Genesis 4:23- 24: What does Lamech’s Sword Song Mean?

Ephrem the Syrian
Some, because they think that Cain was avenged for seven generations, say that Lamech was evil, because God had said, “All flesh has corrupted its path,” and also because the wives of Lamech saw that the line of their generation would be cut off. They were giving birth not to males but to females only, for Moses said that it was “when men multiplied on the earth and daughters were born to them.” When these wives saw the plight of their generation, they became fearful and knew that the judgment decreed against Cain and his seven generations had come upon their generation. Lamech, then, in his cleverness, comforted them, saying, “I have killed a man for wounding me and a youth for striking me. Just as God caused Cain to remain so that seven generations would perish with him, so God will cause me to remain, because I have killed two, so that seventy-seven generations should die with me. Before the seventy-seven generations come, however, we will die, and through the cup of death that we taste we will escape from that punishment which, because of me, will extend to seventy-seven generations.”

Still others say that Lamech, who was cunning and crafty, saw the plight of his generation: that the Sethites refused to intermingle with them because of the reproach of their father Cain, who was still alive, and that the lands would become uncultivated from the lack of plowmen and their generation would thus come to an end. Lamech, therefore, moved by zeal, killed Cain together with his one son whom he had begotten and who resembled him, lest through this one son who resembled him the memory of his shame continue through their generations. When he killed Cain, who had been like a wall between the two tribes to keep them from tyrannizing each other, Lamech said to his wives as if in secret, “A man and a youth have been killed, but take and adorn your daughters for the sons of Seth. Because of the murders that I have committed and because of the adornment and beauty of your daughters, those who refused to be married to us in the past six generations might now consent to marry with us in our generation.”

St. Basil the Great
5. Your next question is of a kindred character, concerning the words of Lamech to his wives; “I have slain a man to my wounding, and a young man to my hurt: if Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and Sevenfold.” Some suppose that Cain was slain by Lamech, and that he survived to this generation that he might suffer a longer punishment. But this is not the case. Lamech evidently committed two murders, from what he says himself, “I have slain a man and a young man,” the man to his wounding, and the young man to his hurt. There is a difference between wounding and hurt. And there is a difference between a man and a young man. “If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold.” It is right that I should undergo four hundred and ninety punishments, if God’s judgment on Cain was just, that his punishments should be seven. Cain had not learned to murder from another, and had never seen a murderer undergoing punishment. But I, who had before my eyes Cain groaning and trembling, and the mightiness of the wrath of God, was not made wiser by the example before me. Wherefore I deserve to suffer four hundred and ninety punishments. There are, however, some who have gone so far as the following explanation, which does not jar with the doctrine of the Church; from Cain to the flood, they say, seven generations passed by, and the punishment was brought on the whole earth, because sin was everywhere spread abroad. But the sin of Lamech requires for its cure not a Flood, but Him Who Himself takes away the sin of the world. Count the generations from Adam to the coming of Christ, and you will find, according to the genealogy of Luke, that the Lord was born in the seventy-seventh.

John Calvin
Genesis 4:23-24
23.Hear my voice, ye wives of Lamech. The intention of Moses is to describe the ferocity of this man, who was, however, the fifth in descent from the fratricide Cain, in order to teach us, that, so far from being terrified by the example of divine judgment which he had seen in his ancestor, he was only the more hardened. Such is the obduracy of the impious, that they rage against those chastisements of God, which ought at least to render them gentle. The obscurity of this passage, which has procured for us a variety of interpretations, mainly arises hence; that whereas Moses speaks abruptly, interpreters have not considered what is the tendency of his speech. The Jews have, according to their manner, invented a foolish fable; namely, that Lamech was a hunter and blind, and had a boy to direct his hand; that Cain, while he was concealed in the woods, was shot through by his arrow, because the boy, talking him for a wild beast, had directed his master’s hand towards him; that Lamech then took revenge on the boy, who, by his imprudence, had been the cause of the murder. And ignorance of the true state of the case has caused everyone to allow himself to conjecture what he pleased. But to me the opinion of those seems to be true and simple, who resolve the past tense into the future, and understand its application to be indefinite; as if he had boasted that he had strength and violence enough to slay any, even the strongest enemy. I therefore lead thus, ‘I will slay a man for my wound, and a young man for my bruise,’ or ‘in my bruise and wound.’ But, as I have said, the occasion of his holding this conversation with his wives is to be noticed. We know that sanguinary men, as they are a terror to others, so are they everywhere hated by all. The wives, therefore, of Lamech were justly alarmed on account of their husband, whose violence was intolerable to the whole human race, lest, a conspiracy being formed, all should unite to crush him, as one deserving of public odium and execration. Now Moses, to exhibit his desperate barbarity, seeing that the soothing arts of wives are often wont to mitigate cruel and ferocious men, declares that Lamech cast forth the venom of his cruelty into the bosom of his wives. The sum of the whole is this: He boasts that he has sufficient courage and strength to strike down any who should dare to attack him. The repetition occurring in the use of the words ‘man’ and ‘young man’ is according to Hebrew phraseology, so that none should think different persons to be denoted by them; he only amplifies, in the second member of the sentence, his furious audacity, when he glories that young men in the flower of their age would not be equal to contend with him: as if he would say, Let each mightiest man come forward, there is none whom I will not dispatch.’ So far was he from calming his wives with the hope of his leading a more humane life, that he breaks forth in threats of sheer indiscriminate slaughter against every one, like a furious wild beast. Whence it easily appears, that he was so imbued with ferocity as to have retained nothing human. The nouns wound and bruise may be variously read. If they be rendered ‘for my wound and bruise,’ then the sense will be, ‘I confidently take upon my own head whatever danger there may be, let what will happen it shall be at my expense; for I have a means of escape at hand.’ Then what follows must be read in connection with it, If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and seven fold. If the ablative case be preferred, ‘In my wound and bruise,’ there will still be a double exposition. The first is, ‘Although I should be wounded, I would still kill the man; what then will I not do when I am whole?’ The other, and, in my judgment, the sounder and more consistent exposition, is, ‘If any one provoke me by injury, or attempt any act of violence, he shall feel that he has to deal with a strong and valiant man; nor shall he who injures me escape with impunity.’ This example shows that men ever glide from bad to worse. The wickedness of Cain was indeed awful; but the cruelty of Lamech advanced so far that he was unsparing of human blood. Besides, when he saw his wives struck with terror, instead of becoming mild, he only sharpened and confirmed himself the more in cruelty. Thus the brutality of cruel men increases in proportion as they find themselves hated; so that instead of being, touched with penitence, they are ready to bury one murder under ten others. Whence it follows that they having once become imbued with blood, shed it, and drink its without restraint.

24.Cain shall be avenged sevenfold. It is not my intention to relate the ravings or the dreams of every writer, nor would I have the reader to expect this from me; here and there I allude to them, though sparingly, especially if there be any color of deception; that readers, being often admonished, may learn to take heed unto themselves. Therefore, with respect to this passages which has been variously tortured, I will not record what one or another may have delivered, but will content myself with a true exposition of it. God had intended that Cain should be a horrible example to warn others against the commission of murder; and for this end had marked him with a shameful stigma. Yet lest any one should imitate his crime, He declared whosoever killed him should be punished with sevenfold severity. Lamech, impiously perverting this divine declaration, mocks its severity; for he hence takes greater license to sin, as if God had granted some singular privilege to murderers; not that he seriously thinks so, but being destitute of all sense of piety, he promises himself impunity, and in the meantime jestingly uses the name of God as an excuse: just as Dionysus did, who boasted that the gods favor sacrilegious persons, for the sake of obliterating the infamy which he had contracted. Moreover, as the number seven in Scripture designates a multitudes so sevenfold is taken for a very great increase. Such is the meaning of the declaration of Christ, ‘I do not say that thou shalt remit the offense seven times, but seventy times seven,’ (Mat_18:22.)

Adam Clarke
Genesis 4:23
And Lamech said unto his wives – The speech of Lamech to his wives is in hemistichs in the original, and consequently, as nothing of this kind occurs before this time, it is very probably the oldest piece of poetry in the world. The following is, as nearly as possible, a literal translation:

“And Lamech said unto his wives,
Adah and Tsillah, hear ye my voice;
Wives of Lamech, hearken to my speech;
For I have slain a man for wounding me,
And a young man for having bruised me.
If Cain shall be avenged seven-fold,
Also Lamech seventy and seven.”

It is supposed that Lamech had slain a man in his own defense, and that his wives being alarmed lest the kindred of the deceased should seek his life in return, to quiet their fears he makes this speech, in which he endeavors to prove that there was no room for fear on this account; for if the slayer of the wilful murderer, Cain, should suffer a seven-fold punishment, surely he, who should kill Lamech for having slain a man in self-defense, might expect a seventy-seven-fold punishment.

This speech is very dark, and has given rise to a great variety of very strange conjectures. Dr. Shuckford supposes there is an ellipsis of some preceding speech or circumstance which, if known, would cast a light on the subject. In the antediluvian times, the nearest of kin to a murdered person had a right to revenge his death by taking away the life of the murderer. This, as we have already seen, appears to have contributed not a little to Cain’s horror, Gen_4:14. Now we may suppose that the descendants of Cain were in continual alarms, lest some of the other family should attempt to avenge the death of Abel on them, as they were not permitted to do it on Cain; and that in order to dismiss those fears, Lamech, the seventh descendant from Adam, spoke to this effect to his wives: “Why should you render yourselves miserable by such ill-founded fears? We have slain no person; we have not done the least wrong to our brethren of the other family; surely then reason should dictate to you that they have no right to injure us. It is true that Cain, one of our ancestors, killed his brother Abel; but God, willing to pardon his sin, and give him space to repent, threatened to punish those with a seven-fold punishment who should dare to kill him. If this be so, then those who should have the boldness to kill any of us who are innocent, may expect a punishment still more rigorous. For if Cain should be avenged seven-fold on the person who should slay him, surely Lamech or any of his innocent family should be avenged seventy-seven-fold on those who should injure them.” The Targums give nearly the same meaning, and it makes a good sense; but who can say it is the true sense? If the words be read interrogatively, as they certainly may, the sense will be much clearer, and some of the difficulties will be removed:

“Have I slain a man, that I should be wounded?
Or a young man, that I should be bruised?”

But even this still supposes some previous reason or conversation. I shall not trouble my readers with a ridiculous Jewish fable, followed by St. Jerome, of Lamech having killed Cain by accident, etc.; and after what I have already said, I must leave the passage, I fear, among those which are inscrutable.

Jonathan Edwards
Gen. 4:23, 24. “And Lamech said unto his wives, Adah and Zillah, here my voice, ye wives of Lamech,… I have slain a man,” etc. The probable design of the Holy Spirit in relating this, is to show the great increase of the depravity and corruption of the world of Cain’s posterity, and those that adhered to them at that day, in the generation next to the Flood. This is shown in the particular instance of Lamech, the chief man of Cain’s posterity in his day. Lamech had been guilty of murder, he had slain some man that he had had a quarrel with, and he justifies himself in it, and endeavors to satisfy his wives that he shall escape with impunity, from the instance of Cain, whose life God had protected, and even took especial care that no man should kill him; and had declared if any man killed him, vengeance should be taken on him sevenfold, though the man he slew was his brother and a righteous man, and had done him no injury. But this man he had slain in, or for his wounding (as the words are interpreted by some learned men (see Pool, Synop. in loc.) See instance Jos_24:32, [the Hebrew word for “an hundred pieces of silver”), – i.e., the man he had slain had injured and wounded him; and therefore if Cain should be avenged sevenfold, doubtless he seventy and sevenfold. By this speech to his wives he shows his impenitence, presumption, and great insensibility. When Cain had slain his brother, his conscience greatly troubled him; but Lamech, with great obduracy, shakes off all remorse, and as it were bids defiance to all fear and trouble about the matter. That he should set the price of his life so high; that he should imagine that the vengeance due to the man that should take it away ought to be so vastly beyond that which was threatened for the killing of Cain, must be owing to a prodigious pride of heart, esteeming himself a man of such great value, and accounting it so heinous a thing for any to hurt or wound him; and then it shows a vile abuse of God’s goodness, long-suffering, and forbearance, in the instance of Cain, which ought to have led men to repentance. But instead of this, that instance of God’s forbearance probably was so abused as to be one great occasion of that violence that the earth was filled with in Lamech’s days. The sins for which the old world was destroyed were chiefly sensuality, pride, violence, presumption, a stupid, seared conscience, and abusing God’s patience, of each of which Lamech (the head of that wicked world) is here set forth [as] an example, in his polygamy and his murder (which probably was some way occasioned by his polygamy), and in this speech to his wives about what he had done. It need not be wondered at that Lamech should express his mind to his wives any more than that Ahab and Haman should express the wicked workings of their hearts to their wives, [1Ki_21:5; 1Ki_21:6; Eph_5:10-14;] and it is the less to be wondered at in Lamech’s case, for it is natural to suppose that his wives, knowing what he had done, were full of fear lest the friends of the persons murdered would avenge themselves on him and his family, and that they themselves should lose their lives by the means; which would be more natural still if the quarrel he had had with the young man that was slain, was about his wives, as is probable. This may well account for the earnestness of Lamech’s speech to his wives, as we may well suppose it would require some pains to remove their fears in such a case.

John P. Lange
The song of Lamech is the first decidedly poetic form in the Scriptures, more distinct than Gen_1:27 and Gen_2:23, as is shown by the marked parallelism of the members. It is the consecration of poetry to the glorification of a Titanic insolence, and, sung as it was in the ears of both his wives, stands as a proof that lust and murder are near akin to each other. Rightly may we suppose (with Hamann and Herder), that the invention of his son Tubal Cain, that is, the invention of weapons, made him so excessively haughty, whilst the invention of his son Jubal put him in a position to sing to his wives his song of hate and vengeance. This indicates, at the same time, an immeasurable pride in his talented sons. He promises himself the taking of a blood-vengeance, vastly enhanced in degree, but shows, at the same time, by the citation of the case of his ancestor Cain, that the dark history of that bad man had become transformed into a proud remembrance for his race. The meaning of the song, however, is not, I have slain a man (Septuagint, Vulgate, &c.). He supposes the case that he were now wounded, or now slain; that is, it looks to the future (Aben Ezra, Calvin, &c). We may take the כִּי with which the song begins as an expression of assurance, and the preterite of the verb as denoting the certainty of the declaration (see Delitzsch, p. 214). We think it better, however, to take it hypothetically, as Nägelsbach and others have done, and this too as corresponding to the sense as well as to the grammatical expression.

H. C. Leupold
Gen_4:23-24 – And Lamech said unto his wives: Adah and Zillah, hear my voice, Ye wives of Lamech, give ear unto my speech. I slay a man for wounding me And a youth for giving me a stripe. For, if Cain is to be avenged sevenfold Then Lamech seventy-seven fold.

This portion caused commentators in days of old untold difficulties. Jamieson reports that Origen devoted two whole books of his Genesis commentary to these verses, and finally rendered the verdict that they were inexplicable. Other commentators were misled by the Jewish fable of the accidental slaying by Lamech of old Cain and a youth who guided him through the forest, and so for a long while they went off on a false scent.

Yet, on the whole, the present-day approach, which classifies this as’ “Lamech’s Sword Song,” is correct. Incidentally, here is the first piece of poetry of which we have a record, not so noble an origin, it is true, but under such circumstances did it take its rise. We claim that approach, then, to be correct which pictures Lamech as handling one of the weapons just manufactured by his son Tubal Cain and as sensing the possibilities that lie in possessing such a weapon. For the waw conversive which binds the opening wayy’omer to the preceding section, bears just this connotation; as a result of his son’s invention of weapons, Lamech, seeing what possibilities lay in such weapons, “said.” This poem does not hang suspended on thin air. That it is a poem is apparent from the very manifest parallelism of the members; the characteristic feature, at least, of Hebrew poetry. From one point of view, of course, this poem is a glorification of the sword. But penetrating deeper into its character, we find it to be a glorification of the spirit of personal revenge. So the poem has an unholy savour and reflects admirably the spirit of those who have grown estranged from God and His Word. So all human culture and the achievement of civilization degenerate apart from God.

It need not surprise us that this word was spoken to Lamech’s wives. They are an audience that needs must listen, and boasting is most safely done at home before their ears. Whether Lamech really was the dangerous fellow that his words make him out to be we have no means of knowing. The elevated tone of the poem is made apparent by the sonorous and dignified double address. “Adah and Zillah” and “ye wives of Lamech.” Again, the poetic character of the piece is reflected in the use of a poetic shortened form for the imperative, shema’an (G. K. 46 f), as well as by a term used largely in poetic diction, ’imrah, “utterance, speech.”

The perfect tenses that follow have been the source of much difficulty. Some, taking them as simple historical perfects, read them as a record of a deed done. But in that event it strikes us as most peculiar that Lamech should have slain both a man and a young man. Murderers very rarely proceed to wholesale slaughter, all the more not when, as in Lamech’s case, they have reason to recall what befell a notorious ancestor of theirs when he committed murder. Then, since apparently the preceding verses had just recorded an invention, the next and more natural step in the narrative would be to canvass the possibilities latent in the invention. So it would be far more plausible to picture Lamech as handling a newly forged sword or swinging it boldly about his head and uttering this sonorous bit of poetry as he does so. In this event, the perfects would have to be regarded as expressing complete assurance, or definite certainty, or promise. Some compare Gen_1:29 and Gen_4:14a. They are, of course, then analogous to prophetic perfects and refer definitely to the future. What Lamech threatens is: if any man wounds me, or if any young man bruises me, I shall kill the offender. “Man” and “young man” constitutes a more picturesque way of saying: “anyone.” “Wound” (pits’i, a cut wound, introduced by le of norm) and “bruise” (chabburathi, a stripe caused by a blow) include all forms of hurt, the more grievous and the less grievous. Consequently, the threat covers every case where a painful wrong is inflicted, no matter who does it. Lamech tries to give his threat a veneer of just retribution by making the distinction: for a real wound, I shall take a man’s life; for a bruise, the life of a youth. Yéledh here hardly means “child,” as its first meaning might lead us to suppose. The suffix on “wound” and “stripe” is called by Strack the suffix expressing the eventual. Not: the “wound,” etc., that I have received, but: the wound I may receive. We have sought to indicate this by: “for wounding me,” etc.

Now comes the climax of this ungodly song of hate. The “for” introducing it introduces as reason not what immediately follows but “the second part of the sentence.” Lamech remembers the sentence and the divine promise to his ancestor. On this he builds up. If God will see to it that the one who harms Cain will have a sevenfold measure of punishment, Lamech, not needing or even despising God’s avenging justice, will provide for himself by the strength of his own arm, re-enforced by his son’s weapon, a far more heavy punishment than God would have allowed-seventy-seven fold. The arrogance and presumption are unbelievable. The spirit of self-sufficiency here expressing itself overleaps all bounds. This, then, coupled with its hate and revengefulness, makes it one of the most ungodly pieces ever written. Such are the achievements of human culture divorced from God, “My fist shall do more for me than God’s vengeance for Cain,” Strack paraphrases. An allusion, by way of contrast to this wicked utterance, apparently lies in (Mat_18:21), where such a high measure of forgiveness, “seventy and seven,” is laid upon Christ’s followers. They are not only to be free of the spirit of retaliation but are to possess instead a rare spirit of forgiveness.

Pulpit Commentary
Gen_4:23, Gen_4:24
And Lamech said unto his wives. The words have an archaic simplicity which bespeak a high antiquity, naturally fall into that peculiar form of parallelism which is a well-known characteristic of Hebrew poetry, and on this account, as welt as from the subject, have been aptly denominated The Song of the Sword.

Adah and gillah, Hear my voice;
Ye wives of Lamech, hearken unto my speech:
For I have slain a mum to my wounding (for my wound),
And a young man to my hurt (because of my strife).
If (for) Cain shall be avenged sevenfold,
Truly (and) Lamech seventy and sevenfold.

Origen wrote two whole books of his commentary on Genesis on this song, and at last pronounced it inexplicable. The chief difficulty in its exegesis concerns the sense in which the words כִּי הָרַגְתִּי are to be taken.

1. If the verb be rendered as a preterit (LXX; Vulgate, Syriac, Kalisch, Murphy, Alford, Jamieson, Luther), then Lamech is represented as informing his wives that in self-defense he has slain a young man who wounded him (not two men, as some read), but that there is no reason to apprehend danger on that account; for if God had promised to avenge Cain sevenfold, should any one kill him, he, being not a willful murderer, but at worst a culpable homicide, would be avenged seventy and sevenfold.

2. If the verb be regarded as a future (Aben Ezra, Calvin, Kiel, Speaker’s. “The preterit stands for the future … (4) In protestations and assurances in which the mind of the speaker views the action as already accomplished, being as good as done”—Gesenius, ‘Hebrews Gram.,’§ 126), then the father of Tubal-cain is depicted as exulting in the weapons which his son’s genius had invented, and with boastful arrogance threatening death to the first man that should injure him, impiously asserting that by means of these same weapons he would exact upon his adversary a vengeance ten times greater than that which had been threatened against the murderer of Cain. Considering the character of the speaker and the spirit of the times, it is probable that this is the correct interpretation.

3. A third interpretation proposes to understand the words of Lamech hypothetically, as thus:—”If I should slay a man, then,” &c. (Lunge, Bush); but this does not materially differ from the first, only putting the case conditionally, which the first asserts categorically.

4. A fourth gives to כִּי the force of a question, and imagines Lamech to be assuring his wives, who are supposed to have been apprehensive of some evil befalling their husband through the use of Tubal-cain’s dangerous weapons, that there was no cause for their anxieties and alarms, as he had not slain a man, that he should be wounded, or a young man, that he should be hurt; but this interpretation, it may be fairly urged, is too strained to be even probably correct.

3 thoughts on “Genesis 4:23- 24: What does Lamech’s Sword Song Mean?

  1. Pingback: First Recorded Gangsta Rap « CONNECT / HOOK

  2. Thank you for such a thorough look at a passage that greatly needed clarity on my part. Truly we cannot read God’s Word alone, and fortunately many have offered their wisdom.

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