J. L. Kugel
The biblical story of Cain and Abel was one that was retold and elaborated with great relish by the Bible’s earliest interpreters. This was so not only because of the tale’s intrinsic interest-it concerned, after all, the children of the very first human beings, Adam and Eve, and recounted a brutal crime, indeed, the world’s first murder-but as well because, like so many of the early narratives in Genesis, the biblical account itself seemed here and there to cry out for further explanation and detail. One such detail, missing in the Genesis account itself, is the manner in which Cain himself ultimately died. This lacuna was obviously of some concern, if only because early readers of the Bible were curious to know the circumstances under which the archetypal murderer had met his own demise, and specifically whether his death bore some relationship to the crime he had earlier committed. A narrative expansion eventually came to fill in this blank, according to which Cain was accidentally killed by his own descendant Lamech ill a hunting accident.
The details of various versions of this expansion will be examined below; but it is worth noting initially that this story is one that has not suffered from inattention among modern students of the history of biblical exegesis. Lamech’s killing of Cain eras, for example, a favorite subject of Louis Ginzberg, who treated it at the beginning of his scholarly career, discussed its sources in detail in his Legends of the fouls, and turned to it again in a later essay on Jewish folklore.1 It was also treated at length by Victor Aptowitzer in his book-length study on the Cain and Abel tradition;2 nor has the story’ been neglected in more recent times.3 Indeed, some of this interest among modern scholars was no doubt stirred up by the many depictions of the death of Cain that survive from the h/fiddle Ages, for the legend in question was prized by sculptors and illustrators.4 No other such tale, observed one recent writer on the subject, “seems to have had such persistent appeal in the literature and art of West and East.”5
As noted, the story in question relates how Lamech, Cain’s great-great-great-grandson, ends up killing his ancestor quite by accident. Lamech is in fact blind in both eyes, but despite this handicap, he has become a very proficient hunter, by which means he succeeds in supporting himself and his family. He manages this by having himself led through the woods by a guide-his son Tubal-Cain, or an unnamed boy, or a shepherd, according to various sources-who both helps him along and points his hands in the direction of any potential prey. La-mech is an excellent shot, and, thus guided, is able to dispatch animals with arrow, stone, or other instrument. But on the day in question, Lamech’s guide mistakes Cain (in some versions: by seeing Cain’s horns, the “sign” that God granted him in Gen. 4:16, protruding from behind a bush or tree) for a wild animal. Lamech’s aim is true, and the “animal” falls, only to be discovered to be Lamech’s own ancestor, Cain. In his grief Lamech then blindly claps both hands together and inadvertently kills his guide as well. Although he is thus the author of two deaths, Lamech nonetheless protests that both killings were accidental and begs forgiveness, exclaiming, “Have I killed a man for my hurt-so that I be hurt on his account? Or a boy for a bruise-that I be bruised on his account?”6
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