There are shadowy chapters in Genesis, full of mysterious characters and events that give hints of a doomed primal world. Between the Fall and the Flood, dangerous figures lurk.
One of these is Lamech. The sixth generation from Cain, we know little of him; he was a polygamist, and his children would go on to become innovators in the arts and other technology. We also know that he was a killer.
We don’t know who he killed or why. We know it was an act of vengeance, but disproportionately so. It was also a way of declaring his independence from God; only a few verses earlier, God has assured the exiled Cain that he’ll be avenged seven times over if anyone kills him. Now Lamech takes matters into his own hands; if anyone hurts him, they’re going down. God only avenges seven times over; Lamech will make you pay seventy-seven times just for looking at him funny. His arrogant, threatening words declaring this to his wives have become known as the Song of the Sword; it’s not exactly edifying, and maybe Lamech should disappear into history, just another violent man to be forgotten.
But his words seem to have resonance centuries later. Look at the numbers used: seventy? Seventy-seven? Sound familiar?
In Matthew 18 , Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother – seven times? No, replies Jesus, seventy-seven times.
I’m not sure there’s a direct connection. It’s more likely that there’s a link between Jesus’s words and Leviticus 25; after all, he’s using the language of Jubilee. But it serves as a powerful contrast to the actions of Lamech. Within a few generations of the creation, humanity is majoring in revenge and a twisted form of Justice that states that it’s okay that to make others suffer if they’ve wronged you. Countering this with the idea that forgiveness should not only be necessary but boundless is a form of liberation.
After all, Lamech’s attitude was doomed to keep mankind trapped in a cycle of payback and vengeance for whole lifetimes. In the case of Genesis, that involved a life being snuffed out; nowadays it might mean decades of not speaking to a whole branch of the family because of something that was said to a grandparent just after D-Day.
Jesus steps into this debate and is pretty clear about it – you forgive. You forgive and you forgive again and you go on forgiving because ultimately it’s God’s justice that wins out, not Lamech’s. The cycle of revenge needs to be broken because it’s a trap that leads to anger and bitterness and destruction and those things aren’t of God. There’s a reason Jesus uses jubilee language, the language of release from slavery, when it comes to forgiveness. It’s because unforgiveness and the constant search for payback are just another form of captivity and Jesus, fortunately, is all about freedom.
There’s a reason Lamech is largely forgotten, a footnote of history sandwiched between other, more interesting stories. Because Jesus’ words of forgiveness are more compelling than Lamech’s words of blood; it’s far more liberating to sing songs of deliverance than songs of the sword.