Sages proposed various different causes for conflict and violence. Another point should be mentioned. We shall see below that the Christians viewed Hevel as the archetype of their Messiah. Chazal emphasize that Hevel was also human, and that he too was afflicted with the same lusts and desires that plagued Kayin.

According to the first opinion cited in the midrash, Kayin and Hevel argued about property and power. Disputes involving property, money, and power have, indeed, been at the center of an endless number of conflicts over the course of history, both on the individual as well as on the national level. Let us cite the well-known words of the French philosopher Rousseau regarding this point:

The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, "This is mine," and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should have cried to his fellows: "Be sure not to listen to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!" (Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Inequality among Mankind, part II)

Like the midrash, also Rousseau maintains that property and the acquisition thereof are the root of many crimes, wars, and murders. He, however, adds a number of assumptions: The very concept of property is artificial. In nature there is no "property"; property is a human convention. Rousseau claims that mankind would have been better off without property. This argument is very problematic: Were a person not promised the fruits of his field, he would have little incentive to work it. In order to agree with Rousseau, we must assume that man is fundamentally so good that he would be prepared to work with no guarantee of receiving anything in return. Or else, that man could make due with what nature provides, without having to invest special effort to increase nature's yield. Rousseau himself seems to incline toward the second assumption. Karl Marx, on the other hand, accepted the first assumption. According to him, even in the reality of today's world, it would be possible to abolish private ownership, and thus resolve the problems of society and morality, alongside constant technological advancement:

The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight… In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property… In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another is put an end to, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put an end to. In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end. (Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto)

The midrash suggests a second cause (third in the text itself) of conflict, war and violence – the fight over women, i.e., the sexual drive. On the individual level, we are all familiar with conflicts having a romantic background. On the international level, it is more difficult to see sex as a cause of conflict; though we all remember the story of the Trojan War, which began as a struggle over the beauty, Helen of Sparta. Sigmund Freud heavily underscored sex as a root of conflict and tension. He argued, however, that the aggressive impulse is an independent entity, sex being only one of its outlets. First Freud vigorously rejected the Communists' position that property is the source of all controversy and violence. He then proposed his own view:

The communists believe that they have found the path to deliverance from our evils. According to them, man is wholly good and is well-disposed to his neighbor; but the institution of private property has corrupted his nature. The ownership of private wealth gives the individual power, and with it the temptation to ill-treat his neighbor; while the man who is excluded from possession is bound to rebel in hostility against his oppressor. If private property were abolished, all wealth held in common, and everyone allowed to share in the enjoyment of it, ill-will and hostility would disappear among men…

But I am able to recognize that the psychological premises on which the system is based are an untenable illusion. In abolishing private property we deprive the human love of aggression of one of its instruments, certainly a strong one, though certainly not its strongest…

If we do away with personal rights over material wealth, there still remains prerogative in the field of sexual relationships, which is bound to become the source of the strongest dislike and the most violent hostility among men who in other respects are on an equal footing. If we were to remove this factor, too, by allowing complete freedom of sexual life and thus abolishing the family, the germ-cell of civilization, we cannot, it is true, easily foresee what new paths the development of civilization could take; but one thing we can expect, and that is that this indestructible feature of human nature will follow it there. (Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 5)

Freud argues that sex is a stronger and more conniving force than property; but these are all subterfuges, means for the realization of the aggressiveness latent in man.

The third suggestion proposed by the midrash is that Kayin and Hevel argued about the site of the future Temple: would it be built on Hevel's portion or that of Kayin? This suggestion is very close to the plain meaning of the scriptural text, which implies that Kayin was envious of Hevel who seemed to have been favored by God. But the midrash shows us how easy it is for a religious dispute to turn into an issue of special interests. Jealousy of another person's nearness to God is certainly a religious issue. The argument over the site of the Temple opens the door to economic and territorial interests: Who will attain more influence and prestige? Either way, according to this proposal, religious disagreements can lead to war and violence. The midrash is not scorning religion; on the contrary, it recognizes its great importance and significance. It is, however, sending out a warning not to allow religious controversy to turn into violence.

Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi explained the argument between Kayin and Hevel in a similar fashion:

The Land [of Israel] was also the first object of jealousy and envy between Kayin and Hevel, when they desired to know which of them would be Adam's successor, and heir to his essence and intrinsic perfection; to inherit the land, and to stand in connection with the divine influence, while the other would be a nonentity. (Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi, Kuzari, II, 14)

Elsewhere, Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi has the king of the Khazars saying as follows:

There must no doubt be a way of acting, pleasing by its very nature, but not through the medium of intentions. If this be not so, why, then, do Christian and Moslem, who divide the inhabited world between them, fight with one another, each of them serving his God with pure intention, living either as monks or hermits, fasting and praying? For all that they vie with each other in committing murders, believing that this is a most pious work and brings them nearer to God. They fight in the belief that paradise and eternal bliss will be their reward. (Ibid., I, 2)

The Christian thinker Augustine also saw in Hevel's murder the archetype of human violence, especially violence committed against a religious backdrop. He, however, places the emphasis not on disputes between religious people, but on disputes between those who serve God and those who disregard Him, between the "good" and the "wicked":

Of these two first parents of the human race, then, Cain was the first-born, and he belonged to the city of men; after him was born Abel, who belonged to the city of God… Thus the founder of the earthly city was a fratricide. Overcome with envy, he slew his own brother, a citizen of the eternal city, and a sojourner on earth… Now these brothers, Cain and Abel, were not both animated by the same earthly desires, nor did the murderer envy the other because he feared that, by both ruling, his own dominion would be curtailed – for Abel was not solicitous to rule in that city which his brother built - he was moved by that diabolical, envious hatred with which the evil regard the good… the carnal lusts of two men, good but not yet perfect, contend together, just as the wicked contend with the wicked. (Augustine, The City of God, Bk. XV)

Unfortunately, however, religious violence is not always between the wicked and the righteous, but often between two sets of righteous people. There is, therefore, no better way to conclude this lecture than with the words of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv), who went on at great length to warn against violence stemming from religious beliefs:

The matter that is explained in the Song of Ha'azinu in the verse, "He is the Rock, His work is perfect … just and right is He" (Devarim 32:4): The praise "right" comes to justify the rightness of the judgment of the Holy One, blessed be He, regarding the destruction of the second Temple, which occurred in "a perverse and crooked generation." As we have explained, [the people of that generation] were righteous and pious people who toiled in Torah study, but they did not act uprightly in the ways of the world. Because of the unjustified hatred in their hearts, anyone whom they saw acting not in accord with their own view of the fear of God was suspected of being a Sadducee or a heretic. This led to bloodshed and all the evils of the world until the Temple was destroyed. The justification of [God's] judgment comes for this, that the Holy One, blessed be He, is right, and does not tolerate righteous people of this sort. For even with regard to the ways of the world they must walk in the right path, and not in perversity, even if they are acting for the sake of Heaven. This was a praiseworthy attribute of the patriarchs, who besides being righteous and pious, lovers of God in the best possible way, were also upright, that is, they related to the nations of the world, even the despicable idol worshippers, with love and concern for their welfare. (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, Ha'amek Davar, Introduction to the book of Bereishit)

(Translated by David Strauss)