Sunday 4 November 2012

Mark of Blame?

The cinematic equivalent of the Cain and Abel story. Credit: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003, New Line Cinema)

Sometimes it's the small things that can make all the difference - the fine details in a familiar story that can change your understanding of the whole narrative. There are (at least) two ways of interpreting the events of Genesis 4. One is how I used to understand the story and one's how I understand it now.

Here's the first.

The story goes like this. Cain and Abel are two brothers. Cain develops a grudge against Abel and, despite God's warning, murders him. God confronts Cain over his brother's death and curses him with difficult agricultural work. Cain protests and God then gives Cain a mark to distinguish him.

Interpretation 1 sees this as a blame game. The mark is God's way of reminding Cain of his mistake. Interpretation 1 paraphrases God like this: "Look at what you've done. I'm going to give you this mark so you'll never forget your sin. Every time you look in the mirror you're going to reminded of how you screwed up. Never forget that I'm angry with you."

Here's the second.

It's true enough that God initially curses Cain insofar as his farming work is going to be more difficult from this point on. God undeniably lets Cain know that his sin is not OK. But the only one who actually condemns Cain in the passage is...Cain. Look at what he says:
Then Cain said to the LORD, 'This punishment is more than I can stand! Today you have forced me to stop working the ground, and now I must hide from you. I must wander around on the earth, and anyone who meets me can kill me.'
Genesis 4:13-14 

This ties into my previous post. Just because Cain says these things doesn't mean that we have to agree with him. It doesn't mean that God agrees with him. God says that Cain will wander the earth. But notice that Cain is the one who signs his own death warrant.

So interpretation 2 sees Cain's mark as God's sign of resolute acceptance. It's a tag of ownership. It's God saying the following (and, obviously, this too is a paraphrase): "I know you screwed up. I know that what you did was wrong. But don't ever for a second think that you're beyond redemption. You're more valuable than your mistakes. I'm going to put this mark on you as a sign that you're mine. Every time you look in the mirror, know that you're precious in my sight. And anyone who messes with you is going to have to deal with me first."

A powerful repercussion of this interpretation is that Cain's mark functions similarly to the Holy Spirit - a "mark of ownership", a sign that we are absolutely God's (Ephesians 1:13-14). That's how God treats us. He doesn't sweep our sin under the carpet as if it wasn't significant. He doesn't hold back from telling us that our sin is important. But, despite all our shortcomings, He still cherishes and dignifies us. He puts His mark of ownership on us to stop us defining ourselves by our mistakes. God's mark tells us that we're His redeemed children, no matter what our past looks like.

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