When Cain murdered Abel, violence was introduced into a violence-free world. But violence is like a cancer; its nature is to multiply exponentially, to spread and attack other healthy organs, to dominate its host even if such domination leads to the death of the host—and, ironically, its own demise as well.
Cain’s crime deserves capital punishment, but God is merciful. If Cain can’t live with others as a settled farmer, then he must become a wanderer, estranged from all relationships. He won’t be a part of any family, any tribe, or any clan, those relationships that provide both nurture and protection. Cain realizes this; he knows he will be fair game to anyone and everyone. “I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me."
So God, ever merciful, promises to protect him. "’Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.’ And the LORD put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.” Now here is an important point: vengeance in the hands of God is protective, not retributive. Vengeance is a terrible tool, and only God, who alone is supposed to be the giver and taker of life, is capable of utilizing it properly. God puts a mark on Cain that tells others to back off, and backing off is what God wants; he does not want to have to actually avenge Cain’s death. He just wants Cain to be protected.
Immediately following this story is a short genealogy beginning with Cain, and five generations in Lamech is born. There is an interruption in the droning pattern of the genealogy—the writer’s way of saying, “Pay attention, this is the important part.” “Lamech said to his wives: ‘Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.’” Vengeance in the hands of humans is not merely protective, but retributive, excessive, and escalating. The escalation is two-fold: first, Lamech promises that his revenge will be seventy-seven times greater than the offense, not the mere seven times that God will avenge Cain. Second, while God promises to avenge Cain’s death, Lamech kills a man just for wounding him. This is not an eye for an eye; it’s rather a life for an eye.
Hit me, I’ll kill you. This is an eleven-fold acceleration of the downward spiral of violence, spanning five generations but compressed over just a couple of verses to impress upon us the severity of the regressive cycle.
What is interesting is that this truncated genealogy of Cain and Lamech is followed by the expanded genealogy of chapter five. This genealogy, however, doesn’t flow from Adam through Cain and his descendants, but from Adam and his third son, Seth. In this genealogy the people live extraordinarily long lives: 912 years, 815 years, 962 years, capped off by Methuselah, who lived 969 years. And there is no pattern; there isn’t a slow degradation in the human condition in which men live shorter and shorter lives as the list progresses, signifying the degrading effects of sin. No, they all live long lives, some longer than others, but it varies. Methuselah actually appears toward the end of the list.
So what? Well, it would appear that the writer of Genesis is making the point that the way of murderous Cain and vengeful Lamech does not and cannot lead to life. It is the genealogy of death and degradation. The genealogy of life must pass through another son and another way.
So this way is always present, always available, but it is not the way that prevails. The way of violence seems to prevail, and violence not only leads to more violence, it leads to worse violence, from sevenfold to seventy-sevenfold. Always. It just keeps getting worse until you can’t stand it anymore.
“Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” The change is radical, from an earth void of violence to an earth filled with violence. It metastasized, affecting not only the humans, but the earth itself. The earth itself became corrupt; all creation suffers when humans unleash their violence upon each other. This is self-evident when one simply looks at pictures of the landscapes of battlefields days after the fighting has ended. The barrenness of the earth is clear to see. Or go to neighborhoods ravaged by drug and gang violence and see the lack of life and beauty that is left. Violence attacks any healthy organ and brings desolation. The earth itself becomes collateral damage, and regardless of what any human will say, to God there is no acceptable level of collateral damage.
“The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”
God was sorry. He regretted ever making the humans. He repented of his decision to make these violence-addicted creatures. That ought to make you pause. Of all the sins that you and I could commit, this is the one that makes God repent, makes him question his own decision, makes him want to go back, hit rewind, and start all over again.
This alone is evidence that the violence that humans perpetrate, tolerate, accept as tolerable, even necessary, maybe even, on a certain level claim as redemptive—this is our Original Sin. This is what we need to be saved from.
And then, in a great ironic twist, to solve the problem God himself commits the greatest and most comprehensive act of violence the world has ever known. We'll see how that turned out.