20. Genesis 4:9-16

I.  C. 3. continued

b) The Consequences of Murder (Genesis 4:9-16)

Once the murder had been committed, God gave Cain a chance to admit the crime and regain a bit of integrity, just as He had given Adam a similar opportunity. God’s question as usual was a way of revealing to Cain (and to us) what was going on in Cain’s heart, and in this instance it was particularly effective. Cain’s reply, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” has now become one of the most famous responses in history. Note how Cain’s response was even framed from Abel’s point of view as the memory of his crime against Abel burned into his conscience. Cain was the keeper of nothing; he was the tiller of the ground, an occupation which was the original job assignment given to people, and so an occupation with prestige and value. It was Abel who was the keeper, a brand new occupation, one with no pedigree. The shedding of Abel’s blood had forged a link between the two brothers that was deeper than brotherhood: the bond of murderer and victim.

Cain’s question was the question of a guilty man, a man who knows he has committed a crime and is trying to imply that the crime is not his problem, but his use of the word “keeper” gave it all away. He may have been denying that he was responsible for Abel, but his question betrayed even to Cain himself what he ought to have been to Abel. Cain had no one else to point to, there was no Eve in this equation, so perhaps it is not surprising that subconsciously his question pointed back to his victim. Cain’s shifting eyes went to his victim, just as Adam’s had gone to his victim.

But once Cain had refused the opportunity to confess, God closed in immediately. Just as Cain had related his crime to Abel’s livelihood, God related the penalty of the crime to Cain’s livelihood. The blood of Abel had infected the very ground as it soaked in, and was crying out against Cain. It was in the course of nature, a moral law no less forceful than a physical law, that Abel’s blood would alienate Cain from that ground. For all the rest of his life the ground itself would hold Abel’s blood and would cry out the accusation against him. You can interpret this from a psychological viewpoint, that the bloody ground cried out against Cain in his conscience and made a barrier between the land and himself. Or you could interpret it from a legalistic viewpoint, that God as the judge remembered Abel’s blood and put a barrier between Cain and the ground as a punishment. Or you could interpret it from a mystical viewpoint, that there is a law built into nature by which the blood of Abel would itself form a kind of spiritual barrier between Cain and the ground.

The last interpretation is more in keeping with the tone of Scripture at this point. The idea that the blood of a murdered victim could poison the ground as it soaked in became a part of both the pagan, and the Hebrew, religious viewpoints. Perhaps this event – retold over the ages until it permeated the consciousness of the human race – is the source of that pagan intuition. When God announced the penalty to Cain He was not pronouncing a sentence like a judge would, but was unveiling to Cain’s eyes the natural consequences of what he had done, as natural as gravity or rain. Beyond the alienation from the ground that was the result of the Fall, beyond the collapse of the Covenant that would have disconnected Cain from the earth, there was the added alienation of this witness against him. It was a personal penalty now, not the inherited grief of Adam but his own grief as a son of Adam.

It is interesting that when confronted with the first murder God prohibited the “eye for an eye” punishment. Capital punishment may seem to us to be the natural penalty for murder, but it was not so for God. Instead, He established the rule that revenge for the murder would be met with seven times the guilt, seven times the consequence. Only later, after the Flood, did God institute capital punishment and we will discuss the reasons for it at the appropriate place. The point to notice now is that there was real reluctance on God’s part to use the death penalty. In part this is because He had already used the Death Penalty for the original sin and enough was enough. His reluctance to use an additional death penalty arises from His purpose, which was not to make sure that every evil deed got punished, but to keep the results of evil in check, to keep the necessity of consequences minimized, to suppress as much as possible that long and horrible chain of moral cause and effect. God was seeking out ways to be merciful. The mark on Cain, whatever it was, was given in order to protect him and not to mark him for further abuse from other men. Some have tried to identify the mark with one racial distinction or another, as if the mark on Cain were a genetic mark rather than a superficial one. Whatever it was, the mark was a sign of God’s mercy to Cain and not a sign of God’s anger.

Cain’s interpretation of his punishment was threefold: that he was being driven away from the earth, that he was being driven away from the face or presence of God, and that he was sentenced to death as a murderer. It is only the third of these three that God disputed, but the first two were correct to some extent. From this point on Cain apparently ceased to work the earth and verse 16 describes him as going out from the presence of the Lord. Here I believe we see the beginning of the loss of the knowledge of God by the human race generally. One question that naturally arises from the biblical account is: how did people who knew God on such a close basis lose that knowledge? Cain and Abel apparently had regular verbal interaction with God, and it was a grief to Cain, a genuine grief, that he was losing that interaction with God. From then on, among Cain’s descendants, there would be no conversation with God, and all but a dim memory of God would be lost over the years.

The land of Nod was not a particular place; the name means simply a “land of banishment”. The whole earth was the land of Nod to Adam, and to Cain, and to us. Cain was exiled just as his parents had been, except there was no Tree of Life he was leaving behind. The land of Nod was not a geographical place, but a spiritual place; he just happened to go east.  Since he was the first person to build a city and settle down, the sentence on Cain that he would be a wanderer on the earth apparently does not refer to a nomadic existence. The wandering he was afflicted with was restlessness of spirit. Wherever he lived, however long he lived there, whether he lived in a tent or a stone house, he would never again be at home.

I wonder if rootlessness of spirit is always the spiritual consequence of violence, a moral law at work even today. There is some of the curse of Cain in many of us, and it would seem to afflict Americans with unusual frequency. How can we become rooted in a land which we took by violent means, in a land where the blood we spilled cries out against us?  Part of our character as a nation, as a people, has been to wander from place to place, always further west until we finally bounced off the Pacific and had nowhere else to go. Even today we are the most rootless of all people, always moving on to something new, something different, urban nomads. The curse of Cain lies in the history and the heart of America. Our presence in this land rested on violence and therefore we cannot belong in it.

It is also true that to live away from the soil is to wander. The first job was gardening, after all, it is in our nature, our blood. To be estranged from growing things is to be estranged from a part of who we are. Building the city was a symptom of, and not a cure for, the rootlessness Cain suffered. He built a city because he had to try to live somewhere. The city was the shadow of a substance he could never have. We all of us long for that city, I think, the city whose architect and builder is God, the city where we can live, finally, and rest from all our wandering. The New Jerusalem is the city Cain was doomed to search for. When God took first Zion, then Jerusalem, and then New Jerusalem into the mainstream of His revelation, He was speaking to the children of Cain, promising them an arrival at last, a final rest in all their wandering.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: