Why should Christians be aware of Lamech, an ancient biblical figure mentioned in Genesis 4? Is there any importance for modern believers to giving Lamech a second thought? Maybe yes, since he’s the first man in the Bible reported to have taken a second wife.
Now, there are two men named Lamech mentioned in the Bible, and they are mentioned in back-to-back chapters. That can be a bit confusing but, it’s not so unusual to see two different people called by the same name. In fact, that’s an argument for the historical nature of the Bible. In a work of fiction, the writer is careful not to use characters of the same name but in real life and historical records, many people share the same name. In my extended family, there are at least four Edwards and several Bobs. In my graduating class at school, Loris were as numerous as Lindas and Karens.
These two Lamechs share a name, but they are mentioned in very different lines of ancestry with very different legacies.
The Lamech who took two wives mentioned in Genesis 4 is descended from Adam’s murderous son, Cain. After Cain killed his brother Abel, God cursed Cain and sent him out to wander the earth (although, with the protective proviso that anyone who killed Cain would suffer vengeance from God seven times over.) So, Cain departed from God’s presence and “lived in the land of Nod, East of Eden” Genesis 4:16b NIV.
Genesis 4:17-18 NIV reads, “Cain made love to his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch. To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad was the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael was the father of Methushael, and Methushael was the father of Lamech.” This is the lineage of Lamech in Genesis 4.
Lamech, of Genesis 5, is descended from Adam and Eve’s third son, Seth. Into that lineage, Enoch was born (the one who walked faithfully with God and then was no more). To Enoch, Methuselah was born (the longest lifespan recorded in Scripture). To Methuselah was born Lamech and to Lamech was born Noah (Genesis 5:21-31). This very same Noah would walk in such righteousness that God would use him to save his family from the worldwide flood.
These two family lines, both directly descended from Adam and Eve, will come to demonstrate very different paths that people can and do take in this life.
Who Was Lamech in the Bible and What Did He Do?
The story of Genesis 4 Lamech consists of only four verses. It’s significant to have that long a mention in Scripture but four verses leave out a lifetime of details.
The writer of Genesis decided it was important for us to know that Cain’s great-great-great-great grandson chose to take two wives. This was the first mention in the Bible of someone taking more than one wife.
Now, in Genesis 4, we meet a man who takes two wives. Here’s everything we know from scripture:
“Lamech married two women one named Adah and the other Zillah. Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes. Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. Tubal-Cain’s sister was Naamah. 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.’”
So, we know Lamech married two women. We know their names—Adah and Zillah. We know that Adah gave birth to Jabal and to Jubal. Jabal was a nomadic farmer and so were his offspring. Jubal was a musician and so were his offspring. Zillah gave birth to Tubal-Cain who was a metalworker who had a sister named Naamah. Metallurgy will, of course, lead to the development of weaponry—specifically, the sword.
Finally, we know that Lamech, like his ancestor Cain, is a murderer, by his own admission. And, since he has left the presence of God, he declares his own vengeance on anyone who harms him—77 times (as compared to the seven times God pronounced over Cain).
The writer of Genesis doesn’t draw moral conclusions based on these verses. He doesn’t tie this story together neatly for us with lessons drawn from Lamech’s life.
We know that Cain moved far from the presence of God and built a city he named after his first son, Enoch. We know this grandson, Lamech, knows at least part of the story as to why Cain was sent away and the protective proviso God pronounced over him.
What we see, though, is Lamech now securing his own protection and declaring his own vengeance—taking a life in response to a wound. We see what it looks like when humanity is dependent on themselves instead of on their Creator. We see a family known for music, metallurgy, and nomadic farming. We also know it was notable that the family had two wives.
Why Did Lamech Take Two Wives?
The writer of Genesis gives us no background as to why Lamech took two wives. In the ancient world (and even today in some parts of the world), it’s seen as a practical choice. Cain has left the presence of the Lord and so his descendants will have learned to depend, not on God’s provision, but on their own ability to provide and protect. In that light, multiple wives made some sense for several reasons.
First, apart from God’s guidance, why would humans not do whatever they wished? If Lamech was drawn to women, why not have both, as far as his perspective?
Second, women often died in childbirth and there was much need for a woman in a family to provide daily labor in caring for children, cooking, cleaning, and assisting in the family business. More than one wife would seem practical in this regard.
Third, also practical from Lamech’s perspective may have been that two wives produce more children. More children meant more labor to support the family work and to provide for Lamech in his old age.
Fourth, more wives meant more allegiance with two families which would come in handy during times of attack or war. The families might bond together for protection.
So, while we don’t know from the text why this specific man took two wives, we do know from ancient history why it was a practice.
What Does the Bible Say about Polygamy?
While the Bible records many instances of polygamy, including many major biblical leaders such as Jacob, David, and Solomon, it doesn’t specifically condemn polygamy in instruction or teaching. While the Bible doesn’t specifically condemn polygamy, the examples of biblical leaders with multiple wives clearly record the inevitable complications and problems associated with it.
Jacob’s wives (sisters) engaged in manipulation and trickery to gain time with Jacob in order to conceive children. Elkanah had two wives and Peninnah lorded it over Hannah that she was able to conceive while Hannah was not. David and Solomon’s stories are rife with problems created by multiple wives and children by different women. Rivalries, intrigue, jealousy, favoritism, and manipulation generally mark these polygamous families in Scripture.
In fact, there are some times when Scripture specifically prohibits a leader from taking many wives such as in Deuteronomy 17:17 NIV regarding the king, “He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray.” In those times, kings often took wives to strike allegiances with foreign nations. These wives brought with them their religious practices. We know, for instance, that Jezebel had a profound religious influence on King Ahab that was destructive for Israel.
Likewise, in the New Testament, overseers and deacons are prohibited from having more than one wife. 1 Timothy 3:2 ESV says, “Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach” and 1 Timothy 3:12 ESV says, “Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.” This demonstrates a scriptural preference for at least leaders to be in monogamous marriages.
God does acknowledge the existence of polygamous marriages in Deuteronomy and Exodus by specifying guidelines for behavior within these marriages. In Deuteronomy 21:15-17, he makes it clear that the children of a loved wife cannot be treated with favoritism in terms of firstborn status over the child of an unloved wife. In Exodus 21:10, he prohibits a husband from reducing a first wife’s provision and status if he takes on another wife. So, God acknowledges that humanity will make this choice and specifies some protections within it.
We know from many scriptures that marriage is a living picture of Jesus’ relationship with the church. Faithfulness versus adultery is often used as metaphors for dedication to God versus idolatry. In marriage, the Bible states that husband and wife become one flesh (Ephesians 5:31), so the clear and logical conclusion is that ideally, marriage is between one man and one woman. It’s not to say that monogamous marriages are always stellar examples of relationships either, but their configuration more accurately reflects the image of Jesus’ faithful relationship with His bride, the church.
Why Is it Important for Us to Know about Lamech's Story?
Throughout the Bible, God sets clear choices before humanity. He demonstrates the reward and life associated with following Him as opposed to the misery and eventual death associated with choosing to follow our own ways.
Lamech’s short story is a glimpse of what has happened in only a few short generations from Adam and Eve. In the garden, one man and one woman in an exclusive relationship walked with God and enjoyed all He had to offer through a life-giving relationship. Now, their son Cain has chosen murder and a life apart from God and a new generation has arisen who choose to go their own ways and provide their own murderous vengeance.
Cain kills Abel and God demonstrates mercy by sparing his life and promising vengeance seven times to anyone who kills Cain. A man wounds Lamech and Lamech not only takes the man’s life but warns his wives that to anyone who harms Lamech he will deliver vengeance 70 times seven. There is no mercy evident in Lamech which is often where a life apart from God leads. The fact that polygamy is recorded in association with Lamech’s vengeful life is notable in that it characterizes it as part of a life outside of God’s design.
Lamech’s story is an early cautionary tale and it’s no coincidence that there is a Lamech mentioned in Genesis 5 who father’s Noah, a man who will forever be remembered for his righteousness and faithfulness to God. He, his monogamous wife, his sons, and their monogamous wives are spared from the flood while Lamech’s ancestors are destroyed by the rising waters.
Our lives have a lasting impact, either for God or for evil. Lamech’s four short verses portray a lasting impact of violence and a distortion of God’s original design.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Motortion
Lori Stanley Roeleveld is a blogger, speaker, coach, and disturber of hobbits who enjoys making comfortable Christians late for dinner. She’s authored four encouraging, unsettling books including Running from a Crazy Man and The Art of Hard Conversations. She speaks her mind at www.loriroeleveld.com.
This article is part of our People from the Bible Series featuring the most well-known historical names and figures from Scripture. We have compiled these articles to help you study those whom God chose to set before us as examples in His Word. May their lives and walks with God strengthen your faith and encourage your soul.