Alice C. Linsley
The more I read of St. John Chrysostom's writings the more I am in awe of his insights. What grace was given to him! What breadth of understanding!
St. John’s interpretation of Lamech’s speech to his two wives is absolutely brilliant and unfortunately, largely ignored. What he says about Lamech the Elder and his daughter Naamah sheds light on the text and clarifies the confusion surrounding the persons of Lamech the Elder (Gen. 4:23) and Lamech the Younger, his grandson (Gen. 5:26).
The confusion arises from the assumption that the two Lamechs are the same person, and that the genealogical lists in Genesis 4 and 5 are about the same people, but from different sources or traditions. This assumption of mid-century source critics assigns the chapter 4 list to the Yahwist source and the chapter 5 list to the Priestly source. Von Rad and E.A. Speiser promoted this interpretation in their commentaries on Genesis and many versions of the Bible assume that this interpretation is correct, noting the similarity of names in the two lists (Irad/Jared; Enoch/Enosh).
However, using the tools of kinship analysis developed by E.L. Schusky in his Manual for Kinship Analysis, it is possible to show that the king lists in Genesis 4 and 5 represent two distinct lines of descent and that these ruling lines intermarried.
This information influences the way we interpret the Bible. It points us to God's love for us sinners, an undeserved love. It is part of a larger pattern that is seen throughout the Bible. For one thing, this overturns the idea that Cain's line died out. It also indicates that God never abandoned Cain and his descendants.
The Genesis king lists indicate that the ruler-priests listed in Genesis were of Nilotic origin or Kushite ethnicity. Further, though one line is chosen as the principal line to move the biblical narrative forward, the other line is blessed as well. This theme occurs between brothers all the way through the Bible. Abraham was chosen over his older brother Nahor, but both lines were blessed. David was chosen over his older brothers, but all of Jesse's house was blessed. Moses was chosen over his older brothers Aaron and Korah, but even Korah's rebellion against Moses' authority does not lead to his being cut off from the land of the living (Numbers 26:11). When we assume that Lamech's line was destroyed by God we impose something on the text that the text does not support. It is a message contrary to the message God is communicating to us.
God's Love and Faithfulness to Sinners
Lamech is an example of God's love and faithfulness to sinners. If anyone deserved to be ‘cut off from the land of the living’ (no progeny) it was the braggart and murderer Lamech who set himself up as God. Yet God allowed Lamech's line to continue and to flow into the line of Messiah. St. John Chrysosotom has edifying comments on this unfathomable grace as it relates to Lamech, and it is he who noted that Naamah, Lamech's daughter is probably the key to understanding Lamech's story.
St. John didn't know that Naamah married her cousin, Methuselah, and named their firstborn son after her father (Gen. 5:26). However, he knew that she was important. He called her "Noeman" and said about her, "Well, now for the first time it refers to females, making mention of one by name. This was not done idly, or to no purpose; instead the blessed author has done this to draw our attention to something lying hidden." (Chrysostom's Homilies on Genesis, CUA Press, Vol. 74, p. 38)
Cain's line continues to the time of Jesus Christ because, as Naamah's marriage to her patrilineal cousin or uncle reveals, the lines of Cain and Seth exclsuively intermarried. This is a trait of castes, and the Horites were a caste of ruler-priests to whom God showed great mercy.
Here is what Chrysostom said concerning Lamech, the Elder: By confessing his sins to his wives, Lamech brings to light what Cain tried to hide from God and “by comparing what he has done to the crimes committed by Cain he limited the punishment coming to Him.” (St. John Chrysostom’s Homilies on Genesis, Vol. 74, p.39. The Catholic University Press of America, 1999.)
St. Chrysostom’s interpretation is consistent with the Bible's message about God’s love, grace and mercy, and departs from the interpretation found in Bibles today which stress that God destroyed Cain’s line in the flood. In fact, the text supports Chrysostom’s view, as we will see through tracing the number 7 from Cain to Lamech, the Younger. Let us look at the number symbolism to see that Chrysostom’s interpretation is indeed upheld.
The number 7 represents new life, grace and renewal. Cain murdered and tried to hide his crime from God. Cain’s just punishment was death, yet God showed him grace by sparing his life. Instead Cain was to be exiled from his people. Even then God shows Cain grace by placing a mark on him, not a brand of shame, but a protecting sign. Reflecting on this great grace shown to his ancestor, Lamech challenges God to show him greater grace. If grace was shown to Cain (7), then Lamech, the Elder, by confessing his sin, claims a greater measure of grace (77). Lamech, the Younger is assigned even greater grace because he is said to have lived 777 years. This younger Lamech is the son of Methuselah and Naamah, and the father of Noah.
St. Chrysostom recognized the story of Lamech to be about God’s mercy shown to sinners. He placed the emphasis exactly where it should be. Other interpretations reflect spiritual pride. Consider how this is so.
The Jewish Study Bible claims that the “poem of Lamech” attests to the violence associated with Lamech’s ancestor, Cain, and “to the increasing evil of the human race.” But apparently the interpreters exclude themselves from the human race because they go on to state: “The people of Israel will emerge from the lineage of the younger son’s replacement [that is from Seth], not from that of the murderous first born [that is Cain].” (The Jewish Study Bible, p. 20. Parenthesis mine.)
How easy it is to take the attitude that Cain and his descendents were sinners, but Seth’s descendents were righteous. Yet the lines intermarried and God showed grace to both, even allowing Lamech’s daughter, Naamah, to bear the righteous Lamech, father of Noah, ancestor of Abraham, David and Jesus Messiah.
Related reading: Who Were the Horites?; St. John Chrysostom on Lamech; The Seventh Seal and Silence in Heaven; Lamech's Story and Horite Kinship