Cain and Ir Miklat
How the Story of Cain and Abel Becomes Part of Our Laws
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
The story of Cain and Abel turns out to provide the context for the laws of the Cities of Refuge, the safe havens for one who kills accidentally. In this video, originally made for Parshat Shoftim, Rabbi Fohrman gives us a context to understand what lies beyond accidental murder, and how to become more sensitive individuals.
Hi, this is Ari Levisohn, Curator at Aleph Beta, and welcome to our section on Biblical stories. We’ve collected our best material for each story in the Torah in order to uncover the hidden lessons brought to life by the Torah’s narratives.
You’re watching our video on the story of Cain and Abel. This is actually a video that Rabbi Fohrman made for Parshat Shoftim. So why are we showing it to you here? Well, the Torah isn’t simply a collection of random stories and laws. The stories and laws are actually deeply connected and work together to teach us guiding lessons. One thing you will see if you look at our “laws” page is that many of the laws in the Torah actually make reference to earlier stories, and understanding those stories gives us a much deeper appreciation for why these laws exist and how we can apply them to our lives.
It turns out the story of Cain and Abel shows up in the unlikeliest of places, Parshat Shoftim.
Here is Rabbi Fohrman.
I want to play one of my favorite games with you, "Where have we heard this all before?" I am going to read you some laws from this week's parsha and you are going to tell me, where earlier in the Torah, have we heard something like this before.
The Cities of Refuge for Accidental Murderers in the Bible
The Torah tells us about three cities that the Israelites are meant to set up once they enter the land of Israel. These are cities of refuge. They are meant to shelter an inadvertent killer from the possibility of a revenge attack by a member of the family of the victim that he killed.
Zeh devar harotzeach asher-yanus shamah.
This is the law of the kind of killer that can find refuge in one of these cities and then, the Torah goes on to tell us about what might have happened.
asher yavo et-reehu bayaar,
He happens upon his friend in the forest, he is chopping wood,
v'hu lo sone lo mitmol shilshom,
he didn't hate him yesterday and the day before and as he is chopping wood, the axe slips out of his hands and the blade of the axe finds his friend and then flies off and kills him;
a killer like that can find refuge in one of these cities.
The inadvertent killer makes it to one of these cities and once he is there, he can no longer be killed in a revenge attack by a family member seeking to do him in. And now the question I have for you is where have we heard all of these before? Where else in the Torah, in the story part of the Torah, the narrative sections of the Torah that we hear a story that reminds us of all of these?
Finding the Origin of the Bible's Accidental Murder Laws
So what did you think, did you come up with something? Let me share with you my thoughts for what it's worth.
I think the story evoked by these laws is one of the earliest stories in the Torah. We have a murder very early on in the Torah; what more than likely was an inadvertent killing. It's the story of Kain and Hevel, the story of Cain and Abel.
Now you may not think of that story as a story of inadvertent killing. We are used to thinking of Cain as an evil murderer – and maybe Cain does have an aspect of evil to him – but ask yourself this question, is he really a premeditated murderer? Could he have been a premeditated murderer?
Was the First Murder in the Bible... an Accident?
No one had ever killed anyone before, no one had ever died before. If you are Cain you wouldn't know how to kill somebody if you tried and what supports the notion that he is an inadvertent murderer is what happens to him afterwards: God doesn't kill him.
The Torah believes in capital punishment; God lets him go but not entirely without consequences. Listen to the text: na vanad tihyeh baaretz, he tells him, you are going to be a wanderer throughout the land, you will never be able to settle down.
Later on the text tells us that Cain built cities, but the Rambam points out that he didn't "build" cities past tense. He was a "builder" of cities. He would build and build and be unable to ever finish them, he is a man who just could not settle down.
He was condemned to live in exile on foreign territory outside of his home turf for his whole life, much like the inadvertent murderer who himself is exiled far away from home, who has to live out the rest of his days in a city of refuge or face the possibility of death – the possibility of death by the hands of an avenger.
Cain is also worried about death by the hands of an avenger, listen to his words: V'hayah chal-motzi yahargeni, anybody who finds me is going to kill me. Cain is worried about vengeance.
Rashi points out that there weren't even any other humans around, who was he worried would kill him after all? Rashi says it was the animals, they would have seen themselves in a kind of kinship with Abel as part of the family of living things, seeking to avenge his wrongful death; and God protects him.
Connecting the Cities of Refuge to the Bible's First Murder
God provides Cain, so to speak with a movable city of refuge and what is that? It's the famous mark of Cain.
We think of that mark on Cain's forehead as a curse, but if you look carefully at the text, it is not a curse. It's actually protection. Listen again to the text: Vayomer lo Hashem, God says, lichen kol-horeg Kain shivatayim yukam, anyone who kills you Cain, himself will be avenged seven times. Anybody who kills you, I will hold them guilty, I will ensure that they pay for their crime.
Vayasem Hashem leKain ot, God placed a mark on his forehead, levilti hakot-ot kol-motzo that no one would kill him. Cain, like the inadvertent murderer, gets protection. Protection in the form of God promising that anyone who would kill him will himself be held liable for murder.
Isn't it interesting but that is exactly the same kind of protection that later on societies is called upon to afford for the inadvertent killer. If the inadvertent killer makes it to the city of refuge, society will hold the family avenger liable if he avenges the death of his relative, kills this inadvertent killer, that itself is a capital crime. Just like it was with Cain. The parallels between these stories are quite eerie and seem difficult to ascribe to coincidence alone.
Now, I think we have to stand back and ask ourselves what do we make of these similarities, what is the Torah trying to teach us by paralleling these laws with this story? I would like to suggest you that the laws shed light on the story and the story in turn sheds light on the laws. Each section can be read as a kind of interpretation of the other.
What Is the Bible Saying About Murder?
Let me explain to you what I mean. Let the other laws help us interpret the story of Cain. The copious parallels between these sections of text suggest that our first blush view of who Cain is, the evil first murderer in the Torah is not in fact the case, he is not a premeditated killer, he is someone who gets gulled, who gets exiled. He is someone who is protected, he is an inadvertent killer. And once we accept that the next question we have to ask ourselves is if Cain really is inadvertent killer, does that mean there is no guilt whatsoever attached to him? And as you read further in the story, you come to understand that, that is not the case.
There is a point where the reader begins to see Cain as guilty. Not necessarily with the act of killing Abel but just a bit later. God says, ei Hevel acheicha 'where is Abel, your brother?' and Cain's response, a response that will live in infamy, is hashomer achi anochi, 'am I, my brother's keeper?' That was the wrong answer.
That's the moment that he becomes a villain. It wasn't necessarily for killing him in the first place. He was mad, he hit him, not the greatest thing in the world but a regrettable accident. But this is no accident, 'Am I my brother's keeper?'
Cain betrays a level of apathy for his brother that revulses the reader, that makes you want to pull away – of course you're your brother's keeper! And once you see that about Cain it makes you wonder: when you hit him in the first place, good, you didn't know what was going to happen, nobody knew about death yet but did you care or were you just apathetic then, too?
Cain emerges as a guilty party here but in a slightly different way than would have imagined had we never seen the connection between his story and the laws of inadvertent killer.
Okay, now fasten your seatbelts. Now that we have seen how the laws shed light on the story of Cain, let's reverse direction now and see how the story of Cain helps shed light on the laws that appear in Deuteronomy.
A Closer Look at God Forgiving Cain's Murder
Let's go back to the story of Cain for a moment, we can now ask a kind of burning question about the story. How come Cain seems to get off scott free? How come God is so forgiving, so nice to Cain? Here is Cain saying, 'Oh God I don't think I can handle this punishment' and God said, 'don't worry, here is this mark, you will be protected. Anybody who hurts you will be avenged seven-fold'.
Is God playing mister nice guy to someone who shouldn't get such nice treatment? Is this really what a person like Cain deserves? I would like to argue, it is exactly what a person like Cain deserves.
God is providing protection for Cain, isn't that ironic? What was the nature of Cain's guilt? Wasn't it not providing protection for his brother, raising a hand to strike him, without regard to what might happen next? If Cain is guilty of anything, he is guilty of failing to protect his brother – and now, Cain is protected.
The same protection that Cain himself failed to provide for his brother is the protection that God now offers him. On the one hand, that is a great act of chesed, a great act of kindness. God is responsible for his welfare, even when Cain himself indicated no responsibility for his brother, but bound up within that act of kindness is a layer of terrible justice.
What does Cain have to live with now? For the rest of his life, what recognition must he live with? That he owes his life to a kindness that he failed to offer to his own brother. God was kind to him and offered him the kind of protection which he could not master for his brother. He must live his life in perpetual torment knowing that every second that he is alive is because God is giving him what he failed to give his brother.
Understanding the Biblical Laws for Accidental Murder
And now, let's consider once more, these laws back in Sefer Devarim, Deuteronomy. Forever more, we as a nation are bidden to deal with an inadvertent killer the same way God did.
Here is a fellow who is chopping wood in the forest but he wasn't careful enough. It didn't register to him that his friend was standing right nearby. It was an accident, he didn't hate him yesterday or the day before but did he care enough to protect him properly?
How the society deals with this inadvertent killer, by providing him the exact same protection he failed to provide for his victim. He, the killer is now in need of protection from a family avenger. Society will provide that protection offering him a kindness he himself did not master for his fellow man and in so doing, society offers not only a kindness but justice as well.
The inadvertent killer will live out his days knowing every moment, that he is alive only because society has provided him the protection that he failed to provide.
Virtually the first story of the Torah becomes the template for one of the Torah's last laws. We are shown by God's own example how as a society to provide both kindness and justice in the very same act.