Sunday, May 19, 2024

Rejoicing Where the Flames Burn: A Pentecost Sermon

It was in their third month of liberty when they got where they were headed. “In the third month, after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came to the Wilderness of Sinai” (Exodus 19:1).1 Not quite two months had passed since the Passover that bought their redemption. Now, in this third month, on some significant day, they reached the plateau at the foot of Mount Sinai. And there they camped while Moses went up to confer with the LORD God Almighty, who spoke to him out of heaven (Exodus 19:2-3). God made Israel an offer: if they'd accept and obey his covenant, he'd make them a priestly kingdom to all the nations of the world, his special treasure (Exodus 19:4-6). For this, they claimed to be willing.

For several days, then, they consecrated themselves, preparing to meet their God on this holy mountain (Exodus 19:12-13). For soon, on the chosen day in this third month, “the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people” (Exodus 19:11). And that's exactly what happened. Can you picture what it must have looked like? One day, the skies were clear. But then, as a new morning dawned, “there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended on it with fire; the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly” (Exodus 19:16-18).

As Moses summed it up forty years later, “you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom” (Deuteronomy 4:11). There, on that day the mountain was set ablaze, “the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire..., and he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform – that is, the Ten Words; and he wrote them on two tablets of stone” (Deuteronomy 4:12-13). “On earth he let you see his great fire, and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire” (Deuteronomy 4:36). We're told “all the people saw the sounds” (Exodus 20:18), which later Jews understood to mean that when God spoke the Ten Commandments, the audible words took on the visible form of fire which, in front of their eyes, was then burned into the stone tablets.2

But when they beheld this fire on the mountain, “the people saw and trembled, and they stood far off” (Exodus 20:18). Moses tells us why: “You were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up to the mountain” (Deuteronomy 5:5). “While the mountain was burning with fire..., you said: 'Behold, the LORD our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire... Now, therefore, why should we die? For this great fire will consume us! If we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, we shall die!'” (Deuteronomy 5:23-25). To meet God, to hear his own voice, was too frightening. “For the LORD your God,” Moses comments, “is a Consuming Fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24). Therefore, Israel backed away from the blaze. They knew they were but flesh and could not dwell with the Consuming Fire.

So Moses ascended on their behalf. “Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:21). Moses braved the flame and, like a bush he once saw, was not consumed. Until “the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands,” said Moses, still “the mountain was burning with fire” (Deuteronomy 9:15). In the meantime, Moses heard other burning commands, including that Israel was to “keep the Feast of Harvest of the firstfruits of your labor,” on which “all of your males shall appear before the Lord GOD (Exodus 23:16-17).

This holiday ritually marked the wheat harvest for Israel, and Moses explained that, after seven sets of seven days from the time they first began to harvest grain – or from waving the firstfruits of the barley harvest on the second day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:15) – they would keep this Feast of Weeks by offering “the tribute of a free-will offering from your hand, which you shall give as the LORD your God blesses you” (Deuteronomy 16:9-10).3 Israel would mark the day with special sacrifices, keeping a holy convocation and not doing any ordinary work – because this Feast of Weeks, was special (Leviticus 23:21).

The Feast of Weeks was their sole third-month holiday, a day Jews came to identify as the anniversary of God appearing in fire and making a covenant and giving them the Law.4 On that day, it was seen how “Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest” of the world (Jeremiah 2:3). Not only was the Feast of Weeks a choice chance to confirm their covenant commitment year after year,5 but as a pilgrimage feast it gathered Israel again and again to “the LORD whose fire is in Zion and whose furnace is in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 31:9).

Long after Moses, there came the Messiah. God's own eternal Son took on human flesh and human blood from the Hebrew tribe of Judah, and on Passover in the most important year of all, he himself became the sacrificial Lamb. Rising again to life during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, he spent the ensuing weeks with his disciples, opening their minds and the Scriptures to each other (Luke 24:45). Then, just as Moses had ascended the mountain into the cloud, Jesus ascended heaven behind the cover of the same cloud (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9).6

And so Jesus' disciples worshipped (Luke 24:52-53). And they waited. A group of 120 disciples, including not just the apostles but also Mother Mary and other followers of Jesus, prayed and waited under Peter's leadership in Jerusalem (Acts 1:12-26). Because it wouldn't be long until the Feast of Weeks had come, the day when the wheat harvest had finished and the covenant was remembered at the holy convocation. Greek-speaking Jews had a special nickname for the Feast of Weeks. Since it was fifty days after Passover, they called it 'Pentecost.'

That amazing year, “when the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place, and suddenly there came from heaven a sound” – not unlike the thunders and trumpets heard on Sinai (Acts 2:1-2). And just as “the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder” (Exodus 19:19), now the sound of a mighty rushing wind “filled the entire house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2).7 And then came the flame. “Divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them,” on each of these first Jesus-followers, on Mary and Peter and John and James and Thomas and all the rest (Acts 2:3). It was the dawn of the Feast of Weeks, and as pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem to bring their offerings to the Lord, God returns in fire on the mountain! Only now, each apostle is like a mini-Mount Sinai, his head ablaze with the holy fire their forefathers feared!

As Jewish pilgrims from not only the Promised Land but also the diaspora among the nations gathered around, standing amazed at the foot of this new mountain, they heard the announcement of “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:5-11). Peter preached to them about “the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories,” just as the prophets had previously been led by the same Spirit to foretell (1 Peter 1:10-11). Peter and the apostles showed that, though Moses had mediated a covenant on Sinai's scorching summit, Messiah had now ascended the heavenly mountain to mediate a far greater covenant “enacted on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). And Israel could “know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36), for it was none other than Jesus who “poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:33), certifying his apostles as “ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit [who] gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). So just “repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit; for the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39)!

That was why the apostles and disciples, there in their place in the holy city, had been anointed and bathed and crowned with fire, the fire of God, the fire of the Holy Spirit. “That fire did not burn them up,” said one saint, “but stirred them up instead.”8 Jesus had hurled down from heaven to them a greater gift than Moses' hands had carried down Sinai's slopes,9 and Peter and the others were burning to let the whole world hear about it, starting with those already gathered from near and far to faithfully celebrate the joys of the old feast and seek the Lord!  Here, at this feast, there was set apart a new chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [the Lord's] own possession, as these Spirit-gifted disciples commenced to proclaim the excellencies of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light, the light of the Spirit of the Living God (1 Peter 2:9).

Pressing forward from Pentecost, the apostles – and those who then carried their ministry forward through time, generation after generation in succession – have now “preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven” (1 Peter 1:12). It's in descent from Pentecost that the fiery words of the gospel reached your own ears, and that was a work of the Holy Spirit himself: “The gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45).  And that you efficaciously received the gospel is no less his doing: “No one can say 'Jesus is Lord!' except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). “When you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, you were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13), so that now “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God” (1 Corinthians 6:19). In fact, “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one Body... and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).

But what's that good news? What have we imbibed from the one Spirit who overflows the temple? That “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13); that God “has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who are by God's power being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5), when “you will be visited by the LORD of Hosts with thunder and... with whirlwind and tempest and the flame of a devouring fire” (Isaiah 29:6).

And this living hope, a hope that's born in us and that we're born into, is what sustains our joy when the days get hot, when the pressures are on, when the flames shoot high. In this life, we are quite likely to contend with “the fiery trial when it comes upon you,” and yet it isn't “something strange” to catch us by surprise (1 Peter 4:12). What are these fiery sufferings we endure, if not evidence that we live on this side of Pentecost? The Spirit of the Living God may come as our Comforter, but he isn't always comfortable. Who ever said the Pentecostal fires weren't hot on the apostles' heads? I've never heard a promise that Pentecost don't cost, that Pentecost ain't a pain, that Pentecost brings no burdens and summons no sufferings. Pentecostal fire can be frightfully fierce. To the extent we're in Christ, we've each “received the fire of the Holy Spirit.”10 The flames that burn us, the heat that scorches us and scalds us – aren't they this very fire? God always promised he'd put his chosen ones “into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested” (Zechariah 13:9).

You have been grieved by various trials,” then, to unveil “your faith, more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire” (1 Peter 1:6-7). But the end goal of this fiery testing is “praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7). It's through the fire that tests and tries us now that we prepare for that imperishable inheritance stored away in heaven for us. And that's why we have Pentecostal joy. From the beginning, on the Feast of Weeks, not only were you to offer a measure of God's blessing, but “you shall rejoice before the LORD your God” – no matter who you are or what you're enduring, Pentecost always called for rejoicing (Deuteronomy 16:11). Now, on account of our hope, we rejoice where the flames burn! To us, Pentecost is “not of burning but of saving fire, which consumes the thorns of sins but renders the soul radiant.”11

Though you do not now see [Jesus], you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith: the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9). “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). Salvation for the soul, redemption for the body – no wonder we believe despite the gap between what we see and what we hope! The firstfruits of the Spirit in us is a promise, “the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:14), provided we do not “grieve the Holy Spirit of God” by turning fatally and finally away from God's love, God's joy, God's glory (Ephesians 4:30).

But what a strange thought – that the fire of the Holy Spirit should be crackling and hissing in each of us, and yet here we sit, here we stand, and we are not destroyed! How is it that we can rejoice while being burned from the inside out? How is it we can bear to bear the Spirit of the Living God? How is it we can dare to look for the Day of the Lord to be light and not darkness, and brightness with no gloom in it (cf. Amos 5:20)?

Malachi had that question: “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire!” (Malachi 3:2). Isaiah tells us that the godless themselves fret inwardly, “Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?” (Isaiah 33:14). Yet the prophet goes on to say that one who “walks righteously and speaks uprightly” can somehow indeed “dwell on the heights,” even the heights of the holy mountain ablaze (Isaiah 33:15-16). How could that ever be?

I've heard a strange thought on that matter. I've heard it suggested that the agonies of hell and the brilliance of heaven are actually nothing but one and the same fire: the exuberant love of God.12 This is the consuming fire, these are the everlasting burnings, with which the godless are incapable of dwelling, and “night and day it shall not be quenched” (Isaiah 34:10) – for how could the love of God ever be quenched? But those in it who can see transparently their own incompatibility with God's goodness, those who are forever unsettled and pained and frustrated by God's love, those who can't help but flee from omnipresent beauty, can't escape the “spiritual frustrations and restlessness” that come from an eternal effort to avoid the unavoidability of love.13 God's love inevitably burns sin, so those who ultimately become their sin – by clinging to it immutably and irrevocably, by identifying with it to the bitter end – are in the end choosing to be eternally flammable.14 Therefore, they are agonized by being so ferociously loved as God always loves. To those in hell, love is so unbearably strong and fierce that it can only be suffered as unremitting violence, as a source of burning shame, as a wound of fiery wrath, “and you shall be melted in the midst of it” (Ezekiel 22:21).

But the difference in heaven is that, by the time you get to heaven, everything in you that was incompatible with God's fiery goodness has been surrendered, boiled and burned away. The fire of God's love is all around them, and yet to them it can be said, “When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:2). They'll be “unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt” (Daniel 3:25). Why? They've become fully compatible with the heat of the Spirit, they're entirely penetrated by and united to the fires of God's love.15 And what's already all fire is forever fireproof. So the faithful pray for “that time when I flow into you, purged and rendered molten by the fire of your love.”16

So think “what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness” now, the scripture urges, “waiting for and hastening the coming of the Day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn; but, according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:11-13). Yes, this whole universe is due for a Day of God, the final harvest at the end of days (Matthew 13:39), “for behold, the LORD will come in fire..., for by fire will the LORD enter into judgment” with his creation (Isaiah 66:15-16). On that day, as Daniel foresees, “a stream of fire issued and came out from before him” (Daniel 7:10). It'll be a day when the Spirit of God surges forth in flame, when the galaxies shall be baptized in the blazes, when the laws of physics will be put to the test like gold in the forge, when the outpouring will melt out of creation every impurity that cannot bear the burning, smoldering, penetrating gaze of Eternal Love. That's what judgment means: seeing what will melt away and what will prove itself compatible with the fiery love of God. That's what we groan inwardly for, that's what we wait eagerly for, that's what the redemption of not only our bodies but creation's body will mean!

A cosmic Pentecost – that's what we're waiting for, that's where our hope rests! On that final day, “your eyes will behold the King in his beauty; they will see a land that stretches afar” (Isaiah 33:17). Built of gleaming flame all around us, filling the universe, “behold, Zion, the city of our appointed feasts..., an untroubled habitation!” (Isaiah 33:20). There we'll celebrate our Pentecost forever! There we'll rejoice to dwell with the everlasting burnings of God's love, of God's irrepressible joy and delight (for God is himself his own Joy), when we too are all flame! So “let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29). Hallelujah in the Spirit! Amen!

O Lord our God and Father, we gather in holy convocation on this truly holy day, the Pentecostal feast that completes your Passover of the New Covenant, to celebrate with joy your bounty and your blessings natural and supernatural, under the Law and in the Spirit.  By the hands of your Son, you have poured out your Spirit upon his Body below and have filled heaven and earth with your awesome wonders.  From the first, you sent your Christ to cast fire upon the earth, and now we rejoice to see it kindled.  Give us to delight ever more joyously in your sacred inferno of unquenchable love.  'Lord, send the old-time power, the Pentecostal power, that sinners be converted and thy name glorified!'  May this holy fire rage ever wilder, smoking out all sin in us and all woe in the world, igniting all things to a red-hot perfection, until your creation is lit as one flame with you eternally.  Let your joy ever burn bright in us and in the world you even now are making new by your outpoured All-Holy Spirit, who lives and gives life as one God with the Father and the Son, world without end.  Amen.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

The Downward Spiral

Last Sunday, we attended the trial and sentencing hearing of Cain, who was convicted and punished for having murdered his own little brother Abel out of envy and anger (Genesis 4:8). Despite claiming to know nothing of Abel's whereabouts (Genesis 4:9), the victim's blood and the soil testified to God what had happened (Genesis 4:10). Therefore, the LORD pronounced a curse of separation divorcing Cain from the ground which he'd loved and relied on as a farmer (Genesis 4:11). It would no longer cooperate with his works, meaning that he would never find a stable place to call his own (Genesis 4:12). In a way, Cain was being sentenced to live out the life of Abel as he saw it. To Cain's protest that this was excessive punishment (Genesis 4:13-14), the LORD showed mercy, ensuring that Cain remained within a world of law and order, establishing Cain as still a legal person whose life would be vindicated from violence by God (Genesis 4:15). No one would hurt Cain with impunity, for God had claimed him.

And so, as we read, Cain went away from the LORD's face, he wandered off, and the fugitive traveled to a new land, an unfamiliar territory further east than the region of Eden where the garden was, further than where Adam and Eve had made their home (Genesis 4:16). If Genesis had cut away from Cain at this moment, letting him drop off the page and out of its world, we'd understand. Instead, though, we follow Cain eastward to this Land of Nod, this Land of Wandering. And we've got questions. What is Cain going to do? How is Cain going to live? How does an ex-farmer, the divorced husband of scornful soil, get by in the Land of Wandering?

He starts a family, for one. “Cain knew his wife” (Genesis 4:17). That's raised a lot of questions over the years – this is the first time we've heard Cain was married. Was she a sister, a niece? Was she someone or something else? Are there people lurking at the edges, under the surfaces, and between the gaps of the text? Genesis won't satisfy our curiosities, but as a sign of God's continued mercy, Cain isn't prevented from having a family. He's a husband, and now he's going to be a father. And as he becomes a father, he seems to make a decision. Already we heard that Cain “settled in the land of Nod” (Genesis 4:16). That verb, 'settled,' sounds like a odd way to refer to the unstable life of a wanderer. How do you settle down in the Land of Unsettling? What sense does it make, Cain? Cain's answer, it seems, is to begin building a city. For you and all of whom, Cain? A whole city?

It's a strange twist, this settling, this building. It doesn't match well with Cain's sentence. It feels a bit more like a jailbreak, as though “Cain refuses to accept God's verdict on his life.”1 A Jewish author of the first century pictured Cain's life this way: “His punishment... only served to increase his vice. He indulged in every bodily pleasure..., he increased his substance with rapine and violence, he incited to luxury and pillage all whom he met, and became an instructor in wicked practices. … He was the first to fix boundaries of land and to build a city, fortifying it with walls and constraining his clan to congregate in one place.”2

Cain, devising borders and claiming territory, at some point in his life begins to build a settlement. At best, it could've been “not much more than a primitive compound at first.”3 But so far as the Bible is concerned, this is the first city. We'll revisit it again in a few weeks when we comb through this passage again, but when the Bible gives you something for the first time, pay attention. What are cities, what are settlements, all about? Ask Cain, and he'll tell you. Cain settles down, in part, because even a sign couldn't make him trust God's promises. He's a man who's burned the capacity for faith out of his heart.4 Though a marked man, Cain was still dogged by fear and insecurity in the world, as well as a thirst for a legacy and a determination to escape the life to which he had been consigned by God's sentence. As one medieval commentator put it, “since Cain killed his brother and thus became a hated wanderer and fugitive upon the earth, he built a city in which he could be protected.”5 Not content to live exposed, he wanted to put up walls of defense, walls to keep danger away from him and his stuff.

The earliest known Stone Age enclosures are thought by archaeologists to have been mainly for community and ceremony, but they were also clearly fortified for defense when the circumstances called for it.6 Once true cities begin to surface in the archaeological record, we see things like stone walls, ditches, and watchtowers.7 And to the Hebrew mind, that was a defining trait of a city, a place where things were watched and walled in. Cain's aim is “an attempt to provide security for himself,”8 because Cain felt he could trust nothing but his own “human attempt to ensure security... independently of God's provision.”9 The idea of the city, then, is “founded on the fear of death.”10 That's what motivates Cain, at least in part, and it's a lot of what keeps people together. But it's also Cain's effort to establish something that can last, something to stand the test of time, some way to make his mark on the world, to prove to himself that he's still better than Abel who just floats on through.11

Is he, though? Does he though? The Hebrew probably doesn't actually say that Cain 'built' a city, but that he 'began to build a city,' or that he 'was building a city' – an ongoing project, and one that, as a wanderer, he may never have managed to finish.12 Don't think of it as a finished city, an accomplishment; think of it as his life's work which may not quite work out, his grand quest that meets with setback after setback, the stone of Sisyphus that keeps rolling back down that hill. Cain's project is perpetual, because Cain's project isn't fully possible.

And that's because Cain isn't just trying to build a landmark. He's creating a new social and political order, the City of Man. This idea resonated strongly with early Christians living in the Roman Empire, because Romans believed that, in the days when Uzziah was king in Judah, Rome was first founded by a man named Romulus – but only after Romulus had murdered his brother Remus.13 So when Christians read about Cain killing Abel and then starting to build a city, they saw Rome as an echo built on the foundations which Cain had first laid.14 And how many kingdoms since have been founded on war against those who should've been accounted brothers?15

One Jewish political scientist, reading Genesis, observed that “Cain was attempting to build an ordered society based on man's self-proclaimed law, without reference to the moral order emanating from the supreme authority of the Creator.”16 An early Christian bishop agreed that Cain's city represents “the earthly city which is not on pilgrimage in this world but rather rests content with its temporal peace and temporal happiness.”17 One scholar says Cain aimed to make “a place where people could live without God and disconnect from his creation.”18 The political scientist added that Cain's city “was, by definition and design, a godless society..., a humanistic civilization... without reference to the divine.”19 And another commentator glosses it simply as “godless human culture.”20 It's a secular state. A society founded on nothing transcendent must be founded instead on some earthly ideal, which ultimately reduces to some degree of creation's self-love.21

Cain names this project, this city, after his son Enoch, whose name in Hebrew means to introduce, to initiate, to dedicate; it comes from the same root where we get the holiday Hanukkah.22 Maybe he was born as Cain laid the foundation stone for his city.23 As a city-name, it also sounds suspiciously like the Sumerian pronunciation of a famous Sumerian city called Unug, several of whose kings were quite famous.

To Enoch was born Irad,” whose name sounds like another old Sumerian city, Eridu, and plays on the Hebrew word for 'city,' 'ir.24 “And Irad fathered Mehujael.” Now that's interesting, because 'Mehujael' seems to mean something like 'given life by God' – maybe Mr. and Mrs. Irad gave thanks to God for their baby boy's survival.25 See, it's not that the earthly city can't contain an acknowledgment of God, can't accommodate some religiosity; but the city of Cain is designed so that it's kept to private worship and public lip-service, not a foundation. And there's where the problem comes in, because when people – individually or as a society – prize the world more than higher goods, “then misery will necessarily follow.”26

And, sure enough, if Mehujael's name gave us a brief reason to hope, what comes next is grounds almost for despair. “Mehujael fathered Methushael,” and our best analysis of Methushael's name seems to be 'man of Sheol' – that is, a servant of the underworld, a devotee of the grave, a hero of hell!27 We're beginning to see that Cain's descendants took after him in a “downward spiral.”28 An old Jewish writer described how “the descendants of Cain went to depths of depravity; and, inheriting and imitating one another's vices, each ended worse than the last.”29 And so at last we hear that “Methushael fathered Lamech” (Genesis 4:18).

A medieval theologian pointed out that Lamech was “the seventh and worst descendant of Adam.”30 That is, this man Lamech is listed as the seventh generation from Adam along the line of Cain, so he represents the complete flowering of Cain's approach to being human. So what does that look like? Right off the bat, nothing too good: “Lamech took to himself two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah” (Genesis 4:19). Here is the first time in scripture somebody marries more than one person at once; here we meet the first man to change the marriage model of the garden, “a dismal departure from the divine norm.”31 So one early Christian pointed out that “plurality of marriage began with a man accursed,” for “Lamech was the first who, in espousing two women, made three in one flesh.”32

The phrase for Lamech taking 'to himself' wives is different from the usual Hebrew way a man 'takes' a wife.33 It suggests that, to Lamech, wives are collector's items – emphasis on 'item,' on 'object.'34 Adah's name seems to mean 'ornament' or 'adornment,' suggesting she exists for decoration; Zillah's name means either 'shade' or 'cymbal': where Adah looked good, Zillah sounded good and was refreshing.35 Like so many kings in ancient times who kept large harems, Lamech is all about status and pleasure.36 But in viewing women that way, he can't treat either Adah or Zillah as his equal; he takes initiate to degrade them and exalt himself as their master.37

St. Augustine pointed out that in the earthly city, those who think they're masters will inevitably be mastered by “the lust for domination.”38 But “since [the earthly city's] good is not the sort of good that brings no anxieties to those who love it, the earthly city is often divided against itself by lawsuits, wars, and conflicts, and by seeking victories that either bring death or are themselves doomed to be short-lived.”39 And that's what Lamech tells us: that he's a violent man, engaged in war and conflict, always seeking and gaining a victory. Because the biblical picture of Lamech is basically what made for a pagan hero. Some of the world's oldest stories are epics about the Sumerian kings of Unug, people like Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, and Gilgamesh. The eventual Babylonian epic of “Gilgamesh the great, magnificent and terrible,” sees him begin his story as a very overbearing and prideful king who gave his city no rest, who took the women he pleased, who fought any man who stood in his way.40

And that's who Lamech is: he's a Gilgamesh type, he's a hero in his own eyes. In pagan literature, a hero often was a strong man obsessed with his honor, his integrity, his clan, and his goals, and who was willing to kill for the sake of any or all of them without a second thought.41 In Lamech, we see “the flowering of the heroic ideal” as it existed in ancient paganism and, to an extent, a lot of modern action movies.42 And it's not pretty.

Whereas God's Law restrained justice to no more than matching harm – “wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exodus 21:25) – pagan laws often made the parties' social status a factor in deciding how severe a punishment for an injury should be.43 Lamech refuses to limit his revenge to 'wound for wound, bruise for bruise': he boasts that “I have killed a man for wounding me, and a young man for bruising me” (Genesis 4:23).44 When a man dared to strike him and draw blood, Lamech didn't merely return the favor, he returned death for a wound. Not only that, but when a youngster so much as even left a mark on him, Lamech didn't bat an eye before putting the pipsqueak in a premature grave.45 Lamech lives by violence without qualm, refusing to hold back. “He cared,” it's been said, “only to assuage his wounded sense of 'honor' by inflicting measureless shame and pain on any opponent, for wrongs real or imagined.”46 In the end, his only principle is his pride.47

As if it weren't enough that Lamech kills without remorse, he not only “did not grieve over the murder he had committed, but even gloried in it as a righteous cause.”48 We know about Lamech's life of violence, not because he's caught sheepishly in the act, but because he brags about it! How's that whole 'knowledge of good and evil' thing working out for us? Cain killed without remorse but also without open pride: he tried to keep what he did quiet; but Lamech kills without fear or remorse or shame, because he's openly proud of what he does.49 Lamech outright says that his evil, his violence, is good and heroic and worth celebrating.

To that end, he couches his brutal violence in the form of exquisitely refined poetry. His song is a masterpiece, one of the most carefully crafted poems in the Bible, with rhyme, balance, attention to meter.50 Lamech is the seventh generation from Adam, and he sings his exploits in exactly twenty-one Hebrew words, which is three times seven, perfect from multiple angles.51 And so he concludes with sevens: “If Cain's revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech's is seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:24)! A perfect song about perfect retribution.

Lamech heartily endorses Cain's life and dirty deeds, only he thinks Cain didn't go far enough. Rather than sing of great deeds of ages past, Lamech – how typically progressive of him – will be the bard of himself, singing of his own accomplishments in the modern world.52 Lamech distorts God's mercy to Cain into a badge of honor, and he thus abuses the word of God to craft and compound this dark threat.53 Lamech claims to be so strong, so tough, that he's untouchable.54 No one can ever bring him to justice, no one can ever hold him to account – that's what Lamech is singing.55 His whole life is “the threat of murder upon murder.”56 He wants the world to know that men who challenge him will die and women who appeal to him will be taken.57

But he doesn't sing it simply to the world. He sings it to his wives, making Adah and Zillah the audience of his violent words. The first poem in the Bible was Adam's words when he laid eyes on Eve, marveling at her deep connectedness to him as his equal (Genesis 2:23). Lamech reverses Adam's gift of poetry to awe and overwhelm his wives with his unmatched power, either to impress him with how macho he is or to intimidate them into submission with thinly-veiled threats of how easily he could abuse them.58 I'd guess Lamech means to do a bit of both here.

In the end, his threats of massive retaliation, his insistence on defending his honor with overkill, his implicit demand for those around him to know their place – what do they add up to, if not that Lamech practically thinks of himself as a lord above the law, as a superman beyond good and evil, as basically a god on earth?59 For, on Lamech's account, he is “greater even than God in vengeance.”60 Here is where pagan heroism is revealed; here is where the secular society ends up; here is where the earthly city earns its condemnation. Or it should. But as Lamech shouts out this horrible song, heavenly in form and hellish in content, for the first time in Scripture we hear no voice to answer back the truth, we witness no judgment to set right this wrong end – not yet.61

Untold ages pass, and a man named Peter approaches his teacher. “How often,” Peter asks, “will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21). Surely, he's thinking, he's being generous, as generous as God was to Cain: if Cain is avenged sevenfold, then for Peter to forgive sevenfold is a great triumph, a way to be the anti-Cain and so to live in God's favor. But his teacher is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” Peter well knows (Matthew 16:16). And this Messiah tells Peter it isn't enough to be the anti-Cain. “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times!” (Matthew 18:22). In these words, Jesus gives at last the final divine answer to Lamech, turning that horrid song upside-down and inside-out.62 It isn't enough to be the anti-Cain, when it comes to forgiveness; you must be the anti-Lamech. In place of Lamech's “perfect bloodthirsty vengeance,” Christ asks us to answer it with “the perfect grace of forgiveness,” just as he does.63 For forgiveness is the manlier fight, the greater conquest, the truer victory than all Lamech has ever understood.

Peter learned from his Teacher. In his Teacher's death of love, Peter understood the proverb that Lamech never could, that “bruises that wound scour away evil, as stripes make clean the innermost parts” (Proverbs 20:30). “For this is a gracious thing,” Peter preached, “when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly” (1 Peter 2:19). Lamech would never do that; it's why he never became clean within. But “to this you have been called,” Peter says, “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth; when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to the One who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:21-24). Peter at last understands the prophet, who foresaw what was to happen through Christ: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5), “so that even the cruel Lamechs of this world have the possibility of repentance and forgiveness.”64

Lamech refused to hear, calling back to him from the distant future, the words of Paul for husbands to “love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the Church to himself in splendor without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). Lamech, a brutal and braggadocious bigamist who understood nothing of one love, is answered by the Christ who poured his whole self out to make his One Bride holy, better adorned than Adah, more enchanting than Zillah.

Lamech came from a line of names – the hero of hell spawned by one given life by God, the strong city born out of human dedication – but Christ offers them all to “be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give” (Isaiah 62:2), saying that to anyone who perseveres in loyalty and trust to him when staring down the Lamechs in our land, “I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God..., and I will write on him the name of my God... and my own new name” (Revelation 3:12), a “new name... that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17). No more need Methushael serve the underworld, no more need Irad live and die by the strength of his city walls, no more need Enoch be dedicated to worldly things. We can all trade the names of the shames of the past and projects left undone for a new name, a new place, to stand tall in the Father's house.

For the earthly city, insofar as it loves temporary things, can never succeed. “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). We're taught that “the city of the saints is on high, even though it brings forth citizens here below, in whom it is on pilgrimage until the time of its kingdom arrives.”65 It's “the city of my God... which comes down from my God out of heaven” (Revelation 3:12). It stands as an eternal answer to the fearful sheltering of Cain and the wars of Lamech, because “by its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there” (Revelation 21:24-25). From these cities of Cain where we wander and settle, we may enter the unclosing gates of splendor, and find there what Cain's godlessness could never imitate. But “nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable and false” (Revelation 21:27). “Outside are... murderers and idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood,” those who cling to the heroism of Lamech (Revelation 22:15). To set foot in the heavenly city, we must learn to be anti-Lamechs in the world, children of Christ and his One Bride, showing the love and justice and mercy Lamech knew nothing of, and being followers of the Lamb whose wounds heal us day by day. In this, and this alone, is salvation and song and endless praise. Let us be dedicated to the Lamb! Let us, in heart and in life, follow the Christ! Amen.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Murder and Mercy

Court is back in session. In case you missed the last episode, it began – doesn't it always? – with a crime. Abel Adamsson falls, hitting the dusty earth. Some pattern of blood spatter is knocked beside it by each crack of the rock that bludgeons and batters his body. There he lay, his wounds open and flowing as his heart uses up its final beats. It's a gruesome scene, one that takes a strong stomach to bear beholding. This was no accident of grisly nature. A homicide has happened; crime is created (Genesis 4:8). The suspect pool is as shallow as it's ever been. The victim's brother, one Cain Adamsson, is brought in for questioning. The lights in the interview room – an interview room the size of the world – grow hot on his face. “Where is Abel your brother?” (Genesis 4:9).  So goes the sum of the interrogation.

Now, the beauty of this scene is that a plea deal is on the table, beyond all reason. It always is, isn't it? When it comes to God, that is. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Not only that, but he'll unite us to his Supreme Goodness, let us abide in him. This plea deal is even better than outright acquittal. Only plead guilty before the trial, and the sentence will be life and sanctification by the love of the Lord. Cain, though, overlooks his chance for a plea bargain. So the case is brought to trial. How do you plead? It's important, Cain. St. Ambrose reminds you, “admission of guilt placates the judge.”1 But Cain ignores him.  Cain admits no guilt: “I don't know; am I my brother's keeper?” (Genesis 4:9).  Cain pleads not guilty.

The prosecution's first witness is none other than Prosecution Exhibit 1: the splattered blood of the victim. But this blood speaks, it has a voice! It isn't just entered into evidence, it takes the stand in its own right. “The voice of your brother's bloods cries out!” (Genesis 4:10). In this, we know, “the murder victim himself has testified.”2 All through this tale so far, we hadn't heard a voice cross Abel's lips. Not one of his flashbacks has an audio recording; not one thing Abel said in all his life on earth was written down for us. But now that Abel's soul has fled for happier shores, his blood left behind won't shut up, won't quit demanding justice, won't quiet its accusation. “There, at the defendant's table: that's the man that killed me – my own brother!” His spilled blood presses its charge relentlessly.3 It's the voice of Cain's bloodguilt, his responsibility.4

Next to take the stand is the prosecution's second witness, a surprise witness, an unindicted co-conspirator turned state's evidence. For “the earth which received the blood also stands as a witness of the deed.”5 The ground had for so long been Cain's closest partner and dearest friend: it's the soil he tills, the source of his livelihood, the strength of his days. So naturally, Cain had coaxed it into being, effectively, an accessory after the fact to his murderous crime, though not quite a full accomplice.6 “The ground... opened its mouth to take your brother's bloods,” God narrates (Genesis 4:11). Having tasted innocent blood, having consumed Cain's violence, the ground is poisoned against him. From complicity in crime and cover-up, it's chosen its Maker over its former friend, and has become a fearsome accuser of the killer.7 “Yes, Your Infinite Honor, it was that hand,” – let the record show that the witness is identifying Exhibit 2, the hands attached to Cain – “that hand there that fed me the blood of the victim as he died; I was there, I gobbled it all up, and I know what I saw. Cain did it!”

Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15). So reads the Law. Two witnesses have given evidence to the court: they “cry out to me,” says the LORD (Genesis 4:10). God, the Righteous Judge of All, has now considered the evidence in the case of Kingdom of Heaven v. Cain Adamsson. Cain couldn't have imagined that there'd even be any evidence, any witnesses, any trial at all. And so often, when we sin, neither can we. We think ourselves so covert, so clever, so careful in craft. But all must stand before “the Judge of all their deeds, whom nothing deceives, to whom all deeds cry out.”8  There are always witnesses to all we do; our words and works shall testify.

The testimonies of the blood and the ground are sufficient witnesses to establish Cain's actus reus, the legal principle of a guilty act. Cain did just what he's accused of. He killed another human being, his own brother, in a legally indefensible homicide, an especially heinous crime. Moreover, Cain's smarmy question (“What, like I'm my brother's keeper?”), combined with his premeditation by isolating Abel before killing him, go to establish Cain's mens rea, his guilty mind. By law, actus reus plus mens rea point to legal culpability. Not only did Cain kill his own brother; in the process, he murdered his own soul. The verdict is obvious. In fact, we blinked and missed the trial; we've just been hearing the transcript read back.9 For God first said, “What have you done?!” (Genesis 4:10). Roughly translated, we hear what the Judge is saying: “On the charge of aggravated murder in the first degree, I find the defendant, Cain Adamsson, guilty.”

The gavel slams down in judgment, and God “does not... postpone punishment indefinitely.”10 The very next verse opens the sentencing hearing, where “God declares Cain's fate.”11 Now, if we're good Israelite boys and girls watching this episode the first time, we're pretty confident what's coming next. After all, we've heard the Law of the LORD, haven't we? “If anyone kills a person, on the testimony of witnesses shall the murderer surely die” (Numbers 35:30). “If he struck him down with a stone tool..., and he died, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely die” (Numbers 35:17). “Your eye shall not pity! It shall be life for life...” (Deuteronomy 19:21).

So we expect that God the Judge, the Lord of Law and Order, is going to send Cain the Convict to the gallows, the firing squad, to the flaming fire that smites from heaven. Isn't this the God who, as Isaiah preaches, will “punish the inhabitants of the land for their iniquity, and the land will disclose the blood shed on it” (Isaiah 26:21)? Isn't this the God who, Moses sings, “avenges the blood of his servants” (Deuteronomy 32:43)? Isn't this the God who, Ezekiel reminds us, “poured out his wrath upon them for the blood they had shed in the land” (Ezekiel 36:18)? What could that ever mean, if not that he will do as his Law says, and lawfully take the life of Cain who unlawfully took a life?

On the other hand... maybe our good Israelite boys and girls know another story. It's a parable told to a grief-mad king by a woman sent to see him. For David had watched a tragedy when David's son Absalom slew David's son Amnon – with better reason than Cain killed Abel, mind you – and then Absalom fled to the shelter of his grandfather Talmai (2 Samuel 13:28-38). David was both furious and brokenhearted, his soul tormented three years with a deep conflict between justice and mercy. Can he love his red-handed son without failing in justice to his buried son? How can there be harmony between the Father's Law and this father's heart? Torn betwixt the two, David was a perfect model of inaction. His conniving nephew Joab fetched a clever woman, sending her to the king disguised as a widow in mourning; and she told him that, having lost her husband, her family had been ripped apart at the seams when, while quarreling in the field, one of her two sons fatally struck the other a lethal blow (2 Samuel 14:5-6). Now, she knows the Law sounds unambiguous: her surviving son is a murderer. The entire clan to which her husband belonged is the voice of vengeance: Stop sheltering your son, turn him in, let him get what justice has for him: death unsparing. But what they ask is not only one young man's life, but also his late father's legacy and his grieving mother's heart (2 Samuel 14:7).

So the woman presses King David again and again: he agrees first to think it over, second to protect her in sheltering him, and only at her third petition does he royally decree an exemption for her son from the vengeance of his brother's blood (2 Samuel 14:8-11). David's come around to her point, that in the story she's telling, “the original aim of blood vengeance – protecting life – becomes meaningless.”12 Now she springs her trap: “In giving this decision, the king convicts himself, inasmuch as the king does not bring his banished one home again” (2 Samuel 14:13). She argues that death and estrangement are inevitable, “but God will not take away life, and he devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast” (2 Samuel 14:14).  Whether David or we are right to be persuaded is a question for another day.

But the truly great mystery is that, while being the Consuming Fire of Justice, God takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” no matter how guilty (Ezekiel 33:11). Therefore, now “God sovereignly set aside the requirement for [Cain's] death.”13 That divine decision, though, might rub us the wrong way.  To many readers old and new, “the resulting punishment seems less than just,” not if it doesn't do unto Cain as he did unto Abel.14 But, however light it is compared to the capital punishment he justly merited, Cain is nevertheless sentenced to be “altogether subject to a curse,” to “undergo the punishment for his profane actions.”15 As one scholar put it, “His sentence involves his sustenance and settlement.”16 What Cain gets is like Adam's penalty in the garden, but on steroids.  But is it enough to do justice where it counts?

In chapter 3, only two things were directly cursed: the serpent and the ground. Now, the same phrase spoken by God to the Serpent is said to the confirmed seed of the Serpent: “Cursed are you” (Genesis 4:11). What a sad and sorry precedent Cain sets, that God's image should hear God's curse! And where the serpent was “cursed... from [or above]... all beasts of the field” (Genesis 3:14), Cain is cursed 'from' or 'above' the already-cursed ground (Genesis 4:11).17 He's separated by divine force from communion with the ground.18 As a proud farmer, Cain had “sought security in settlement and possession of a portion of the earth.”19 So this curse hits where he's pinned his sense of identity.

When you work the ground,” God explains, “it shall no longer yield to you its strength” (Genesis 4:12). And so if he persists in trying to be a farmer, “he would sweat in vain tilling the earth, since no abundance of fruits would answer his labors.”20 Once Cain de-fertilized the soil with innocent blood, how could he ever expect it to be the womb of life for him? To Cain, farming will be failing and famine, for the ground refuses to cooperate with his hopes and dreams.21 Cain will have to pay the bills and stuff his face some other way.22 He'll likely be a hunter-gatherer, a forager, a scavenger of scraps. And so “Cain's way of life is irreversibly changed.”23

God concludes the curse by declaring, “You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:12). Both words are from Hebrew verbs which can mean to shake around, to stagger, to move, to run. Old translations assume they're small-scale movements, like a shiver or a seizure (cf. Exodus 20:18). But these are also used for nomads and others who have to move from place to place a lot (Amos 4:8).24 Unable to live off the meager resources of one spot for long before depleting it, Cain will be tossed to and fro by compulsion and confusion. One commentator glosses this phrase as “a vagrant and a vagabond,”25 while another dubs Cain a “homeless hobo.”26

Taken all together, the terms of Cain's sentence are designed “to deny him the benefits of his act,” to make sure that he draws no profit from Abel's absence in any way.27 In more ways than one, Cain is rendered rootless: his veggies can't put down roots (says the ground), neither can Cain (says the land).28 God's punishment isn't final, but it is fitting: the ground Cain polluted becomes unresponsive, the family roots he betrayed welcome him no more, the open wilds where he lured his brother to death are now the limits of his life.29

As if making up for lost time, Cain answers God, and what he says could grammatically go two opposite ways. See, the Hebrew word for 'iniquity' or guilt can also mean its punishment, and the Hebrew verb for 'lifting up' could mean carrying or lifting off. If you lift up your punishment, you're bearing it on your shoulders, carrying it, laboring under it. But if your guilt is lifted off of you, it's removed, forgiven. So some have read Cain here as saying, “My punishment is heavier than I can carry!” – a gripe about the severity of the sentence. Others read Cain as saying, “My iniquity is too great to be forgiven!” – a belated word of hopeless admission of guilt (Genesis 4:13).30 These chapters of Genesis are deeply indulgent in double meanings. See, Cain should admit his sin – confess it, not to the point of despairing, but to the point of repenting. As guilty as Cain is, this burden could be lifted from him, his load could be lightened, if he'd only run toward the Coming Savior who promises his burden is light, light, light (Matthew 11:30). But what Cain does do is the other meaning: object. “He felt that God was overreacting.”31 He's filled, not with repentance, but with petulant self-pity.32  Everything about his reaction privileges self over order, person over principle.

Before, God told Cain that if he just did what was good and right, there'd be a 'lifting up' – of his face, of his identity – and that would include the 'lifting up off' of his sins (Genesis 4:7). But now Cain's done a great evil, and he whines he can't lift the heavy weight of all his well-earned consequences. He insists his punishment is excessive, is unreasonable, is unbearable, impossible for him to accept it as just or to humble himself under it.33 And so he submits an appeal. He demonstrates. He protests. He complains. But the prophet would ask him and us: “Why should a living man complain – a man! – about the punishment of his sins?” (Lamentations 3:39).

Cain believes that, even though he's been spared the death penalty despite his crime and his impenitence, even though his whole life has been filled with gifts he could never have earned, he nonetheless is in a position to complain, despite all this mercy he refuses to see. And in drafting his appeal, he outlines his grounds for despair. “You have driven me out today from the face of the ground..., and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:14). His fate comes with “exclusion from the tribal and family unit,”34 with Cain “removed from belonging and community.”35 Cain will be “the perpetual outsider,”36 like a leper who has to keep his distance, unsafe to come near.37 It's a cutting irony: this whole thing spiraled out from Cain being upset he once wasn't accepted, and now he'll never be accepted anywhere.38

The verb Cain uses – not one God used – is the same one used last chapter for Adam and Eve being evicted from the garden (Genesis 3:24). Just so, Cain is evicted, expelled, exorcised from the face of the ground. It's also the Hebrew word for a divorce, which gives a sense of the deep pain Cain is venting here: as a farmer, he'd treated the soil as like his bride, giving the earth his heart; but now she's divorced him, kicking him out in the cold, refusing to take his calls, and the sight of her face is nothing but a taunt.39

And from your face I shall be hidden,” Cain adds (Genesis 4:14). Again, that's Cain's inference, but it's got merit: Isaiah challenged Judah by telling them, “Your sins have hidden his face from you” (Isaiah 59:4). Here it isn't God's face that's hidden to Cain, but Cain that's hidden from God's face, the radiant spring of grace. And so at both ends, earth and heaven, Cain is cut off from a 'face.'40 He's excluded, cast away, rejected, unwatchable – that's what Cain says is happening. St. Ambrose sums up what's so distressing in this picture: “There is nothing more grievous than to be a wanderer and to be irrevocably bereft of God.”41

But Cain thinks there is something still more grievous: “It will come to pass that anyone who meets me will slay me!” (Genesis 4:14). Between claiming he's removed from God's face and this threat he sees from... who, exactly?... we begin to wonder if maybe “Cain's fears lead him to exaggerate the punishment.”42 Cain is utterly “shaken by the fear of death, lest anyone should do to him what he had done to his brother.”43 Oh Cain, thou hypocrite!  Cain is chained captive to the dreadful thought of being treated as he'd treated others, of being trapped in a replay of his crime but in the wrong shoes. Cain recognizes that the point of God's judgment is for Cain to walk in Abel's shoes – to have to live like a vapor passing through the world, to face disdain and vulnerability, to “see life through that brother's eyes” – and “as Cain begins to consider his life as Abel, the worthlessness of his own existence is terrifying.”44

Mere moments earlier, Cain espoused a worldview which denied man's responsibility to man. Why should Cain be his brother's keeper, he wanted to know? Why should Cain care about Abel? Why not prey on his brother; what else are brothers for? Now, Cain is panicking at the prospect of living under his own philosophy. Cain quakes at the idea he might meet himself out on the lonely road – someone who asks, “What, as if I'm supposed to be Cain's keeper?”, before bashing and slashing Cain to the dust, his guilty blood staining the face of a ground that simply doesn't requite his love anymore.

What Cain is appealing against is the sentence that will make him an outlaw.45 In the original sense of the word, an 'outlaw' was a person the law refused to recognize, a person outside of legal society and its protections and promises. Nothing done to an outlaw could be considered a crime, because he was no longer a legal person; he was a beast who could be put down on sight for the public good or pure sport. In those old societies that used it, outlawry was a serious penalty, capital punishment's next-door neighbor. Cain fears to be an outlaw, at the mercy of a merciless world of potential Cains who fear not God nor man.

But here God steps in with a promise: “Therefore, whoever slays Cain, sevenfold vengeance will be taken on him” (Genesis 4:15). By this solemn oath, this royal proclamation, this definite decree of the highest order, Cain hears something that contradicts his fears.46 “Mercy triumphs over judgment,” the Bible whispers (James 2:13). In a way, “God in grace lessens the sentence.”47 Now, God “adds no promise of a protector,” gives Cain no absolute assurance against death.48 After all, Abel the Righteous had no such guarantee, either. If someone should choose to attack Cain, God says nothing about stepping in to stop it, any more than he stopped Cain's crime.49 But by this legal ruling vowing drastic vengeance for Cain's killing after the fact, God brings Cain back within the world of law and of order.

In ancient Israel, the way the justice system worked was, someone guilty of homicide would be chased down by an 'avenger of blood,' a kinsman-redeemer for the victim's blood, someone who – as the family's representative – was charged with exacting a life for a life. Cain, cast out of his family circle, has no one in the Adam family to consider him kin; instead, they'd all bray for his blood, aiming to avenge Abel. Lacking a kinsman-redeemer for his blood is why Cain would be rendered an outlaw: there's no threat of deterrence, no one to step in and punish whatever will be done to him. Or, at least, so he thinks.

But God chooses something radical. All Cain's “sniveling complaints cannot deter God from his pursuit of his fallen human creatures.”50 The LORD says, in effect: “Cain, you will have an avenger of blood to stick up for you. You aren't out of family yet. I will be your family. I will take you for my own. I will be your avenger of blood, I will be the kinsman-redeemer of your life.” When Cain is at his most fearful and despairing, the LORD overlooks his impenitence and adopts Cain as his blood-brother, to show him mercy and rebuild his hope.51 He could not have asked for a more awesome gesture of loving entry into his plight, this peril of his own choosing.  James warns us that judgment will be without mercy to one who has shown no mercy (James 2:13).  But Moses chants back, astonished by the fact, that, though Cain had shown his own brother not an ounce of mercy, the LORD God judged Cain with astounding mercy still.  Oh, the mysterious and matchless love of God, the Judge of All!

And so “the LORD laid a sign on Cain” (Genesis 4:15). Cain had heard the word, but would Cain otherwise believe? Cain was an earthy man, a worldly man; he craved “an omen, something he could fix his gaze on, something he could sense.”52 Here was something he could see. What kind of sign it was, Genesis doesn't tell us, which led to lots of guesses among the ancients, some saner and some stranger. It was imagined to be a sunshine spotlight that wouldn't leave him alone, or a horn growing out of his head, or the first ever outbreak of leprosy, or a pet dog to follow and protect him, or a disability or tremor, or some kind of mark on his forehead, maybe some or all of God's name written there to declare him a true homo sacer, 'sacred man,' devoted to God by God's will over against his own.53

The sign was there to warn others not to mess with a man under God's personal protection, no matter what he'd done. It was put there as a deterrent, informing any who saw Cain that killing him had overkill consequences. But it also was a sign to Cain. It reminded him he was under God's merciful eye wherever he went – that he wasn't rejected or devoid of care, that he'd received both “a word of divine promise and an act of divine protection.”54 On the other hand, it reminded Cain of what he'd done, that he was in the shadow of a crime which stained him heart-deep, that he'd be working out the consequences all his days. It was, as one reader put it, “the original 'mark of the beast.'”55 So early Christians anointed people with a cross on their foreheads, they said, “to rid you of the shame which the first human transgressor bore about with him everywhere.”56

As the episode closes and the credits will soon roll, Cain has exhausted his appeals and prepares to go and serve his sentence. God has married justice and mercy, accomplishing both in a way we couldn't've guessed, a way calculated to Cain's good if only he'll see it that way. But “Cain went out from the face of the LORD, and he dwelt in the Land of Wandering east of Eden” (Genesis 4:16). He takes a further step away from paradise, walking off as surely as the prodigal son left his father's lands. Even in the Land of Wandering, “in the midst of fears... and in fruitless labors,”57 it'll be up to Cain now what to make of his life, what to do with the mercy he's been shown. Can he even recognize it for what it is? 

That he “went out from the face of the LORD might imply he's turning his back on God, refusing to look to God any longer. Yet even as he wanders restless in the world, he's branded as God's, he's under God's watch, and he's got the prospect, however distant, of repentance. If so, might he turn back around someday? Could it perhaps even be, as the woman of Tekoa hoped, that God “devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast” (2 Samuel 14:14)?  Has Cain still hope?  Can he now do good?  Might Cain yet make the most of mercy?

So long as yet he lives in the body, Cain may have faced a judgment, but he has not yet faced the judgment, the final judgment. And so, out east of Eden, it will still be up to Cain whether, as one old bishop minced no words about it, “the hell of fire and all the other undying torments will receive him as a victim for endless ages.”58 We, too, know “the righteous judgment of God,” when – the Apostle Paul says it – “the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus: they will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the face of the Lord (2 Thessalonians 1:5-9).

For those who will not obey the gospel, Cain's road lies open wide and easy (Matthew 7:13). But we do not need to despair! For if the Lord of Law and Order so loves Cain that he heard his appeal, will the same Father of Love not hear ours? Before all fiery vengeance, this Love came first as our kinsman-redeemer, in our flesh and in our blood, to show us mercy unearned and overflowing. “God shows his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” – for Abel and Cain alike, and for me and for you (Romans 5:8). So “keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life; and have mercy..., snatching others out of the fire” (Jude 21-23). Amen.