LIn the 4th Century, St. Basil argued that Lamech’s double murder of Cain and Tubal-Cain was prophetic. The prophecy had to do with Lamech’s calling for vengeance against anyone who would take vengeance on him. Genesis 4:24 gives us Lamech’s charge. He said, “If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.” Basil allows for the view that Cain’s penalty was not dismissed but postponed for seven generations. He says that the flood came upon the world because of the sin of Cain in the seventh generation. Instead of the flood, however, “whereas Cain’s sin increased, and was followed after seven generations by the punishment of the Deluge washing out the foulness of the world, so Lamech’s sin shall be followed in the seventy-seventh (see Luke 3:23–38) generation by the coming of him who taketh away the sin of the world.”[1]

As much as I enjoy seeing Jesus in the Old Testament, I do not see what St. Basil saw here. I agree with the more traditional understanding that Reyburn puts forth. He writes, “The nature of Lamech’s boast is that he, in contrast with Cain, will take much harsher revenge on anyone who even wounds or strikes him. He thus carries vengeance to a new and more violent level.”[2] I’m reminded of the dialogue between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden early in 2022. The threats of accelerated violence went back and forth between them. The world lived in fear of mutually assured destruction as the use of nuclear weapons is a dismal possibility. Wenham puts this whole episode of Lamech into perspective when he says, “Most attention is given to Lamech, who is portrayed in gory detail. A slave of passion, he married two lovely wives, Adah (‘Jewel’) and Zillah (‘Melody’). Bigamy represents another regress from the monogamy God established in Eden. But more significant is Lamech’s blood-thirsty lust for seventy-sevenfold vengeance, which shows a man who disregarded justice and was prepared to smash all who got in his way. Society was disintegrating and was ripe for judgment.”[3]

Jesus and Peter had a conversation that reversed the acceleration of violence mentioned in Genesis 4. Matthew 18:21-21 gives us that conversation. It says, “Then Peter came up and said to him, “’ Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.’” Dave Pleacher writes, “These same words are found in the King James version, the Phillips Modern English version, The Living Bible, the New English Bible, and many other translations. However, in The Jerusalem Bible, the Augsburg Study Bible New Revised Standard Version, and several other more modern translations, Matthew 18:22 reads, Jesus answered, “Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.” Somebody changed the math.  In the older translations, Jesus’ answer was 70 x 7 or 490 times, but the newer translations changed his answer to 77 times.   Of course, Jesus did not mean that we should stop forgiving after 490 times or even 77 times — he meant that there should be no limits to our forgiveness.   In The Interpreter’s Bible, it mentions both of these numbers, but it calls this “celestial arithmetic” — we must do the math in our hearts.   It is a problem in conduct rather than in arithmetic. The rabbis said that three pardons were enough.   Peter proposed magnanimity, and so suggested seven. But Jesus insisted that there must be no limits to forgiveness. Luke 17:4 also mentions this conversation with the seven times. Luke 17:5 tells us that when the disciples heard this requirement of Jesus for unlimited forgiveness, they exclaimed, “Increase our faith!”[4]

[1] Smith. 1882. “La′mech.” In Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, 5:209. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers.

[2] Reyburn, William David, and Euan McG. Fry. 1998. A Handbook on Genesis. UBS Handbook Series. New York: United Bible Societies.

[3] Wenham, Gordon J. 1994. “Genesis.” In New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, edited by D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, and G. J. Wenham, 4th ed., 64. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.