The Second Curse, mercy on a murder, the message of a non-literal Genesis
Cain’s punishment for killing Abel is that the ground will no longer yield its crops to him. It was bad enough that Man’s work was cursed, that he was to labor in pain and eat by the sweat of his brow. But now the ground will no longer produce anything at all for Cain, sweat or no. Furthermore, Cain will have no home, and he will be a restless wanderer.
The notion that exile from one’s home is the greatest punishment is attested to by Homer, Socrates, and Shakespeare—and before these men said it we see it here in Cain’s curse. Only a chapter ago, Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden. This gets to be a pattern, as we will eventually see the Jews driven from Jerusalem. This is the cursed condition of human beings: we are not at home. Instead we are in a cursed world where even inanimate objects like the ground oppose us. Perhaps all fantasy for the past or the future, heaven or utopia, is rooted in this basic human condition of homelessness. We all ache for a place not like this one. One of our greatest quests in life is to find a “home.”
God is so merciful that even His curse of Cain, the first murderer, is accompanied is tinged by mercy. Cain despairs that as he wanders the earth, other people will kill him. But God proclaims that this shall not be allowed, and God gives Cain a protective mark. What kind of God has mercy on the first murderer? A God who sees human beings, even the most sinful, as his wayward children. God did not hesitate to kill an animal (3:21), but God protects the life of a human murderer.
From passages like these we can see that the Bible portrays human life as sacred. And it’s based on passages like these that may Christians to this day reject abortion, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, and the like.
Also, note another non-literal moment in Genesis. Cain is worried about others in the world who would kill him. Who are these others? It’s not clear, and to this point Genesis has not suggested there were any others. However, who these others are or where they came from is largely beside the point. And I use “non-literal” here loosely, only to suggest that Genesis does not ask us to read it like a news article or a passage from a modern history textbook. If it did expect this, then it is a very poorly written book—leaving such a gaping hole in its facts. But we know that it is not a poorly written book—therefore we should surmise that Genesis does not ask us to be too concerned about who the other people about whom Cain is worried, or where they came from. Genesis does not purport to be history or journalism in the modern sense. Rather, Genesis wants us to know about the fundamental human predicament: we are the creations of a good and loving God, but we are alienated from God by our sin.