Our Troubled Origins
Bereishit has echoes of two different origins stories of humanity. The earlier genealogy (starting in 4:17) stems from Kayin and ends abruptly with a cryptic story about Lemekh. In the next chapter we meet a Lemekh who is the father of Noah (5:29). If we had only this first genealogy, we would conclude that Noah descends from Kayin, and the entirety of humanity born after the Flood traces our lineage back to a forefather who committed the first act of murder.
Yet, the genealogy of Kayin is interrupted with Adam fathering a third child, Shet (4:25), who knows nothing from the fatal conflict between Kayin and Hevel. This blessed third son gives way to a more dominant and kinder genealogy where Noah, and hence all of humanity, descend from him (5:6), and not from Kayin.1 Besides the identical name of Lemekh on both lists, other names are quite similar, suggesting that these are two alternate versions of the origins of humanity.
A fundamental difference is embedded in these competing stories. The first account beckons us into the troubling possibility that we descend from a murderer. Discovering this tainted lineage requires us to confront the dangerous and destructive proclivities we have inherited, and to fear the violence we are capable of. Knowing that I descend from Kayin makes me aware that I harbor Kayin’s jealousy and impetuousness, that I could become a murderer too.
The more dominant genealogy from Shet shuts down these troubling implications of Kayin as our forefather. Humanity as we know it stems from innocence, from the third son who was a manifestation of God’s benevolence to bring repair (4:25). I can gain comfort and inspiration from origins in a progenitor who represents purging violence and making a fresh start.
The tension between these two origin stories of humanity parallels the age-old debate about whether God created the world from nothing (yesh me-ayin, “ex nihilo”) or from preexisting formless matter (yesh me-yesh). A number of medieval commentaries stress the theological importance of acknowledging God’s power to create the world from scratch, and vehemently push back on any indication that God merely gave form to preexisting shapeless material.2
Yet, many (mostly earlier) commentaries conclude that the plain meaning of Bereishit is that God created the world from a preexisting mess, the chaos of tohu va-vohu. A midrash in Bereishit Rabbah certainly falls in this camp, and expresses shock at the opening line of the Torah, comparing God’s creation from “void and darkness,” to a King who announces that his palace is built upon sewers, trash, and refuse:
בראשית רבה א:ה
בנוהג העולם מלך בשר ודם בונה פלטין במקום הביבין והאשפה והסיריות, כל מי שיבוא לומר פלטין זו בנויה במקום הביבין והאשפה והסיריות אינו פוגם אתמהא, כך כל מי שהוא בא לומר העולם הזה נברא מתוך תהו ובהו וחושך אינו פוגם אתמהא, ר' הונא בשם בר קפרא אילולי הדבר כת' אי אפשר לאומרו ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ מן הן, מן והארץ היתה תהו וגו'.
Bereishit Rabbah 1:5
In the way of the world, if a king of flesh and blood builds a palace in the place of sewers, trash, and refuse, anyone who comes and says, “This palace is built in the place of sewers, trash and refuse,” wouldn’t that be considered an insult? So too, one who comes and says, “This world was created from void and darkness, wouldn’t that be considered an insult? R. Huna in the name of bar Kappara: Were it not written [in the Torah] it would have been impossible to say! God created the heavens and the earth from what? From “and the earth was void etc.”
The midrash brings our attention to the embarrassing fact that God didn’t make the world from pure origins, but from a mess so gross that its stench continues to be detectable such that it would be insulting to remark upon it. But the text does not explain why the Torah leads this way, laying bare what an architect would usually take great pains to bury.
We have much to learn from an analogy between the messy origins of the world and the messy origins of humanity. Perhaps God reveals the unlikely origins of the world’s creation to teach us that it is in fact a profound miracle to build from what exists, “something from something,” over and above building from scratch. The midrash teaches that God’s work in creation was to face a stinking mess and build something beautiful and good, ki tov (1:4 etc.).
So too, the echoes of humanity’s origins in Kayin paint a picture of human growth rooted in the most horrible act of violence, not evading our murderous origins to build from scratch with Adam’s third son. We shouldn’t think of creating “something from something”—especially from something bad—as a lesser and unideal form of creation. It is rather what it means to be in the image of God (tzelem Elohim), who loudly announces that the world comes from a dark and chaotic mess. Seeing ourselves in the image of God is not necessarily about sensing a spark of purity and perfection. It is about adapting what is into what could and should be.
This creation of “something from something” is difficult, profound, and nothing less than miraculous, and it is also ingrained in us. Psychologist Gary Marcus describes the human brain as a “kluge,” a kind of ad hoc contraption that has to constantly adapt old parts to new circumstances, rather than being designed perfectly for our present needs.3 We make errors constantly, forget, and mess up, because we are asking our brains to do things they weren’t designed to do. This mode of working with what we are given, even if it is far less than ideal, might seem like an affront to the concept of tzelem Elohim. But our embrace of divine creation as “something from something” changes that picture. The agility and determination involved in working with the subpar materials we have is like God’s palace built upon sewers. Like Kayin, we mess up. And, like God, we won’t be deterred from envisioning how we can nonetheless will beautiful things into being.
The dominant genealogy of humanity from Adam’s blessed third son re-envisions the origins of humanity as pure and innocent. But the echoes of our genealogy from Kayin, and the stench of tohu va-vohu as the origins of the world, remind us that in fact our lives are not written on a blank slate but etched on “rubbed out parchment.”4 The residue of past blunders lingers as part of the texture of who we are. Rather than pretend that we can purge the errors and mess we have inherited—from our own experiences, from our families, from the larger social histories in which we are embedded, from disasters beyond our control —creating “something from something” teaches us to notice the contours of this residue, work with it and work through it, and discover a catalyst for recreation.
May we draw from Bereishit to find the willpower to confront the messes we face anew each year, internally and externally, and be strengthened in our insistence to create something more beautiful.
1 The traditional way of harmonizing these two lineages is to posit that there were two unrelated people called Lemekh. For discussion of these genealogies from an academic textual perspective, see Tzemah Yoreh, Genesis: Israel’s Origins, pp. 38-39, 50.
2 Two examples: Ramban stresses that one who denies creation ex nihilo is a heretic for this leads to undermining God’s ability to perform miracles (1:1, s.v. bereishit bara Elohim). Hizkuni goes to great lengths to demonstrate that every item mentioned was created by God, rather than something that preexisted God’s creation (1:1, s.v. bereishit bara Elohim; 1:2, s.v. ve-ha-aretz haytah tohu va-vohu; s.v. ve-ruah Elohim).