Image: Cain Slaying Abel (1609)
Painter: Peter Paul Rubens
The story of Cain is known to most people who go to church and read the Bible. What is not so familiar to most Christians is the prayer Cain prayed to God after the Lord confronted him with the killing of his brother.
The story of Cain is found in Genesis 4. According to the narrative in Genesis, Abel was a keeper of sheep and Cain a tiller of the ground (Genesis 4:2). The story of the struggle between the two brothers is placed in the context of the conflict between two occupations, the conflict between shepherds and farmers that was so common in antiquity.
In the course of time both brothers brought offerings to the Lord. The text does not explain how or when the brothers became aware they needed to bring an offering to God.
Since Cain was a farmer, he brought an offering of the fruit of the ground, Since Abel was a shepherd, he brought of the firstlings of his flock. Both types of offerings were acceptable by God. A farmer would bring an offering from the produce of the ground and a shepherd would bring from the firstlings of his flock.
However, for some unknown reason (maybe because of Cain’s attitude? See my post below), God rejected Cain’s offering, but accepted the offering of his brother Abel.
Cain became very angry and made plans to kill his brother. While they were in the fields, Cain killed his brother and buried him. But, the Lord confronted Cain about the death of his brother:
And the LORD said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:10-12).
Because the life of human beings is precious to God, God demands the life of any person who kills another person (Genesis 9:5). For his crime, Cain was punished with a curse. He was banished from the fertile land that was the original home of his parents (Genesis 2:5). It is possible that God’s words to Cain may indicate that he was banished from the land where his brother was buried.
It is out of this sense of desperation that Cain cries out to God in prayer. “Cain said to the LORD, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me” (Genesis 4:13-14).
This is the first prayer recorded in the Bible. It was the prayer of a murderer recognizing the immensity of his sin. The expression “My punishment is greater than I can bear” implies that Cain was aware of the consequence of what he had done and the penalty he must pay for his sin. He had committed a crime that demanded punishment.
This prayer of Cain to God is an appeal to God. Cain’s words to God may not have the fixed structure of other prayers in the Old Testament. Not all prayers in the Bible have a fixed structure. There are different types of prayer. As Miller wrote: “There are also occasions when the prayer itself is not recorded in the text, but some indication is given of God’s positive response” (1994: 139). Cain’s crying out to God is the prayer of a desperate sinner in need of divine mercy.
Cain was not praying in a church. There is no reference to a holy place to which Cain came to make his appeal to God. Prayers to God can be made anywhere. Cain’s prayer was not the prayer of a righteous man. The book of Proverbs declares that the prayers of a righteous person delights the Lord: “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but the prayer of the upright is his delight” (Proverbs 15:8).
Cain was not a righteous person and yet Cain’s prayer was the cry of a sinner to God asking for mercy. The prophet Isaiah said that when people committing violence and unrighteousness pray to God, God will not listen to their prayers: “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Isaiah 1:15).
When the people Isaiah mentioned in his oracle raised their hands in prayer to God, they revealed their sins because their hands were “full of blood.” We do not know whether or not Cain stretched out his hands when he cried out to God, but Cain’s hands were full of blood because he had killed his brother Abel.
God knew that Cain’s hands were filled with blood, but when Cain prayed to God, God heard his prayer and as result, Cain experienced the mercy of God and his life was spared.
When Cain prayed to God, the Lord answered his prayer. “Then the LORD said to him, ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.’ And the LORD put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him” (Genesis 4:15).
Why was Cain’s prayer heard? Because his cry to God was an agonizing cry for mercy. He was asking God to have mercy upon him because his sentence was greater that he could bear. Cain asked God to be merciful to him because in his situation, God was the only one who could help him.
There is a difference between the prayers of the people in Isaiah’s time and Cain’s prayer. The people in Isaiah’s time were arrogant people who believed they could continue in their sins without punishment, that they could continue oppressing and exploiting people and at the same time come in prayer to God to find mercy and forgiveness.
Cain, on the other hand, recognized the immensity of his crime and the overwhelming judgment that came upon him for taking the life of his brother. Cain recognized that his punishment was too harsh and in desperation, he cried to the Lord for mercy.
It was Cain’s recognition of his sin and the magnitude of his punishment that led him to cry to the Lord. It is also this that sets him apart from the people in Isaiah’s days and made his prayer different from their prayers.
Cain’s prayer demonstrates that there is mercy for the sinner. As a killer, living away from the presence of the Lord and away from divine protection, Cain feared retribution from an avenger of blood, one seeking to avenge the murder of Abel. God assured Cain that he would be protected from blood vengeance by putting a mark (or sign) for Cain to indicate that he was under the Lord’s protection.
The nature of this sign in unknown. Scholars have made various suggestions to identify the nature of the sign, but none of them has found wide acceptance. Whatever the nature of the sign, the sign meant that Cain was under the Lord’s protection and anyone who tried to kill him would be severely punished.
In his commentary of Genesis, Derek Kidner wrote the following about Cain’s prayer:
God’s concern for the innocent is matched only by His care for the sinner. Even the querulous prayer of Cain had contained a germ of entreaty; God’s answering pledge, together with His mark or sign– not of stigma but of safe-conduct–is almost a covenant, making Him virtually Cain’s goel or protector. It is the utmost that mercy can do for the unrepentant (1967: 76).
There is a mystery in God’s mercy. Although God heard Cain’s prayer and although Cain was assured of God’s protection, the burden of Cain’s punishment was not revoked. Cain must live with the consequences of his crime. Cain was protected from the avengers of blood, but his punishment was not revoked.
Because of his action against his brother, Cain must live away from the presence of the Lord, as a wanderer and a fugitive on earth. Cain’s prayer was heard by God and the sinner received divine mercy, and yet the punishment remained because the sinner never repented. As Leon Kass wrote: “Moved more by dread than by reverence, Cain does not draw the most pious conclusion. Reassured but only temporarily, Cain sets out on his travels” (2003: 144).
The first prayer mentioned in the Bible was not prayed by a righteous person who deserved to find a hearing with God. Cain was an angry man, jealous of his brother, a killer of his brother. Yet, he prayed to God and God answered his prayer.
The prayer of Cain reflects a truth about prayers that are found throughout the Old Testament. The people of Israel prayed to God because they believed God would answer their prayers: “O you who answer prayer! To you all flesh shall come” (Psalm 65:2). They prayed because they knew God was a compassionate God who listened to the prayers of all who cried to him, including a sinner like Cain.
Other Posts on Cain:
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. New York: Free Press, 2003.
Derek Kidner, Genesis. Tyndale Old Testament Commentary. Dowener Grove: InterVarsity, 1967.
Patrick D. Miller, They Cried to the Lord: The Form and Theology of Biblical Prayer. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.