Lemekh and His Wives in Art


The character of Lemekh appears in Tanakh only briefly, relaying an enigmatic speech to his wives which hints to a murder, but does not elaborate further.  The four artworks displayed here, the engraving by Alexander Master,1 the woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld,2 the painting by William Blake,3 and the miniature from the Speculum Humanæ Salvationis4  all depict the event. The portrayals differ in almost every detail, from the choice of characters included, to the emotions they express and the actions they commit.  The variety reflects the many different ways the story has been understood.

Contrasting Images

Alexander Master

Alexander Master depicts Lemekh as a hunter.  He stands to the viewer's left, holding his bow and arrow, aiming to shoot.  Near him a young boy lies face down on the ground, while a second man lies a bit further away with an arrow through his heart.  This Lemekh's emotions are hard to read, and contain neither signs of despair nor of pride.


Schnorr's Lemekh stands in stark contrast to that of Blake.  He is not tormented and distraught, but rather proud and defiant.  He runs home to his waiting wives and family, his bloody sword raised in a sign of victory.  They look up at him with admiration.


Blake's image is full of pathos, with a grief-stricken Lemekh taking center stage.  Lemekh pulls his hair in anguish as he looks at the dead body sprawled on the floor by his feet.


This depiction differs from the others in that it contains no hints of violence on the part of Lemekh at all, no sword and no dead bodies.  Instead, a somewhat foolish-looking Lemekh stands in between his two wives, who raise their fists at him and pull on his hair.  Lemekh lifts his hands as if to say, "enough, what do you want from me?"

Relationship to the Biblical Text

The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:

How Many Dead Bodies?

While Alexander Master depicts two dead bodies, and Blake includes just one, Schnorr and the Speculum do not portray any at all.5  Which choice is most supported by the Biblical text?  Lemekh's words, "כִּי אִישׁ הָרַגְתִּי לְפִצְעִי וְיֶלֶד לְחַבֻּרָתִי" are ambiguous.  Taken literally, one might assume that both a child and older man were killed,6 but it is also possible that the two halves of the verse are simply poetically parallel and speak of but one victim.7 Alternatively, Lemekh's words do not constitute a statement at all but rather a rhetorical question, "Have I killed a man...", in which case there should be no deaths to view.8

Boast or Lament?

Blake's Lemekh is dismayed at his actions, whereas Schnorr's figure seems proud, and happy to share his feat.  What was the Biblical Lemekh feeling?  Again the text is ambiguous, and depends both on how one interprets the phrases "לְפִצְעִי" and "לְחַבֻּרָתִי" and what tone one ascribes to Lemekh's words. Thus, for example, SfornoBereshit 4:23About R. Ovadyah Sforno reads Lemekh as expressing sincere regret and explains that he is telling his wives, "I have killed a man and it will be a wound to me" (I will always hurt for my deed).  Ibn KaspiBereshit 4:23About R. Yosef ibn Kaspi, in contrast, asserts that Lemekh is boasting to his wives that to retaliate for a mere bruise, he has killed a man. For elaboration, see Lemekh's Monologue.

Lemekh's Wives

Tanakh only presents Lemekh's monologue, leaving his wives' reaction to the reader's imagination.  Interestingly, the Speculum portrays them as tormenting their husband. Where might such a depiction be coming from? Various commentator's readings of the story might provide a clue. The TanchumaBereshit 11About the Tanchuma suggests that Lemekh had killed his own relatives, his ancestor, Kayin, and his son, Tuval Kayin.  As such, the angry reaction of his wives might be expected.  According to R. Yosef KaraBereshit 4:23About R. Yosef Kara and ShadalBereshit 4:23About R. Shemuel David Luzzatto, in contrast, Lemekh is reacting to his wives and not vice versa.  Due to their constant harassment, he questions why he deserves such a fate if he is an innocent man, never having killed another. For elaboration, see Lemekh's Monologue.

Murder Weapon

Schnorr depicts Lemekh wielding a sword while Alexander Master accouters him with a bow and arrow. Blake's image, in contrast, shows no weapon at all.  Here, too, Tanakh is not explicit. When Lemekh says, "אִישׁ הָרַגְתִּי לְפִצְעִי וְיֶלֶד לְחַבֻּרָתִי" is he speaking of the motivation for the murder or the method thereof?  CassutoBereshit 4:23About Prof. Umberto Cassuto suggests the latter, asserting that Lemekh killed the man by just bruising or wounding him, using no weapon at all.  Alternatively, the context of the verses, the creation of metallurgy, might suggest that actually weapons had just been invented, and the killing was done via sword or the like.