Search Term Friday: Seventy Times Seven

The number "seventy times seven" occurs frequently in the bible. And the search term "seventy times seven" recently brought someone to the blog, linking them to a post from 2010 entitled "The Song of Lamech Is Not the Song of the Lamb."

In that post I point out that the phrase "seventy times seven" was not initially associated with forgiveness but was, rather, rooted in a song of vengeance.

Consequently, I suggest that Jesus's reference to forgiving "seventy times seven" is reaching way back into the Old Testament in order to undo something that went wrong a long time ago and affects us still:

The very first mention of "seventy times seven" is not Jesus's instruction on forgiveness. The first reference of "seventy times seven" or "seventy seven" in the bible is found in Lamech's Song of the Sword.

The Song is found very early in Genesis--right at the dawn of the biblical story--after the sin of Cain and Cain's exile. From there the descendents of Cain are named and among them is Lamech. In the middle of this, without any real context, Lamech gives what has been called the Song of the Sword:
Genesis 4.23-24
Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words:

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. ”
Again, we don't know any of the background here. We don't know who the young man was or why Lamech killed him. But what we do know is that this is a song of vengeance. More, it's a song of "shock and awe" vengeance.

There's the normal tit for tat vengeance.

Then there's Cain-level vengeance--vengeance times seven.

And then there is Lamech-level vengeance--vengeance seventy-seven times.

Again, this is the very first reference in the bible to seventy-seven (or seventy times seven). And we note here that this number is associated with vengeance, with a Song of the Sword.

In light of that, I wonder if Jesus's teachings on forgiveness are not directly addressing the ethic of Lamech and the hold it has upon our imaginations. Is not Jesus explicitly rejecting the Song of the Sword and the world it creates?
Matthew 18. 21-22
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times."
Also note the sword-theme in the arrest at Gethsemane. Swords are everywhere:
Matthew 26.47-56
While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.

Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”

Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”

In that hour Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled. 
Everyone in this scene is working with the imagination of Lamech. The Song of the Sword is the ethic of everyone in the scene. Everyone, that is, but Jesus.

The men coming for Jesus are carrying swords. And Jesus chides them for their mistake. He basically says, "What ever gave you the idea that you'd need a sword to arrest me? When did I ever carry or call for swords?"

Jesus is in effect saying, "When did you ever hear me sing the song of Lamech?"

And Jesus's followers are just as confused. They are still singing the song of Lamech. The swords are met with swords.

But Jesus says, put your sword away.

We have a new understanding of seventy-seven.

The Song of Lamech is not the Song of the Lamb.

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6 thoughts on “Search Term Friday: Seventy Times Seven”

  1. I can remember a time before what is referred to as the "radical sixties", when many evangelicals, even those who would have called themselves conservative, took the "conscientious objector" stance toward war. However, once the sixties were in full force, most of these Christians, being frightened by the swelling radicalism, retreated to a more comfortable pro war position.

    War, as it is with guns in general, gives a strong sense of protection when the revered past is felt to be under attack; war, or the willingness to take up arms, feels like the ultimate sacrifice. As much as it sickens me to see Christians on Facebook go into a passionate rage for guns, I know from growing up in that culture, that the overlap of guns and God feels natural to them. And when thirty four percent of Mississippi Republicans say that they would fight for the Confederacy if a new Civil War broke out, you can be assure that most of those people have within their conscience a mixture of culture and religion that, they feel, is the closest to real Christianity than anywhere else on the planet.

    As one who came out of that I am sometimes at a loss as to what can change this excitement for guns and war. However, when I read good articles like Richard's, I am convinced that, considering that we dealing with those who believe themselves to be the best students of scripture, the only way any change can happen, is to keep the real Jesus "in their face" day in, day out. Now, non-believers may have a good laugh at what I just said. But, believe me, when you are dealing with those who want keep the Christ in uniform, the only choice you have is to show them just how powerful Christ really is stripped down to nothing.

  2. There’s no doubt that at first glance when one reads this story you get the sense that Lamech is truly an evil and
    distorted bastard. To boast and sing about potentially killing a “kid” is about as mean-spirited as one could be. There are supposedly however, two or more different Talmudic-like versions of this story from the “Shalshelet ha-Kabbalah” composed by Gedaliah ibn Yahya.

    When in verse 23 it says –

    “for I have slain a man to my wounding,
    and a young man to my hurt”

    One version has it that Cain was Lamech’s great-grandfather and Tubalcain his son. One day Cain was deep in the
    woods by himself resting calmly. Being old, blind and worn out, he didn’t take too much notice of things. Supposedly Lamech then comes along, being escorted Tubalcain on a hunt for game. Being quite old himself and not seeing clearly he is then told by Tubalcain that there’s a beast to be had in the thicket and he should shoot it quickly. Lamech fires, hit his mark and drops the creature. When they both then go to investigate the kill, Lamech discovers it’s Cain whom he’s shot and is outraged. He then blames Tubalcain for the accident and in a moment of anger swings his sword and cuts him down.

    Another version of Arabic origin has Lamech in the woods hunting with one of his sons when he hears something in the
    bushes. He slings up a rock and hits his target. When he investigates he finds he’s killed Cain accidently and the boy starts screaming this out. He panics and bashes the kid over the head to shut him up and ends up accidently killing
    him as well.

    So, from position of these folk-tales, Lamech is rather innocent of homicide and or premeditated manslaughter. It's generally assumed that Lamech’s boastful poetry is an arrogant pronouncement of personal acquittal. However, it has been interpreted by some theologians as a comforting explanation offered up to his wives, for as 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. (?)

    If Christ is truly drawing a comparison here and is inverting the meaning [of the story] into “forgiving seventy times seven”, rather than propagating violence to that multiple, then it is a clearly a profound transposal of the story. If however it was understood by those in his day, as the folk tale versions might suggest, then “forgiveness” [our forgiveness – his forgiveness] becomes a transmission of personal acquittal for a sinful situation [in the World / in Creation] that’s out of control and not entirely our responsibility.

  3. The faithful remnant in Mississippi that continue to fight the Civil War can easily justify their beliefs because they simply "baptize them," thus making such attitudes acceptable. An aura of sacredness is placed over certain political issues - guns, yelling threats and curses into the faces of immigrant children, stereotyping the poor, and many other things which supersede the teachings of Christ. When God is on your side, you can justify most any belief. This sub-cultural variation has removed compassion, reason, and real spiritual influences and replaced them with what Jesus calls "hardness of heart." (See Mark 3:1-6.)

  4. The 7-times transition into a 70-times escalation is another way of describing the similar escalation from "injury" to "killing" in the Lamech story. Lamech retaliates against being injured by killing the guy. If this isn't a clear exposure of Violent contagion or escalation (Girard would have a field day with this!) then I don't know what it.

    Jesus seems to be very clear in recognising this trend of violent escalation, with his deliberate reference to the 7 -> 70 "rule". It does seem he is trying to repudiate it/ reverse it.

  5. I like your use of the terms "contagion" and "escalation" here and as you've said, if Jesus is then reversing and or inverting it, and we take to heart his instruction - then the principle is that our ability to forgive becomes "contagious" and an "escalation" of his love. Having the wherewithal to sustain that level of consistent forgiveness can only come from a greater power outside of ourselves, in that our biological prerogatives often limit our altruistic ambitions.

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