Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Out of the Ground

“When Lamech had lived 182 years, he fathered a son and called his name Noah, saying, ‘Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.’ ”

Er ... what is this exactly? Lamech’s declaration about Noah seems, to say the least, thick with irony. How should we understand the fatherly intent here? What was Lamech trying to communicate?

Prophecies and Blessings

Well, his pronouncement could be prophetic. That’s the way the ESV and many other versions translate it, as a statement made with the confidence of divinely-conveyed insight. Other translations render Lamech’s thoughts in a more hopeful tone: “May he bring us relief ...” and so on, which would make his invocation a blessing rather than a prediction.

Either way, the Spirit of God saw fit to include for us in scripture the recognition by Noah’s father that his newborn son was destined to occupy a special place in the plans and purposes of God for mankind, and if it’s in there it means something. Bible historians are not known for cluttering their writing with trivia.

The Clear Bits

Some parts of Lamech’s statement require no special insight. God had cursed the earth in Genesis 3, and though eight generations and some 900 years had passed, this explanation for the condition of the world was still generally accepted in certain quarters, probably because Adam himself had only died a little over a century before and God’s words were still fresh in the minds of those inclined to heed them.

Obviously that was not everyone. The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, when man began to multiply on the face of the land, as the very next chapter of Genesis will remind us. These were the children of the “sons of God”, heavenly rebels who took wives from among men. Their presence in the fully human population is likely connected to the very next statement made, which is “that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”. Alternatively, there are those readers who blame the descendants of Cain for the precipitous moral decline of humanity. Whatever the cause, we can be sure Lamech, in his consciousness of God and God’s will, was in a tiny minority in his day, one sorely in need of relief not just from the curse on the earth, but from the ever-increasing depravity all around them.

Looking for Relief

Where we could use further clarification is with respect to the intended meaning of the Hebrew word נָחַם [am], rendered in English as “relief”, “comfort” or “rest”, depending on your translation. The word basically refers to a change of attitude in one direction or another; it carries the sense of repenting or lamenting almost as often as comforting — twice in the very next chapter, as a matter of fact, where God “regrets” that he has made mankind (6:6-7).

However, in this case context demands we assume this change of attitude is a positive one; Lamech appears to look forward with hope to whatever Noah is destined to bring, meaning that “relief”, “comfort” or “rest” are the likeliest appropriate translations. The ESV notes that Noah’s name even sounds like the Hebrew for “rest”. However, we note Lamech makes no prediction as to what sort of relief is in view and how it might be accomplished.


As always, the internet is full of possibilities. BibleRef.com suggests:

“Perhaps Lamech just meant that Noah would bring relief from God’s curse on men by sharing in the painful work of getting crops from the ground.”

Maybe, but that seems a little thin to me. Surely one more pair of hands would not make that much difference in Lamech’s labors, and certainly not to the labors of Lamech’s extended family or to mankind generally (he says “bring us relief”, not just “me”).

Here’s another: Back in the 11th century, Solomon Ben Isaac Jarchi, a famous rabbi, suggested that Noah was the inventor of plows and spades, making farming easier. We have exactly zero evidence of that. Certainly the text tells us Noah became “a man of the soil” and planted a vineyard, but no more than that is said. Anything further is pure conjecture.

Yet another: J.B. Lightfoot suggests Noah would be a comfort in that he would receive the message that God would now allow mankind to eat flesh, enabling him to survive with less grueling labor. Possibly, but it’s hard to see how the arrival of this new benefit could be of any credit to Noah. God simply declares it unilaterally — and not to Noah only, but to his sons as well. Moreover, hunting and/or raising livestock are arguably as much work as tilling the ground. They net you more calories, perhaps, but chasing boars through the jungle, milking herds of cows or dressing freshly butchered goats are not jobs for slackers.

More Possibilities

Adam Clarke looks for the fulfillment of Lamech’s words in Genesis 8:21, where Noah offers a sacrifice after leaving the ark. The Lord smells the pleasing aroma and declares:

I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

It is hard to see how this works. Lamech looked to Noah for relief from physical labor, and here God declares that “seedtime and harvest” shall not cease — precisely the sort of arduous work Lamech was hoping to avoid.

Alternatively, Clarke posits a fulfillment in the reduction of the human lifespan described in Psalm 90 as “seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty”. Again, this seems less than perfectly satisfactory. The reduction in lifespans seems indeed to have been related to some post-diluvian change in the environment. The lifespans of the patriarchs who lived after the Flood, long as they may have been, were a mere handful of years compared to those who lived prior to the Flood.

Now, 900+ years is indeed a long lifetime. Laboring daily for your dinner would definitely become old hat, and one can see how Lamech might have craved respite from it. But Lamech had only been in the fields 150 years or so at the time he said this. It’s difficult to imagine an early death was the “rest” he craved.

An Intriguing Possibility

Peter reminds us that the prophets often uttered words given them by God without knowing in exactly what sense or under what circumstances those words might apply. They “searched and inquired carefully” to discern the meaning of the messages they were given. Had Lamech been so disposed, he would have been at a significant disadvantage. So far as we know, at this point in human history there existed no written word of God to be searched.

Whatever Lamech may have had in mind when he spoke, he could not have possibly anticipated the way in which his words would ultimately be fulfilled.

Of all the suggestions offered by the commentators, I like John Gill’s the best. Gill takes Lamech’s invocation spiritually as well as literally. Noah carried the Messianic line in his genes. The promised seed of the woman was to be borne through the flood in his ancestor, and would one day appear to liberate mankind from the grim labor of trying to keep the law in vain hope of salvation. Moreover, Paul reminds us that because Jesus is risen, creation itself is destined to be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God, and mankind to be free of the consequences of its curse. Peter even uses the image of the ark as a picture of death and resurrection. In Christ, the curse is lifted. However indirectly, Noah would literally bring relief “out of the ground”.

As the hymnwriter put it, “Up from the grave he arose.” That’s quite a prophecy, and quite a fulfillment.

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