The Mark of Cain

WP_20150803_16_55_18_Pro 1Genesis 4 is not about racism.[1]  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  The whole point of the story can be found in God’s answer to Cain’s dismissive remark to Creator God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9 NRSV).  God’s response is pretty much a very patient reply of “well, yeah, you are” (my translation).  How could this story be turned into a story to encourage racism?

Well, it depends on how you view God, the “curse”, and the “mark”.  Many clearly thought God was ONLY an angry, vengeful God (especially to those who were not exactly like them), and that in anger God cursed Cain and marked him for the world to see.  “Hate this man and all his decedents,” God cries in this distorted version of Genesis 4.  “Ha!” (insert evil laugh here).  This is a case of the Bible being used to endorse something that people wanted to do.  People who wanted to hate and mistreat people who are different used this understanding to prove their beliefs were in line with God.  The thing is though –  their understanding went against thousands of years of Jewish and Christian tradition AND against the character and nature of a loving and gracious God who died on a cross for us all.

Hmmm…. maybe we should rethink that then?

When I look at Genesis 4, I see a few things:

  1. Anger and jealousy are dangerous.  God warns Cain against the sin “lurking at the door” (Genesis 4:7 NRSV).  And we have a responsibility to “master it” (Genesis 4:7 NRSV).
  2. Actions have consequences. The ground cursed Cain.  God just points that out to Cain (Genesis 4:10-11 NRSV).  There are consequences to the actions we take.  Cain was a farmer, so the land suddenly deciding that it was not going to let Cain grow food anymore was a huge deal for him.  Maybe this foreshadows the land covenant that God would make with Israel a bit later on in Deuteronomy?  The covenant that said “follow God and the land will be nice to you, don’t follow God and it won’t”?
  3. God protects Cain from being killed. The mark of Cain is God protecting Cain from being killed by others.  God does NOT say, “I’m gonna put this mark on you like so when people see you they will leave you alone, making your punishment far worse than I ever could!” (insert evil laugh here)
    When Cain complains about the land not letting him grow food – thus the land sentences this farmer to wandering and away from the protection of his family – God puts a mark of protection on him.  I reckon the mark is not so much a name and shame, but rather is closer to Paddington Bear style note saying, “This kid is one of mine.  He has acted like an idiot, but don’t kill him.  Signed, God.”
  4. God is gracious.  Gracious enough to help us learn.  God tried warning Cain.  That didn’t work.  When Cain killed his brother, God spared Cain’s life.  Cain had to learn this lesson – to love his brother (could we also say neigbour?) – and in the end, the only way he could is by suffering the consequences of his action.  Maybe the only way he could learn this lesson was by having to rely on others, trusting they would listen to God and not kill him?

God didn’t HAVE to spare Cain’s life.  Cain certainly did not deserve it.  But God did anyway.

That is grace.[2]


[1] Sometime during or after the American Civil War, some American Christians began to believe that the mark of Cain mentioned in Genesis 4 was about skin colour, specifically skin that was coloured black.  Although there were a handful of early Christian writers (circa 500ish) who may have also held a similar view, unfortunately Americans took this view and used it to justify segregation and racism. For that reason, to deal with racism in America, we have to consider the church’s role in the encouragement of racism. Part of that picking apart of history and examining it will be considering Genesis 4.

[2] Coming soon – a more in-depth look in my “Bible Stuff” section.


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