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The man of excess

Genesis 4:18-24 tells the brief history of Lamech, one of the descendants of Cain.  Genesis is the book of beginnings, so its theme is a recounting of quite a few first things.  One of the “first things” presented is polygamy, as Lamech procured two wives for himself.

Lamech’s son Tubal-cain is another first, the inventor of metallurgy, and what follows this discovery is a bit mysterious but instructive once unpacked.  Lamech explains it in the first poem which is also the first riddle, here rendered for you in the English Standard Version:

Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold,
then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.

Here’s what shakes out:  It seems Lamech had killed a young man in revenge for some kind injury.  Since the immediate context is the invention of metallurgy, some interpreters conclude that Lamech’s son used his newly produced metals to make a weapon, likely a sword, and Lamech used this weapon to avenge himself of an injury.  The vengeance was overdone.  So the man with two women has a son whose devices are quickly converted into weapons used to kill a neighbor.  He then vindicates himself, defying God’s justice because Cain had commited a worse crime and was lightly punished.

When it was over, Lamech was sorry about the deed but justified himself on two counts, first by the fact that he was regretful and second by the fact that the deed was an act of retribution.  Contrast this with Cain, the first murderer, and you can see that neither was true of his crime.  Cain wasn’t sorry about it, and his victim was innocent of everything except honoring God.  Thus, in Lamech’s mind, this made him better Cain who had gotten off really easy.

And yet the whole thing comes off as the first lame excuse:  An apology does not atone for murder, and an injury does not justify lethal retaliation.

As the whole picture comes together, a pattern emerges striking for its modernity:  The Secular Man’s life is one of excess in both sex and violence, involves no genuine attempt to put things right, and his conscience is stone cold dead to God.  When matters come to this state, divine justice does something final.  The line of Cain’s people is never mentioned again in Scripture, and when the Flood came, the nameless heirs to this disgrace were destroyed to the last man.  This presents a clear picture of the destiny of a world that devotes itself alernately to either lust or destruction and refuses to acknowledge its Creator.

“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
24(Q) If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold,
then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.”

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