After Cain kills his brother, God pronounces a curse:
You shall become a constant wanderer on the earth (Gen 4:12).
This plight of Cain is of course the plight of each of us. As a people, we are “strangers in a strange land” like Moses. Augustine said to God that “our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” But that said, our hearts do not completely rest in the Lord on this side of heaven, even when we know that the Lord alone is our rest. They are usually divided and conflicted. With each new step in our lives, we think, “This is what will bring me the peace I seek.” But then before long we find ourselves still wanderers. Even when our hearts do rest in the Lord, they become all the more restless with being in this world, as they wait to see His face.
Cain said to the Lord: “My punishment is too great to bear” (Gen 4:13).
When I was visiting inmates at the D.C. Jail recently, I spoke with a young man who was considered a suicide risk. A plastic jump-suit and a roll of toilet-paper were the only items in his one-man cell. He was weeping forcefully as he spoke: “People always tell you that God won’t give you more than you can handle. But this is more than I can handle. This is more than I can handle!” He was speaking the words of Cain. He was also speaking the words of the Psalmist and the words of Christ: My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? (I responded with the most powerful words I know: “God is with you. God loves you.”)
So the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one would kill him at sight. Cain then left the Lord’s presence and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden (Gen 4:15-16).
A “mark” is God’s parting gift to Cain. (Many biblical scholars understand the human author of Genesis to be thinking here of a tattoo, common among ancient Near Eastern tribes.) The Lord in His fullness will be hidden from Cain, but He has given to Cain a sign as a reminder of His protection.
I like to think of Cain the wanderer, journeying through the land of Nod (nud means to wander), resting for a moment in the shadows, and looking at his mark, at the tattooed sign, perhaps inscribed on his breast. It was a sign of the Lord’s protection, of the Lord’s enduring love. But it was also a reminder of that terrible moment in his life when he killed Abel the Just. Therefore, it was a sign of love and of sorrow, of mercy and of guilt. It was like the sign of the cross!
Of course, I have also been marked, as has every Christian. I have been told that Baptism imprinted on my soul an “indelible mark.” I have been forever inscribed by the Spirit of the Lord, placed under the Lord’s protection.
And as I journey with Cain through the land of Nod, a land which is decidedly east of Eden, where the Lord is present and yet very hidden, I sometimes happen to see the Lord’s mark on my heart: a reminder that although I am, like Cain, a killer of the Just One, the Lord has nevertheless claimed me for His own.
Image: Daniel Brock, Shadow Walk