The Ballad of Lamech - Thoughts on Genesis 4:23-24

M.C. Hammer was pretty full of himself back when he was famous. Not only did he believe himself to be too legit (assuming that "legit" was something to be aspired to) to quit, he also famously believed that there was some elusive "this" that he uniquely possessed that you (the collective "you," that is) absolutely could not touch. In fact, take a look at a portion of the lyrics from M.C. Hammer's aforementioned breakout single, "U Can't Touch This"-

It feels good, when you know you're down
A super dope homeboy from the Oak town
And I'm known as such
And this is a beat, uh, you can't touch

In the song, he goes on to infer that his music is so good that it can make people sweat, presumably from dancing so much. Yes, M.C. Hammer was quite the boastful songwriter indeed.

I'm not trying to be unfair to M.C. Hammer. He's not the only musician who has made his bones by writing songs about how great he is. In fact, one of the oldest poems in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) is written and performed by a guy who simply can't get over himself.

Lamech, the great-great-great grandson of Cain (the guy who killed his brother, Abel), is the first person in the Old Testament to stumble upon the idea of polygamy. The writer of the book of Genesis makes note of this, introducing us to Lamech by explaining, "Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah" (Gen. 4:19). Like I said, this is the first time one guy allowed himself two wives, so I suppose we can assume that Lamech loved the ladies.

However, what ends up being noteworthy about Lamech is not the fact that he seems to have invented polygamy. No, what is interesting is the method by which he shows off to his little harem. After a sentence or two establishing Lamech's place in the world, the narrator turns it over to the man himself for a little bit of poetry. I'll let Lamech take it from here-

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.
If Cain is avenged seven times,
then Lamech seventy-seven times”
 (Genesis 4:23-24)

Lamech was the original M.C. Hammer. He killed a guy for "wounding" him, and we really don't even know what that means. Did this young guy punch Lamech in the face (because somebody needed to)? Did the young guy steal something from Lamech? Did he insult Lamech in some way, perhaps by defeating him in a dance-off? Nobody knows. All we know is that some young punk "wounded" Lamech, and Lamech took the guy out. And now, he's singing a song to his women, talking about how great he is.

(Please don't misunderstand my comparison to M.C. Hammer. I am not insinuating that Hammer ever killed anyone. I am simply pointing out that he -- like Lamech -- enjoyed singing songs about his own self-described greatness.)

There are a couple of things that are noteworthy about this story. First, Lamech is a blood relative of Cain, who famously was the first murderer in Scripture. Cain's murder victim was not some nameless young man; it was his brother, Abel. After Cain kills Abel, God confronts Cain, saying to him, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground" (Genesis 4:10). In other words, "This person you have killed was just that -- a person. You not only have ended his life, but you have ended all of the lives that might have come after him ("blood cries out")." So, the Lamech narrative reminds us that things are not getting better; in fact, they are getting worse. Not only is Lamech's murder victim unnamed, Lamech is proud of what he has done. At least Cain attempts to hide the fact that he has committed murder (Genesis 4:9). Not only does Lamech not feel shame, he writes a song about it.

The second thing that is noteworthy about this story is this: Whatever the young man had done to wound Lamech, the response was disproportionate.

This is the problem with revenge; it often goes far beyond the original crime. In the book of Exodus, the people of Israel famously are told, "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot" (Exodus 21:24). At face value, this is often take to mean, "If someone does something to you, it is your obligation to take revenge against them." At first glance, it seems a bit brutal.

However, the real meaning of "eye for eye" is not to give people a license to take revenge. In contrast, it was meant to restrict personal vengeance. Before this commandment was given, people felt justified in taking whatever revenge they wanted to take. If someone punched you in the face, you could burn his house down. If someone stole something from you, you could murder his whole family. If someone "wounded" you, you could kill that person and write a song about it. "Eye for an eye" pulls back the reigns and says, "Do not get carried away in your pursuit of justice."

Jesus takes it to the next level. When Jesus' student, Peter, asks how seriously he needs to take this whole "forgiveness" business, the exchange goes like this:

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times" (Matthew 18:21-22).

I realize Jesus is using Peter's words to respond, but isn't the language interesting? Remember what Lamech said about his own brand of vengeance? "If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times." Jesus uses Lamech's exact words and reverses the outcome. In one sentence, Jesus puts the story of Lamech right in its place. Even by Old Testament standards, Lamech's act was disproportionate. For Jesus, though, Lamech's ethics were completely upside down.

So, the story of Lamech is about a guy who believes that violence not only is a solution to his problems but that violence makes him sexier to his women. Lamech believes that violence is redemptive and good.

By contrast, Jesus seems to believe that violence gets us nowhere and that forgiveness is the truest act of redemption. For Jesus, violence only destroys. And when we do commit violence -- or exist within a system of violence -- the appropriate response is not to strut and tout our violence as admirable. Rather, the violence around us should be lamented. When blood is spilled, it cries out from the ground. Every act of violence is tragic, and it should be treated as such.

Or, as French theologian and poet Francois Fenelon once said, "All wars are civil wars, because all men are brothers."

When our enemies die in war, we should mourn their spilt blood.

When evil men are killed, that is not a time for rejoicing. It is a time for somber reflection and mourning over a life wasted.

When blood is spilled--even if we feel that it was "just"--it is a tragedy.

If we are to sing songs about bloodshed, may they be songs of sorrow rather than songs of celebration.

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a disproportionate response? Why do we, as a people, believe that violence can be redemptive?