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“Whoever destroys a single soul, destroys an entire world”

14 December 2023

How is the story of Cain and Abel interpreted in Judaism and Islam? The two religions draw remarkably similar conclusions from this story about what the general effect is of killing a single person, or saving a single life.

Professor of Jewish Studies

Exegetical problems in Genesis 4

The story itself, found in Genesis 4, contains some exegetical problems. Specifically verses 8 and 10 (see further on in this blog) cannot not be fully understood without explanation and filling in missing details. It is exactly these interpretations, first found in ancient Jewish commentaries, that have led to the statement “Whoever destroys a single soul, destroys an entire world; whoever saves a single soul, saves an entire world.” This saying became famous because it is found in the epigraph of Steven Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s list.

This statement, as could be expected, has been supplemented with some conditions and caveats in both Jewish and Muslim traditions. In this blog, I will list the exegetical problems, trace the solutions, and highlight the conclusions. I will end by going into lessons we might learn from this in light of contemporary situations of hatred and violence.

Missing pieces in Genesis 4:8

In Gen 4:8 we read:

Cain said to his brother Abel. And when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.

What did Cain say to his brother? Is there a relation between what Cain said to Abel and the killing? Why did they go to the field? Modern readers often gloss over the lacunae in this verse. They assume that its first and second halves must be related. The ancient Jewish or rabbinic exegetes who wrote the Midrash and the Talmud (around the 3th to 7th century CE) also assumed this, not in the least because they were convinced that the word of God doesn’t contain any uncertainties. They did not gloss over the questions: they addressed them and answered them.

Common answers by Jewish teachers

The most common ancient rabbinic answers are these: First, Cain said “Let us go to the field” because he wanted to be in remote place with Abel to kill him there in secret. Second: his reason was that he was jealous, because God did not accept his offering but did accept Abel’s, as stated in the previous verse. These two explanations are also found in the medieval Jewish exegetes Rashi and Ibn Ezra, and in modern exegetical commentaries. A third explanation is found in the 13th century Jewish commentator Nachmanides:

In my opinion this is connected with “and when they were out in the field” for he said to him “Let us go to the field,” and he killed him there secretly. Cain’s intention to kill him was that mankind would all be descended from him. Because he thought that there should be no more descendants from his brother.

The last argument about the descendants will return in the exegesis of verse 10 where this is the main point. A fourth explanation, found in the rabbinic midrash Genesis Rabbah involves some more “creative” reading:

“And Cain spoke to Abel his brother, and it came to pass when they were in the field…” (Genesis 4:8) What were they arguing about? They said: come let’s divide up the world, one will take the land and one will take the moveable property. This one said: the ground you are standing on is mine. […] One said: the Holy Temple will be built in my boundary. The other said: the Holy Temple will be built in my boundary. […] Because of this “…Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him.” […] Rabbi Huna said: an extra twin sister was born with Abel. This one said: I will take her because I am the first born. The other one said: I will take her because she was born with me. Because of this “…Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him.”

This midrash may seem speculative, but it contains deep insights in what, until the present day, are the main reasons for violence and war: possession, land, religion, and (the possession of) women.

Image: Pier Francesco Mola

Genesis 4:10 and the plural of “blood”

The original Hebrew text of verse 10 also contains some remarkable problems. In English, this verse seems unproblematic, at least grammatically:

“What have you done? Listen, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!

Yet in Hebrew, the word for blood is plural, as is the verb. The Hebrew thus reads:

“What have you done? Listen, your brother’s bloods (damei) are crying out to Me from the ground!

This plural use of the word for blood is unusual: unlike the word for “water,” which is always plural (mayim), the word for “blood” is usually singular (dam). This plural form required interpretation from the ancient and medieval rabbinic commentators. We already mentioned Nachmanides’ view that Cain did not want Abel to have children, because then Cain’s children would have to share the world with them. In verse 10, more arguments are found for this interpretation. In the midrash and in Rashi, we find that “bloods” refers to “his blood and that of his descendants.”

The Talmud and the death penalty

In the Talmud, a rabbinic work that deals with many topics, including legal ones, we find a discussion about witnesses in capital cases, meaning cases for which someone could receive the death penalty.* The witnesses are thoroughly warned that they should be very careful and reluctant to ask for the death penalty. They should, for example, not testify against the accused on the basis of something they did not see themselves, but only heard from someone else (or in our time: something they read on X or Instagram). The argument in the Talmud is based on an exegesis of Genesis:

In capital cases one is held responsible for the blood of the accused and the blood of his potential descendants until the end of time, for thus we find in the case of Cain, who killed his brother, that it is written: “your brother’s bloods cry out to Me” (Gen 4:10): Not the blood of your brother, but the bloods of your brother, is said—i.e. his blood and the blood of his potential descendants. […] For this reason was man [adam] created alone, to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul Scripture imputes guilt to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul, Scripture ascribes merit to him as though he had preserved a complete world.(Source: Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a)

What do we see here? Two texts from Genesis are combined to come to this conclusion: from the story of Cain and Abel, it is derived that “bloods” refers to a person + his descendants. Therefore, if you kill a person (whether “lawfully” or not), you also kill his potential descendants, as it were. From the creation of Adam, who was first created as a single person, we learn that this was deliberate: if he would have died before procreating, there would have been no humanity.

Adaptation in the Quran

Interestingly, the same argument, based on the story of Cain and Abel, with the same wise saying, is also found in the Quran, but without the exegetical argument.

That is why We (=Allah) decreed for the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul, without its being guilty of manslaughter or corruption on the earth, is as though he had killed all mankind, and whoever saves a life is as though he had saved all mankind.(Source: Quran, Al Maidah, 6:32)

It is well known that the Quran contains not only traditions from the Hebrew Bible (and the New Testament) but also insights from the post-Biblical Jewish tradition. This is a clear example of the latter. This statement is found in the discussion of the story of Cain and Abel, and Cain’s actions are condemned in much more explicit terms than in the Bible. But the exegetical reasoning behind the statement “whoever kills a soul…”, and specifically the fact this is based on the plural word “bloods” in Hebrew, is not given. The tradition and its conclusion are there, and presented as a “decree” of God to the Jews, but without the exegetical argument.

Difference between Quran and Talmud

We also see a difference. The Quran has added a caveat, a condition in the first half of the saying, namely “without its being guilty of manslaughter or corruption on the earth”. When someone has committed a murder or brought “corruption” on earth, the death penalty may be allowed. Especially the latter, of course, allows for many interpretations: what is “corruption” for one, may not be “corruption” for someone else. This becomes clear when we read on:

Indeed the requital of those who wage war against Allah and His Apostle, and try to cause corruption on the earth, is that they shall be slain or crucified, or have their hands and feet cut off from opposite sides or be banished from the land. That is a disgrace for them in this world, and in the Hereafter there is a great punishment for them, excepting those who repent before you capture them, and know that Allah is all-forgiving, all-merciful.

“Corruption” is equaled with “waging war against Allah.” And, of course, what this entails exactly is open to very different interpretations. Thus, our universalistic saying “Whoever destroys a single soul destroys an entire world” suddenly becomes less universalistic but rather dependent on the views of one religion.

Modifications in the Jewish tradition

Unfortunately, the Jewish tradition also has a modification of the saying that makes it much less universalistic. We find an important addition in one manuscript of the Mishnah, and in the Jerusalem Talmud, two works that are related to the Babylonian Talmud. There, we read:

Whoever destroys a single soul of Israel, Scripture imputes guilt to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whoever preserves a single soul of Israel, Scripture ascribes merit to him as though he had preserved a complete world.

The supplementation “of Israel” reduces the validity of the statement. The “official” Jewish reading is that of the Babylonian Talmud, yet the fact that very early on some Jews found it necessary to make the modification says enough.

What lesson could we draw from this?

Undoubtedly there are Jews who adhere to the limited reading of the saying and say that the unconditional saving of people’s lives only applies to Jews. They operate by the very same reasoning as found in the Quran: If someone “corrupts” the way of God — and for some Jews and Muslims, this goes for everyone outside of their “orthodoxy,” — they should apparently not be spared. The same belief is found among Christians. Countless examples, until the present day, could be given for the idea that Muslim or Jewish “souls” are worth less than Christian souls: from the idea that they should simply be eradicated, as in the days of the Crusades, to the idea that these souls can be only “saved” by becoming Christian--if necessary, by force.

So are all texts open to random individual interpretations, even the Bible? I am afraid they are. The Torah, the New Testament, the Quran: without careful exegesis they often cannot be understood, much less be simply applied to our contemporary situation. If there is any lesson the multiple interpretations of “holy” texts teach us, it’s that we should be very wary of how we use them in situations of war and conflict.