studies

Mark of Cain

Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.
—Genesis 4:8

Cain gets a bad rap: He offered a paltry tithe to God. He killed the first-born child of humanity, making him the world’s first murderer. His name is synonymous with the worst evils. But someone recently made an interesting point: Is Cain really at fault? How would he know that he did anything wrong?

Killing other humans is bad. After the revelation of the Torah and thousands of years of history, we know this. We also know how to avoid killing people. We’ve learned the body’s weaknesses, and God-fearing people abstain from taking advantage of that. But Cain wouldn’t have known any of this. Genesis 4 doesn’t go into detail about how he killed Abel. It simply says he “rose up against his brother.” As I read the text more closely, I find it easy to believe it was an accident.

He had anger issues, certainly. When God rejected his offering, Cain got mad. But God tried to console him, offering a chance of redemption. If only he try harder, he could bring a worthy offering to God like his brother had. Maybe Cain was angry with God, or his brother, or both. Either way, he chose to ignore this divine advice and take out his anger on poor, devout Abel.

He’s definitely punished for his actions. God curses the ground he tills; Cain is forced to wander the earth in exile. This is as much of the story as most of us remember. But in a way… he receives salvation, too. Cain laments his fate, crying out to God that he’ll be murdered in his exile. I’m not sure if he actually repents, but he accepts the punishment. In retrospect, we can look at him and say, “Good, Serves him right.” Luckily, God is not us.

Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him.
—Genesis 4:15

The Mark of Cain has been grossly misinterpreted. It’s often seen as a curse, but it’s anything but. Cain is still exiled, but the mark protects him. It’s a barrier that prevents others from harming him the same way he harmed his brother. Isn’t it great how we can royally screw up but still receive His blessing?

What happens to Cain after that? I don’t know. But God does protect him, because he ends up with a wife and kids in a foreign land. The fate of his line is questionable, and he’s certainly not the father of nations. But he’s not the most evil of all evil: he simply didn’t know. Maybe he punched Abel in the face. Maybe he whacked him with a shovel. We don’t get a lot of details, so it’s easy to peg him as “Murderer: bad.” But Cain acted out in anger, and that anger resulted in death. Had anyone even died yet at that point? Would Cain and Abel even know people could die? He was probably scared out of his wits, but still accepted his punishment—even though it was “greater than he could bear.”

You don’t hear much from him after that, besides a few scattered verses about Abel’s death. Maybe Cain repented and lived a simple life. Maybe the rest of his days were happy. At least, I doubt he ever killed someone again.