|An obedient son, Seth, listens to his dying father's last wish, then sets out the door to fulfill|
Adam's request. A 15-th century illumination from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves.
Pierpont Morgan Library/Art Resource, NY
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With Adam’s death, Seth became the patriarch of the first family. With the death of his brothers Cain and Abel and of Cain’s descendants, Seth became progenitor of the rest of the human race, as shown in this greatly abbreviated family tree.
But why are we told so little about Seth? How did he sustain himself? Was he a musician, like Yuval? Did he like the country life or that of the city? How did he live with his aged parents? Did he benefit, or did he suffer, from an excess of love on their part? The reader doesn’t know whether to pity him or to envy him.
A curious thing: In midrashic literature, which is usually so expansive, rather little is said about this character to whom, we shall soon see, we owe so much.b The Midrash is more forthcoming regarding Seth’s family.
A moving midrashic legend recounts that after the death of Abel, the mourning Adam and Eve fall into a profound, melancholy solitude. Far from Paradise, they are no longer in harmony with their environment or with one another. We imagine them silent, lethargic. They no longer desire anything, least of all another child. Undoubtedly, Abel and his cruel fate are too prevalent in their thoughts for them to wish to give him a brother. Years, centuries slip away, and for them, the world is a wasteland. But do they remember the first commandment, to be fruitful and multiply? And if they have forgotten, why doesn’t God remind them of it?
In the Midrash, it is one of their descendants who reminds them—Lemech. A curious character. He is blind. At a certain time, he takes two women: Ada and Tzila (Genesis 4:19). Why two? One to give him children and the other to give him pleasure. It is to them that he will confess: “Ada and Tzila, listen to my voice! Wives of Lemech, give ear to my word! I have killed a man” (Genesis 4:23). Yes, he had just killed Cain. It was an accident, but it was nevertheless a murder. He is sure that this act will weigh upon not seven generations, as in Cain’s case, but upon seventy-seven. The next verse speaks of the reunion of Adam and his wife. What is the connection?
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The Midrash furnishes it for us: Lemech’s two wives separated themselves from him after the birth of their children, saying: What good is it to have children, since God has decreed that the seventh generation after Cain (which is theirs) would be punished? What good is it to give life to children who will die?
Lemech, not too intelligent, asks the advice of Adam, who then reprimands the two wives: Who are you to preoccupy yourselves with the ways of the Lord? He does what He must do, and as for you, do your duty as wives!
Thereupon, says the Midrash, they respond: And who then are you to lecture us? Since the death of your son, it has been 130 years that you have separated yourself from your wife so as no longer to have children—and you tell us to have them? Faced with the logic of Lemech’s two wives, Adam immediately returned to Eve, “and he had a son in his image and according to his form” (Genesis 5:3), whom Eve named Seth. Why Eve and not Adam? Because in the Bible, it is always the woman who names the children. But if so, why did Seth name his son? Was this perhaps to mark the singularity of Enosh, who is so closely linked to Adam and to God? Like Adam, Enosh means “man.” Moreover, the next verse says, “ze sefer toldot adam,” “this is the book of the generations of Adam.” In other words, we are present not at the beginning but at the second beginning of Creation.
Adam’s last son, Seth, resembles his father. We are all his descendants, states the Midrash. It strains to reassure us. In case we were afraid to be Cain’s descendants and inheritors of his original sin, the Midrash tells us, all the descendants of Cain will perish in the Flood, but not those of Seth.
The proof: We are here to tell his story.
Translated from French by Martha Liptzin Hauptman.
The author of more than 30 novels, plays and profiles of biblical figures, Elie Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. This online publication is adapted from Wiesel’s article “Supporting Roles: Joshua,” which was published in Bible Review in December 1998. At the inception of Wiesel’s Supporting Roles series in Bible Review, BAS editors wrote:
"We are pleased—and honored—to present our readers with the first of a series of insightful essays by Elie Wiesel, the world-renowned author and human rights advocate. Wiesel is best known for his numerous books on the Holocaust and for his profiles of biblical figures and Hasidic masters. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His occasional series for BR will focus on characters in the Bible that do not occupy center stage—those who play supporting roles."
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