Lamech’s Numbers--September 16, 2006
When Cain killed his brother Abel, God cursed him. But then Cain complained:
' My punishment is heavier than I can bear; you have driven me from the ground and
[made me] a vagrant and a wanderer..and anyone who meets me can kill me.’ So the Lord
answered... ‘No: if anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged sevenfold.’ So the Lord put a
mark on Cain, in order that anyone meeting him should not kill him. (Gen 4, NEB)
Please notice that the famous “mark of Cain” was not for punishment but for protection, a warning of sevenfold retribution for anyone who kills Cain. Please also notice the numbers here, 7 to 1--said to be a ratio established by God. We find that, in Scriptures, numbers are often a very big part of the story being told, especially when it’s God who’s doing the counting for us.
Later, we will hear numbers like: 1 to 1, “an eye for an eye”. Still later, we’ll hear math problems like this one: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I still forgive him? As many as seven times?” And we’ll hear answers like this: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” But that’s way ahead of where we’re starting today, when we should notice that there is exile for Cain, but no execution. God simply lets Cain live with what he’s done. Maybe that’s the best punishment he could think of. Or the worst.
Then Cain lay with his wife[we’re not told where she came from, so there must be more to this story than the Bible tells us!] and she conceived and bore Enoch...Enoch
begot Irad; Irad begot Mehujael; Mehujael begot Methushael; Methushael begot Lamech...Lamech married two wives...[and he said to them]...’ Wives of Lamech, mark
what I say: I kill a man for bruising me, a boy for just a scrape. Cain may be avenged seven times, but Lamech seventy-seven.’
Lamech’s story ends abruptly with these numbers, but they say a great deal. We are told that the first vengeance ratio set by a human being for himself is 77 to one, not 10 but 11 times the number that God first established! “Cain may be avenged seven times, but for me it’s seventyseven!” In other words: “Mine is bigger than his!” Bigger than Cain’s? Bigger than God’s? How childish we seem when we’re trying to sound manly!”
When I was a Boy Scout, my troop took a hike every year, twenty-two miles through woods and cornfields and a short pass through a small Illinois town with a posted population of 37. Then one year the old man who ran the store where we bought soda and candy bars died, leaving us with no reason to stop on future hikes in that town, population 36. There are plenty of communities in this world with 77 people or fewer. If we follow Lamech’s numbers--his fantasy of vengeance--for every loss we suffer we will destroy a community. If one is lost we’ll destroy one community, if seven, then seventy-seven--villages, small cities, or neighborhoods in big ones--if three
thousand, I can’t even do the math in my head. What do you make of all these numbers?
‘Cain may be avenged seven times, but Lamech seventy-seven.’
Lamech’s account ends abruptly here, leaving me with the impression that, as with the story of Cain, there must also have been more to this story. It seems like a fragment of a fuller narrative. Where’s the rest? Do you know? Could it be that we are the authors of the continuing story of Lamech? Don’t we provide the details in the stories of our lives, and the lives of our nations? Have those among our leaders who claim be deeply grounded in the teachings of religious scriptures--and their number seems to be growing every day--have they ever once suggested that we forgive our hurts seventy times seven? Haven’t they nursed instead our fantasies of
taking vengeance according to Lamech’s numbers, or numbers that make ours even bigger than his?
It seems that later Jewish storytellers also felt that the Bible’s account of Lamech was incomplete, and so was that of Cain. They expanded on both, telling us that the mark God put on Cain turned into a horn, so he looked a bit like a unicorn or a rhinoceros, and that Cain went on living for hundreds of years, robbing and injuring people and inspiring others to do the same, but protected from vengeance by his distinctive “mark.”
Of Lamech they say that he became blind in time, but at the same time came to enjoy hunting. He had no vision but he still liked to shoot things. Sounds familiar, sounds like our Lamech. One of his young sons would lead him out and tell him which way to point his bow and arrow when he spotted game. He’d then let fly--without looking, of course, or seeing--but based on the best intelligence available.
One day the boy saw a horned creature in the distance and he told Lamech, who drew an arrow and shot. Father and son approached the beast, then the little boy told Lamech that whatever it was he’d just killed, it looked like a man except for a horn on its forehead. Lamech realized immediately that it must be Cain, and struck his hands together in rage and despair that he must now suffer God’s curse, seven times over--just seven times, not 77, but already more than he can bear. Clap! He abandoned himself, and in such abandon his movement became quite powerful. Clap!
He didn’t know that his son had drawn close to him, perhaps in fear of this strange dead creature, and Lamech’s hands struck the child in such a way that he was killed instantly. Clap! Without his son to be his eyes, he couldn’t even go home. He could only sit by the two bodies until at last his wives found him and brought their vengeful, broken man back to his house. How could they ever forgive him? How could he forgive himself? So powerful was that force in Lamech--that 77-to-one thing, joined to blindness--that he had killed both his ancestor and his heir. He has destroyed much of his past, and far too much of his future. So, what now? Will he, like Cain, have to simply live with it?
And what of us? Lamech lashed out blindly at past and future, and so lost both. Are we doing the same? It seems that we are determined to outdo Lamech as he outdid Cain: 77 times 77 and counting, the beginning and the end both out of sight. Will our numbers grow longer while our story shrinks, and we grow less than who we were--and far, far less than who we might become? I can’t tell you. But I can tell you this: the story of Lamech is quite long enough already.
May there still be time for us to write a better one.
© Craig Moro, all rights reserved