Lamech and his Wives

Lamech and his Wives
Parshat Bereshit – פרשת בראשית October 29, 2016 – כ"ז תשרי תשע"ז This essay is sponsored by Joshua & Deena Davis in honor of the Bat Mitzvah of their granddaughter Hadas Sara; and by Joanne Wiesner-Steiner in memory of her father, Abraham Wiesner אברהם בן נתן ז"ל. Lamech and his Wives Guilty of fratricide, Cain roamed the earth as a marked man. He did not merit being the progenitor of postdiluvian humanity; that distinction was reserved for his younger brother Seth, the ancestor of Noah. Nonetheless, Scripture records the generations of Cain’s offspring and devotes seemingly inordinate attention to his great-great-great grandson Lamech. “Lamech took to himself two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other was Zillah. Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds. And the name of his brother was Jubal; he was the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe. As for Zillah, she bore Tubal-Cain, who forged all the implements of copper and iron. And the sister of Tubal-Cain was Naamah. And Lamech said to his wives, ‘Adah and Zillah hear my voice; oh wives of Lamech give ear to my speech. I have slain a man for wounding me, and a lad for bruising me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-seven fold’ (Genesis 4:19-24).” The sages wondered why Scripture bothered to preserve the doomed Cainite genealogical table. Rashi suggested that the seemingly superfluous text serves to confirm the Divine promise, “If anyone kills Cain, sevenfold vengeance shall be taken on him (4:15).” Interpreting the ambiguous “sevenfold vengeance” to mean that Cain would suffer appropriate punishment after seven generations had passed, Rashi noted that Lamech first begot children who were the seventh Cainite generation before proceeding to kill his elderly forebear. The Midrash presents a detailed narrative of Lamech’s homicidal acts, embellishing, in fanciful fashion, upon the Bible’s cryptic poetry. Lamech was blind. He went hunting with his son Tubal-Cain. The son directed his father’s attention to what seemed to be an animal in the distance. Lamech shot his arrow and killed the creature. Upon inspecting the victim at closer range, Tubal-Cain acknowledged that it was not a beast but a man. Lamech became distraught as he realized that he had killed his ancestor Cain. Filled with remorse, Lamech forcefully clapped his hands. In doing so, he accidentally struck his son in the head with a fatal blow. Lamech, blind and disoriented, was stuck out in the field. At nightfall, his wives went to look for him. They found him standing over the corpses of Cain and Tubal-Cain. At that moment, the earth opened and swallowed the other Cainite families of Enoch, Irad, Mehujael, and Methusael. Lamech had effectively, though unwittingly, become the angel of death for the entire Cainite line. Upon arriving home, Lamech solicited sexual intercourse from his wives. The wives refused. He persisted in his request, noting that retribution would not befall his family for seventy-seven generations. They continued to refuse his sexual overtures, recoiling at the possibility of giving birth to cursed offspring. The dispute was taken to Adam for adjudication. Adam sided with Lamech and ordered the wives to submit to their husband. Adah and Zillah called attention to Adam’s hypocrisy. After the murder of Abel, Adam had abstained from intercourse with Eve for 130 years. Conceding the ladies’ point, Adam resumed sexual relations with Eve and begat Seth (Tanhuma Bereshit 11). The Aggadah here beautifully, though fantastically, weaves together the disparate elements of Genesis 4. The seemingly irrelevant digression about the Cainite line serves to connect Abel’s death with Seth’s birth. The sudden and jarring shift from Lamech’s fate to Adam and Eve’s intimate relations (4:24-25) is now coherently explained. According to some scholars, the purpose of the Lamech pericope is to draw an unfavorable comparison between the Cainite and Sethite lines. Lamech was the seventh Adamite generation via Cain. He was a violent and lascivious man. He boasted of killing a young boy. He had multiple sexual conquests. Lamech’s masculine machismo stands in stark contrast to the Bible’s characterization of Enoch. The seventh Adamite generation via Seth, Enoch was a virtuous man who “walked with God” (5:24). Whereas Lamech excelled at fisticuffs and carnality, Enoch’s achievements were spiritual. The best-known exposition of the Lamech pericope focuses on Lamech’s polygamy. The Creation narrative strongly hints that the preferred marital arrangement is heterosexual monogamy. “Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh (2:24).” Adam and Eve maintain a monogamous relationship; so did the survivors of the Flood. Noah and his three sons each had one wife (7:13). The poetic ode to the “Woman of Valor” makes sense only if a monogamous union is assumed (Proverbs 31:29). Lamech was the first man to depart from the Divine plan by taking two wives. He introduced bigamy to the world. For that reason, his reputation has been irrevocably besmirched. The Midrash claims that each of Lamech’s wives served a different purpose. Lamech married Adah exclusively for the sake of procreation. He had no other relationship with her; she lived like a scorned widow. Her name connotes pregnancy (Onkelos Genesis 4:1). Tragically, that was the entirety of her existence. Lamech married Zillah to satisfy his unbridled sexual urges. She drank a contraceptive elixir so that unwanted pregnancy did not ruin her appeal. She adorned herself like a harlot. Zillah’s name connotes that she was constantly in her husband’s company and sat in his shadow. The Midrash claims that Lamech was not alone in having two types of wife. Rather, this was a common practice of the corrupt generation of the Flood, and was one of the reasons those people were considered worthy of destruction (Genesis Rabbah 23:2). [The Jerusalem Talmud has a different recension of the Aggadah about Lamech. In this version, Adah was the trophy wife and Zillah was the wife designated for childbearing. The name Adah homiletically is connected to the Hebrew מתעדן, meaning to overindulge in pleasure. The name Zillah is favorably expounded upon to mean that intercourse with her husband was always effectuated modestly, in shaded or private areas (Yerushalmi Yebamoth 7c). However, the account in Genesis Rabbah seems more accurate. A late Midrashic work notes that Esau took multiple wives, Adah for procreation and Oholibamah for gratification (Genesis Rabbati Vaylishlach 160). In both Lamech’s (4:20) and Esau’s (36:4) cases, respectively, the wife named Adah is recorded as the first wife to give birth, implying that that was her purpose. Moreover, concerning Zillah’s giving birth, Scripture uses the term גם היא (4:22), implying that it was an afterthought or a secondary consideration for her.] Kli Yakar noted that Adah, the scorned woman considered useless but for her fertile womb, gave birth to virtuous children who excelled as shepherds and musicians. The Biblical heroes took up those estimable professions. Zillah, the sexually objectified wife, gave birth to an ironsmith who fashioned weapons of war. Kli Yakar considered it fitting that someone who copulated too frequently – an activity regarded in antiquity as deleterious to one’s health and causing an earlier death – would bring into the world someone whose trade was to produce implements that shortened lives. The Pentateuch grudgingly permits polygamy. (Note: polygyny, not polyandry, is permitted.) Over the millennia, however, both Judaism and, more generally, Western civilization have moved to ban polygamy. Generations of readers of Scripture, Jew and gentile alike, have looked upon Lamech with a jaundiced eye. If ever there were a religious figure likely to reread the Lamech pericope with a benevolent hermeneutic, it would have been Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. He was a staunch believer in, and practitioner of, plural marriage. Yet even Smith wrote of his lecherous predecessor: “For Lamech having entered into a covenant with Satan, after the manner of Cain, wherein he became Master Mahan, master of that great secret which was administered unto Cain by Satan (Book of Moses 5:49).” A final approach to the appearance of the Cainite line in Scripture focuses not on Lamech and his wives but on their children. In many ancient cultures, many aspects of civilization and technological progress were attributed to gods or demigods. In rejecting the pagan creation myths popular among Israel’s neighbors, the Hebrew Bible emphasizes that all advancements in human civilization are the product of human inventiveness. It was a person who discovered agriculture; another person discovered animal husbandry; another discovered/invented metalsmithing; and another discovered the art of music. Though humanity would not ultimately descend from that particular genealogical line, Scripture teaches that we all benefit from the collective genius of those who came before us.