As God confronted Cain about his murder of Abel, notice that Cain didn’t deny or pretend. But as God pronounced the consequent punishment, Cain became overwhelmed with the result. There is much to consider in what is at play here. Let’s look at everything in its immediate sense first before taking a look at the lesson that is being taught.
God’s punishment was that Cain would be cursed from the ground. In other words, there was a separation there of what had before been a successful farming career. The land would not yield to him as it had before. And God continued by saying, since Cain could not successfully grow crops, he would be forced to look for food by some other means—he would become more of a hunter/gatherer wandering around to find his food. And that did not mean simply wandering around the immediate area. It meant he would have to wander away from the area, going to live in other lands to find his way.
Now, that is all that God said to him. But immediately Cain cried out that this punishment was too great to bear! Was Cain in love with farming so much that he just broke down at the thought of not having that produce grow for him as before? Was that what he could not bear? I don’t think so. Cain explained himself a little more. He said he’d be hidden from God’s presence and people would want to kill him. Most commentators take that statement that others would want to kill him and, leaving the flow of the narrative, decide that, well, yeah, Abel had children—maybe grown children. Abel and Cain may have had other brothers and sisters. So, surely these relatives would all be mad at Cain for his murder and want to kill him.
But that is not what Cain is saying. Cain had begun by saying, “My punishment is too great to bear.” The explanation of relatives being angry would have been so whether or not God had punished. But Cain is linking the fact that people would want to kill him to his punishment not to his crime.
Cain knew that as a wanderer, he would be forced to leave the presence of God. Where is the presence of God? In the Garden temple. So Cain would no longer come to the entrance on the Sabbath. Cain would no longer join with his relatives weekly in worship of God. So Cain would then be considered an outsider, a renegade, one in whom God had no pleasure. And those who did worship God would seek to put to death the one(s) who did not depend on God.
It is really difficult to tell here whether Cain is in fact repentant for his sin that results in losing the presence of God or whether he is merely concerned about himself again in the perception of others. Whichever is the case, the scene does show the grace of God as God still offers protection/provision to Cain as he leaves family and home to head out as a wanderer. But we can’t insist it is Cain’s repentance to God for his sin and God’s mercy in forgiveness that causes God to give him that mark (whatever that mark was). God’s purpose in providing that mark was to teach that judgment was his. Those who would continue in the presence of God (like Israel and later the Church) should never understand their role as the physical elimination of those who don’t live “in the presence of God” (in Israel’s case, the Gentiles, and in the Church’s case, the unsaved). It was never Israel’s nor Christians’ duty to wipe out all unbelievers of other lands or beliefs. God would work his Restoration plan through his people but for the world. And that is the glory of the love foundation of our theology and the operation of God’s kingdom.
But in a further and darker sense, Cain also represents the lost—the unsaved—and their ultimate end. Remember that the ground represents our physical essence. Cain being cursed from the ground—alienated from the ground—foretells the separation of spirit from physical essence in the second death, when the unsaved are forced permanently away from the presence of God. That separation of spirit torn from essence will be their ultimate destruction.
Verse 17 of chapter 4 begins a new focus. Actually, it continues the theme set in Cain’s realization that he must depart the area of the Garden, resulting then in two groups—the people around the Garden (God’s presence) and the people that are beyond that area (out of God’s presence). The theological implications are captured for us in Genesis 4:17 through 6:4.
In 4:17, we are introduced to Cain’s family, which of course brings up the question of where Cain found his wife. His wife had to be another of Adam and Eve’s children. Another human not coming from Adam and Eve would play havoc with the theological implication of the fall. But if Cain’s wife is indeed his sister, should we presume that God’s plan for the population of the earth was through brother/sister incest? Leviticus 20:17, barring marriage between brothers and sisters, seems to imply God’s displeasure with the activity. We need to keep our heads when examining both the marriage (sexual) purpose and God’s imposed sanctions. God’s purpose for sex, as we discussed at the end of Genesis 2, was to provide a picture whereby we could understand how we image God in our marriage relationship. God is a multiple-in-one. But God is fully spirit, not physical. His essence of truth, goodness, and beauty is his oneness which embraces the three of God into unity. Our essence is our physicality. We share that essence exchanging bits and parts of that essence moment by moment with the world about us through the air we breathe and expel, the food and drink we take in and give back, and the energy exchanged through countless means. But the picture of our multiplicity (individual spirits) and oneness of physical essence is imaged in marriage between a husband and a wife. Our construct of the two sexes is meant to show the separateness of individual spirits coming together into a oneness—demonstrated through the bodily fitting together—in sexual relationship. We image God as multiple-in-one. And that is why God is so protective of that imagery. And if we read the punishment for any sexual sin through the listing found in Leviticus 20, we find death, the ultimate punishment for abandoning God’s image.
But in that list of sexual prohibitions starting in Lev 20:10, we get to verse 17’s discussion of a brother marrying a sister, and suddenly the punishment of death is no longer pronounced. The Bible characterizes the act as a reproach (not “disgrace” as many translations say). It means it is something that shouldn’t happen. Why not? Well, if it were a violation of the image, it would be met with death. But brother and sister in a marriage relationship doesn’t violate that image. However, as people continued to copulate and populate in this sin-cursed physical environment, the genetic problems of recessive genes arising to create disastrous problems within humans became more pronounced. So while the brother-sister union in marriage would not create genetic problems initially, by the time of the Israelites gathering around Mt. Sinai to receive the Law, the genetic problem was very real. So God said not to do it—don’t allow brothers and sisters to marry, not because it was a moral problem violating God’s image, but because it created a dangerous practical problem that should be avoided.
Cain had a son whom he named Enoch. Cain built a city. But remember the population—especially of Cain the wanderer who essentially struck out on his own with his wife. There were few people. After Enoch they probably had more children, and those children grew up. But still we are talking initially about a relative few. The city Cain built would be probably better described as a settlement—a small one at that. But the emphasis here is that this was where Cain’s family was settling—away from the Garden. However, Cain dedicated the settlement to Enoch. (The name Enoch means dedicated.) And he did so probably because Cain still was alienated from the ground, not being able to produce from it sustenance for himself. So he left the settlement in the hands of his eldest son to administrate while he continued in the curse of his wandering.