Hello Church Family,
As far as I know, no Sunday school teacher has ever instructed a child to “be like Cain.”
Certainly, church kids are told all the time to emulate David, Abraham, Joseph or Job, often in moralistic fashion (in other churches, of course!), but, to my knowledge, Cain has never been presented as an example for anyone to follow. And for good reason; after all, he murdered his own brother.
According to Genesis 4, Cain attacked his older sibling in an open field and killed him. Immediately after, we’re told that the Lord appeared to Cain and said, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand” (Genesis 4:9-11).
Notice how the Lord repeats the word “brother.” Three times God reminds Cain that Abel was his brother, as if he had somehow forgotten. The reason for the echoing emphasis is to express just how egregious this sin was. This was premeditated murder. And not of an enemy, or even a stranger, but of a family member. This is only the second generation of humanity and already we have fratricide. In a dramatic turn, Cain has rejected God’s authority and allowed himself to be mastered by Satan.
Not surprisingly, the punishment would be severe: Cain would be driven from the land, and made to do hard labor that would yield very little results.
God’s edict didn’t just mean that Cain would wander around, but that he would have a price on his head. This was the original Wild, Wild West. In ancient Israel—and the readers of Genesis would have recognized this—a person who killed a family member would have been actively pursued by what was called “an avenger of blood.” So Cain would have been the target of a plethora of bounty hunters.
Upon hearing the Lord’s decree, Cain laments, “My punishment is too great. I’m as good as dead.”
The next part is so good. God shows his mercy to Cain. He says, “No, anyone who kills you will receive sevenfold the punishment, and I will put a mark on you to protect you.”
This “mark”’ that God put on Cain has been debated over the centuries. Some exegetes have argued that it was a tattoo, perhaps a body-mark that signified something like “off limits.” Others have suggested that it was a dog. One person I read said that it was possibly a hairstyle. (“Oh no, we better not mess with him … notice the way his hair is layered over his ears!”)
We don’t know for sure what the mark was. But whatever it was, it was asymbol of God’s mercy. Cain deserved the most severe penalty, because he had committed the most severe crime: the shedding of innocent blood. And yet God preserved his life. He didn’t remove all the consequences of Cain’s rebellion, but he acted tenderly toward Cain in sparing his life.
What a beautiful revelation of God: Our God is a merciful God, which means he delights in providing a solution to the needs of mankind, even for the most hardened criminals (isn’t this the essence of the gospel message?). Far from being a God who is waiting to punish us, or a God who says, “One more offense and that’s it!” our God is known for his tender compassion. Our God delights in displaying his grace.
And he is not just compassionate toward those who are obedient. Here we see God’s tenderness toward Cain, who committed, perhaps, the most prominent sin in history (up to that time).
Renowned Old Testament scholar, Derek Kidner, says: “God’s concern for the innocent is matched only by his care for the sinner. Even the querulous prayer of Cain contained a germ of entreaty; God’s answering pledge … is almost a covenant, making him Cain’s protector. It is the utmost that mercy can do for the unrepentant.”
Here’s what we are to learn from Genesis 4: not that Cain is bad and Abel is good, nor that we should try to be like Abel, who offered a better sacrifice, but that God pours out his grace on the most undeserving of people. The most shocking thing about the story is not the fratricide, though that’s definitely a heinous development; the real scandal is how Moses wants us to see grace at work in the midst of the vile.
God’s grace doesn’t always show up in the neat and tidy situations of our lives. It shows up amid our messes, reminding us that regardless of what we’ve done or how many times we’ve done it, we’re never beyond the reach of God’s mercy. The Living God is a gracious King, who visits the broken with a word of hope: I am still here, and I still care. Failures, rebels, and rejects can always find a place with me, because my Son has made a way.
With reason to rejoice,