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Lamech’s Policy

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

Although the book of Genesis doesn’t call him that, I think Lamech is the archetypical Middle Eastern “tough guy.” Identified as one of Cain’s great-great-grandsons – and the father of Noah – Lamech seems to celebrate the violence of his patrimony. His boast is:

I have killed a man for wounding me, a boy for bruising me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.

Is Lamech’s policy too brutal and harsh? Does he overreact to provocation? What are his real motives? Personal pride? Family honor? Prevention of some greater evil?

Let’s try to give Lamech the benefit of the doubt. The deeds he describes prima facie seem indefensible. But, we don’t know the background and circumstances that led to his course of action.

Perhaps in the world of Lamech, the slightest perception of weakness on his part would make him vulnerable to an overwhelming attack. Maybe the only safeguard for him and his people was his decisive, almost preemptive actions.

In the ancient Middle East – and throughout the Middle East even today – vengeance is considered a virtue. A man, a family or a clan that does not seek vengeance for harm done is without honor. Retaliation is not just an option; it is an obligation.

In situations of conflict and violence, each of the parties may consider himself as the one offended and entitled to revenge. And so, all can be trapped in an endless cycle of injury and retaliation.

Most ancient Middle Eastern law codes tried to regulate retaliation and moderate the rights and duties of revenge. For example, the book of Leviticus says:

Whoever takes the life of any human being shall be put to death; whoever takes the life of an animal shall make restitution of another animal. A life for a life! Anyone who inflicts an injury on his neighbor shall receive the same in return. Limb for limb, eye for eye, tooth for tooth!

This is a norm of proportionality: the retaliation should not exceed the original injury. But, this rule is still not enough to break the endless cycle of violence.

Jesus proposes a radical solution: that we freely renounce our right to revenge and rely on the power of love:

…offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.… love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

Whoever practices this policy risks much and, humanly speaking, may lose! But, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

The choice is Lamech’s policy or love.

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Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA



Tags: Middle East War