Thursday, February 8, 2018

Adah and Zillah: Heroes for Our Time

A few days ago in Sunday school, we talked about Adah and Zillah. 

You may not have. Their story is in the scriptural material the lesson covers, but is not highlighted in the manual. But I teach in my ward, and I made a goal this year to get in one more story each week than the ones people usually tell. On Sunday, I thought it worked nicely to follow up the story of Cain and Abel with another contrasting pair: Lamech and Enoch. 

Cain, of course, is remembered as the world's first murderer in the Abrahamic traditions. The account of him in the Book of Moses is more specific: Cain makes a secret bargain with Satan to trade human life for power and gain. We talked in class about how to this day, people who can't have the natural respect of integrity often try to make up for it by forcing respect with their wealth or their power. 

Lamech is the second murderer mentioned in the Bible. His story, too, gets a more complete telling in the Book of Moses (5: 47-54). In that account, Lamech is the new master of the same secret combination as Cain. A man named Irad finds out, starts to warn people about the secret--and Lamech kills him. 

That's where Adah and Zillah, the wives of Lamech, come in. Lamech tells them about the murder. He says he's better than Cain: Cain killed for gain, but Lamech killed for the oath's sake. The secret has become its own end. If Cain would be avenged sevenfold, Lamech says, Lamech would be avenged seventy and sevenfold. 

Now: Lamech has just killed a man. There's no way for Adah and Zillah to know if he would try to do the same to them. But whatever fear they surely felt doesn't dictate their actions. These two women seem to sense the weight of what's happened. Maybe they don't want the toxic feeling of keeping a secret like that. Maybe they just know that Lamech has to be stopped or he'll repeat the same pattern again. And again. And again. Maybe they can see that each time they'd stand by and let him do it, the secret would get harder to break. 

So, the scripture says, they rebelled against their husband. They declared openly what they'd been told to hide. And the scriptures say that though the secret combination of Cain and Lamech continued among the sons of men in those days, the daughters were through. After Adah and Zillah, they refused to keep silence anymore. 

We talked about this in Sunday School. About two women in the scriptures we can take as models. 


Read in the news today about two women: Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby. Both had been married, in succession, to a man who was, by all accounts, soft-spoken and reasonable in public settings. A man who seemed to be honest and decent and successfully projected an image as a good Latter-day Saint. 

Both of them came to know that in secret, he was willing to trade another person's dignity for his own power. He grew verbally and physically abusive. One wife has pictures of the physical injuries. It's not as simple, in cases of abuse, to show the psychic and the spiritual scars. Each of the women told her story, initially, to people--like their bishops--who could have offered resources and support. But the people they told trusted outward appearances. I suspect they believed in the man they thought they knew, and not in the harder truth they were being told. They may also have been blinded by the vain things of this world: Jennifer Willoughby remembered being told to consider how her actions would affect her husband's career. 

I wish someone had flipped open their scriptures instead and told her about Adah and Zillah. Had told her in no uncertain terms that she made the right choice in not keeping that secret. I'm glad that, in the absence of good initial counsel, Jennifer and Colbie kept talking anyway. That they declared it openly--so it wouldn't just keep happening again and again and again. 

I think we get complacent in the Church sometimes. Assume that a soft-spoken manner and a clean white shirt make a man righteous. Make do with the few scriptural stories and spiritual generalizations we're asked, at bare minimum, to review over the course of four years. 

We need to dig deeper. We need to hunger and thirst for more. 

We need to tell the stories that will help the weary and the downtrodden to stand up for what's right. 

Just like Adah and Zillah did. 


  1. Good thoughts. I bet you teach an excellent gospel doctrine class. As far as the scriptural accounts of Lamech, Adah, and Zillah go, they seem so spare and vague. I've different and sometimes directly opposing interpretations of what happened. For instance, I read a much different account in "Walking with the Women of the Old Testament," by Heather Farrell. I like your interpretation better, though.

    1. There is a lot of room for interpretation in any story. Just took a look at Heather Farrell's book, though, and I'm pretty sure she's misreading and not reading differently.
      Starting at the end of v. 52 and into v. 53 it says that the covenant with Satan "began to spread among all the sons of men. And it was among the sons of men. And among the daughters of men these things were not spoken, because that Lamech had spoken the secret unto his wives, and they rebelled against him, and declared these things abroad, and had not compassion."
      Farrell cites this passage her evidence that Adah and Zillah joined the evil covenant. She reads the phrase "spoken the secret" as meaning that Adah and Zillah were willfully initiated into the secret covenant. that they She does that by reading the "because" as if it said "until": she says the secret combinations weren't among the daughters of men until Adah and Zillah, rather than reading it as the secret combinations seeking to be among the daughters of men because of the actions of Adah and Zillah. You can interpret things a lot of ways, but switching "because" to "until" strikes me as too much of a stretch.
      I wonder if what's throwing her is the phrase "had not compassion." We think of compassion as a virtue, so it's tempting to think as characters described as acting without compassion as bad.
      But the story seems to suggest that in some cases compassion is not a virtue. And experience suggests that some people get very good at playing to pity to get others to cover for them. In those situations, having no compassion on the perpetrator is exactly the right attitude.

  2. I agree with you. Her reading surprised me. But a question for you: I had always thought Irad was also a member of the secret society and that Lamech killed him because he broke his oath to keep it secret. I admit I’m not as close a reader as you, though—I sort of understand things by feel. Is there evidence one way or the other that Irad only discovered the secret and wasn’t a part of it?

    1. Looks like it just says “having known their secret” which seems to leave both on the table.

  3. This is FANTASTIC, especially in light of all the woeful revelations of our day. I've been wondering quite a bit about *why* it's suddenly becoming more common to actually *hear* the maladies of our day, where there was a time when (for example, during the sexual revolution) such voices were silenced.

    This was a great story to learn.



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