So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. [Hebrews 4:16 (NLT)]
After the magnificence of creation, things go from bad to worse in the book of Genesis. By the end of the third chapter, Adam and Eve are evicted from Eden and, just eight verses later, we have the first homicide. When Cain and Abel make an offering to God, Abel’s is accepted but Cain’s is not. We’re not told why God rejected it; it may have been because Abel presented the “best of the firstborn lambs” and Cain merely offered “some” of his crops. God may have been making the point that He deserves the best, not just some. Perhaps, Abel made his offering whole-heartedly but Cain begrudged making the gift at all. In any case, although Abel was not responsible for Cain’s failure, he dies at the hands of his angry jealous brother.
God punishes Cain by putting a curse on him—he is banished and will no longer be able to cultivate the soil. As a homeless fugitive, he fears being killed in retaliation for his actions. God then gives Cain a mark and, contrary to what we may have learned in Sunday school, this mark was not a punishment. It was a sign that Cain was under divine protection. It warned everyone that the repercussions for killing Cain would be far worse than the one Cain received for killing Abel.
For centuries, much has been made of the “mark of Cain.” The Hebrew word translated as “mark” is ‘owth which refers to a sign, token or mark and the precise nature of the mark is unknown and is of no importance. No mention of Cain’s mark, however, can be made without refuting the heretical idea that the “mark of Cain” was the curse of black skin, an idea popular in the 18th and 19th centuries to justify slavery. Cain’s curse was his exile and inability to work the soil, not his mark, and the curse applied only to him. Moreover, unless one of Cain’s descendants was married to one of Noah’s sons, Cain’s line ended during the Flood. In reality, since it protected him, Cain’s mark was a blessing, not a curse.
Far more important than his mark is God’s choice of Cain’s punishment. It certainly isn’t what we expect from the God who establishes capital punishment in Genesis 9 and, in Exodus, declares that, “the punishment must match the injury: a life for a life.” [21:23] Some scholars say Cain was protected because there were so few people at the time and more bloodshed would decimate the population. Although He would not want Abel’s and Cain’s families feuding, I don’t think the God who created the heavens and earth with a word would have encountered difficulty repopulating the land. Rather, Cain’s banishment and mark introduce us to God’s mercy and grace—a theme that weaves its way from Genesis through Revelation. From Cain’s punishment, we see that our God is a God of mercy, Rather than the death sentence he so clearly deserves, Cain is given life. From his mark, we see that our God is a God of grace. The unrepentant and undeserving sinner is given the gift of God’s protection and love.
Thank you, Heavenly Father, for your mercy and grace: for not giving us the punishment and death we sinners deserve and for giving us far more than we could ever merit: salvation, forgiveness, an abundant life here and a life-everlasting in Heaven.
Christianity teaches that when man sinned, God opted for forgiveness rather than fairness. He opted for grace and mercy rather than justice. [Andy Stanley]