FROM BOOK NINE, MYTHS OF EXILE
572. HOW CAIN WAS CONCEIVED
Samael was the great prince in heaven. After God created the world, Samael took his
band of followers and descended and saw the creatures that God had created. Among
them he found none so skilled to do evil than the serpent, as it is said, Now the serpent was
the shrewdest of all the wild beasts (Gen. 3:1). Its appearance was something like that of a
camel, and Samael mounted and rode upon it. Riding on the serpent, the angel Samael
came to Eve in the night and seduced her, and she conceived Cain. Later, while Eve was
pregnant by the angel, Adam came to her, and she conceived Abel.
Others say it was the serpent himself who seduced Eve, for after he saw Adam and Eve
coupling, the serpent conceived a passion for her. He even imagined killing Adam and marrying
Eve. So he came to Eve when she was alone and possessed her and infused her with
lust. That is how the serpent fathered Cain, who was later to slay his own brother. And that is
how Eve was infected with his impurity. As a result, all of Israel was impure from that time
until the Torah was given on Mount Sinai. Only then did Israel’s impurity cease.
When Cain was born, Adam knew at once that he was not of his seed, for he was not
after his likeness, nor after his image. Instead, Cain’s appearance was that of a heavenly
being. And when Eve saw that his appearance was not of this world, she said, I have
gained a male child with the help of Yahweh (Gen. 4:1).
It was not until the birth of Seth that Adam had a son who was in his own likeness and
image. From Seth arose all of the generations of the righteous, while all the generations
that descended from the seed of Cain are wicked, until this very day.
This myth is a response to the enigmatic verse in which Eve says, I have gotten a man
with the aid of Yahweh (Gen. 4:1). Targum Pseudo-Yonathan translates this verse as “I
have acquired a man, the angel of the Lord.”
One reading of this verse in the Talmud (B. Shab. 146a) suggests that Eve had intercourse
with the serpent: “When the serpent consorted with Eve, he cast impurity into
her.” This interpretation is echoed in the Zohar: “From the impurity with which the
serpent infected Eve emerged Cain.” Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer builds on the talmudic interpretation,
but changes it in an essential way. Here the true father of Cain is the
angel Samael, who came to Eve riding on the serpent. Indeed, in this passage the
angel and serpent are closely linked, creating a satanic figure and suggesting that Eve
had intercourse with the serpent, a powerful phallic symbol.
In Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, the Torah upbraids Samael as he rides upon the serpent
like a camel: “The Torah began to cry aloud, saying, ‘Why, O Samael, now that the
world is created, is it time to rebel against God? Is this the time to lift yourself on
high? God will laugh at the horse and its rider.’” This establishes the role of the Torah
as the defender of the human race against the evil intentions of Samael.
Zohar 1:36b explains that two came upon Eve, the serpent and Adam, and that she
became pregnant from both of them, and bore two sons. The son of the serpent is, of
course, Cain. In order to explain why Cain was evil and Abel was good, Zohar 1:54a
explains that Cain was conceived from the side of unholiness and Abel from the side
of holiness. As a result, Abel was in the likeness of God’s image, as stated in the verse
And God created man in His image (Gen. 1:27). But Cain was of the likeness of the nether
image. Just what this is isn’t clear, although one commentary, Ziv ha-Zohar, identifies
the nether image as that of an ape. Because Cain was from the side of the Angel of
Death (another possible explanation of the “nether image”), he killed his brother.
The idea that Eve was infected by the impurity of the serpent when she had intercourse
with it attempts to portray women as not only impure, but also untrustworthy. It
is part of an extensive antifeminine bias found in some rabbinic texts. However, in other
texts, Eve is portrayed in a very favorable manner. She is regarded as the mother of all
generations, and she is called a life-giver, who nursed the whole world (B. AZ 43a).
The serpent of Genesis becomes transformed in kabbalah into a principle of evil,
the primal serpent who makes its home in the darkness of the Sitra Ahra, the Other
Side. It is a serpent by the road, a viper by the path (Gen. 49:17). It comes down from
above, swims across bitter waters, and descends in order to deceive, lying in wait to
ambush mankind with sins. The Sitra Ahra is the realm of evil. It is said to be ruled by
Samael and Lilith. The primal or primordial serpent is an archetype of evil, based
upon the serpent in the Garden of Eden. In this realm it functions as a force of evil, an
exaggerated version of the Yetzer ha-Ra, the Evil Impulse in every person. Here this
impulse is understood to be an underlying principle in the concept of an evil realm.
Evil, however, flourishes only in the absence of good. The Zohar describes this serpent
as “eternal death, on the left side, that enters into a man’s innermost secret parts”
See the closely related myth, “The Seed of Cain,” p. 448. For a Hasidic tale about
the primal serpent, see “Reb Shmelke’s Whip” in Gabriel’s Palace, p. 226.
Targum Pseudo-Yonathan on Genesis 4:1; B. Shabbat 145b-146a; B. Sota 9b; B. Yevamot
103b; B. Avodah Zarah 22b; Genesis Rabbah 18:6; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 13, 21, and
22; Zohar 1:28b, 1:36b-137a, 1:54a, 1:55a; 1:243b, 2:52a; Magen Avot 53.
581. THE STAR MAIDEN
When the generation of the Flood went astray, God began to regret having created humans.
Then two angels, Shemhazai and Azazel, reminded God that they had opposed
the creation of humans, saying, What is man, that You have been mindful of him? (Ps. 8:5).
God replied: “Those who dwell on earth are subject to the Evil Inclination. Even you
would be overpowered by it.” But the angels protested, saying: “Let us descend to the
world of humans, and let us show You how we will sanctify Your name.” And God said:
“Go down and dwell among them.”
So the two angels descended to earth, where they were certain they could resist the
power of the Evil Inclination. But as soon as they saw how beautiful were the daughters
of men, they forgot their vows and took lovers from among them, even though they were
defiling their own pure essence. So too did they teach them secrets of how to entice men,
as well as the dark arts of sorcery, incantations, and the divining of roots.
Then the two angels decided to select brides for themselves from among the daughters
of men. Azazel desired Na’amah, the sister of Tubal-Cain, the most beautiful woman
on earth. But there was another beautiful maiden, Istahar, the last of the virgins, whom
Shemhazai desired, and she refused him. This made him want her all the more.
“I am an angel,” he revealed to her, “you cannot refuse me.”
“I will not give in to you,” Istahar replied, “unless you teach me God’s Ineffable Name.”
“That I cannot do,” Shemhazai replied, “for it is a secret of heaven.”
“Why should I believe you?” said Istahar. “Perhaps you don’t know it at all. Perhaps
you are not really an angel.”
“Of course I know it,” said Shemhazai, and he revealed God’s Name.
Now as soon as she heard the holy Name, Istahar pronounced it and flew up into the
heavens, escaping the angel. And when God saw this, He said: “Because she removed
herself from sin, let Istahar be set among the stars.” And Istahar was transformed into a
star, one of the brightest in the sky. And when Shemhazai saw this, he recognized God’s
rebuke of his sin and repented, hanging himself upside down between heaven and earth.
But Azazel refused to repent, and God hung him upside down in a canyon, bound in
chains, where he remains to this day. That is why a scapegoat is sent to Azazel on Yom
Kippur, the Day of Atonement, bearing the sins of Israel.
Others say that when the two angels, Shemhazai and Azazel, came down to earth, they
were still innocent. But they were corrupted by the demonesses Na’amah and Lilith. The
children they bore were the giants of old, known as the Nefilim, or Fallen Ones. They bore
six children at each birth, and in that very hour their offspring stood up, spoke the holy
language, and danced before them like sheep. There were said to be sixty in all. These
giants had such great appetites that God rained manna on them in many different flavors,
so that they might not eat flesh. But the Fallen Ones rejected the manna, slaughtered animals,
and even dined on human flesh.
Still others say that the offspring of the fallen angels were tall and handsome, and had
greater strength than all the children of men. Because of the heavenly origin of their
fathers, they are referred to as “the children of heaven.”
The primary mystery of Genesis 6 is the identity of the Sons of God. Anthropologists
have suggested that they may have been a tribe of exceptionally tall and handsome
men who appeared and were irresistible to women. But the ancient rabbis were
certain that the Sons of God were angels, although an alternate version in Aggadat
Bereshit identifies them as the Sons of Cain. As a model, the rabbis drew on the prologue
to Job, where God and Satan agree to test Job to see if he is truly righteous. Here
God has a dialogue in heaven with two angels, Shemhazai and Azazel, who condemn
the corrupt ways of men. God argues that if they lived on earth they would behave
the same way, because everyone on earth is subject to the Yetzer ha-Ra, the Evil Inclination.
The angels insist that they would remain righteous, and they convince God to let
them descend to earth (in some versions, by Jacob’s ladder). When they do, they are
immediately filled with lust for the beautiful daughters of men, and use their heavenly
powers to satisfy their desires. And the offspring of these unions are described as
the Nefilim, which has been interpreted to mean giants. Thus the account in Genesis 6
also provides the origin of giants.
In some versions of this myth, the two angels end up coming down to earth not to
demonstrate their ability to resist the Evil Inclination, but because God cast them out
of heaven for opposing the creation of man. According to Zohar Hadash, Ruth 81a, the
angels acquired human form as they descended from on high. When they mated with
human women, the “daughters of men,” their offspring were the Nefilim in Genesis
6:4, which literally means “fallen beings.”
There are many variants of the story of the two angels from a wide range of sources,
including The Book of Enoch (1 Enoch) and Yalkut Shim’oni. The best-known of these
stories concerns two maidens, Istahar and Na’amah, whom the two angels sought to
Note that this story, with its fairy-tale quality, manages to explain who the Sons of
God were, how they brought corruption to the earth, and the origin of giants. The
story also demonstrates that no one, not even angels, is immune to the Evil Impulse.
Indeed, so corrupt did the angels become, that it is said that in the end they indiscriminately
enjoyed virgins, married women, men, and beasts. The Sons of God are
also blamed for having invented the use of ornaments, rouge, and multicolored garments
to make women more enticing. The daughters of men are identified as the children
of Seth, Adam’s son, and therefore are human (Zohar 1:37a). The heroine of the
story is, of course, Istahar, the virgin who resisted the advances of Shemhazai, and
was turned into a star. Istahar is a variant name for the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar,
who was equated with the planet Venus, the brightest star. As for Na’amah, the young
woman who is said to have overwhelmed Azazel with her beauty, she is identified as
the sister of Tubal-Cain. In later legends, Na’amah is also identified as a sister or daughter
In most versions of this myth, Istahar demands to be told God’s secret Name, the
Tetragrammaton (YHVH). But in one alternate version in Beit ha-Midrash 5:156, which,
because it mutes the sexual elements of the story, might be described as a midrash for
children, she demands that he let her try on his wings. At first he denies that his wings
come off, but when she insists, he takes them off and lets her put them on and at that
moment she flies off into heaven and is transformed into a star.
In later versions of this legend, the role of Shemhazai is diminished, while the role of
Azazel is expanded, until Azazel is virtually identified with Satan. Ultimately, it is
Shemhazai who repents and Azazel who does not. This leads to subsequent legends
about the evil-doings of Azazel. According to Yalkut Shim’oni, Istahar became a star set
among the seven stars of the Pleiades, while Shemhazai, hung upside down between
heaven and earth, became the constellation Orion. Thus this myth may also be viewed
from an astrological perspective as the origin of the constellations Pleiades and Orion.
There are strong echoes of Greek mythology in the myth of the Sons of God and
daughters of men. In bringing heavenly secrets to earth, the Sons of God function
much as does Prometheus when he steals fire from heaven and brings it to earth. For
more on Prometheus stealing fire from heaven see Graves, The Greek Myths, 39g. There
is also a strong parallel to the fate of Istahar in the story of Zeus setting Callisto’s
image among the stars. See Graves, The Greek Myths, 22h. See also “Adam Brings Down
Fire from Heaven,” p. 137.
Targum Pseudo-Yonathan on Genesis 6:1-4; Yalkut Shim’oni, Bereshit 44; Midrash Avkir
in Beit ha-Midrash, 4:127-128; The Book of Jubilees 4:15, 4:22, 5:1-3; 1 Enoch 6:14;
Bereshit Rabbati 29-30; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 22; Zohar 1:37a; Zohar Hadash, Ruth
81a; IFA 10856.
604. THE CITY OF LUZ
The natives of the city of Luz are spared the dangers that confront all other human beings.
The histories of the city, reaching back for centuries, are filled with every detail of
learning and life. Yet these same histories, though complete, do not record a single war, a
single flood or fire, nor the death of a single person. For so safe are the citizens while they
live inside the city, even the Angel of Death can do them no harm.
Some say Luz is so safe because it was built on the spot where Jacob had the dream of
the ladder reaching from earth into heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it.
Others say that the Holy One set aside Luz after the Fall of Adam and Eve, to preserve
one boundary in this world that the Angel of Death could not cross. In any case, not even
the armies of Nebuchadnezzar could disturb the city. Nor do the people suffer from internal
strife. For all who are born inside the city have their names inscribed in the Book of
The precious dye known as tekhelet was made in this city. The Torah commands that
this dye be used in dyeing a thread of the fringes of the tallit (prayer shawl). But no one
knew how the dye was made, or whether it was derived from a snail or shellfish. This
dye was said to be available in the city of Luz, but no one knew how to get there. King
David is said to make his home there, thereby avoiding death for all time. That is why
Jews sing a famous song with words that mean “King David is alive” (David melekh Yisrael
hai ve-kayyam). After learning that Jews sang such a song about King David, the Turkish
sultan accused them of obeying King David instead of him. He demanded a gift from
King David, one that only King David could give him. Messengers were sent on a quest
to the city of Luz. Then reached it through one of the caves that lead directly to the Holy
Land, discovered the secret entrance, and found King David in the city, who rewarded
them with an apple from the Tree of Life. This apple later saved the sultan’s daughter
from a sleeping sickness, and the Jews of the community were suitably rewarded.
The walls that surrounded the city of Luz had no apparent entrance, since the city
would otherwise have been deluged by those seeking eternal life. But there was an almond
(luz) tree that stood before the gates, from which the city is said to have taken its
name, with a hollow trunk, which led to a secret cave that passed beneath the walls and
emerged inside the city. It was this exit that the inhabitants of Luz had to take if they
chose to depart from the city.
Yet despite their safety and the great blessing of immortality, there was one mystery
that absorbed the wise men at night, and one source of sadness that caused the families
to suffer from time to time. For in the course of a life it always happened that very old
people would take leave of their families and walk off alone, to make their way into the
world outside the walls of the city.
Why would anyone, young or old, choose to abandon such a city? And why did these
wanderers never come back? Some are believed to have grown tired of living, others to
have been called by an angel to another place. But when they passed through the hollow
trunk and reentered the mortal world, they are said to have found the Angel of Death
waiting there to take their lives and bury them in the fields beyond the walls.
The earliest references to the city of Luz appears in Genesis 28:19: And he called the
name of that place Beth El, but the name of the city was Luz at first. Thus Luz is identified
with the place where Jacob had his famous dream of the ladder with angels ascending
and descending. What was so special about this place? The myth grew up that it was
the location of a city of immortals, and all who entered there were spared the Angel of
The commandment for the use of the blue dye (tekhelet) derives from Numbers
This legend of a city of immortals is unique in Jewish literature, although the notion
of a boundary that the Angel of Death cannot cross appears in the Zohar (4:151a),
referring to the Land of Israel as a whole rather than to the city of Luz: “It is the
Destroying Angel who brings death to all people, except those who die in the Holy
Land, to whom death comes by the Angel of Mercy, who holds sway there.” The various
strata of legend concerning the city of Luz can all be found in this tale, which
offers an opportunity to study the legendary evolution of a text. It is possible to observe
the expansion of the myth of Luz in the Talmud, B. Sota 46b, and further embellishment
is found in Genesis Rabbah 69:8. In such a case, each given detail becomes
exceptionally significant. Since the literal meaning of luz is an almond tree, the motif
of the tree is drawn upon, and it is said to have been placed at the entrance of the city.
Then the development is taken a step further, embellishing the role of the tree: “This
tree was hollow, and through it one entered the cave and through the cave the city”
(Genesis Rabbah 69:8).
The origin of the immortal nature of the city of Luz is also linked to the bone at the
bottom of the spine known as the luz bone, which survives longer than any other part
of the body.
The legend of the city of Luz is the source of the legend of Shangri-La found in
James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon. Those who left Shangri-La immediately turned old
and gray, just as those who departed from the city of Luz immediately encountered
the Angel of Death. For another tale about the city of Luz, see the following story, “An
Appointment with Death.”
B. Sota 46b; Genesis Rabbah 69:8; Dos Buch fun Nisyoynes.