The Lord replied, “No, for I will give a sevenfold punishment to anyone who kills you.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who might try to kill him. So Cain left the Lord’s presence and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. [Genesis 4:15-16 (NLT)]
After the magnificence of creation, things go from bad to worse and, by the fourth chapter of Genesis, we have the first homicide. When Cain and Abel make an offering to God, Abel’s is accepted but Cain’s is not. The rejection wasn’t because one gift was animal and the other was crops—both fauna and flora were acceptable and represented each brother’s vocation. Abel, however, presented the “best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock” and Cain merely offered “some of his crops” rather than the best and first. God rejected the offering because of Cain’s heart. While Abel made his offering whole-heartedly, Cain begrudged making the gift at all. Although Abel was not responsible for the rejection, he died at the hands of his angry jealous brother.
God punished Cain by banishing him and cursing the ground so that he would be unsuccessful in cultivating the soil. Having lost homeland, family, and livelihood, Cain was condemned to be a “homeless wanderer.” Cain protested that his punishment was too harsh—as a homeless fugitive without the protection of a community, he could be attacked and killed, perhaps in revenge by Abel’s family. Promising Cain that scenario wouldn’t happen, God pledged a seven-fold punishment for anyone who killed Cain.
To seal the deal, God gave Cain a sign or mark. Contrary to what we may have learned in Sunday school, this mark was a blessing not a punishment and may not have been a physical mark at all. The Hebrew verb typically translated as “set” or “put” in this verse was sum or sim which could mean everything from appointed, assigned, and established to attached, placed, or laid. The word typically translated as “mark” was ‘owth which referred to a sign, token, or mark and is the same word God used when giving Moses miraculous signs to convince Israel’s elders that God had spoken with him. Because we don’t know if this was an actual mark on Cain or some other sign, some Bibles translate the questioned verse as God giving Cain a sign or appointing a sign for him. Nevertheless, in one way or another, the sign or mark guaranteed Cain’s safety by indicating he was under God’s divine protection and warning of repercussions should the fugitive be killed.
More important than the mark is God’s choice of Cain’s punishment. It certainly isn’t what we expect from the God who later says, “Anyone who murders a fellow human must die.” [Genesis 9:5] Cain’s banishment is an important lesson for us. After being with God, Cain had to leave the Lord’s presence and his departure from God’s presence demonstrates the way our sin separates all sinners from God. When we sin and reject God’s will, only spiritual isolation and wretchedness remain. Moreover, by God withholding the full penalty of death for Cain’s sin, we are introduced to His amazing grace and mercy—a theme that weaves its way from Genesis through Revelation and culminates in Jesus! When Jesus took our punishment on the cross, rather than the death penalty we rightly deserved, like Cain, we were given life!