The ambiguity of Lemekh's words allows for a wide spectrum of opinions with regard to both Lemekh's character and the purpose of the story as a whole. Cassuto reads Lemekh as a negative figure who is so degenerate that he brags about an act of murder. The story is thus seen as exemplifying society's deterioration and the sweeping violence that necessitated its obliteration via the Flood. In contrast, Tanchuma and others present Lemekh as the unintentional killer of Kayin. The story thus serves as closure to the Kayin narratives and proof that justice is ultimately served. Finally, others suggest that Lemekh was not a killer at all, but rather simply a frustrated husband (R. Yosef Kara) or a father ready to protect himself and his family from violence.
The various reads of the story raise important issues ranging from the power of repentance and the value of human life to the dangers of polygamy. They also lead the reader to question whether technological advances further society and to consider the factors which can lead humanity into cycles of violence.
Lemekh was gloating to his wives about his murderous actions.
Lemekh's tone – According to this approach, Lemekh is boastful. Rather than hiding the fact that he killed, he is proud of his deed.
Purpose and context – Cassuto asserts that the story follows the description of the material inventions of Kayin's descendants to highlight how, despite the technological advances, civilization had not progressed on an ethical plane. The story thus serves to introduce the Flood narrative and explain Hashem's decision to destroy the world. Lemekh was a living proof of the continued deterioration of a society2 which prided itself on its violence and a symbol of the need for the renewal of civilization.
Why did Lemekh bother to tell his wives? Lemekh was so debased that he was not ashamed of his act, but was rather so pleased with his capabilities that he wanted to share his feat with his wives.
Who are the "אִישׁ" and "יֶלֶד"? Cassuto asserts that the victim is not named because the specific individual killed was not important, but only the fact that he was an "אִישׁ" or "יֶלֶד". He suggests that both terms connote a man full of vigor3 and that Lemekh was priding himself on his ability to kill a man of strength.
What are "לְפִצְעִי" and "לְחַבֻּרָתִי"?
Motivation for attack – According to Ibn Kaspi, these terms mean "for a wound/injury". Lemekh is claiming that he had been wounded by his victim and that he killed him in retaliation.4
Mode of attack – Cassuto, instead, understands that the verse describes the mode of Lemekh's attack. He inflicted a fatal wound on his victim and boasted to his wives that he was able to kill a man with a single punch.
Comparison to Kayin / Kayin's killer – According to Cassuto, Lemekh is bragging that while Hashem promised to avenge the killer of Kayin sevenfold, Lemekh himself will avenge anyone who attempts to harm him, seventy-seven times.
Lemekh was expressing regret over an unintentional murder and/or attempting to defend himself for his unwitting action.
Sincere regret – R. Saadia, Seforno, and HaKetav VeHaKabbalah assume that Lemekh's cry "כִּי אִישׁ הָרַגְתִּי לְפִצְעִי" is a sincere expression of regret over his unintentional killing.
Self justification – Tanchuma and Rashi assert that Lemekh is defending his actions and attempting to explain to his wives why he does not deserve a punishment. According to this position, Lemekh's words are actually a rhetorical question:7 "Did I kill a man and a child intentionally (that I deserve punishment)?"8
Who are the "אִישׁ" and "יֶלֶד"?
Kayin and Tuval Kayin – Rashi, Abarbanel, and Seforno all follow the Tanchuma in suggesting that Lemekh killed his ancestor Kayin (the "אִישׁ") and his son Tuval Kayin (the "יֶלֶד").9
Anonymous – According to R. Saadia, Netziv, and R. D"Z Hoffmann, Lemekh killed an unidentified man and child.10
Lemekh's wife and potential future progeny – HaKetav VeHaKabbalah explains that Lemekh gave his wife a potion which rendered her unable to have children. By doing so, it was as if he had killed off both his wife (the "אִישׁ")11 who was now barren (and considered as if dead) and any future children (the יֶלֶד"").
Purpose and context
Conclusion to Kayin narrative – According to those who assume that Kayin was the person killed by Lemekh,12 the story might be coming to show how in the end justice was done and Kayin was ultimately punished for his murder.
Introduction to violence of Flood generation – According to R. D"Z Hoffmann, the incident introduces the corruption of Kayin's descendants and their gradual movement away from Hashem. Although the people are not yet described as completely violent, they are heading in that direction, as evidenced by even an unintentional murder.13
Power of repentance – HaKetav VeHaKabbalah learns from the story the virtue of repenting for one's bad deeds. Since Lemekh regretted what he did, he merited having sons who invented tools for many constructive purposes.
Why did Lemekh bother to tell his wives?
Refused to have relations – According to Tanchuma and those who follow its lead, Lemekh's words are a reaction to his wives' refusal to have relations with him, due to his inadvertent killing. His speech is an attempt to justify his actions so they can resume marital life.
Apology – R. D"Z Hoffmann points out more simply that if Lemekh killed his son (or another close relative), his wives were understandably upset and and thus Lemekh felt the need to explain and apologize.
Need for comfort – Alternatively, as the Netziv suggests, regardless of whom Lemekh killed, he was upset and wanted his wives to comfort him.
What are "לְפִצְעִי" and "לְחַבֻּרָתִי"?
Cause of death – R. Hoffmann explains the phrase to mean "due to a wound". He asserts that Lemekh was defending himself, claiming that he intended only to wound the people and not to kill them.
Punishment of Lemekh – Abarbanel posits that Lemekh is emphasizing to his wives that he is the only one who will suffer the punishment for killing the people, not them.14 Seforno alternatively asserts that Lemekh cries out that by killing his ancestor and son, he wounded himself. Both would translate the verse as: "I killed a man, and it is a wound to me."
Guilt of Lemekh – Rashi, following Tanchuma,15 understands Lemekh's defense as: "Did I kill a man intentionally, that the wound should be considered mine (i.e. that I should be held accountable)?"16
Comparison to Kayin / Kayin's killer – These commentators disagree over whether the comparison was meant to minimize or maximize Lemekh's responsibility,17 and whether Lemekh is comparing himself to Kayin or to Kayin's killer
Suspended sentence even for Kayin – Tanchuma and Rashi assert that Lemekh was drawing a comparison to Kayin himself to show that if Kayin was given only a suspended punishment after intentional murder, Lemekh would surely be granted an even longer stay since his actions were unintentional.
Punishment even for Kayin's killer – According to Netziv and R. Hoffmann, Lemekh is saying that if Kayin's killer deserved a sevenfold punishment despite the fact that his victim (Kayin) had committed homicide, Lemekh's murderer would deserve even greater retribution as Lemekh was less culpable.
Greater conscience pangs than Kayin – Seforno suggests that Lemekh is saying that his conscience will be plagued by his misdeed forever, suffering for his action much more than Kayin did for his.18
More innocent victim than Kayin's killer – R. Saadia Gaon and HaKetav VeHaKabbalah contend that Lemekh, in his display of regret, is emphasizing the severity of the punishment he deserves. If a person who killed an intentional murderer such as Kayin was punished sevenfold, Lemekh who killed an innocent child would be deserving of an even worse punishment.
Nobody was Killed
Lemekh did not kill anyone. This position subdivides in its explanations of why his ditty nonetheless makes reference to the killing of people:
Lemekh's mention of murder is actually a rhetorical question, and he is professing his innocence of any such deed. In response to either his wives' fears that he deserves punishment or to their behavior which he views as a punishment, he asks them, "Did I kill a man or child (that I deserve such a fate)?
Reassuring – According to most of these commentators, Lemekh's tone is placating, trying to allay his wives' fears and accusations. The exegetes disagree, though, regarding about what the wives were worried:
Offspring to die – According to Bereshit Rabbah, Rashi, and R"Y Bekhor Shor, Lemekh's wives feared that their offspring would perish in the upcoming flood and thus refused to have relations.20 Alternatively, Ralbag suggests that they thought that any future children, being the seventh generation from Kayin, would be killed as a result of Hashem's words "לָכֵן כָּל הֹרֵג קַיִן שִׁבְעָתַיִם יֻקָּם".21
Lemekh to be punished – Ramban maintains that Lemekh's wives feared that Lemekh would be punished for inventing weapons and thereby bringing bloodshed to the world.22
Frustrated – R. Yosef Kara and Shadal23 assume that Lemekh's tone is one of exasperation; he is irritated either by the noisy quarrels of his wives or by their general unruly behavior.
"אִישׁ הָרַגְתִּי לְפִצְעִי וְיֶלֶד לְחַבֻּרָתִי" – According to all of these commentators, Lemekh's words constitute a rhetorical question, "Did I kill a man or child?" Lemekh questions whether he deserves a punishment, pointing out that he has not killed anyone to deserve such a fate.24
Purpose and context – Bereshit Rabbah, Rashi, and R. Yosef Bekhor Shor all relate the story to the Flood narrative25 which follows, while Ralbag relates it to the preceding story of Kayin's punishment. Ramban offers a third possibility which connects the story to its immediate context, asserting that it describes the direct aftermath of the invention of weapons. None of the commentators offer a satisfactory explanation of why the story is included in the Torah.26
Why did Lemekh bother to tell his wives? According to all of these exegetes, Lemekh's words were a direct response to his wives' actions, either a reaction to their noise or their fears.
Who are the "אִישׁ" and "יֶלֶד"? While many of these commentators do not specify the identities of the "אִישׁ" and "יֶלֶד", Rashi, Ramban, and Ralbag27 suggest that the terms allude to Hevel28 and his murder at the hands of Kayin. According to them, Lemekh is rhetorically asking if he acted like Kayin who killed Hevel. Ramban understands Lemekh to be referencing Kayin's murder to show how people managed to kill even without weapons, while Ralbag has Lemekh explaining to his wives that he does not deserve to be punished for merely being Kayin's descendant.
What are "לְפִצְעִי" and "לְחַבֻּרָתִי"?
The consequence of killing – Bereshit Rabbah asserts that Lemekh is asking if he killed a person that he deserves to be wounded for doing so.
The method of killing – Ramban and Ralbag maintain that Lemekh is claiming that he did not kill a person via a wound as Kayin did, and thus should not be punished.29
Comparison to Kayin / Kayin's killer
Threat that Lemekh's distress will be avenged – R. Yosef Kara and Shadal understand this verse as a warning to Lemekh's wives. He tells them that if Hashem promised to take revenge on the killer of Kayin who had been guilty, all the more so that Hashem would take revenge on those (Adah and Tzillah) who distress the innocent Lemekh.
Proof that Lemekh won't be punished – The other commentators maintain that Lemekh is making an a fortiori argument from Kayin. If Kayin, who killed, was nonetheless granted a reprieve for seven generations, Lemekh, who did not kill, will surely not be punished.
Future Self Defense
Lemekh is boasting not of what he has done, but what he can do. He tells his wives that he no longer needs to fear the surrounding violence since he is now capable of defending himself. With his son Tuval Kayin's newly invented weapons, he will be capable of killing anyone who attempts to harm him.
Lemekh's tone – Lemekh's tone is one of pride. He brags to his wives that he is finally able to fight off the violent men who surround them. According to this position, the word "הָרַגְתִּי" should be read as a future tense.30 Lemekh is boasting not of already having killed a man, but rather of his ability to do so in the future.31
Purpose and context – This approach views the story as providing the background for the upcoming Flood narrative. The violence which ultimately led to the destruction had begun already in Lemekh's time, leading individuals like Lemekh and his family to live in fear. The power of the mighty led those weaker to search for ingenious methods to fight them off and, with the inventions of weapons, they succeeded in finding a tool which was not dependent on strength alone.
Why did Lemekh bother to tell his wives? Lemekh tells his wives so that they will no longer live in fear of the bandits who might attack them.
Who are the "אִישׁ" and "יֶלֶד"? These are anonymous people who might potentially attack Lemekh. This position understands "יֶלֶד" to refer to a youth rather than a young child.32 As such, both terms refer to a person of physical strength.
What are "לְפִצְעִי" and "לְחַבֻּרָתִי"? These would be explained as "for an injury/wound". Lemekh is declaring that he will take revenge for any wound that is inflicted upon him.
Comparison to Kayin / Kayin's killer – Lemekh states that while Hashem promised to punish anyone who killed Kayin, Lemekh will go even further and wreak vengeance merely for bodily harm.