In his comic book SANDMAN, writer Neil Gaiman sometimes used a couple of characters who had earlier appeared in a couple of the horror anthology books published by DC Comics in the ‘70s. Their names were Cain and Abel, and like their Biblical namesakes, they pursued a rather dysfunctional sibling relationship (when not introducing ghastly horror stories with ironic comments filled with ghastlier puns).
In Gaiman’s re-working of the characters, they really were the Cain and Abel of the Book of Genesis… after a fashion. They were personifications of the First Villain and the First Victim; the central characters of the First Story, which gave them a special role in The Dreaming, the land ruled by Morpheus where Dream and Reality are largely interchangeable, as the keepers, and as the tellers, of stories.
Perhaps the story of Cain and Abel was not the very first one ever told, but it is certainly one of the familiar ones. Adam and Eve had two sons: the firstborn was Cain and the second Abel. Cain was a farmer who tilled the soil; Abel raised livestock. Some scholars look on this story as a metaphoric account of the rivalry between nomadic shepherds and settled farmers.
But when each brought some of their produce to the Lord as a sacrifice, the Lord looked with favor upon Abel’s sacrifice, but not on Cain’s. And this bugged Cain.
Why didn’t God like Cain’s sacrifice? The text doesn’t specifically say. The explanation I’ve always heard is that Cain just brought some “fruits of the earth” he had grown while Able brought “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” In other words, Abel brought the nicer offering, suggesting that his gift was more sincere. That’s the only clue the text gives us. It also could be that Cain had a grudge against his brother that went further back and the deal with the sacrifices just brought it all into the open.
Whatever the cause, Cain let the resentment fester; he gnawed on his grudge and incubated his hatred until it drove him to an act of violence. He lured Abel to a remote, lonely place and killed him.
Later on, when God confronted him, Cain tried to pretend he knew nothing about it. You’d think that his parents would have told him that never works.
The LORD said “What have you done” Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brothers blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” (Gen 4:10-12 NIV)
There are two ways of looking at this curse, (as there are with most curses mentioned in the Bible): the obvious interpretation is that God is punishing Cain by laying down divine vengeance on his head. This is the “God is a Vindictive Jerk” theory, and there are passages in Scripture which seem to support this point of view. But you can also interpret the passage as saying, “Your action has tainted the earth, and so as a result, it will no longer be as productive.” Just as they tell us Virtue is its Own Reward, so does Evil also carry its own reward and the consequences of our actions come back to bite us in the butt. Cain found that Karma is a pain.
And here an interesting shift occurs in the story. Up to this point, the story of Cain and Abel has been the story of a family; (because at this point the population of the Human Race can be counted on the fingers of one hand). But with this next part, we see things in the setting of a greater society. Cain complains that his punishment is too much to bear, because everyone who sees him from now on is going to want to kill him, out of vengeance for what he did to Abel. We’re now looking ahead, to a time where humanity has grown beyond Cain’s own generation; and to one of the big problems a society faces: how to break the cycle of revenge. The Lord decrees that anyone who kills Cain shall suffer a seven-fold retribution.
God places a mark on Cain, to identify him, so people will know not to kill him. We don’t know what kind of a mark this was. It’s been interpreted as a scar on his brow; or a brand, the way some cultures would brand criminals to identify them. Other traditions hold that Cain was marked with bright red hair.
For centuries there was a widespread belief that God marked Cain by turning his skin dark, and that Africans are the descendants of Cain. This was sometimes used as a justification of slavery in America. (That, and the Curse of Ham, which is another story for another day).
This is why the early American black poet Phillis Wheatley, in her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America”, alludes to Cain in her plea for acceptance:
Some view our sable race with scornful eye, "Their colour is a diabolic die." Remember, Christians, Negro's, black as Cain, May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.
The Mark of Cain has been popularly regarded as part of God’s curse on him, but the text suggests that rather it was a mercy, a mark of protection. In a sense, it was both: Although the Mark, whatever it was, served to protect Cain by warning others not to kill him, it also set him apart from society. No matter how numerous mankind would become, no matter how far he should wander, he could never take refuge in anonymity. His crime was written on his face; everyone would know who he was and what he did.
And so Cain leaves his parents, taking his wife with him, which brings us to another question: Where did Cain get that wife of his, anyway?