Did Cain get away with murder? Deep dive into Parshat Bereishis with the Midrash

Cain and Hevel were the first births recorded in the Torah. Who would ever think that the first murder in the world would happen so soon. As a consequence, Cain had to wander the earth. Was that the full punishment or a lesser punishment?  The answer to this question is related to something the Midrash discusses at length – did Cain actually repent or just try to talk his way out of it.

Let’s start with how Cain reacted to God’s accusation of killing his brother. At least when Adam and Chava were asked if they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they blamed others, but they didn’t deny it. That would be denying that God is all-knowing. Yet when God asked Cain about the whereabouts of his brother, Cain denied having any knowledge on the subject. לֹ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵ֥ר אָחִ֖י אָנֹֽכִי׃ “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?” (Bereishis 4:9)

The Midrash likens this to a man who was caught red handed stealing and eating strawberries. The owner of the field said “what do you have in your hand?” The thief replied, “nothing.” To which the owner says: וַהֲרֵי יָדֶיךָ מְלֻכְלָכוֹת “So why are your hands stained (with strawberry juice)?” (Bereishis Rabbah 22:9)

In fact, it was only after his punishment was announced that Cain made his famous  statement: גדול עוני מנשוא My sin is too great to bear.” (Bereishis 4:13). According to the Midrash, Cain was concerned that he would be given a more severe punishment than Adam and Chava.They were banished so he thought surely he would be in for something a lot worse.

The Talmud doesn’t mince any words when discussing Cain’s sincerity:

ת”ר שלשה באו בעלילה אלו הן קין עשו ומנשה קין דכתיב (בראשית ד, יג) גדול עוני מנשוא אמר לפניו רבונו של עולם כלום גדול עוני מששים ריבוא שעתידין לחטוא לפניך ואתה סולח להם

“The Sages taught in a Baraita: Three came with subterfuge, and they are: Cain, Esau, and Manasseh. Cain came with a demand, as it is written: ‘My sin is too great to bear’ (Genesis 4:13). Cain said before God: ‘Master of the Universe, is my transgression greater than the transgression of the 600,000 who are destined to sin before You with the Golden Calf, and You will nevertheless forgive them?’ (There should be atonement for my transgression as well.)”  (Talmud Sanhedrin 101b).

Was Cain an inspiration for murderers or repenters:

One way to determine whether Cain was sincere or not is to see what kind of legacy he left behind. The Midrash quotes two starkly different opinions about this.

רַב אָמַר עֲשָׂאוֹ אוֹת לְרוֹצְחָנִים. רַבִּי חָנִין אָמַר עֲשָאוֹ אוֹת לְבַעֲלֵי תְּשׁוּבָה

“Rav said He (God) made him an example to murderers. Rabbi Chonin said He (God) made him an example to those who repent“ (Midrash Rabbah 22:12)

Perhaps for those who think that Cain repented and was forgiven, he will forever be a hero to those who choose the difficult path of repentance. However, for those who believe that Cain never repented, then he will be a hero to the murderers.

The Torah says that to protect Cain, God gave him a sign. We can gain insight into the nature of Cain’s repentance based on what that sign was. The Midrash offers many possibilities. Among the  opinions offered is that, for his own protection, Cain was given leprosy, a horn* or Hevel’s sheepdog.  Leprosy might offer protection in that it sends a signal that God already punished him, so there is no need to avenge Hevel’s death. A horn offers obvious protection but it also implies that his actions reduced Cain to an animal. These opinions would seem to agree that Cain did not repent. On the other hand, the fact that Cain acquired Hevel’s sheep dog might imply that Cain was forgiven. After all, it is only natural that Hevel’s sheep dog would revile Cain. The fact that God may have changed the dog’s instinctual nature to now defend Cain, might mean that Cain was indeed forgiven.

What were Cain’s parting thoughts

Midrash Rabbah continues its difference of opinion about Cain’s repentance. The Torah says that וַיֵּצֵא קַיִן מִלִּפְנֵי ה’ “And Cain left God’s presence.” (Bereishis 4:15) Once again, there are 2 opinions about the frame of mind that Cain was in when he concluded his discussion with God.  One view in the Midrash is that Cain left thinking that he outsmarted God. The other opinion in the Midrash is that he left in happiness because he knew that he was forgiven. In fact he told his father Adam עָשִׂיתִי תְּשׁוּבָה וְנִתְפַּשַּׁרְתִּי “I repented and I made a compromise.” (Midrash Rabbah 22;13). (Note, Midrash Rabbah did not say he was forgiven, rather that Cain felt that he was forgiven).

They’re both right

It would be easy to conclude that it all comes down to a difference of opinion. However, it would be even more harmonious to say that both opinions are correct. From one vantage point it would seem like Cain’s repentance was a sham, and that would be true. On the other hand, God seems to have taken a more compassionate stance. God found a modicum of repentance buried among Cain’s display of arrogance and bravado.

This seems to be the point of view of Midrash Tanchuma. As soon as God told Cain that the blood of his brother is crying out from the earth, The Midrash fills in Cain’s most unusual response:

, רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם, יֵשׁ לְפָנֶיךָ דִּילָטוֹרִין שֶׁמַּלְשִׁינִין אֶת הָאָדָם לְפָנֶיךָ? אָבִי וְאִמִּי הֲרֵי הֵן בָּאָרֶץוְאֵינָן יוֹדְעִין שֶׁאֲנִי הֲרַגְתִּיו. וְאַתָּה בַשָּׁמַיִם מִנַּיִן אַתָּה יוֹדֵעַ? אָמַר לוֹ שׁוֹטֶה, כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ אֲנִי סוֹבֵל, .. אָמַר לוֹ: כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ אַתָּה סוֹבֵל וַעֲוֹנִי אֵינְךָ יָכוֹל לִסְבֹּל. גָּדוֹל עֲוֹנִי מִנְּשׂוֹא….

“God, do You have informers who denounce men to You? My father and mother are the only ones alive, and they do not know that I slew him; how do You, who resides in heaven, know?” God answered: ‘Fool! I bear the (iniquities) of the entire world’ ..Cain immediately cried out: ‘You bear the entire world, yet my sin You are unable to bear. My sin is greater than I can bear.”’

Sounds like a set up, yet, to this paltry sense of remorse God generously responded:

הוֹאִיל וְהוֹדֵיתָ וְעָשִׂיתָ תְּשׁוּבָה, צֵא וּגְלֵה מִן הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה.

“Since you have confessed and repented, go into exile from this place.”

Finding something positive in this tragic story

Cain’s punishment seems to have perfectly fit the crime. He wanted to acquire the whole world by killing his brother. Now there was no place in the world where he felt like he belonged and had peace of mind. Instead, he had to live the life of a fugitive, on the run. Perhaps Cain’s punishment is that he had to live with his guilt for seven generations until,  according to the Midrash,he was “accidently” killed by Lemech.(Bereishis Tanchuma 11:2)

Perhaps there is something uplifting that can be gleaned from the story of Cain and Hevel. If we are lacking in expressing true remorse for our wrongdoings, God looks deep in our hearts and finds it. This idea has a source in the great book of Mussar, שערי תשובה (Gates of Repentance). Rabbi Yonah  says  לכל תשובה תמצא סליחה  “In every level of Repentance there is a measure of forgiveness. (1:9)

*Midrash Tanchuma implies that Cain was “accidently” killed by Lemech because his horn caused him to be mistaken for an animal .(Bereishis Tanchuma 11:2)

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About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.