Lamech's Revenge: Israel Pursues Ancient Strategy

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The strategy the modern nation of Israel is pursuing may seem contemporary, but it is one of the most ancient. It is the strategy of school yard and prison yard. "They shove you, you belt 'em one! They knock you down, you knock 'em out!"

It is the strategy, in fact, that first occurs in the Book of Genesis, before the Great Flood. It is known as "Lamech's Revenge."

The Lamech of Cain's line told his two wives:

    I have killed a man for wounding me,
    A young man for injuring me.
    If Cain is avenged seven times,
    Then Lamech seventy-seven times (Genesis 4:23-24).

Pay them back 77 times more than their offense! This seems to characterize Israel's long-term strategy. But take a look at how the unfolding will of God revealed itself through history since those brutal, antediluvian times.

Stage 1: Tit for tat
The Law of Moses moved the ancient nation of Israel from Lamech-like revenge when it limited vengeance to "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise" (Exodus 21:23-24; see also Leviticus 24:17-20; Deuteronomy 19:21). We tend to think of these as harsh commands, but compared to Lamech's Revenge, it was a giant leap forward toward true justice.

Stage 2: Lex talionis
Not only was this the justice meted out in an Israelite court of law, but it was also the kind the Israelite people prayed for from the court of heaven. It's the vengeance we often refer to as "poetic justice": pay them back in kind for the wrong they have done.

If they rolled boulders down on the unwary, may boulders roll down on them; may they fall into the pit that they themselves have dug (see, for example, Psalm 7:15; 35:8; Proverbs 26:27). The command to hang Haman on the gallows he built for Mordecai (Esther 7:9-10) resonates with an ironic justice. The step forward here is that the people are not taking vengeance themselves, but earnestly pleading for God to do it in their behalf.

Stage three: Refusing vengeance and acting kindly
Under the New Covenant we see grace and forgiveness triumphing over resentment and bitterness. The Apostle Paul commands, "Do not repay anyone evil for evil.... Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written, 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord." Then, in v. 20, Paul adds this amazing command, which is actually a quotation from Proverbs 25:11-12:

    If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    If he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
    In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.
The meaning of burning coals is obscure, but it may mean you will make him burn with shame at his unfounded enmity.

Stage four: Unlimited forgiveness and restoration of relationship
Jesus the Messiah Himself urges us to love our enemies and to let our love prompt us to action. He counsels a ready forgiveness so that if our brother offends seven times in a day and seven times says, "I repent," we forgive him (Luke 17:4).

We forgive, the Master says, not seven times, but 77 times (Matthew 18:22), exactly reversing Lamech's Revenge. And, if the offense remains unrepented, Paul's command means that we still do not take vengeance into our own hands, but defer to the "Judge of all the earth."

Analyze the results
Does this offer the prospect of a better outcome than the one the Israelis can anticipate with Hezbollah or Hamas? The potential for transformation exists, as unlikely as it seems to jaded analysts and pundits. But what potential is there for Lamech's Revenge? Only the ringing warning of a Savior who found His victory on a cross: "Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword" (Matthew 26:52). We should not disregard or diminish the significance of the word 'all' in this verse.

At best, Lamech's Revenge can offer only an escalating tit for tat — an endless blood feud that ever threatens to burst beyond national borders. Mercy and forgiveness offer a new start, regenerated hearts leading to transformed attitudes, helping actions, healed relationships.

What about closer to home?
It's easy for us to remain comfortably detached and criticize what seems to be the intentional, long-term strategy of modern Israel. It's much more of a challenge for us to detect the identical strategy in our own country's foreign policy. More difficult still is the process of diagnosing the very same tendency to yearn for Lamech's Revenge on a personal level.

Wherever it turns up, Lamech's Revenge has the same devastating effect. It destroys both its object and its subject. Christ's forgiveness has the potential to heal both. Yet, even if its object remains unresponsive or even violent, Christ's 77-fold forgiveness keeps the subject's heart spiritually healthy and attuned to God's will. It qualifies us to be peacemakers, in imitation of the Prince of Peace.

Although the short-term effects of this strategy may mean carrying a cross, if we can lift our eyes to look over the short-term, we can be confident that in the end, both we and the world will be better for rejecting the one upsmanship of "I don't get mad; I get even." Revenge comes from harboring of resentment, which is like concocting a deadly poison you intend for your rival, and then drinking it yourself.

When Lamech's Revenge is at long last laid to rest — and good riddance! — then perhaps, by God's blessing, "the meek will inherit the earth."

Steve Singleton,
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