The Mark of Cain

It’s near the end of March, which to me means spring is imminent. Okay, I know it isn’t. This is Chicago, after all. I know, in a way no one south of Highway 70 can possibly know, that spring is never imminent and always capricious. In fact, there are couple inches of snow on the ground as I type, courtesy of last night.

But I’m a gardener, so hope springs eternal.

Gardening and theology go together like Frodo and Sam, and some of my best theological moments have happened out there amid the snap peas and sunflowers.

My last post talked about the Garden and its theology, and how it still matters in our lives today. No story proves that better than the one we’ll explore today.

But first—recap time:

God gave blessings/commissions in the garden—two important ones that explain and define us in ways we probably don’t realize.

The first blessing/commission God gave in the Garden—Live in relationships. It’s not good to be alone. Care for one another. Be responsible for one another. Create community on this earth I’ve made for you.

The second blessing/commission God gave in the Garden—work, have purpose, live in partnership of doing good and spreading good on this earth I’ve made for you.

Then, of course, it goes all so wrong. Within one generation, we see the setup for generations to come, including our own. We see it in five angry, dismissive words that haunt us to this day.

“Am I my brother’s guardian?”

We know those words. They come from Cain, the first son of Eden. Here’s the story:

Genesis 4.2-16 When they grew up, Abel became a shepherd, while Cain cultivated the ground. When it was time for the harvest, Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the Lord. Abel also brought a gift—the best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock. The Lord accepted Abel and his gift, but he did not accept Cain and his gift. This made Cain very angry, and he looked dejected.

“Why are you so angry?” the Lord asked Cain. “Why do you look so dejected? You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.”

One day Cain suggested to his brother, “Let’s go out into the fields.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother, Abel, and killed him.

Afterward the Lord asked Cain, “Where is your brother? Where is Abel?”

“I don’t know,” Cain responded. “Am I my brother’s guardian?”

But the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground! Now you are cursed and banished from the ground, which has swallowed your brother’s blood. No longer will the ground yield good crops for you, no matter how hard you work! From now on you will be a homeless wanderer on the earth.”

Cain replied to the Lord, “My punishment is too great for me to bear! You have banished me from the land and from your presence; you have made me a homeless wanderer.

We don’t know why Cain’s offering fell short. We have no evidence, so any speculation is just that. All we know is that it did, and that God in his kindness gave him a chance to make it right. A chance to choose blessing rather than consequences.

He does not make the right choice.

Cain kills his brother, and like his father before him, when questioned by God, he deflects. What? I didn’t do anything. Wasn’t my fault, whatever you think happened.

How am I responsible for that other person you put on this planet?

Cain violates the first blessing/commission we are given. He denies his blessing of relationship. He refuses to be accountable for the community he’s been given. As a result, he loses all his relationships. He is driven away and forced to wander as a landless, rootless nomad. He has no community, when such a rich one had been his to keep.

But he chose to turn away.

The word for guardian, shawmar, means to keep, to guard, to protect, even to save life. It’s a term of responsibility—the same one God gave Cain’s parents earlier— Genesis 2.15—The Lord God placed humans in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over (shawmar) it.

So in answer to your question, Cain, Why yes, it is your one job to guard your brother. To protect and care for, nurture his life.

He loses family as a result.

The second blessing, meaningful work, take a huge hit as well. It’s difficult to farm the and when you’re going to roam it constantly. It’s a challenge to produce enough to feed yourself even when, “No longer will the ground yield good crops for you, no matter how hard you work!”

Work will be too impossible to even hope for meaningful. The scarcity mindset Cain already had—there isn’t enough of God’s blessing to go around—my brother is getting more than I get!—will worsen.

Hasn’t it?

Maybe the actual mark of Cain was a symbol on his forehead, but I think the real mark of Cain can be found in all of us when we’re certain we need to compete with our brother rather than care for him.

Ever witnessed mommy wars?

At least I work/stay at home.

I breast feed. I use organic. I co-sleep. I babywear. I won’t ever put my child in a nursery/I will have my child to church from day one.

Parenting is not a competition. But it is. Because Cain taught us all that there’s only so much “good on you” to go around, and we must have our share. “Our share” is always more than hers/his.

No, we don’t. There is enough to go around. There’s more when we decide to be our sister’s guardian rather than her competition.

Social media has magnified the popularity wars. You know they never ended. It all just escalated to Instagram rather than 7th grade locker notes.

Her kids are dressed better than mine.

Her vacation is more exciting than mine.

Her house is definitely cleaner than mine.

Her Bible study habits are even better than mine.

Cain taught us all that someone has to be better—there isn’t any room for both their life and mine to be satisfying.

According to research, girls from a young age already isolate other girls who seem to be too powerful, courageous, or self-assured. They don’t want other girls to have that edge, so they “cut them down to size.” Sometimes, adult women can be the worst at holding back other women.

Cain taught us that if someone else gets ahead, we’re automatically behind.

We’ve been carrying the mark of Cain ever since.

Think about all that Cain lost in that transaction. We lose it, too. We lose relationships when we decide to compete rather than encourage. We lose the opportunity to work together when we push someone else back in order to move ahead. We lose all the things Cain lost—community and meaningful, cooperative work—when we choose scarcity and competition over being our brother or sister’s guardian.

We’ve never seen that thrown in more relief than we do now. What makes one human choose to sew medical masks to give away, stock the food pantries, and shop for their elderly neighbors? While a very similar human steals masks from a hospital, lies to get food from the food bank, and buys up all the noodles and milk?


The feeling that there will never be enough versus the belief that God gives his resources abundantly, without the need to compete. That’s what makes the difference. We choose, in times when it feels like scarcity should rule the day, to bear the mark of Cain or the mark of Jesus. We choose the fear of “never enough” or the peace of a Father who gives good gifts to his children.

When I preached on Cain a short time ago, no one had heard the word coronavirus. Now, this whole idea of shawmar means so much more. What would change in our lives if we chose the role of shawmar? Keeper, guardian, protector, lifesaver? What would those God-given communities start to look like? We might be about to find out.

It would be so good for us all to leave behind the mark of Cain.

Photo credit: Jill Richardson

Jill Richardson
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