You have banished me from the land and from your presence; you have made me a homeless wanderer. Anyone who finds me will kill me!
If there was anyone who deserved the death penalty, it was Cain—the Bible’s first murderer and all-around thug. Threatened by his brother’s righteousness, Cain was overcome with jealously and hate, so he slaughtered his own brother in cold blood. A few chapters later, we read about the institution of the death penalty for those who take another human’s life (Genesis 9:5-6). And when God gave Moses the law, he sanctioned the death penalty for various crimes. At this stage in redemptive history, the death penalty was one way in which God dealt with evil. So why didn’t he kill Cain?
Not only did Cain deserve it—he killed his own flesh and blood—but he would go on to bring several other creepers and murderers into being. His genealogy includes several other death-row candidates like Lamech, who murdered a boy for wounding him. Many of Cain’s descendants would become a large reason why God had to send the flood to wipe the slate clean and start over with Noah. There are numerous reasons why God should have killed Cain. Yet God chose to give grace to Cain. He spared him from death and even set a mark of protection on him so no one else could kill him either.
Instead of being God’s first object lesson of judgment, Cain gets chalked up as a recipient of grace.
The Bible doesn’t give a uniform view of the death penalty. It’s sanctioned in the Old Testament, but it’s not clear whether this has carried over into the New. Romans 13:4 says that Rome “bears the sword” toward evil-doers and that God works through Rome—a pagan empire—to sovereignly carry out his will. God uses Rome’s death penalty, but it’s not clear whether Christians should endorse Rome’s law.
I’m one of those Christians who has a really hard time endorsing, let alone celebrating, the death penalty. It’s not that I can’t see the logic of punishing evil-doers with death. It makes good logical sense to me. But it doesn’t make the best Christian sense, especially on this side of the cross. After all, “our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies” (Romans 5:10 NLT). You and I were right there with Cain, on death row, deserving of death, when God looked upon us—and upon every person—with scandalous delight. To demand the death of another human, after God released me from death row, seems like hypocrisy.
I used to read the story of Cain and Abel as if I were Abel. But the longer I stare at the cross, I realize that I am Cain. An inmate on death row, drowning in God’s stubborn delight.
Your love, Oh God, has released my chains and pardoned my guilt! Give me courage to pass on your love to others.