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Rachel Adelman





Cain, Son of the Fallen Angel Samael



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Rachel Adelman





Cain, Son of the Fallen Angel Samael






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Cain, Son of the Fallen Angel Samael

What made Cain capable of murdering his brother? Why was the flood generation so wicked? According to Pirqei de-Rabbi Eliezer, the fallen angel Samael embodies the serpent and seduces Eve, whereupon she conceives Cain. Engendered by this “bad seed,” all the descendants of Cain become corrupt, destined to be wiped out by mighty waters.


Cain, Son of the Fallen Angel Samael

Fallen angel and serpent, Madrid. Alvy/Wikimedia

In the wake of the banishment from Eden, Adam and Eve start their family:

בראשית ד:א וְהָאָדָם יָדַע אֶת־חַוָּה אִשְׁתּוֹ וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד אֶת־קַיִן וַתֹּאמֶר קָנִיתִי אִישׁ ‏אֶת־יְ־הוָה.
Gen 4:1 And the man [ha-ʾadam] knew Eve, his woman, and she conceived and bore Cain, and she said: “I have gotten (or “created”)[1] a man with YHWH.”[2]

Why does Eve refer to her infant as a “man” [ʾish]? Would it not have been more natural to refer to him as בן “son”? Even stranger is her claim that she produced this man “with YHWH.”

In keeping with the verse’s opening, that Adam “knew his wife” in the proverbial biblical sense, classic rabbinic sources interpret the phrase to be an expression of her thanksgiving to YHWH for allowing her to conceive.[3]

And yet, Eve might literally have meant that YHWH was the father. In her naiveté, the causal relationship between sexual intercourse, conception and birth may have eluded the first mother, and so she ascribed the birth of her first child to God. The other possible meaning points to an actual divine impregnation.[4] But if this is the case, why note that Adam knew his wife? Who is the father: Adam or YHWH?

The Conception of Abel

No similar note marks the birth of Abel; he is simply born:

בראשית ד:ב וַתֹּסֶף לָלֶדֶת אֶת אָחִיו אֶת הָבֶל...
Gen 4:2 She further bore his brother Abel…

Noting the abruptness of the note here, Genesis Rabbah suggests that Cain and Abel were twins (Bereishit 22, Theodor-Albeck ed.):

ותוסף ללדת תוספת ללידה ולא תוספת לעיבור.
“She then bore”—another birthing but not another pregnancy.

We are also not informed who named Abel or why this name was chosen. It means “breath,” and can have the connotation of vanity or nothingness (as it does throughout Ecclesiastes), and so foreshadows his early demise without offspring at the hands of his jealous brother Cain, who, in turn, is condemned to wander the earth.

The Differing Conceptions of Cain and Abel

The very different descriptions of Cain’s and Abel’s conceptions led the mid-8th century narrative midrash, Pirqe deRabbi Eliezer (PRE),[5] to suggest that the two boys had different fathers. Rather than presenting YHWH as the father of Cain, as implied by the verse, it understands Cain as the son of a divine being, a ‘fallen angel’, who lusted after Eve.[6] This idea was strengthened by the strange description of Cain being born “a man,” by Abel’s sacrifice being acceptable to God, and by Cain’s inclination to evil, culminating in the slaying of his brother.

The midrash opens with an allegorical reading of the Garden of Eden story.[7] The tree is likened to a man (as in Deut. 20:19), the garden likened to the woman (Song of Songs 4:12), the phrase “in the midst of the Garden” to her inner body in which the tree is planted. Thus, the distinction between the permitted fruit and the forbidden fruit concerns the source of the seeding: The resultant progeny may turn out to be good or evil depending on the paternal source.[8]

The text then describes how Eve was impregnated by Samael in the guise of a serpent, and then by Adam (PRE 21):[9]

בא אליה ורוכבת נחש ועברה את קין ואחר כך [בא אליה אדם ו]עברה את הבל שנאמר "והאדם ידע את חוה אשתו" (בר' ד:א). מהו ידע? שהיתה מעוברת וראתה [את] דמותו שלא היה מן התחתונים אלא מן העליונים והביטה ואמרה "קניתי איש את יי’"(בר' ד:א)
He [Samael] came to her, and she rode the Serpent,[10] and conceived Cain. Afterwards, Adam came to her, and she conceived Abel, as it is said, “And Adam knew Eve, his wife” (Gen 4:1). What is meant by “knew”? (He knew) that she had conceived. And she saw his likeness that it was not of the lower beings, but of the heavenly beings, and she saw and said: “I have acquired a man by the Lord” (Gen 4:1).[11]

The midrash wrenches the meaning of Genesis 4:1 from the plain sense: Adam knew (in the cognitive sense) that Eve had been impregnated by another. Though Samael is not mentioned by name, like Voldemort in the Harry Potter series, the Fallen Archangel, mentioned elsewhere in PRE, is assumed to have taken on the body of the Serpent (PRE 13), seducing Eve and conceiving Cain.

This does not stop Adam from having a child with Eve as well. Like a canine female that can conceive from different male dogs within one litter, Eve is depicted as having conceived Cain and Abel, twins in the same womb, by two different fathers. Upon Cain’s birth, she recognizes that he is not of the “lower beings” (of human or serpent origin), but of the “upper beings” (the angels or the archons), and names him Cain based on this immortal begetting.[12]

Greek mythology recounts a fascinating parallel to this myth. Leda, wife of Tyndraeus the King of Sparta, is seduced (or raped) by Zeus who takes the form of a swan. She conceives Helen and Polydeuces through the god, and Castor and Clytemnestra by her husband.[13] The wombs of Leda and Eve are divided and contain rival domains between the gods (or angels) and man. This double-sewing of the womb leads to terrible consequences for generations.

In the Greek myth, the beautiful Helen—“the face that launched thousand ships”—is abducted by Paris, prompting the Trojan War. In the Jewish myth, Cain kills his brother Abel and the subsequent tainted descendants of seven generations culminates in the Flood, when the earth was filled with violence and all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth (Gen. 6:11-13). Both the Jewish myth and the Greek one attribute the ineluctable unravelling of fate to an “original sin” of miscegenation (literally, the progeny of mixed kind or race)—when the gods (or fallen angels) cohabited with mortal women.

The Need for Seth

Abel never has children, and once he is killed, only Cain, fathered by Samael, remains. It was imperative that Adam have another son that would be “like him”, in his own image (PRE ch. 22[14]):

כתיב, "ויחי אדם מאה ושלשים שנה ויולד בדמותו כצלמו" (בר’ ה:ג), מיכאן את למד שלא היה קין מזרעו ולא מדמותו, ולא מעשיו דומים למעשה הבל אחיו, עד שנולד שת שהיה מזרעו ודמותו, ומעשיו דומין למעשה הבל אחיו, שנ’ "ויולד בדמותו כצלמו" (שם שם).
It is written, “When Adam had lived a hundred and thirty years, he begot a son in his likeness, after his image (and he named him Seth)” (Gen. 5:3). From here you learn that Cain was not of Adam’s seed, nor in his image, [and his deeds were not like the deeds of Abel his brother],[15] until Seth was born, who was of his seed and image, [and whose deed were similar to the deeds of Abel his brother],[16] “he begot a son in his likeness after his image” (ibid.).

The first humans are said to have been created in God’s image (Gen 1:26–27, 5:1), making Seth ipso facto in God’s image as well. In PRE’s reading, the text emphasizes that Seth is like Adam, “in his likeness, after his image”[17]—fully human, not the product of an encounter with a divine being.

PRE’s reading may also be inspired by the naming of Seth, which states explicitly that he was conceived as a replacement of Abel:

בראשׁית ד:כה וַיֵּדַע אָדָם עוֹד אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ שֵׁת כִּי שָׁת לִי אֱלֹהִים זֶרַע אַחֵר תַּחַת הֶבֶל כִּי הֲרָגוֹ קָיִן.
Gen 4:25 Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and she named him Seth, “For God [Elohim] has given me another seed instead of Abel, because Cain killed him.”

Here Eve again attributes the conception to God, though this time she uses the more general name of God, Elohim, instead of the personal name YHWH,[18] and she describes it not as a partnership but as a grant or gift.[19] Moreover, Seth is to replace the deceased Abel—whose name Eve finally pronounces—and Seth’s seed will, in this sense, continue Abel’s lost line.

Seth versus Cain

Adam and Eve’s third child becomes the ancestor of the line of humanity that ten generations later, leads to Noah, the progenitor of the sole surviving humans after the great flood.[20] The name of Seth’s first son, Enosh, means just that: human, mortal or frail (Genesis 4:26). His birth is marked by the beginning of people calling to YHWH:

בראשית ד:כו וּלְשֵׁת גַּם הוּא יֻלַּד בֵּן וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ אֱנוֹשׁ אָז הוּחַל לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם יְ־הוָה.
Gen 4:26 And to Seth, in turn, a son was born, and he named him Enosh. It was then that men began to invoke YHWH by name.

The progeny of Cain, in contrast, span seven generations but all of his descendants will perish in the flood.[21] In fact, the last thing we hear about a descendent of Cain is the song of Lamech, in which he seems to be boasting about killing someone, and compares himself to Cain.

In PRE’s reading, this difference between Cain’s line and Seth’s line is not happenstance, but reflects the demonic nature of Cain’s ancestry in contrast to the human nature of Seth’s:

ר’ ישמעאל אומר: משת עלו ונתיחסו כל הבריות וכל דורות הצדיקים, ומקין עלו ונתיחסו כל דורות הרשעים הפושעים והמורדים שמרדו במקום, ואמרו: אין אנו צריכין לטיפת גשמיך ולא לדעת את דרכיך, שנ’ "ויאמרו לאל סור ממנו" (איוב כא:יד).
Rabbi Ishmael[22] said: From Seth all the generations of the righteous descended. From Cain all the generations of the wicked descended, the criminals and the rebels, who rebelled against [the omnipresent, ha-makom] {their Creator},[23] saying: We do not need the drops of Your rain, nor to walk in Your ways, as it is said, “They say to God, Leave us alone. (We do not want to learn Your ways)” (Job 21:14).[24]

The corrupt generation, all the descendants of Cain who deny their dependence on God, populate the earth prior to the Flood. The premise is that nature (and not nurture) determines the moral character of the descendants. The generations begotten of the “Bad Seed” follow the demonic corrupt ways of their forefather, Samael. Only Seth, from whom the righteous Noah descends, is of the “good seed,” in the image and likeness of Adam, and (by implication) in the image and likeness of God.

Reintroducing Samael and Angels that Lie With Women

PRE did not invent its reading of the Cain and Abel story. This reading appears in Second Temple sources, and ancient interpreters, from the New Testament to the Church Fathers, attribute the conception of Cain to this same fallen angel figure masquerading as the Primordial Serpent, whether identified as Satan, Samael, or the devil incarnate.[25]

The rabbis of the Talmud, however, suppress the notion of cohabitation between divine beings and women altogether. They do imagine Eve having sex with the serpent (b. Shabbat 145b–146a; b. Yebamot 103b, Munich 95)—but he is not the father of her children and he is not divine: [26]

דא"ר יוחנן בשעה שבא נחש על חוה הטיל בה זוהמא ישראל שעמדו על הר סיני פסקה זוהמתן גוים שלא עמדו על הר סיני לא פסקה זוהמתן.
For Rabbi Yohanan said: “When the serpent came upon (=had sex with) Eve, he injected filth into her. When they Israelites stood at Mount Sinai, their filth was gone, but gentiles, who did not stand at Mount Sinai, their filth never left them.[27]

PRE is the first Rabbinic Jewish source (the late Aramaic Targum Pseudo-Jonathan following suit) to tell the story this way, including the novel claim that Adam knew about the foibles of Eve.

The resurfacing of this motif—the seduction of Eve by Samael and the begetting of Cain—in PRE is an example of what I have called “the return of the repressed,”[28] where the mythic content latent in the biblical text is given full narrative form in the late midrash. PRE does not conform to a rabbinic model of exegesis, but more closely follows the non-canonical writings of ancient Jewish texts from the Second Temple period (the apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, known as Sefarim Ḥitzonim, lit. the books outside Bible).

Gnosticism, Christianity, and Rabbinic Polemic

Alexander Altmann (1906–1987) suggests that the author of PRE might have been influenced by Gnostic sources that date back to the Second Temple period, drawing upon repressed midrashic traditions.[29] This may be why the Rabbis repressed this interpretive tradition—as a polemic against the early Gnostics or even Christians, who deem Jesus to be the ultimate incarnation of the deity.[30]

For the Rabbis, there could be no such admixture between heavenly beings and earthly creatures, no cross-breeding between angels and women. But in the fantastical world of PRE, the repressed legend returns.[31]


September 30, 2021


Last Updated

April 15, 2024


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Prof. Rav Rachel Adelman is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Boston’s Hebrew College, where she also received ordination. She holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is the author of The Return of the Repressed: Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer and the Pseudepigrapha (Brill 2009), based on her dissertation, and The Female Ruse: Women's Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Phoenix, 2015), written under the auspices of the Women's Studies in Religion Program (WSRP) at Harvard. Adelman is now working on a new book, Daughters in Danger from the Hebrew Bible to Modern Midrash (forthcoming, Sheffield Phoenix Press). When she is not writing books, papers, or divrei Torah, it is poetry that flows from her pen.