“Temptations and trials show what hides in the heart of man. Temptation is similar to the medicine called an emetic. An emetic reveals what is hidden in the stomach. So temptations and trials make manifest what is inside a man. … Thus vainglory becomes apparent through the deprivation of glory, avarice through the deprivation of riches, envy through the success of one’s neighbor, and anger through disappointment. If, then, you fall into various temptations, O Christian, this all happens by God’s permission for your great benefit, that you may thereby know what is hidden in your heart, and so knowing it you may correct yourself. Many flatter themselves and consider themselves to be good, humble, and meek, but they will discover the contrary under temptation. Do not become despondent in temptations, then, but give all the more thanks to God that He thus brings you to knowledge of yourself and wishes you to be corrected and saved.” (St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, JOURNEY TO HEAVEN)
4:13 Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14 Behold, thou hast driven me this day away from the ground; and from thy face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me.” 15 Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him.
“…the LORD put a mark on Cain…” The apparently physical interaction between the LORD and a human is remarkable. To our dismay, the text does not tell us how this happened or what the mark was, but gives the impression that God in an anthropomorphic fashion is able physically to touch the human. If we read the story literally, it implies some form of “pre-incarnation” of God or of God’s action. God is able to physically touch/mark that which is “not God.” In this we see that the Bible does not embrace any form of dualism – neither a complete spiritual vs. physical dualism, nor a divine vs. created dualism which would totally separate these realities. The divine can indeed touch and even mark the physical. This is the very basis for the Christian affirmation of the incarnation of God.
What was this “mark”? It is not described at all. Yet somehow anybody who would encounter Cain would be able to “read” the mark and know that Cain was not to be killed. What kind of “mark” would be universally understandable by any person is not known. Why would people who aren’t related to the story and who don’t know God honor a sign that came from this God? What perhaps is more interesting is that God putting the mark on Cain seems to imply that killing was almost common place or both Cain and God realize it is about to become so. The early chapters of Genesis report only two murders – Abel’s and the unknown man killed by Lamech. Yet despite the few deaths reported, Cain is fearful that just about everybody in the world will want to kill him and God seems to think it is necessary to provide Cain with this extra protection because either murder was already common or it is going to about to become an everyday occurrence. No other murders are reported in the Genesis 1-11, yet God will come to regret having made humans because they are so violent. This all certainly suggests that a lot more was going on with humanity than the Bible is reporting. Apparently the Bible is following the story of but a select few men, but many others exist beyond the scope of the text.
Cain was the only brother to whom God spoke directly. Now after Cain murders his brother, God decides to protect Cain from any act of vengeance. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). God does not at this point will that humans practice capital punishment, nor does He inflict the death penalty on Cain. The God who is love demonstrates tremendous patience and mercy with his violently sinful creation. “As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11) God does not desire the death of the sinner, not even the murderer. His constant goal for His favored human creatures is that they would always choose the good. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live…” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Failing that, humans are given by God the grace to repent, to confess their wrongdoing, to change their heart and mind, to return to their God, begging His mercy and mending their way. The story of the scriptures though is that humans constantly abuse God’s mercy in order to continue sinning. “Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?“ (Romans 2:4)
“If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” God offers a protection to Cain – the threat of massive retribution for anyone who slays Cain. Cain is punished by God for being a murderer but this does not entitle humanity to inflict even further punishment on Cain. Is this another sign of the mercy and love of God – there are strict limits to vengeance and punishment? There is no threat of eternal punishment or damnation for Cain, rather God limits how much he can be punished. Sadly, humanity will take God’s protection of Cain and imposed limits of punishment, and then use this for further violence. Lamech, Cain’s son, boasts to his wives: “If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-seven fold.” Lamech boasts of killing a young man just for wounding him. Lamech apparently interprets God’s protection of his father as entitlement for committing further violence and causing human death. The ability of humans to distort God’s own words is one of the signs of the depth of sin in the human heart.