Written by Vladimir Moss



     We are all familiar with the Gospel passage: Then Peter came and said to Him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?"Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18.22).

     The usual interpretation of this passage is that just as God’s mercy to penitent sinners is not limited, but infinite, so our forgiveness should be unlimited towards those who sin against us. As Blessed Theophylact says: “What he means here is an infinite number, as if He were saying, ‘However many times he sins and repents, forgive him.’” This teaching was in sharp contrast to that of the rabbis, who, basing themselves on a false interpretation of Amos 2.6, taught that sinners should be forgiven no more than three times. 

     Now the phrase “seventy times seven” reminds us of another passage from the Old Testament. This has to do, not with mercy and forgiveness, but with vengeance: Lamech said to his wives…: “I have slain a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged seven times, truly Lamech seventy times seven” (Genesis 4.23-24). The context is the first murder in world history, Cain’s killing of Abel. Cain feared that he would be killed by his relatives for his crime, but God places a mark on him protecting him, and declares that if anyone kills Cain, vengeance will be carried out on him seven times (4.15).

     These two passages from the Old and New Testaments are obviously parallel to each other and invite comparison; and so we begin with what the Holy Fathers say about the more difficult passage from Genesis.

     But let us first note the significance of the number seven. Seven denotes the fullness of our time on earth insofar as our whole life is composed of weeks having seven days in each. Therefore a sin that is mortal, that is, worthy of seven times avengement, deserves a life-time sentence, which, as Cain says, is “unbearable” (Genesis 4.13). But just as, if we add one to seven, we get eight, which frees us from the cycle of time and brings us out into eternity, so if we add God to mortal sin, as it were, we get forgiveness, the abolition of sin and, if not a return to Paradise, at any rate an unburdened conscience.

     Now St. Basil the Great writes: “’If Cain is avenged seven times, truly Lamech seventy times seven.’ It is right for me to undergo four hundred and ninety chastisements, if truly God’s judgement against Cain is just, that he should undergo seven punishments. In fact, as he did not learn to murder from another, so he did not see the murderer undergoing the penalty. But I, having before my eyes the man groaning and trembling and also the greatness of the anger of God, was not brought to my senses by the example. Therefore I deserve to pay four hundred and ninety penalties.”[1]

     St. John Chrysostom has another interpretation, but one that is perfectly compatible with St. Basil’s: “The denial of guilt after the committing of sin proves worse than the sins themselves. This was the condition of that man [Cain] who killed his brother and who when questioned by the loving God did not merely decline to confess his crime but even dared to lie to God and thus caused his life to be lengthened. Accordingly Lamech, when he fell into the same sins, arrived at the conclusion that denial would only lead to receiving a severer punishment, and so he summoned his wives, without anyone’s accusing or charging him, and made a personal confession of his sins to them in his own words. By comparing what he had done to the crimes committed by Cain, he limited the punishment coming to him.”[2] 

     Taken together, these passages and their interpretations lead us to the following conclusions:-

1.     Sin repeated over time multiplies guilt, because the later sinners have the example of the earlier sinners, and their unbearable punishment, to warn them and deter them.

2.     In such cases, the guilt becomes not only unbearable but unlimited and unending (“seventy times seven”).

3.     However, if we confess our sins, then He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins (I John 1.9). For just as His wrath is unbearable and unending, so is His mercy infinite: “Where sin abounded, grace abounded much more” (Romans 6.20).

     The original sin, of Adam, drove man out of Paradise, not primarily because he sinned, but because he failed to confess his sin before God when God questioned him. The sin of a moment now became the sin of a week – or rather, of a whole lifetime, and of the lifetime of the whole of humanity, which inherits this sin by physical transmission until and unless it is washed out by holy baptism. “For in sins did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 50)… However, Adam at least had the consolation that he could sit opposite Paradise and hear the murmuring of its leaves and see its wonderful light… This was a powerful impetus to repentance, and he did indeed repent.

     The second sin, Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, was of course more serious, for it was motivated by envy, the passion of the devil himself. And it was made worse because Cain already knew the penalty for sin – expulsion from Paradise. Moreover, he tried to hide his sin from God; he refused to repent. So the punishment meted out to Adam was intensified for Cain – he was sentenced to an increase in physical labour, and expulsion still further from Paradise, in the land of Nod. Moreover, he was separated from the company of the rest of his family, making his suffering unbearable. And God did not allow anyone to shorten his suffering by taking revenge on him and killing him. “Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”

     Cain’s descendant Lamech killed two men instead of one (and had two wives instead of one). This illustrates the iron law of history: the sin that is not repented of unfailingly multiplies, bringing in its wake a multiplication in suffering according to the Justice of God. Lamech repented, and therefore stopped the onslaught of suffering in his own person. But the race of man as a whole – not only the Cainites, but also the Sethites, who mixed with them, contrary to God’s commandments – did not repent of their sins. Between Adam and Noah only one man, Enoch, “walked with God” and was therefore found worthy to be taken out of this vale of tears and even to escape death (temporarily). And so, just as sin multiplied, so was the punishment multiplied, and the Flood came and destroyed the whole of humanity and animal life with the exception of Noah and his sons and those who entered with them into the Ark. And Paradise, which before had been at least visible from the earth, was taken completely away from it…

     It follows from what has been said that the deeper our generation descends into sin, the more terrible and all-encompassing we can expect the punishment to be. As the Lord said to the Pharisees: “That on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” (Matthew 23.35-36). And they did: the punishment meted out on apostate Israel was unexampled and unbearable. Nor has it come to an end: “His Blood be on us and on our children”, the Jews cried, and it continues to lie on their children unless and until they confess their sin against God.

     But when they do repent, the forgiveness will be complete. “And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of Grace and supplication; then they will look on Me Whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn. In that day there shall be a great mourning in Jerusalem… In that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness…” (Zechariah 12.10-11, 13.1).

     The law is the same for us who live in the contemporary Babylon. We must confess our sins and come out of her adulterous embrace, “lest we share in her sins, and receive of her plagues.” For “in her was found the blood of prophets and saints, and of all who were slain on the earth” (Revelation 18.4, 24).


February 20 / March 5, 2015.

St. Leo of Catania.



[1] St. Basil, Letter 260.

[2] St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis, 20.6-7.

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