Lamech Genesis 4:19-20

Lamech—Gen_4:19-20

In going through the list of Cain’s descendants, we find nothing to arrest our attention till we come to Lamech, who was the fifth in descent from Cain, and who must have been about the same time with the Enoch of Seth’s line, or somewhat about six hundred years from the creation. Note: This is according to the common or shorter chronology, which, as that in general use, we feel bound to follow in a work of this kind, although strongly persuaded, with most scholars, that the longer chronology, as preserved in the Septuagint version, is the most correct.] This  Lamech seems to have been a very remarkable person, and out of seven verses devoted to the posterity of Cain, six are occupied by the sayings and doings of him and his two sons. Reserving the sons for separate notice, let us give our present attention to Lamech himself. The record concerning him is singular, striking, and abrupt. It comprises poetry, rhetoric, and history; and yet, although it suggests much, and sets the mind to work, there is little in it to satisfy the curiosity it excites.

First, we are informed that Lamech had two wives, called Adah and Zillah—beautiful names, and the first female names that occur since Eve. Why is this fact so pointedly mentioned, unless to intimate that the practice of having more than one wife was a new thing, and among the inventions of the house of Cain? This is the general sentiment of antiquity; and the early Christian writers who have occasion to allude to the matter, agree with Tertullian in regarding Lamech as the first man who reversed the order of nature and of creation, by taking two wives unto himself.

Adah bore to Lamech two sons, Jabal and Jubal, and by Zillah he had one, named Tubal-Cain—all famous inventors, of whom there will be more to say anon. “And the sister of Tubal-Cain was Naamah.” Thus is all we hear of her. It is remarkable that her name should be found at all in a record in which the names of so few women are preserved; and it is still more remarkable, that it is given without any circumstances to indicate the cause of its insertion. The name means fair or beautiful. Was her beauty her distinction? Did that beauty produce effects by which great families were united or broken? Beauty has, within the compass of historical time, moved the world. Did it in her person shake the old world also? Her brothers were the great fathers of social arts. Was her fame of the same sort as theirs? Some ascribe to her the invention of spinning and weaving; and others, who find in her brother the Vulcan of the Greeks, recognize in her Minerva, who had among her names that of  Nemanoun. Note: Plutarch, de Iside et Osiride.] But all this is bald conjecture. Her name was Naamah; her father was Lamech; her brother Tubal-Cain; she lived; she died. This is all we know of her. To what she owed her fame—a fame of six thousand years—must remain inscrutable. As one finds among the ruins of time, some old gray monument, too important and distinguished to have been constructed for a person of mean note, but discovers thereon only a name, which the rust of ages has left unconsumed—so it is with Lamech’s illustrious daughter.

Lamech had his troubles, as a man with two wives was likely to have, and always has had; but whether or not his troubles grew directly out of his polygamy, is not clearly disclosed. We know them only through an address which he makes to his two wives. The subject matter of this address is hard to be understood; but there is no mistaking as to its form, which embodies the parallelism and other characteristics of Hebrew poesy. This is the most ancient piece of poetry in the world; the only scrap of verse that has come to us from the ages before the flood. Is its production intended, by an actual specimen, to indicate that, as one of his sons was the father of music, so was he the father of poetry? At any rate, the actual utterance of verse by the father, shows that, as we might expect, poetry was invented before music. Perhaps the former even originated the latter. What more probable than that the first efforts of the tuneful Jubal were made, in giving the sweet voice of music to his father’s harmonious numbers?

The lines have been variously translated. We give them thus—

“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice!
Wives of Lamech receive my speech!
If I slew a man to my wounding,
And a young man to my hurt:
If Cain was avenged seven times,
Then Lamech seventy times seven.” 

This is not very plain as to the meaning—but we can only imitate the admitted obscurity of the original. To what do these words refer? Almost every possible sense which they can by any translation or interpretation be construed to bear, has been assigned to them by different commentators. The Jewish tradition preserved in the Midrash, is founded upon the mention of Cain, and upon the interpretation (which the best Jewish interpreters allow to be unfounded) that the promise to Cain was not that vengeance should be exacted seven-fold upon any one that slew him, but that vengeance should not be taken until the seventh generation—which generation Lamech represented. The story runs that Lamech being blind (to account for his not seeing “the mark” upon Cain), slew his ancestor with a dart or arrow, under the direction of his son Tubal-Cain, who took the movements made by Cain, lurking in the woods, for those of some beast. But when the truth was seen, Lamech, in his horror at the deed, slew the son whose misdirection had brought this crime upon his soul. His son was thus “the young man” to whom the verse refers. Now it is true that it was not promised to Cain that he should never be slain—but that if be were slain, seven-fold vengeance should be exacted for him. But for the rest, it is not likely that blind men went a hunting even before the deluge: and the story has other improbabilities too obvious to need indication. No more need be said.

Josephus did not receive this tradition, if it existed in his time. He gives a favorable turn to the whole matter, observing, that Lamech, who saw as far as any man into the course and method of Divine justice, felt great concern in the prospect of that judgment which he apprehended to hang over his family for the murder of Abel; and under the force of that apprehension spoke of the matter to his wives. It is on this hint that Shuckford, followed by others, appears to have founded his view of these verses. He thinks that the death of Abel had occasioned a complete alienation between the family of Seth and that of Cain—who, although living apart, were kept in constant apprehension that a bloody  vengeance would some day be exacted. But that Lamech, when he came to be the head of a people, sought to reason them out of their apprehensions by the argument contained in his words: understood to mean—if seven-fold vengeance were denounced upon the slayer of Cain who murdered his own brother, there must surely be a far sorer punishment for those who may attempt to destroy any of us on the same account. The fault of this is, that it is too vague and hypothetical, and has not a sufficiently pointed application to the words of the text.

It is an ingenious thought of some, that the wives of Lamech took alarm at the invention of more formidable weapons than had hitherto been seen, by Tubal-Cain, and fancied that they might be some day employed against his life; but that he here comforts them by the assurance that as he had never shed the blood of man—no one had an interest in destroying him.

On the other hand, many have thought that he had slain not only one but two (“a man,” and “a young man”), and that considering how Cain had enhanced his crime and punishment by obdurate concealment, he here openly avows his crime, and contritely confesses himself a greater sinner than Cain.

Our own impression, coinciding with that of Lowth, is, that Lamech had slain in self-defence some man by whom he had been assaulted and wounded. His wives would apprehend the exaction of blood-revenge by the friends of the man who had been slain, on which he puts his justifiable homicide on the proper footing by contrasting it with the murder committed by Cain, and urges that the difference of the offence rendered the danger of vengeance in his case but small. If the life of Cain were protected by the penalty of seven-fold vengeance, surely his by seventy times seven.