The Mark of Cain
Genesis 4: 1-16
We have heard the two stories of creation and the story known as the Fall, when Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge and are cast out of the garden of Eden. Today we continue the narrative with the birth of Adam and Eve's children. Note that at this point, Adam is still referred to as “the human,” his name of Adam comes a little later.
And the human knew Eve his woman and she conceived and bore Cain, and she said, “I have got me a man with the Lord.” And she bore as well his brother, Abel, and Abel became a herder of sheep while Cain was a tiller of the soil.
And it happened in the course of time that Cain brought from the fruit of the soil an offering to the Lord. And Abel too had brought from the choice firstlings of his flock, and the Lord regarded Abel and his offering, but He did not regard Cain and his offering, and Cain was very incensed and his face fell.
And the Lord said to Cain: “Why are you so incensed, and why is your face fallen? For whether you offer well, or whether you do not, at the tent flap sin crouches and for you is its longing, but you will rule over it.”
And Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose against Abel his brother and killed him.
And the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?” And God said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the soil. And so cursed shall you be by the soil that gaped with its mouth to take your brother's blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it will no longer give you its strength. A restless wanderer shall you be on the earth.”
And Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is too great to bear. Now that You have driven me from the soil and I must hide from Your presence, I shall be a restless wanderer on the earth and whoever finds me will kill me.”
And the Lord said to him, “Therefore whoever kills Cain shall suffer sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord set a mark upon Cain so that whoever found him would not slay him.
And Cain went out from the Lord's presence and dwelled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
Earlier this week I was talking to my husband Chris about this sermon and I asked, what do you think comes next? We've done the two creation stories and Adam, Eve and snake. What do you think I'm going to do this week? Chris said, I don't know, the flood?
I said, no don't you remember? Adam & Eve have kids and one brother murders the other. There was then a cry from our living room, WHAT??!!
Apparently despite years of Sunday School and Bible stories at home, Hope had never heard the story of Cain and Abel.
Admittedly it is a rather brutal story. After humanity’s promising beginning in Genesis 1, being created in the image of God, it seems to go downhill from there. First Adam & Eve eat the fruit they aren’t supposed to eat, they're exiled from the garden, then their first child kills their second child.
No wonder this story doesn’t get covered in Sunday School, it is very hard to hear, it's an example of the worst of what we are capable of. So why is it there? And why right at the beginning of the Bible? What is this story about and what does it teach us about ourselves and about God?
It can help to go back through it. It begins with the birth of Cain, a triumph for Eve. “I have got me a man with the Lord!” she shouts. Then the birth of second son, Abel, Abel becomes a shepherd, Cain a farmer tilling soil. Both brothers bring offerings to God and this is where trouble starts. For some reason, God accepts Abel’s offering and rejects Cain’s. It's interesting to note that no reason is given as to why Cain's offering is rejected, it just happens.
Which is a bit like bad things in our lives, sometimes they just happen, there is no rhyme or reason. How many times have you asked yourself, why did this happen to me? It's not fair! Sometimes life is like that. Some might say this story says it's God's will when things don't go our way, but there are many teachings in the Bible which indicate otherwise.
I don't want to get sidetracked into that whole concept right now, the important thing for us today is to know that no reason is given why Cain's offering is rejected, just like sometimes bad things happen and we have no idea why. What matters is how we respond when this happens.
The issue in this story is not Cain's offering, the issue is his response to God. And as we see, Cain doesn’t take rejection very well. The Bible tells us “he was very incensed and his face fell.” Which is an interesting combination of comments. Because when does your face fall? When you’re disappointed, hurt, sad.
So it seems that Cain’s anger comes from his pain of being rejected.
Unfortunately Cain’s way of dealing with his anger and pain is very destructive.
He invites Abel out into the field with him and kills him.
Cain is angry at God, but takes it out on his brother, Abel. He knows it's not Abel's fault his own offering was rejected, but that doesn't stop him. It is transference at its worst. And aren’t we all guilty of it at some point or another. We're hurt and angry at one situation, and we take it out somewhere else, often on a person close to us.
It's also an example of how anger isn't the issue or the problem with Cain, it's very understandable that he got angry, he was hurt that his offering was rejected and that his younger brother's was accepted. We can probably all relate to that, when someone else receives praise or acceptance or pretty much anything that we wanted for ourselves.
The issue isn't anger, it's what Cain does with that anger, he turns it into something violent and destructive and that simply isn't acceptable, whether it's directed at the cause of his anger or somewhere else.
It's not surprising that God is angry at what Cain has done. God exiles Cain even further, away from his family, cursing the ground that Cain will try to till for a living. What is surprising, given the Old Testament’s later bent towards being rather blood thirsty, is that God doesn’t kill Cain as punishment. In fact, not only does God not kill Cain, God protects Cain from others who might want to kill him in revenge for his brother.
Cain cries out, “My punishment is too great to bear, I shall be a restless wanderer on the earth and whoever finds me will kill me.” God's response to this heartfelt cry is to promise that this will not happen, saying that whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance. God goes even further in protecting Cain, placing a mark upon him so that no one will kill him.
Just like with Adam & Eve and the fruit, there are divine consequences for wrong actions, but there is also divine mercy. If you really look at this story, it’s about compassion and forgiveness, as hard as it might be to see that at first. Think about it, we use the expression, “the mark of Cain,” as a description of someone who is stigmatized, rejected, but in reality it’s a mark of protection and mercy. As theologian Dennis Bratcher says, “Cain’s mark represents that fragile yet astounding tension God holds between guilt and grace.”
This story goes a step beyond last week's bad decision with the fruit. Some good came out of that, but this one? What happens when you mess up beyond repair? When you can't see any good coming out of what you did? When you can't reconcile with the person or situation where you caused harm?
This story is about those moments when you say or do or allow something that ends up being destructive, that has nothing redeeming about it. It’s about those moments when you have no hope for yourself, when you feel that you have messed up beyond repair or redemption.
The hope in this story is in that “mark of Cain,” the way that God still sees good in Cain. Despite all that has happened God protects him so he can live a better life. Nothing you do is so bad that God will desert you. That's what Cain's story tells us. It follows up well on the story known as “the Fall.” We sin, however you understand sin, we do things that are wrong and cause pain, and sometimes we sin terribly, and through it all, God never lets us go.
It reminds me of Psalm 139, where at times it sounds like the Psalmist is trying to get away from God due to shame, “Where can I flee from your presence? . . . If I say, 'surely the darkness shall cover me, and light around me become night,' even the darkness is bright to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” However deep our darkness may be, God will meet us there and slowly bring us into the light.
We're going through a lot of darkness in our world right now. Much of it is coming from beyond our control, but it can make it hard for us to make wise and healthy decisions in our own personal lives. I don't know about you, but it feels like I'm constantly being pushed to choose between safety and connection.
And sometimes I'm so tired and stressed, it's hard to make even simple decisions. Sometimes it's not clear what to do and we can offend without meaning to, we can make decisions that made sense at the time, but are later revealed to be problematic.
Whether we are dealing with the darkness of regret over our own decisions and actions, or struggling with the darkness of our world at this time, there is hope in this story for us. God will help us face the darkness and will protect us as we go forward, helping us to see the light and find the path to a healthier and hopefully more just way of being. It is a promise that applies to us as individuals and together as a society and even as the human race.