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Finding Faith in Faith

This blog is dedicated to exploring the intersections of faith and politics, the intricacies of religious culture and the struggle to balance devotion to a higher being and to one’s culture.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Cain's curse of escalation

This is another entry in the “thought to file away for later” drawer.

I was recently reading Matthew 18:21-23, the passage where Peter asks Jesus how many times to forgive those who sin against him. Peter offers up “seven times?” as a suggestion, probably thinking that seven being the perfect number will demonstrate his perfect forgiving heart. Jesus, of course, responds differently. Some translate his response as “77 times” whereas others translate the response as “70 x 7.” And of course, the point is to say that there should not be a predetermined limit upon our forgiveness.

I have often wondered about the different interpretations of the response. “Seventy-seven” would seem to, according to Jewish numerology, infer we are to be twice perfection (200% as it were) in this area of behavior. The alternative rendition would seem to indicate a magnitude of perfection (perfection squared times 10).

What drew my attention on this day was a footnote in my Bible about the numerical response of seventy-seven fold. It referred me to Genesis 4.

Genesis 4 relates the story of Cain and Abel. This story has always fascinated me, because to me, Cain’s sin is allowing his feelings of “good, but not best” to overwhelm him. And overwhelm him to the point of murdering his brother in a fit of jealousy.

There are many interpretations of this story, and many different lessons in it, but I find this version a truly American warning: do not destroy those who are better in your pursuit to be named the best. Or rather: good enough should suffice.

But the reference was not dealing with this part of the story. Rather, we read over this story to get past the murder and on to Cain’s judgment and banishment. As Cain argues with God about his punishment, he cries out that his punishment is too severe. People will be able to kill him without the protection of his family and God. But God answers by declaring that anyone who kills Cain will suffer a seven-fold vengeance, and marked Cain to warn others.

The remainder of the chapter serves as an epilogue to the story. Cain leaves and sires Enoch and founds a city. Then we receive a lineage of Cain, which pauses at Lamech, who had two wives and at least four children.

In verse 23, we get the beginning of a song from Lamech to his wives concerning his ability to avenge his family honor through violence. Lamech’s claims are wildly escalating: Lamech killed two people, one for wounding him and the other for merely striking him. In verse 24, Lamech boasts that if Cain was avenged sevenfold, Lamech was to be avenged seventy-seven fold.

In my intellectual pursuits, I have struggled with the problem of escalation in our global community. The attacks against civilization and the resulting war on terrorism have made me wonder why it is that man always seeks to raise the intensity of violence in each cycle of response.

Well, we certainly find many examples of violent escalation in the Bible, but the Cain story seems to produce the first. And it intrigues me that the first suggestion of escalation comes not from a villain in the story, but God himself. God declares that his protection of Cain will be the sevenfold retaliation towards the person that kills Cain.

Certainly one imagines that God could have shielded Cain from harm in some preventative fashion, yet He chose to use the threat of violence to secure Cain’s welfare. And from that example, we see Lamech pick up the classic position of strength through fear of reprisal: I will return seventy-seven fold whatever someone lodges against me.

Is this the mythic birth of terrorism? Fear of violence as a form of behavioral control?

Of course, what really intrigues me about this thought is the contrasting use of the “seventy-seven fold” in Matthew 18. Here Jesus seems to be arguing for the opposite approach to conflict: ever-decreasing intensity through forgiveness, or in effect, the de-escalation of reprisal.

So one wonders if what we’re reading here is the Father God introducing might as right to humanity (a lesson humanity took only a few generations to master and so outperform the teacher), whereas the Son God introduces forgiveness as right. Is this merely another illustration of the differences between the older covenants in the Bible and the new? Or is it more significant?

I read into the Lamech song the inevitable struggle to survive in the social world. In the Genesis story, the only act of outright violence was performed by Cain because of his dashed hopes: he feels he cannot live in the presence of his brother, so he kills him. But the term’s of Cain’s banishment seems to indicate a model for navigating the early social world: threats are more effective deterrents to violence than peaceful actions and intentions. Lamech’s song seems to represent how early societies were forced to defend their honor with the threat of violence as a result of Cain’s judgment.

Jesus argues that forgiveness is the only proper course for dealing with infractions against oneself. And the difference between Lamech’s song and Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18 are striking. Jesus relates the story illustrating that we are all in debt to someone, and unless we show mercy and forgive debts, there is no end to the cycle of retribution and escalation.

Lamech’s song displays the formation of the spiral of violence in the name of honor and security, but Jesus’ parable begins with the numeric reference to the song to demonstrate the folly when one looks at the end results of ever-escalating retribution against those who sin against us.

If only we could bring this philosophy into our modern clash between civilizations …