1 Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.” 2 Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. 3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. 4 But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
6 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”
8 Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
10 The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. 11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”
13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. 14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
15 But the Lord said to him, “Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.
The Principle Characters
Cain, the name given to the oldest son of Adam and Eve, means “spear” or “smith.” He was a farmer, and his brother Abel tended flocks. The question of whether Cain, Abel, Adam, and Eve were real people—and whether Cain’s story is literally true—has been debated ad infinitum in schoolrooms, courtrooms, and churches for centuries. Some readers treat the story as literal historical fact; some view the characters as symbolic; and others view the story as part of an ancient Hebrew creation story, noting that all ancient Middle Eastern societies passed down to succeeding generations a story of how civilization began. Such stories usually affirmed their religious beliefs or basic worldview, or their view toward a rival ethnic group. Clyde Francisco views Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel as representative of humankind and our basic nature.1
Whether one views the Genesis account of Cain’s life as a literal historical event, thus becoming entwined in unanswerable questions such as where Cain found his wife (Genesis 4:17),—or whether one views the story of Cain as a literary device—is beside the point for this book, which is to examine the lessons learned from this story. It is no coincidence that the writer of Genesis tells us that the first person to be born of man and woman was a remorseless murderer. The story of Cain is an insightful yet distressing tale of our inhumanity to each other, of man’s basic predisposition toward evil, and a window on God’s merciful response to the evil acts of human beings, even those who have no love for him. Cain embodies the Old Testament view of humankind’s basic nature: selfish, jealous, petty, and violent.
The Crime and Punishment
The seed of Cain’s crime lay in his angry reaction to God’s disapproval of his offering and God’s approval of Abel’s offering. The reason for God’s disapproval of Cain’s offering is not clearly provided, but a clue is found in verses 3 and 4, in which Cain merely brought “some” of his crop, probably some of his poorer crops, whereas Abel brought the “fat,” or best, or “firstling” portions of his flock. When rebuked by God, Cain exacerbates his sinful attitude by becoming sullen, angry, and jealous of Abel. God offered Cain a chance to repent and warned him of the dire consequences of sin, that sin was crouching at his door and seeking to devour him, which it did. Cain spurned God’s warning.
Unlike the other crimes discussed in this book, Cain’s crime was committed during an era in which there was no formal legal system to govern human behavior. The story of Cain is set prior to the adoption of any earthly legal framework such as the Ten Commandments, or any of its Middle Eastern antecedents. In instances where no legal code exists, tribal or familial customs usually govern behavior. Those who hold to a literal interpretation of Cain’s story suggest that the people he feared (verse 14) were unmentioned relatives who, in accordance with family custom, would take revenge on anyone who harmed a member of the family. Subsequent passages in Genesis tell of other children born to Adam and Eve.
The story of Cain also introduces a common theme in Genesis and the Old Testament—sibling rivalry, an especially significant occurrence given that family and kinship—not the government or the church— was the strongest institution in ancient Middle Eastern society. This rivalry ends violently, and with the clear message from God that violence is an undesirable means of settling human differences.2
Cain’s punishment may seem light to modern readers. If a person was exiled from his home today, it would not be extremely difficult to simply begin anew somewhere else, but Cain’s punishment was not as light as it may appear. Exile has been a common punishment for lawbreakers since the beginning of human civilization. In many cultures, leaving one’s home was (and is) a traumatic and risky proposition, as many societies throughout human history have a practice of being hostile to strangers or people of a different ethnic group, including those who stumble into their midst. Banishment is still imposed as a punishment in some communities today, especially in developing countries where many people live in small close-knit villages and are surrounded by unfriendly neighbors.
It is not unusual for a court to ban an offender from its jurisdiction, or for parole boards to ban offenders from the state in which they were convicted as a condition of release. Given the highly mobile nature of American society, with easy access to fast means of transportation, and given that it is much easier for an offender to live in obscurity, even in a small town, than it was in small communities where everyone knew their neighbors very well, such a punishment is very difficult to enforce. The legality of such punishments is suspect in the United States. In 1958, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Trop v. Dulles that stripping someone of his or her citizenship for wartime desertion from the military constituted cruel and unusual punishment.3
Cain’s punishment involved more than exile. His livelihood suffered. The earth that had fed him would no longer yield crops. His life as a settled farmer was over. In the Septuagint, verse 12 reads, “Thou shalt be groaning and trembling upon the earth—the horror of thy crime shall ever haunt thee, and thou shalt never have any wellgrounded hope that God will forgive the punishment thou deservest.”4 Worst of all, Cain not only had to endure physical separation from his roots, he lived the rest of his life apart from God, but that was Cain’s choice, not God’s. God essentially allowed Cain to choose his own punishment. In short, Cain, rather than choosing to be reconciled with God in spite of his crime, chose a lifetime of misery.
Cain was never confronted by another human being for the murder of his brother. He was confronted by God and expressed no remorse. His only concern was for himself. Apparently, even God cannot, or at least will not, force a person to feel remorse for his or her wrong deeds. John Braithwaite, an Australian criminologist, writes, “Remorse that is demanded is remorse that is destroyed. Demanding, coercing, or even expecting remorse or apology may be a bad objective.”5 God punished Cain by denying him the fruits of his labor and by turning him out of his home. Genesis 4:16 states that Cain settled in the land of Nod and started a family, though whether he actually lived a settled life is in doubt, as Nod means “wandering,” suggesting that Cain lived the rest of his life as a nomad.6
The Crime Now
Murder is the most serious crime in contemporary times, and the only one that carries a possible death sentence in some (thirty-nine) states and in federal courts. Modern legal systems recognize several categories of murder, and the definitions vary by jurisdiction. There are three generic definitions of murder:
1. Murder: Intentionally causing the death of another without reasonable provocation or legal justification, or causing the death of another while committing or attempting to commit another crime;
2. Murder in the First Degree: A killing done with premeditation and deliberation or, by statute, in the presence of other aggravating circumstances;
3. Murder in the Second Degree: A killing done with intent to cause death but without premeditation and deliberation.7
Based on two factors, we can conclude that Cain’s crime was premeditated. First, his sullenness at God’s rebuke indicated he developed a seething hostility toward God and Abel that eventually would boil over. Second, Cain lured his brother to a secluded spot, away from the rest of the family, no doubt with premeditation of killing him. No details of the slaying are given.
Modern Day Implications
In the Old Testament and throughout much of human history, the prescribed punishment for murder in many legal systems has been the death penalty. In the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, God’s Law, as given to Moses, commands capital punishment for more than thirty offenses, including murder. But the Mosaic Law was written long after the story of Cain and Abel.
Many death penalty advocates argue that God approves of, or even commands, capital punishment in cases of premeditated murder. In the case of Cain, God, rather than any human intermediary, was the direct arbiter of Cain’s crime, and God alone meted out the punishment. Since God imposed Cain’s punishment directly, the case should tell us in clear terms how God thinks a murderer should be punished. If God commands capital punishment for murder, and if his will and nature are eternal and unchanging, why did he not strike Cain dead for his crime, especially given Cain’s lack of remorse? God not only spared Cain’s life, he protected Cain from anyone seeking vengeance or seeking to harm him, much like contemporary law enforcement does to protect convicted and suspected criminals from vigilante justice. Blood feuds have been an integral part of most societies throughout human history, especially in communities without a strong government to formally administer justice. Based on this passage, it seems that God took an equally or more disdainful view of blood feuds and vigilantism as murder.
D.R. Biddy states, “That the motivation for this murder had its origins in a worship environment, in the shadow of the altar, can only be described as ironic.”8 Cain’s crime laid the foundation for murder in the name of religion, which persists to this day and pervades all major religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all of which trace their beginnings to the book of Genesis. From the bloody religious battles of the Middle Ages to the unceasing violence between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland to the tragic events of September 11, 2001 and the uproar in some parts of Islam in 2006 over the publication in Denmark of cartoons mocking Mohammed, religion continues to be the motivation for all sorts of violent behavior.
Lessons for Individual Christians
One course that I have taught for many years is Criminal Justice Ethics, and I have led numerous ethics workshops for police and probation officers over the years. Very often, when people suggest that criminal justice professionals need ethics training, they think of behaviors such as the brutal beating of Rodney King at the hands of Los Angeles police officers in 1991. Whenever I lead a workshop or teach a course on criminal justice ethics, I focus on legal behaviors instead of illegal behaviors. By the time someone commits a serious crime, it is too late for ethics. Ethics is the study of right and wrong, not legal and illegal. The seeds of illegal behaviors are legal behaviors. It is not against the law to hate someone or to have a selfish or jealous attitude; it sometimes becomes illegal when we act on those attitudes.
J.S. Exell states that the murder of Abel is a lesson in
1. The power of envy;
2. The ambition of selfishness, and
3. The quick development of passion.9
Murder was Cain’s crime, but it was the end result of other sins. Cain’s initial sin was not giving his best to God. When confronted by God about his crime, Cain initially lied and asked sarcastically if he was his brother’s keeper. Matthew Henry’s Commentary states that Cain “flies in the face of God himself,” and should have humbly stated, “Am I not my brother’s murderer?”10 God did not answer Cain directly, but his response suggests that we are indeed our brother’s keepers. It was at that point that God presented Cain with the gravity of his sin and pronounced sentence. Despite Cain’s unrepentant attitude, God still showed mercy on him. The unknown “mark” placed on Cain was not a curse, but protection.11
One question that cannot be answered is what God’s response would have been had Cain repented of his sin. We do not know whether God would have spared Cain any punishment had he repented. Like many people today, Cain’s pride and stubbornness knew no end. Also, as with many criminal offenders today, Cain complained about his punishment, even though the punishment was lenient and resulted mostly from his own intransigence.
What lesson can be learned from Cain? He certainly does not serve as any sort of role model. All sinful acts, including many crimes that people commit today, are the end product of sinful attitudes that they carry with them. Hate, greed, envy, and jealousy are not illegal, but they can easily lead to behaviors that are. When we harbor such sinful attitudes and thoughts, we are confronted by God and given the chance to repent. God confronts us in a different manner than he did Cain, who did not have access to biblical Scripture, Christian leaders, and friends. Very often, modern Christians, like Cain, choose to hold on to their sinful attitudes, ignoring God’s command to repent.
Clyde Francisco also states that Cain’s reply to God’s sentence was, “My iniquity is more than I can bear,” followed by a lament about the gravity of his punishment.12 All human beings are like Cain, in that we cannot bear our iniquity on our own. Fortunately we do not have to. We know from the story of Cain that God offers the opportunity for repentance and for a close walk with him, and that sin cannot overtake us if we walk closely with God.