Cain, Abel, and God
By Josh Breslaw
One of the first sermons that I preached was Jonah. As I studied for that sermon in my expository preaching class at ETBU, I was in shock when I realized what I’d been taught about this fish story was wrong. I’d always been taught that the fish was punishment. However, as I started reading the text for myself and reading commentaries, I realized something: the fish was God’s grace for Jonah. I began to realize that without the fish rescuing Jonah, Jonah drowns in the ocean. God saved Jonah from death and gave him a second chance.
This article is not about Jonah, but about another story of salvation from an unexpected place. I was reading the story of Cain and Abel not too long ago, and I was struck by the ending. The short version of the story, I remember from childhood, is that Cain and Abel bring sacrifices to God. God likes Abel’s sacrifice more, and this makes Cain mad. So, Cain kills Abel. Cain is punished for the murdering of his brother and sent away from the family. Nothing about that summary is wrong. However, when I read the story again recently, something jumped out at me. I particularly got interested in the interaction between Cain and God after the murder had taken place.
Christians and the Death Penalty
The majority of Americans support the death penalty. According to a summer 2021 Pew research poll, 64% of Americans believe that capital punishment is morally justified in certain cases like murder. While the numbers are almost a generation old, the aggregate of 2001-2004 Gallup polls show that 71% of Protestants support the death penalty. During this same time period, Gallup polls showed that about the same percentage of Americans overall supported the death penalty. That leads me to believe that if Protestants were surveyed today, the percentage who support the death penalty would be similar to the overall population.
The death penalty is a controversial subject in America today, and that controversy extends into the church. There are passages in Scripture which seem to clearly support the practice. Several of the Laws in Exodus tell of execution as being the appropriate punishment (Exod. 21:12, for example). Even early in Genesis before the Law is given to Moses, God says that “whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed…” (Gen. 9:6). The death penalty is permitted and practiced in the Old Testament.
But then Jesus comes along and seems to practice a radical form of non-violence. He tells people “to turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39). Jesus saves the woman caught in adultery from death (John 8:7). This is not to mention that the whole reason Jesus came to earth was so that people could live and not die. It’s honestly a mixed bag when it comes to whether the Bible supports capital punishment.
What happens between God and Cain?
This brings me back to Cain and God. When God finds Cain, God knows what Cain has done. Cain has committed murder. And while nothing has been written yet in Genesis 4, not too much later in Genesis 9:6 the announcement is made from God that murder is punishable by death. Should Cain have gotten the death penalty for killing his brother? The jury’s out.
If God wanted to be Cain’s executioner, God could have immediately. God could’ve struck Cain down like he does to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. But as we know, God doesn’t do that. God chooses to give him a lesser punishment. God doesn’t kill him. Instead, the ground will no longer yield produce for him, and he must now wander the earth as a nomad. Cain balks at this punishment. To paraphrase Cain “this is more than I can handle. You have sentenced me to death. When someone sees me, they will kill me!” God takes Cain’s protest into account. God acts on Cain’s behalf. He protects Cain by placing a mark on him, so that everyone knows to leave him alone. Twice in this story, God actively works against the death penalty for Cain. God does not kill him, and God protects Cain from others seeking revenge.
God and Capital Punishment
It’s interesting that the Law justified and even prescribed capital punishment for Cain, but God chose to do something else. I think the story of God saving Cain from death is a story worth considering as we consider capital punishment today. God not only chooses to not kill Cain for his actions, but God actively protects Cain from this fate. God protects Cain, the murderer, from suffering the same fate as Abel. In this case, God errs on the side of life.
Let us remember though that this is only one story worth considering in the Old Testament. There are other stories where either God seems to condone capital punishment (Achan’s Family as one example), or God is the executioner (Sodom and Gomorrah and the Tenth Plague in Egypt come to mind). Then, on the other side, there’s Jonah and Cain whose lives God spares.
So why does God spare Cain? Did God need all the people possible to be fruitful and multiply? That is one theory, but it seems rather weak. God already created the world. I think God could figure out how to make do without Cain. I can’t say for certain why Cain is spared, but I can say that he is spared. In this story, God chose to protect a murderer’s life.
I think in the end, God does not want death to be part of this world. In the new heavens and earth, “death will be no more” (Rev. 21:4). God came to earth to save people from the punishment of death. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). God actively protected us from death by dying on a cross. If we choose to follow him, if we choose to receive his mark of protection, then death cannot harm us. I think God errs on the side of life and we should too. He had the opportunity to punish Cain with execution, but God doesn’t. I don’t think that the story of Cain, Abel, and God is the only one to read when it comes to capital punishment. But I do think it is one of the stories to read. In this case, God chose life instead of death. God’s choice to spare Cain should at least be one more story to consider when we think about the death penalty.
*The views expressed are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pastor’s Common