You remember Lamech. Okay, maybe you don’t. Lamech was the seventh and final individual in the fated line of Cain (Gen. 4:18). Concerning him we have this curious passage:
“Lamech said to his wives, ‘Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. 24 If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.’” (Gen. 4:23-24) (NIV)
Most take this to be Lamech’s “boast”. His arrogance is captured well by the NLT Study Bible note, “Lamech’s declaration that anyone who harmed him would receive an even more severe penalty is a claim to be accountable to no one, including God.” (Note on Gen. 4:23-24)
But there is an alternative interpretation of this from a Rabbinic writing (Genesis Rabbah) which I discovered while reading Gary Anderson’s book, Sin: a History (Yale University Press. Winner of the 2010 Christianity Today Book Award in the Biblical Studies category). Genesis Rabbah is a fifth- or sixth-century anthology of midrashic traditions on the book of Genesis. Anderson says the rabbinic readers were puzzled by Lamech’s demand for the attention from his wives. He explains:
“They solved this problem by presuming that his wives had resisted his request for sexual relations. His demand, they felt, was ridiculous in light of the oncoming flood. Why create more humans who would be doomed to drown? Lamech, the rabbis infer, did not answer his wives with a simple declarative sentence, as the Bible assumes (‘I have slain a man for wounding me’). Rather, the rabbis frame Lamech’s remarks as a rhetorical question: ‘Have I slain a man for wounding me?’ The result was a new way of understanding the biblical story. ‘In commenting on this verse [‘Hear my voice; O wives of Lamech . . .’] R. Yose b. Hanina said that [Lamech] had demanded sexual intercourse of his wives. But they said to him, ‘Tomorrow the flood shall come upon us—should we hearken to your voice? Should we produce children for a curse?’ Lamech responded, ‘Have I slain a man for wounding me so that wounds come upon me?’ ‘Or a lad for bruising me so that bruises would come upon me?—By no means! Yet consider the example of Cain—he murdered [Abel], and his punishment was suspended for seven generations. [So would it not be logical that] for me, who did not murder, that punishment would be suspended for seventy-seven generations?’” (Gen. 4:24). Lamech’s point is that if the punishment for Cain’s crime could be put off for seven generations, then his own sins, which were so much lighter, would not be punished until much later.” The rabbis found Lamech’s reasoning faulty. But why?
“The logic of Lamech, the rabbis concluded, is faulty. If this was how the historical process worked, then when could God ever collect what is owned him? The punishment of Cain—or any other criminal for that matter—could be endlessly deferred. According to the metaphor used here, it is assumed that a bond had been written in heaven the moment that Cain murdered his brother and that it was fully within God’s right as holder of that bond to collect repayment. If he chose to postpone it for seven generations, he would collect at that time; it would not be endlessly deferred.” (pp. 98-99)
I am half way through Anderson’s book and Walter Bruggemann’s comments are right on the mark–“astonishing . . . compelling.”
Sin: A History is a paperback with 254 pages and sells for $22.00.
Gary A. Anderson is professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.