Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Cain and Lamech and Peter and Jesus

Not to be confused with Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice

But the LORD said to him, "Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over." (Gen 4:15)

“If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times." (Gen 4:24)

We’re doing Genesis 4 in Bible Study this week, and the numbers in the chapter caught my eye – vengeance exacted seven fold, then seventy-seven fold. It brought to mind the following passage from Matthew:

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?"
Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
(Mat 18:21-22)

Father Don at Our Lady’s Maronite likes to refer to scripture as a “seamless garment.” (No, he doesn’t claim that is an original thought.) I figure that these two parallel scriptures, one at the opening of human history and the other toward the close of Jesus’ life, can’t just be in there by coincidence.

The commentaries I’ve read on the Genesis passage all indicate that Lamech has killed someone in self-defense, and is telling his wife not to worry – no one is going to kill him in return. As for the verses from Matthew, the general thought is that Peter is being exceptionally generous by going past the Rabbinic teaching that forgiveness must be offered three times. Jesus then trumps him by demanding, in essence, limitless forgiveness.

In the first place, I just don’t read Genesis 4:24 the same way. I know – I am not a theologian; I’m not a preacher; I’m not a Talmudic scholar; I don’t believe in interpreting scripture by myself outside the historic teachings of the Church. But a plain reading of Lamech’s soliloquy just sounds like a drunken lout boasting how he can kick butt even better than God.

God has offered one man – Cain – protection against his fellow sinners by promising to extract severe but limited vengeance. Retribution enters the world as a consequence of crime, as a means to protect fallen man from fallen man. Lamech has arrogated the privileges of God and said, basically, that God’s promise of seven times isn’t good enough. He will avenge any slight against himself by himself, and he will do it big time.

Civilizations rise; civilizations fall; the general human bloodbath continues. Then along comes Jesus. Peter starts to catch on to what Jesus is saying. He knows the Torah: Deuteronomy 32:35 says “Vengeance is Mine, and retribution.” Vengeance isn’t for humans to take; it is God’s response to mitigate human evil. The rabbis have said to forgive, and, intentionally or inadvertently, Pete ties it back to Cain. God’s vengeance is seven-fold; man’s forgiveness must be seven-fold.

Jesus comes back with the words of Lamech. Men and governments exact vengeance sufficient to satisfy their own egos (seventy-seven fold). God requires that man’s forgiveness be equivalent to the level of retribution he has granted to himself. In the Kingdom, man is restored to a right order, with respect to both God and his fellow man. The need for retributive justice that was established by the fall is removed by the cross, and reconciliation becomes the only norm. We claimed the right to punish without limit. Very well, then; we have the obligation to forgive without limit. Scripture takes us full circle, and what was old is new again.

“and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away." (Rev 21:4)