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Background Scripture: Genesis 4:1-16


The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”  Genesis 4:10

Although Adam and Eve had been cast out of the Garden, they were not without hope.  God promised that their offspring would crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15).  When Cain was born they may have thought he was the one to deliver them from the curses of the Fall.  They were soon disappointed.  Cain brought them even greater misery.  He murdered his brother, Abel.  Cain lured Abel out into the field and killed him.  Perhaps Cain thought no one would see what happened.  When the Lord asked Cain about Abel’s whereabouts, Cain disclaimed knowledge and responsibility: He didn’t know where Abel was and he wasn’t his brother’s keeper.  But Cain’s crime could not be concealed.  The Lord saw and the Lord heard: “Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

The Hebrew word translated here as “cries out” is ze aqah.  It is used throughout the Old Testament for the cry, complaint, or appeal of the victims of injustice.  It describes the cry of the poor and needy of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:20; Ezek. 16:49), the cry of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt (Ex. 3:7, 10), and the cry of Job against the Lord (Job 19:7).  It is also a technical legal term.  It is an appeal to the courts to remedy injustice.  When a court does not properly discharge its duty, the Lord answers the cry for justice.  Thus, God’s questioning of Cain has judicial significance – he has heard Abel’s complaint.  The Lord heard the testimony of Cain and the testimony of the ground.  Cain was guilty of murder.  God sentences Cain to a life of hard work without harvest and wandering without rest.  There was justice for Abel.  Cain laments that the punishment is more than he can bear: “I will be hidden from your presence . . . and whoever finds me will kill me” (Gen. 4:14).  Notice that Cain doesn’t complain about the punishment actually decreed.  What Cain complains about is the removal of God’s face.  Without the benefit of God’s countenance, he would have no protector.  “Not so!” says God.  Cain will still live before God’s face; there will still be justice for Cain.  Following a legal formula, God announces a law: “If anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over.” (Gen. 4:15).  The sevenfold nature of God’s retribution was meant to convey the idea of right, fitting, or complete response to the unlawful killing of Cain.  The mark put on Cain shows that God still defends Cain from lawlessness and will justly avenge his death.

The story of Cain and Abel reminds us that plaintiffs and defendants live before the face of God.  God saw what Cain did.  He heard Abel’s cry for justice.  Yet, God also continued to look upon Cain.  He was still entitled to judicial protection.  A sevenfold vengeance awaited Cain’s killer.  This vengeance is a full, but not overly full, vengeance.  It is a right, fitting, or complete response.

Lawyers find themselves on both sides of cases involving the loss of life.  They ask courts to hold people accountable for the criminal and tortious aspects of their actions.  They also stand with defendants accused of criminal and civil wrongdoing.  Our court dockets provide ample evidence of the depravity of men.  Certainly, the victims of injustice deserve public vindication and recompense for the wrongs they have suffered.  But the response must be a measured one.  The punishment must be no more or no less than is appropriate for the crime or wrong.  It is to this difficult task that lawyers and judges are called before the face of God.

Mark Greenlee

Suggested Readings:

These thoughts are based largely on the discussion of the story of Cain and Abel appearing in Paul Marshall’s book, Thine is the Kingdom, particularly pages 39 to 42.  The entire book is worthy of your attention because of its development of a reformed perspective on law and politics.  For further biblical study, I suggest Psalm 94:1-15, Exodus 21:12-14, and Numbers 35:9-34.


– This article comes from AI’s devotional for lawyers titled, “What Does the Lord Require of You?”

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