Most good parents realize that children mis-behave, at least in part, because they crave attention. Negative attention is still attention, and if parents fail to provide attention to the kids who are well-behaved (but still react to naughty behavior), then they are training their children to act out in less productive ways.
This pattern is not limited to children, of course. Full grown adults are perfectly capable of craving attention, and doing stupid and even self-destructive things in order to feel something in a relationship, even if those feelings are painful.
I think this is at the heart of why people deliberately seek out risky and foolish and destructive behavior; we feel alive when we do something truly stupid.
The problem is that we have a very similar approach when it comes to questions of right and wrong. It is hard to be sure that a god exists if you live a boring life. But you can always see if you can attract some divine attention by doing something that would bring G-d’s wrath down.
Have a look at the stories in Genesis from this perspective. G-d talks to Adam – but He only seeks both Adam and Eve out when they do something wrong, when they eat the forbidden fruit. Next up are Cain and Abel, who bring G-d offerings. G-d gives Cain a pep talk about mastering his anger and defeating sin. Cain reacts by promptly going and killing his brother, which makes G-d come and seek Cain out again. In sum, all the conversations that Cain has with G-d come about not because Cain was doing anything right but as a direct result of doing something wrong.
G-d even ends up punishing Cain, but also protects him and his descendants for seven-generations. It is an act of divine mercy. But protecting someone who commits murder may have easily been seen by others as a kind of reward!
That 7-fold blessing was set to expire 6 generations later. Cain’s descendant Lamech proclaims that he has acted disproportionately by killing two people, one of them a child (perhaps even his own child). And he says, “Since Cain was protected 7 times, so I should be for 77!” Cain had sacrificed his brother, so Lamech sacrifices even more! Lamech even calls on his wives to bear witness, since it was the blood of Abel that called out to G-d after Cain committed murder: Lamech learned from Cain’s story that a witnessed murder gains divine protection.
It is a form of cargo cultism: recreate the original conditions, and expect the same result. Lamech learned the wrong lesson from Cain’s mark: instead of learning of G-d’s mercy despite sin, Lamech gleans that murder and human sacrifice means that G-d will protect you!
The result of the misunderstanding is disastrous; man’s misdeeds culminate with the flood that washes that entire line out. Nevertheless, seen in this light, Lamech may not have actually been guilty of evil intent: he simply misread what he was supposed to do.
Immediately after Lamech’s murders, Eve has another son, Seth, who then has a son, Enosh. The text then says the most peculiar thing (Gen 4:26): “Then [man] began calling out in the name of G-d.”
The problem with this is that mankind did NOT actually begin calling out in G-d’s name. Not even a little. But what DID happen is that G-d stopped coming down and talking to everyone who committed a sin. G-d chose a different parenting posture: instead of rewarding negative behavior, G-d decides he will only be with people who seek Him out. G-d changes his approach, just as a parent who realizes that the negative reinforcement is creating terrible children might do.
Instead, G-d decides that man must take the initiative. When we want G-d, we have to call out in His name, we have to seek the relationship. That will surely be healthier and more productive, we might think.
Except that nobody does – not for many years. And when they do (Avraham does it three times) it is only after G-d has sparked a conversation with Avraham, but not – as He had with Adam, Eve and Cain — on the basis of misbehavior or sin. Left alone, the generations between Enosh and Avraham do not reach out to G-d. Instead, mankind worships gods that we can see or feel, the gods of natural forces, the various elements of Mother Earth.
G-d stops waiting, and He takes the lead. He talks to Avraham, and builds the first constructive relationship between G-d and any man. Avraham responds by “calling out in the name of G-d” three times, and his son, Isaac, does so once. Positive steps, and a growing relationship.
The problem is that we, humankind, often misunderstand what G-d actually wants from us. We might not get it as colossally wrong as Lamech does, but like children who often test the limits of their parents just to make sure they are still there (or still paying attention), mankind often pushes to see if G-d is really there. When we do that, we often get it wrong, in both small and large ways.
One of the most famous examples is the episode of the Golden Calf, when the people err by building an idol. I do not doubt that most of them thought they were actually doing the right thing, that G-d would approve. But, like Lamech, sometimes we connect the dots the wrong way around, even with the best of intentions.
When the people sin with the Golden Calf, and all looks irretrievably lost, G-d explains that there is a pathway to divine mercy, and it comes through calling out in the name of Hashem, through finding positive ways forward. G-d does not want us to misbehave, to seek connection through wrongdoing. Instead, G-d wants us to reach out to him, to create a connection using our declaration: we call out in the name of G-d. G-d, in Exodus 33: 19-, says:
I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I [G-d] will proclaim before you the name LORD, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. … The LORD came down in a cloud; He stood with him there, and called out the name LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed: “The LORD! the LORD! God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”
It all connects. The pathway to divine attention and blessing does not come about through the misbehavior of Adam, Eve, Cain, or Lamech. Instead it comes about by mankind seeking G-d out, saying these words – words that refer back to Cain and Lamech’s sins and consequences in the beginning of Genesis, seeking a healthy connection with G-d, one based on mankind searching for G-d and trying to please Him. Our declarations create a healthy divine relationship, even (and especially) when we have fallen short or made serious mistakes.
Near the end of the Torah and Moses’ life, Moses declares (Deut 32), in words that echo the words used by Lamech as he tells his wives to “give me your ears,” Moshe calls “Give ear, oh Heavens,” and Moshe reminds us “I call out in the name of G-d.” In this speech Moshe reminds us of all the blessings that come from heeding the voice of the Lord – and all the consequences from rejecting or ignoring G-d’s presence. When we call out in G-d’s name, we bring his mercy down to us, whether we erred just for attention, or even with the best intentions in the world.
It is all interconnected.
[An @iwe and @blessedblacksmith collaboration]