Lamech: A small story about a small man with big ideas of himself
Story Found in: Genesis 4:18-24
Summary of the story: A descendant of Cain kills someone and then usurps God's grace. In this story, Moses begins to show some of humanity's unpleasantness. First: he explores humanity's evil heart and humanity's need to find itself guiltless. The Bible is a divinely cynical book. It is especially cynical about religious people and people who consider themselves holier and better than others. The Lamech story also depicts humanity's habit of self-glorifying, emulating bad people and rationalizing away guilt. Lamech is the first human who uses "religion" in order to appear special.
Lamech's small story shows many powerful but distasteful truths about human nature. The story is told quickly and much is left out. We don't know much about Lamech. The details of the murder is lacking. We know a killing occurred but all we have is Lamech's side of the story. Different translations of Lamech's words will lead to different ideas of Lamech's motives. Either he is a coward, a braggart, or a God-fearing prophet of God's grace.
The story begins with a description of Lamech's family. They were traditional farmers and keepers of animals. But they were also a creative family. If the names of the people involved in Lamech's family were all translated into English, the verses would read as follows: "The disciple of God married Dawn and Shade. And Dawn gave birth to Shepherd, who tended flocks and his brother Musician. Shade gave birth to Blacksmith, who worked with iron and brass and his sister Beautiful." This would be a wonderful symbolic story of the development of civilization. But there is that nasty murder to deal with.
(A small aside here: While reading the story of Lamech, we get a little phrase about Naamah, Lamech's sister. Her children aren't mentioned, but she is. It's interesting to note that the long list of generations rarely includes a woman simply to include her. But here we have Naamah. Jewish tradition says that she was the wife of Noah. But on to our Lamech story.)
Lamech is the first Bible person (that we know of) with two wives. Is this a clue to his personality? God had ordained monogamy. Does this imply Lamech has a grasping personality? Was this man so enslaved to his emotions that he was unable to stay within God's proscribed limits and have only one wife? Lamech is also the second (recorded) murderer in Biblical history. But what makes Lamech's murder so distinctive is that he is the first Biblical character to use God's grace as a defensive tactic.
As the story goes, Lamech comes home one day with news for his wives. According to the Contemporary English Version, Lamech said, "Today a young man wounded me and I killed him." The King James Version makes Lamech seem more boastful. The KJV translators translate Lamech's words as a boastful proclamation: "Listen, o wives of Lamech. Today I killed someone to my wounding." The CEV translation seems to be saying, I killed a man in self-defense. But the average reader of the King James Version would assume that the verse means, "I killed a man and this is wounding me." Even more annoying, the Hebrew version isn't anymore clearer. Scholars have disagreed over the actual meaning of the Hebrew text for centuries.
We don't quite know what the "wound" was: a physical attack or an attack to his ego. The reader has to decide. Is Lamech boasting that he has killed someone who hurt his ego? Or is he claiming self-defense? Or is he saying that the death of this young man will be destructive to him in the community?
Whatever the case, Lamech reminds his wives that God promised to avenged Cain if anyone killed Cain in vengeance for Abel's death. Then he proceeds to add that since Cain would be avenged seven times, then God would avenge Lamech's punishment seventy-seven times. Interesting, uh? Lamech is warning would-be avengers, vigilantes, or upholders of the law, that God is on his side. But is God really on Lamech's side? Of course, your opinion of Lamech's declaration depends on your idea of what you think really went on. It also depends on how religious you think Lamech really is.
Granted, Lamech lived in wicked times. Either he killed the young man in self-defense or he did not. We know nothing of the earth's second murder victim. We know he was young. But that is about all. Young men have "wounded" older men for as long as we can remember. Bruised emotions and crimes of passion are part of human history. But are they causes for murder? I have my own feelings on the matter. And you will have your opinion too. But my gut feeling is that Lamech is an insecure little man who killed the "young man" because the young man said something that offended Lamech's masculine ego. This is partly my knowledge of human nature and my observation that Lamech seems to be a small man with a mania for greatness. Everyone else has one wife; Lamech has two. Cain is avenged seven times; Lamech is avenged seventy times seven. Lamech is the world's first egomaniac.
Some people might take the other tack: that Lamech is a prophet of God who understood God's grace. But nowhere do we get an inkling that before the murder Lamech had even the faintest relationship with God. His name is a religious name which means "trained of God." But a religious name doesn't imply a religious person. And many people in his time had names with religious implications. This is not to say that religious people don't murder. You will meet a lot of religious murderers in the Bible. And after all, Cain was religious and a murderer. But even if we were to believe that Lamech is religious, we still have a problem with Lamech using God's name to save his skin. His "religion" seems suspect.
Lamech's "prophesy" of God's future behavior towards him shows that Lamech is aware of the graciousness God showed to his ancestor, Cain. Apparently, this story of God's graciousness had made its way through Cain's descendants. What started out as a symbol of God's grace became a twisted heretical badge of courage. The family history loomed larger and larger until the extent of Cain's crime was forgotten. All that was left was selfish family history boasting about its greatness. Even worse, Lamech usurped God's grace without consulting God first. Not once do we hear him having a conversation with God.
This is nothing new to Christians today. People are always using religion and God's goodness to rationalize away their crimes. Moses story of Lamech shows us that God's gracious forgiveness can be used in an extremely ungodly way: to get out of a murder charge. As we continue reading Moses books, we will see how Moses continues to show how people --including God's own peopleó often use God's grace in a selfish way.
This is one of the first times in the Bible where we are shown how people react to God's grace. We begin to understand that Grace is always being attacked from two sides. On the one hand, there are people like Cain, who believe that God can best be reached through perfect works of the law, ceremonies and rites, and wisdom. They pay lip service to the notion that no one is like God and no one is perfect; yet they still continue to compare spirituality with other people. Their continuous spiritual comparing makes them strive towards an outward spirituality that breeds a hatred and jealousy of other "good" people. That was Cain. But at the other extreme, people like Lamech take advantage of God's grace and turn the grace of God into lasciviousness. They say "God is love" and rationalize away the enormity of their crime.
The Lamech story also warns us to be careful about emulating or identify with the wrong people. Lamech so identified with Cain, his family ancestor, he even included Cain's name in the name of one of his children. Such is the effect of ancestor worship and identifying with our great ancestors! When we compare Cain's homicide with Lamech's, we see several differences. Cain slew his brother because of a religious dispute. Lamech killed because of a personal affront. Cain was filled with the fear of punishment. Lamech had no such fear. A human's death was new to Cain. Lamech had lived long enough to know a thing or two about humanity's ability to die. But all this is lost on Lamech.
Lamech's need to make himself notorious and famous shows humanity's perverse need for self-glory. Think of copy-cat school killings. An isolated, alienated or angry child gets hold of a gun and murders his schoolmates. Another isolated child sees the newscast and so identifies with the notoriety of the first child's "glory" that another mass killing soon takes place. But does the child who sees the murderous acts of other children on TV also identify with the punishment that the other child is given? Here, Lamech identifies with Cain's anger and Cain's "mark." He identifies with Cain's glory. But he doesn't identify with Cain's remorse at all.
I want to return again to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden. After God finds the shamed couple hiding in the garden, He tells Adam, Eve and the serpent their futures. Then he expels the pair from the garden. Those who argue that this "masculine" God is unfriendly and bossy believe that the expulsion from the garden is another sign of the patriarchal God's punitive nature. But is God really being nasty and pushy when he sends Adam and Eve from the garden? We aren't sure at this point. In the story of Lamech. now, we see that God does not punish Lamech. In fact, He does not punish Cain.
Certainly, if this were an hateful tyrannical being, He would've killed Cain then and there. Humanity will always judge God. Some people will find fault in His mercy --"Why do the guilty go unpunished?" And others will find fault when He allows mankind to suffer the consequences of its action. The question is this? As always, humanity falls back on the original sin: "It continually judges God as not being worthy of his Godhood." Not only do humans say, "Hath God said?" But we also say, "Such and such an action of God's does not seem right in our eyes."
Perhaps the most important lesson in Lamech's story is that like many people today, he glories in what should be his shame. Lamech knew that Cain's sin made Cain special. Therefore Lamech becomes a great sinner, and paradoxically his sin makes him --in his own mind at least-- a great friend of God. This tendency of human beings to glorify their actions is seen throughout Scripture. It turns up next in the story of the Tower of Babel.
Questions to ponder:
1.Have you ever been tempted to roll you eyes when someone immediately dismisses a past sin?
2. How can we know when we are taking advantage of God's grace?
3. If Lamech were truly saved, could you accept his easy co-opting of God's forgiveness? Why? Why not?
4. Do you want baddies to feel guilty for a while at least? Pay recompense?
5. Do you look at new Christians always remembering their past sins?
6. Have you ever sinned knowlingly knowing that God is so good He'll forgive you anyway?