The Mark of Cain. It’s Not What You Think It Is.

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Stained glass Cain and Abel.

In condemning Dzhokar Tsarnaev to death, we would do well to remember Cain and Abel. Even after murdering his brother, Cain is shown unthinkable mercy and protection from God. Above, stained glass from the Genesis story in Fairford Parish Church, England. Credit: CreativeCommons / Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

Dzhokar Tsarnaev’s death sentence, handed down on May 15, serves as the grand finale to a year of public discussion about capital punishment. The Supreme Court is considering the potential cruelty of lethal injections, and Kelly Renee Gissendaner lives under a stay of execution in Georgia, prompted by fears of another “botched execution,” like the one experienced by Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma last spring. It seems a good time to step back and revisit what the Bible’s authors have to say about that book’s first murderer, and the consequences of his actions.
I found the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, remembering from my Sunday School days that God punishes the murderer with the “Mark of Cain,” a sort of brand that ensures Cain will spend the rest of his days as an outcast. I quickly learned, though, that my memory — or my Sunday School teacher — had it totally wrong.
Quick recap: Cain and Abel are the sons of Adam and Eve, themselves only recently cast from the Garden. When sacrificing to God, Cain offers the “fruit of the ground,” while Abel brings the “firstlings of his flock.” God shows preference for Abel’s offering, prompting Cain’s jealousy and the murder of his brother. Not only is this the first homicide in the Bible, it’s the first death — the first evidence of the mortality that Adam and Eve brought about in disobeying the Lord.
It’s true that God curses Cain, saying that the earth will no longer yield its bounty to him, and that he will be a fugitive and a wanderer. But it’s not until Cain points out that “anyone who meets me may kill me,” that God puts the mark on him, “so that no one who came upon him would kill him.” The Mark of Cain is one of protection, not condemnation. It’s a moment of grace.
In their heartbreaking scene of parting, Cain says to God, “I shall be hidden from your face.” Being exiled from God’s presence may be a fate worse than death, especially in the Bible’s early pages, when people literally walk with the Lord. But eventually Cain takes a wife, founds a city, and has children of his own. The Bible even specifies that his offspring are the origins of those who raise cattle, those who make tools of bronze and iron, and, most beautifully, those who “play the lyre and pipe.”
Of course, not all of the Bible portrays God as so forgiving. Just three chapters later, the earth will be destroyed by a flood. In Exodus there will be the slaughter of innocent Egyptian children. In Joshua there will be a call to massacre the Canaanites. But in this first great crisis of mortal existence, when the story is still about individual men and women in relationship with God, the Lord ensures that one death does not engender a second.
Most important, though, God’s protection of Cain means that the story doesn’t end. The continuing narrative allows room for Cain to experience the harshness of a life devoid of God. It also allows him to move forward and to, himself, give rise to new stories. As our nation wrestles with the question of capital punishment, I hope we remember this moment in the Bible, when God’s wisdom creates the opportunity for change, for genesis. The alternative is to put a halt to all that might be possible — both remorse and redemption.

Norman Allen is a Washington-based playwright who writes frequently about spirituality and religion. He won the Charles MacArthur Award for his play In The Garden. Tweet him @WriterNorm.