“Seth–Adam and Eve’s Little-Known Son”
by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
In this week’s parasha, parashat Bereshith, murder is introduced to the world, and the first instance of fratricide is committed by Cain, who slays his brother, Abel.
In Genesis 4:1-2, the Torah informs us that the first human being (Adam) knew Eve, his wife, and that she conceived and bore their first child, Cain. She then bore his brother, Abel. The Torah narrative notes that Cain became an agriculturalist, who tilled the soil, while Abel became a shepherd.
The fateful confrontation between the brothers takes place in a field. The Torah, in Genesis 4:8, relates, enigmatically, that Cain spoke with his brother Abel, but does not tell us what they discussed. Suddenly, scripture declares, Cain rose up against Abel and killed him.
Although there are numerous theories about why they argued, all are speculative. The only thing known for certain is that Abel is no longer among the living. Cain is then harshly cursed by G-d, and is told that the earth has rejected him, and that he will become a wanderer on the face of the earth. Despite his harsh fate, Cain goes on to become the progenitor of many generations of talented children and grandchildren. (Bereshith 5763-2002).
Eventually Cain, the murderer, is killed by his own great-great-grandson, Lamech, apparently by accident.
130 years have passed since the murder of Abel. During these seven generations, nothing at all is heard of Adam and Eve. It is only after we learn how deeply pained Lamech is about the role he played in the death of his great-grandfather, that we are reintroduced to the “First Couple.”
In Genesis 4:25 we are told, וַיֵּדַע אָדָם עוֹד אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ, וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן, וַתִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ שֵׁת, כִּי שָׁת לִי אֱ־לֹקִים זֶרַע אַחֵר תַּחַת הֶבֶל כִּי הֲרָגוֹ קָיִן, Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, saying that: “G-d has provided me another child in place of Abel, for Cain had killed him.”
The Midrash, Bamidbar Rabbah, 14:12, maintains that Seth is called, “Seth,” because the world was “set” from him, שֶׁמִּמֶּנּוּ הֻשְׁתַּת הָעוֹלָם. His mother called him, שֵׁת “Sheht” because G-d gave her another child. The Midrash in Genesis Rabbah 23:7 concludes from this, that the Messiah will eventually emerge from Seth, referring to his illustrious descendants, Ruth and King David.
Rashi cites a fascinating Midrash found in Bereshith Rabbah 23:5, which maintains that after the death of Cain, Lamech sought out Adam to confer with him about his marital problems. Apparently, his wives had separated from him (either because he had killed his great-grandfather as well as a son, Tubal Cain, or because the women had calculated that after seven generations the descendants of Cain would all die in a flood).
As a gesture of sympathy to Lamech, Adam reproves his great-grandson’s wives, Ada and Tzeelah, for not fulfilling the commandment of procreation. They sharply respond, “Why don’t you [Adam] practice what you preach. Since the time that G-d decreed (Genesis 3:19) that man will not live eternally, you have separated from your wife for 130 years.” Immediately, Adam knew his wife, and it was then that Seth was born.
In Genesis 4:26, scripture states, וּלְשֵׁת גַּם הוּא יֻלַּד בֵּן, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ אֱנוֹשׁ, אָז הוּחַל לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם השׁם, And as for Seth, to him also a son was born, and he named him, Enosh. Then it was begun to call in the name of the L-rd.
It is interesting to note that contrary to Biblical custom, it is Seth, not his wife, who gives the name, Enosh, to their son. Although Seth becomes the progenitor of the entire human race, this is all we know about him from the Biblical text.
Two additional references regarding Seth are found in the following chapter that contains the recapitulation of the Biblical genealogy, but they too tell us little about Adam and Eve’s third child. Genesis 5:3 states, וַיְחִי אָדָם שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה, וַיּוֹלֶד בִּדְמוּתוֹ כְּצַלְמוֹ, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ שֵׁת, When Adam had lived 130 years, he begot in his likeness and his image, and he named him Seth. In Genesis 5:8, we are informed that Seth died at age 912 years.
The only other indirect scriptural reference to Seth is found in Numbers 24:17, in the final prophecy of Balaam regarding Israel, Moab and their neighbors. There, Balaam predicts that, “A star has issued forth from Jacob and a scepter-bearer has risen from Israel. He shall pierce the nobles of Moab and undermine the children of Seth.” According to Rashi, the star refers to a Jewish king who will rise, and with his royal scepter bring all those who oppose him under his sway. Not only will he defeat the nobles of Moab, he will actually vanquish the entire world. Since Seth was the progenitor of all humankind, the expression “Children of Seth” is used here to represent all the people on the face of the earth.
The sages note that scripture describes only Seth, but not Cain and Abel, as being born, בִּדְמוּתוֹ כְּצַלְמוֹ, in the image and likeness of Adam, his father. Rabbi Yosi is cited in the Zohar, as saying that this is an indication that it will only be through Seth that the world will continue to exist. Certainly not through Cain or Abel, since Abel, who was childless, was murdered and all of Cain’s children perished in the flood.
Seth is therefore referred to (Zohar Chadash, Ruth 385) as, יְסוֹד הָעוֹלָם “Y’sohd ha’oh’lahm,” the foundation of the world, because of the many good and righteous people who eventually descended from him. According to a Kabbalistic tradition (Zohar, Genesis 371), all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet with the exception of the last two letters that compose the name Seth were lost after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. The other twenty letters of the Hebrew alphabet were restored, when Israel received the Torah at Sinai.
The Sefer Ha’Ikarim, declares that three diverse ideologies are represented by Cain, Abel and Seth, the three children of Adam and Eve. Cain, the agriculturalist, was convinced that working the land was the ultimate duty of humankind. Land and statehood became ultimate values for him, even if it meant that it would be necessary to kill his brother to obtain them. Abel, the shepherd, felt that statesmanship is the fundamental principle of life, a principle of such great import that one must be prepared to place one’s life at risk, and even sacrifice one’s life in order to become a complete human being. Seth regarded worship of the Divine as the foremost principle, rejecting alien authority and material successes. Because Seth’s philosophy was not easily understood by others, few were attracted to his life’s philosophy (Sefer Ha’Ikarim, statement 3, chapter 15).
What emerges from all of this is that the least-known child of Adam and Eve becomes the progenitor of all of humankind, and introduces good and noble values into the world that survive the flood. It is the barely-acknowledged Seth, who brings about the renewal of humankind, drawing them all closer to the Divine spirit that inhabits each of them.
May you be blessed.