Genesis 4:17-26 “The First Things” (The Boast of Lamech) Part 12

The Cain saga continues. The fugitive Cain now lives east of Eden and settles in the land of Nod. He marries a woman and she bears him a son he names Enoch. Cain then builds a city and names it after his son. Once again, we see that we are dealing with stories which cannot be reconciled with what has gone before them. If we took the Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel stories as literal, historical events, the only people on the earth at this point would be Adam, Eve, and Cain. But there is a woman for Cain, and there are people for the settling of a city. These opening chapters of Genesis are stories—profound stories–designed to help explain the way things are in our world.

We are told that one of Cain’s descendants, Lamech, had three sons—Jabal the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock; Jubal, the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe; and Tubal-Cain, the ancestor of all those who made tools of bronze and iron. This is Genesis’ way of introducing the advance of culture, and that advance is represented by three occupations connected with Lamech’s sons: shepherding, music, and metal working. Today we might say animal husbandry and farming, the arts, and industry. The authors of Genesis were aware that at some point at the dawn of civilization people began to gather in large numbers. They established cities and developed cultures.  With these cities came new opportunities, greater wealth, and more diversity. The new wealth allowed for the time and resources to develop the arts and to expand technology and industry. We have moved a long way from the setting of Eden, that garden paradise where life was simple and abundantly blessed. Now there is activity, business, industry, competition, opportunity, and risk. Life will never return to the idyllic age of innocence symbolized by the Garden of Eden. 

We have moved a long way from the setting of Eden, that garden paradise where life was simple and abundantly blessed.

And immediately after this reference to advances and changes in culture, we have the boast of Lamech. Like a male gorilla beating his chest trying to impress the females around him, Lamech brags to his wives: “Hey, Adah and Zillah! My women, listen up! I’ve killed a young man for hitting me. And unlike Cain whom God promised to avenge sevenfold should something happen to him, I’ve taken matters into my own hands and have been avenged seventy-sevenfold!” Here Lamech becomes a brute, a bully, and Rambo on steroids. 

To make sense of this boast and to try to figure out why it is included in our text we need to recognize one of the techniques the Scriptures use to make a point. Often the writers of the Bible will place two stories side by side, and it is the dynamics between these stories which reveal a larger point. The writers don’t explain how the stories are related or what point they are trying to make by connecting the stories. They want us to figure it out on our own. I believe the point the authors of Genesis intend by connecting these two traditions is one of the most important lessons for humans to learn if we are to survive on this planet and live with one another. So, what was the point? 

We can’t stop the world from changing. We know that, and the Bible recognizes that same truth.

First of all, we have a recognition of the rise and advance of culture. Things are getting bigger, the human situation is changing, and there are numerous new opportunities. The Bible does not condemn change, growth, and cultural advances. It recognizes that these are inevitable. What’s the saying? “You can’t stop progress.” Just think of how much the world has changed in your lifetime. Some of the change we may view as bad while other parts we see as good. Do we really want to go back to a time with no air conditioning, computers, antibiotics, advances in heart surgery, and electric appliances? We can’t stop the world from changing. We know that, and the Bible recognizes that same truth. There will be progress, advances, and changes. All of this is inevitable. 

The kind of progress we are talking about is technology/”know-how.” And the technology and know-how of our time are very impressive. It’s mind-boggling. No one can keep up with all the change and progress. But let me ask this question: Have we progressed to the same degree in areas like wisdom, human nature, spirituality, ethics, maturity, compassion, tolerance, love, justice, and, in the words of Jesus, those things which make for peace? 

Do we realize what every faith tradition has taught throughout history—that there is a profound difference between knowledge (know-how) and wisdom? Know-how is knowing how something works. Wisdom is knowing how we should use such knowledge. Wisdom continually asks the question “Why?” Why are we doing this? Is what we are doing a source of blessing for us and future generations? How might this progress/change enhance life? Do our daily lives reflect why we have been placed on this planet by the Living God? What is the purpose of life, and in what ways can all our technology and know-how be supportive of and in line with that purpose? All religious traditions teach that knowledge without wisdom is power without sanity. Knowledge without wisdom is like putting a loaded revolver into the hands of a three-year-old. Even one that young knows what guns are for—they are for shooting, killing. “Bang, bang, you’re dead!” But does any three-year old truly understand the dangers of firing that gun? Does any three-year old have the wisdom to possess such a destructive weapon?

Increasing knowledge without wisdom is like going from smart to smarter to smartest to finally and tragically stupid. 

We have the knowledge to build nuclear weapons which can destroy humankind if not all life as we know it. Collectively as a world, do we have the wisdom to have such power at our disposal? We have the knowledge to drill for oil under the ocean, but do we have the wisdom to make sure that such activities are safe and without risk? We have the knowledge to do genetic engineering, but do we have the wisdom to use such an ability to improve and enhance life, or will it be used like everything else—to make a profit for those who already possess power and wealth? Increasing knowledge without wisdom is like going from smart to smarter to smartest to finally and tragically stupid. 

The late Carl Sagan was once asked if he thought there were other life-forms in the universe, including intelligent and advanced life-forms similar or superior to humans. His answer was that he thought the probability was very high that there were now and probably have been in the very distant past such civilizations scattered throughout the universe. When someone asked why, if that was the case, there has been no contact between those civilizations and our own, Sagan gave a chilling response. He said that it was very possible that every one of those civilizations reached a point in their development similar to the stage we are entering in our own time—a time when our ability and knowledge far exceeded our wisdom and compassion. His guess was that every civilization throughout the universe which reached that stage had become the victim of it’s own self-destruction. It’s wisdom did not keep pace with it’s know-how, power, and ability. He then warned his audience that if our wisdom does not match our knowledge, we might be one more failed attempt in the history of the cosmos to reach ethical, spiritual, and intellectual maturity. In other words, we have gone from smart to smarter to smartest and are on the brink of becoming stupid—lethally stupid as we choose our course for the future. 

The more know-how we have as a culture, the more we have at our disposal to do evil and reap havoc on our fellow humans. 

Now how can I say that all this is related to our passage? As soon as Genesis relates the progress and growth of culture, it mentions the boast of Lamech. This descendant of Cain boasts to his wives that he has killed a young man who struck him. It’s not an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and a life for a life—it’s a life for a blow. Lamech boasts that his vengeance is greater than the vengeance of God. God said Cain’s death would be avenged seven-fold. Lamech says that the blow he suffered would be avenged seventy-seven fold. “You hit me and I will kill you.” Vengeance belongs not to God but to Lamech, and his vengeance far exceeds that of the Almighty. The boast of Lamech demonstrates an escalation of violence and vengeance in the ancient world. And that escalation happens in the midst of progress in culture. More violence and evil can occur because with the growth of culture, humans have more to do evil and violence with. If all you have is a rock, you can do only so much damage, and you must be close to your chosen enemy to do that damage. But what if you have a bow and arrow or a gun or a missile or a smart-bomb? You can do far more damage from a far greater distance. The more know-how we have as a culture, the more we have at our disposal to do evil and reap havoc on our fellow humans. 

Once again, the point is not that progress is evil—it’s that progress in know-how without an accompanying growth in wisdom and spiritual maturity is a disaster waiting to happen. Every culture must devise some way of controlling its power and technology. And every culture must devise some way to control vengeance and violence. The larger the civilization, the more difficult and necessary it is to curtail violence and vengeance. That’s why the ancient world, of which the Old Testament is a part, came up with the idea of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. If you put out my eye, I have the right to put out your eye. But I do not have the right to take your life. All this was a way to control violence and vengeance. It’s called limited retaliation. But Lamech will not be controlled—he will not be guided. He will play God and take matters into his own hand. And like many an arrogant and brutal fool throughout our history, he will multiply destruction and suffering within the human community.

Jesus’ answer to the cycle of violence and revenge that accompanies the growth and “progress” of culture is to practice the forgiveness, mercy, and compassion of God.

The boast of Lamech was not ignored by Jesus. Simon Peter came to Jesus and asked how many times he should be required to forgive his brother if the brother sinned against him–“As many as seven times?” Peter asked. Jesus’ response was “not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22. Jesus inverts the boast of Lamech. His followers are called to practice excessive forgiveness, not excessive vengeance. Jesus calls for a wisdom deeper than that of human reasoning. He calls for a wisdom which reflects the greater wisdom of God. Jesus’ answer to the cycle of violence and revenge that accompanies the growth and “progress” of culture is to practice the forgiveness, mercy, and compassion of God. No doubt the world will see such wisdom as foolishness. What makes sense to the world and to most of us is, at the very least, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. That’s our idea of justice. For the most part since 1790 B. C. with the Code of Hammurabi, human beings haven’t gone beyond “an eye for an eye” mentality. Our know-how has advanced but not our wisdom, spirituality, and ethics. The most we expect of others and even ourselves is “an eye for an eye” approach to the world. Now that’s better than Lamech’s approach which, if we are honest, has been more the way of the world than an “eye for an eye.” We are all still inclined to excessive retaliation and revenge. There’s more than little bit of Lamech in all of us, especially at the larger level of nations and cultures.

But Jesus insisted that God’s idea of justice always includes the element of reconciliation. Evil must be faced and dealt with, but the ultimate goal of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not vengeance, retaliation, or punishment. The ultimate goal is reconciliation. And it’s kind of difficult to be reconciled to someone you have killed. When vengeance, retaliation, and punishment are our goals, there is no opportunity for reconciliation. The attitude and approach of Lamech just perpetuate the cycle of violence and destruction. That’s why Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” The only way to break the cycle is through forgiveness. Now that’s not the way of the world, but God said, “My ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not your thoughts.” But if I understand anything Jesus has to say about discipleship, it is that we are called to think, be, live, forgive, and love like God—and God’s way does not include the attitude and response of Lamech.

As we shall see in future sermons, the opening chapters of the Bible assume that anything we want to achieve in the areas of technology and know-how is possible—anything! If we don’t self-destruct first, we may even be able to create human beings in a laboratory. Anything is possible according to Genesis. But unless our wisdom, ethics, and spirituality keep pace with our technology and know-how, such “progress” will become a certain path to complete and final destruction.

This text perhaps speaks more to our time than any other time in human history. We may well be, as Carl Sagan suggested, at that critical point where we shall transcend the brutal, arrogant, and self-centered spirit of Lamech and flourish or where we shall take that final step—from smart to smarter to smartest to stupid—lethally and irreversibly stupid. As the Old Testament repeatedly advises, “Choose life so you and others can live.” Or as Jesus said, if we live by the sword we shall die by the sword. But if we follow him and his way, we will find the way, the truth, and the life. 

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