Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Noah 5765/ October 16, 2004

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


You Shall Not Murder

Meir Roth
Student   of  Hermeneutics
and Cultural studies at Bar-Ilan


One of the main stories of Parashat Bereshit describes Abel’s murder by his brother Cain [Editor’s note: See last week’s article on Parashat Bereshit by Prof. Dov Landau].   The Lord appears in this story in fascinating dialogues with Cain, both before and after the murder.   These dialogues have served as a point of departure for well-known rabbinic homilies, because they contain statements of principle regarding the nature of a person who sins.   The main problem in the entire episode, however, is the absence of an explicit command forbidding murder. Indeed, the Lord tried to dissuade Cain from killing by admonishing him regarding the essence of sin – “sin couches at the door,” the transgressor is drawn towards it (Gen.4:7)– yet He did not give him the unequivocal command “You shall not murder.”  In contrast, in Parashat Noah the proscription against murder appears twice, in two different forms.


Verse 9:5 presents a prohibition against murder, three times repeating the word “require”:

But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning:  I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man.

The next verse (v. 6) explicitly states the punishment given for murder:

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in His image did G-d make man.

Two questions arise:

1)      Why does the Torah give the command not to murder in Parashat Noah and not in the story of Cain and Abel?

2)      Why does the Torah formulate the prohibition against murder in two separate verses, one of them by a three-fold “requirement” and the other by establishing the death sentence as the punishment for murder?

Rashi’s interpretation can serve as a point of departure for answering the first question.   But for your own life-blood – even though I have permitted you to take the life of animals, I shall require your blood from whoever sheds human blood.”   This enables us to understand the matter of the placement:   the commandment forbidding bloodshed comes in the context of allowing men to kill animals for meat.   Since killing a living creature, even for a useful purpose such as eating it, is likely to arouse in certain persons a murderous urge, this act itself requires a protective fence to be built around it.

The proscription against eating flesh torn from a living body – “you must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it” (Gen. 9:4) – is supposed to keep human beings from murdering, since killing an animal usually involves cruelty and makes a hard impression on the human soul; the transition from humans subsisting as plant-gatherers to their living as meat-eating hunters is likely to cause depreciation in the value of life and lead to bloodshed.

The juxtaposition of the texts which permit meat to be eaten and forbid murder can explain why the commandment was postponed; in Parashat Bereshit, when humans were still vegetarians and totally abstained from eating meat, the urge towards bloodshed was not as strong as after they had been permitted to kill animals and beasts.   It seems that one could have relied on natural instinct to prevent humans from killing one another.   Indeed, at the dawn of human history Cain murdered his brother, but the act of a single individual is not proof of all mankind being deeply involved in acts of murder until the time of Noah. 

The reason that the Torah cites for the destruction of mankind in the generation of flood supports this argument:  “the earth was filled with lawlessness.”  Murder is not listed as a factor leading to the destruction of the generation of the flood, as Rashi points out in his interpretation (Gen. 6:13):

An end to all flesh – wherever there is prostitution and idolatry, chaos comes to the world and kills the good and the bad.  The earth was filled with lawlessness – their fate was sealed on account of none other than robbery.

Now we shall address the second question, regarding the significance of the command being presented in two verses in chapter 9, and why the Torah did not simply command the descendants of Noah, “You shall not murder,” as appears in the Ten Commandments.  First we shall address the significance of the three-fold occurrence of “require” in verse 8:


But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning:  I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man.


The first “requirement” can be understood as a prohibition against bloodshed and a continuation of the warning against eating blood, as presented in Rashi’s interpretation, cited above.  But what is meant by the second “requirement,” which is addressed to every beast?   Many explanations have been offered and they can be divided into three:

1)       Animals are to be held in account for killing human beings. [1]

2)       Human beings are held in account for killing humans, even when they do this indirectly, by throwing them before beasts of prey. [2]

3)       Animals become executioners at G-d’s command. [3]


Let us consider the first two interpretations.  It is hard to suppose that an animal would be punished for killing another animal of its kind, or one of another kind, or even for killing a human being, since animals do not have free choice, nor have we found anywhere in the Torah commandments that apply directly to animals or beasts.

It is also difficult to maintain that the passage, “I will require it of every beast,” should be interpreted as a command addressed to human beings who make use of animals as a tool of murder, since the verb, “I will require it,” edreshenu, is addressed to the beasts and not to the one making use of them.   The meaning that emerges is that the requirement in this part of the verse is addressed to the animal and not the human being.

Thus, by a method of elimination, we can reject the first two options, leaving us with the third.   That is, animals become the vehicle for carrying out G-d’s command.  Carrying out a death sentence by means of an animal is a sort of measure for measure:  a human kills an animal in order to eat, and the animal punishes the human being by killing him.  This approach, however, is not entirely satisfactory, since humans eat animals by permission, and so why should they be punished for it?  Remember that permission to kill animals was given in the context of the superiority given humans over beasts, birds and fish.   A natural hierarchy was established between humans and animals, and it finds expression in humans exercising dominion over the beasts of the field:  “The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky – everything with which the earth is astir – and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand” (Gen. 9:2).

Therefore the “measure for measure” should be viewed not in the physical sense of one species eating another, but rather as a natural-spiritual concomitant to the act of killing.  In the case of murder, the natural order changes: the beast frees itself from the dread of human beings and gains supremacy, while in contrast the human being descends in rank, because he fears the beast of prey.  In this manner the animal becomes a vehicle of punishment in G-d’s hands, and the human being who has committed a transgression becomes prey to it.

The connection between the descent of the human being on account of murder and the ascent of the beast that becomes dangerous to the human, is encountered immediately after Cain commits murder:  “Since You have banished me this day from the soil, and I must avoid Your presence and become a restless wanderer on earth – anyone who meets me may kill me” (Gen. 4:14).   Radak interprets this verse as follows:  “Anyone who meets me will kill me, after You removed Your providence from me and You no longer protect me; so when I become a restless wanderer, the beasts of prey will kill me.”

The case of Cain brings out the dramatic change in his condition that resulted from his sin.   From a person who had been free to roam about in nature, fearing nothing, as befits the crowning glory of creation, Cain became a person so pursued by savage beasts that he feared anyone (even the smallest of animals) who found him would kill him.

This idea is well-put in the homily (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, ch. 5, s.v.Tanni R. Yishmael):  “Rabbi Yishmael taught:  as long as a person has not sinned, he is feared and dreaded, but as soon as he sins, he becomes the victim of fear and dread.”

What does the third “require” signify?  This requirement can be viewed as pertaining to society being obliged to bring murderers to justice.  The requirement is made not only of the ruler, the governmental authorities and the courts that usually handle bringing a murderer to trial, but also of all human beings.  The requirement is even more far-reaching, calling on people not to cover for one another, as was customary in ancient societies, but rather to bring even the closest person to justice – “will I require … of every man for that of his fellow man (lit. “brother”).”  In the practice of revenge for bloodshed, common in ancient times and still existing in certain societies to this day, we are familiar with cases where relatives of the murderer protect him while the relatives of the murdered person seek his life at any price.  The verse that follows indeed supports the interpretation that the text refers to the requirement to bring murder cases to trial, for it describes the punishment most precisely:  “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in His image did G-d make man” (Gen. 9:6).

In her studies on this week’s reading Nehama Leibowitz shows how the punishment fits the crime, measure for measure, and notes the symmetrical structure here:    whoever sheds – shall be shed; blood – his blood; of man – by man.  The second part of the verse emphasizes, “For in His image did G-d make man.”  Murder is the diametrical opposite of the image of G-d in man, wherein lies the essence of human religious morality.

Even if we accept the explanation thus far, there remains a chronological difficulty in the order of development as presented above.  If indeed the third “requirement” relates to the obligation to try murderers, why is the “requirement” of the person being killed by an animal, without a trial, brought in before establishing the duty to bring murderers to justice?

It seems to me that this point as well can be explained in line with what we have presented thus far.  The duty to bring the murderer to trial devolves upon society. However this process, due to its complexity – bringing evidence, witnesses, suitable judges, etc. – might not take place at all or might be delayed.  In contrast, the fall of the human being from the position of dominion over all the animals and beasts takes place immediately, as a sort of natural moral law.  Murder is such an egregious act that it destroys the order of the world, and therefore as a result the primordial laws of nature change and the animals cast off their fear and dread of human beings, so that the lowly creatures become the higher ones and have dominion over the crowning glory of creation, who loses his crown in a single blow.

[1] See Nahmanides’ interpretation, loc. sit.

[2] See the interpretations given by Hizkuni and Radak.

[3] See Rashi.