Everybody knows the story, right? Cain and Abel are Adam and Eve’s sons. Cain tills the ground, Abel keeps sheep. They both offer to God a portion of their work. Abel’s offering is favored over Cain’s. Cain becomes enraged and kills Abel. End of story.
Well, not quite. The intriguing bits of this story come after the murder of Abel. Cain’s punishment for his fratricide is that his toil in the ground will no longer produce fruit and he is to become “a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:12). After hearing his sentence, Cain cries out to God, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer ont he earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me” (Genesis 4:13-14).
Cain pleads for the very mercy that he did not extend to his brother. He fears that by being expelled from his community and from his way of life, he will become a vagabond, vulnerable to the violence and atrocities of others. Cain fears for his life.
“Not so!” the Lord replies (Genesis 4:15). The Lord chooses to protect Cain by placing a mark on him, so that no one who comes upon the wandering fugitive will kill him. The Lord protects even those who are guilty of horrendous treacheries.
God’s mercy is bountiful. The Lord refuses to take an eye for an eye or to exact cruel vengeance on offenders. The Lord is not threatened by becoming vulnerable and affording mercy.
I believe that our society needs to look again at Genesis 4. We are a bloodthirsty people – we carry guns, we desire the death penalty, we bristle with animosity. We desire vengeance. But the message of the cross, and the message I believe is implicit in Genesis 4, is that mercy ought to have no bounds.