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The text in question is Genesis 4:11-13 where God decrees Cain's punishment for murdering his brother:

"And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand. When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth. And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear." (A.V.)

What biblical reasons might there be for God not striking Cain dead?

And when God decrees a curse, what does that curse fully entail?

Finally, why did Cain claim that the punishment given would be greater than he could bear?

The chapter itself should provide sufficient evidence to avoid mere opinion-based answers, so if answers could refer to the context of those three verses, and any other hermeneutical standards, that would be appreciated.

EDIT: In view of some points raised, may I point out that I never mentioned any "law for murder" - deliberately - because there was no law about murder at that time, that the Genesis account mentions. Cain committed the first murder according to the text. Later on came legal requirements (as recorded in the Bible) for putting a murderer to death if there were two or more reliable witnesses, who were to be the first to cast the stones that would result in death. But I am not asking for a comparison with that; I'm seeking to find out what the punishment actually was, and why Cain felt it was unbearable for him. He didn't think he was being let off too lightly, according to the text.

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    I am voting to close because although this is a discussion of a biblical topic, it is not a hermeneutic question. There is no ambiguity on what the text says or means.
    – Robert
    Sep 16, 2022 at 19:20
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    @Anne, After you edited your question it gave more clarity to what you were asking. I added to my answer in light of that.
    – Sherrie
    Sep 17, 2022 at 17:30
  • Hi Anne, I would suggest that the Curse element should entail its own stand-alone question, as this is a much wider topic in the context of the early Genesis chapters.
    – Steve can help
    Sep 18, 2022 at 7:18

4 Answers 4

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The law for murder did not go into affect until after the flood and new laws were given to Noah and man.

There had been so much violence going on prior to the flood and many people being killed or murdered. At their time there was no law in effect.

The Lord brought a judgment on them as well with the flood.

After the flood a law has now been given for the taking of another man's life.

And surely I will require the life of any man or beast by whose hand your lifeblood is shed. I will demand an accounting from anyone who takes the life of his fellow man: Genesis 9:5

Romans shows again why Cain was not punished with death because a law had not been given.

For sin was in the world before the law was given; but sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who did not sin in the way that Adam Transgressed. Romans 5:13 and 14

Even though Cain sinned the Lord still gave him an immediate consequence to his action. The Lord sure displayed a lot of mercy towards him. Cain may of known the graciousness of the Lord when telling Him that his punishment was more than he could bear. That may have been the first time Cain was being honest with the Lord.

Op had edited the question after I posted my first answer. Now given more clarity as to the OP's question I am adding the following;

OP's new edited question.

"I'm seeking to find out what the punishment actually was, and why Cain felt it was unbearable for him. "

Cain was a tiller of the soil. 3So in the course of time, Cain brought some of the fruit of the soil as an offering to the LORD. Genesis 4:3

And remembering that when his father Adam sinned he was not cursed, but the ground was cursed. In spite of that Cain was able to still work the ground and even bring forth fruit as an offering to the Lord. After he spilled the blood of his brother the Lord now curses Cain himself from the ground. The ground will no longer give its strength to you.

That would've been very scary to Cain to be cursed from ground and longer have the ability to till the ground and bring forth fruit…

What's even more interesting is in verse 13,

"Too great is my my depravity to bear. " Or " "Cain says to YHWH, “My punishment is too great than to bear"

Most translation say his punishment is to hard to bear but looking at that word
◄ 5771. avon ► Often has to do with iniquity itself.

The way it's often translated says punishment in Genesis 4:13.

Perhaps it is both bearing his iniquity as well as the judgment the Lord has pronounced on him.

Ellicot's Commentary is good 4) My punishment (or my iniquity) is greater than I can bear.—Literally, than can be borne, or “forgiven.” It is in accordance with the manner of the Hebrew language to have only one word for an act and its result. Thus work and wages are expressed by the same word in Isaiah 62:11. The full meaning, therefore, is, “My sin is past forgiveness, and its result is an intolerable punishment.” This latter idea seems foremost in Cain’s mind, and is dwelt upon in Genesis 4:14. He there complains that he is driven, not “from the face of the earth,” which was impossible, but from the adâmâh, his dear native soil, banished from which, he must go into the silence and solitude of an earth unknown and untracked. And next, “from thy face shall I be hid.” Naturally, Cain had no idea of an omnipresent God, and away from the adâmâh he supposed that it would be impossible to enjoy the Divine favour and protection. Without this there would be no safety for him anywhere, so that he must rove about perpetually, and “every one that findeth me shall slay me.”

Fear has now become his way of life and that too was hard to bear.

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  • + 1 but I'd suggest a revision to your first sentence. We may presume that there were laws against murder at the time of Noah. Enoch founded a city, people farmed and drank wine, etc. There must have been laws, including against murder. Better to say that 'at that time God had pronounced no law against murder' or some such. Sep 16, 2022 at 18:40
  • "The law for murder did not go into affect until after the flood" — The what is meant by Genesis 4:7, when God told Able: "sin is crouching at your door; it desires you, but you must master it"? Sin is the breaking of God's law, so obviously God's law was in effect at the time. Sep 16, 2022 at 18:45
  • @DanFefferman, Thanks for bringing up that point. Rom. 1:21 comes to mind as in their heart they had to know what they were doing was wrong. After the flood we see God instituting government in a sense with laws for man to have over others for their transgressions. During that long time before the flood their were no consequences for man to apply to other men.
    – Sherrie
    Sep 17, 2022 at 0:16
  • @RayButterworth, You brought up a good point even though there was no written law they had to know it was wrong according to the first few chapters of Romans. In the end judgment did fall on all of them as they all died together. David, the man after God's own heart and Paul both committed murder and they were not put to death. Of course that's for another time.
    – Sherrie
    Sep 17, 2022 at 0:28
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The OP's question confuses two aspects of "law" that should always be kept separate - the requirement and its punishment.

As the appendix below clearly shows, the moral law existed well before its formal written form at Sinai. However, the main difference between the pre-Sinai law and post-Sinai law was the extra specifications of punishments or penalties which can only exist in a context of jurisprudence; and that was provided in the polity of the new nation of Israel as defined in Ex 19-24.

For example, many of the laws had punishments/penalties of death but very few of these law-breakers were executed in pre-Sinai times but all knew of the existence of the moral laws.

Thus, God treated Cain in the same way He treats modern murderers (modern murderers are not executed by God for breaking the same law!)

APPENDIX - Moral Law before Sinai

The following (far from exhaustive) list shows that people knew of the ten commandments well before the formal giving at Mt Sinai. Indeed, we have the very general comment –

  • Gen 26:5, because Abraham listened to My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.

Commandment #1 – Worship only YHWH:

  • Gen 22:5, 24:26, 48, 52 all describe worship of the true God of heaven, YHWH.
  • Gen 35:1-4 – Jacob instructs his whole household to eliminate all foreign gods

Commandment #2 – Idolatry prohibited

  • Gen 31:32-35 – Jacob clearly understood that idolatry was forbidden.
  • Gen 35:1-4 – Jacob instructs his whole household to eliminate all foreign gods

Commandment #3 –Cursing and taking the name of the LORD in vain prohibited

  • Job 1:5 – When these celebrations ended—sometimes after several days—Job would purify his children. He would get up early in the morning and offer a burnt offering for each of them. For Job said to himself, “Perhaps my children have sinned and have cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular practice.

Commandment #4 – Sabbath worship

  • Gen 2:1-3 – Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. And by the seventh day God had finished the work He had been doing; so on that day He rested from all His work. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because on that day He rested from all the work of creation that He had accomplished.
  • Ex 5:5 - And Pharaoh said, “Behold, the people of the land are now many, and you make them rest [שָׁבַת shabath] from their burdens!”
  • Ex 16 also records the incident with manna and that collecting manna on the seventh-day Sabbath was forbidden

Commandment #5 – Respect for parents, elders and authority

  • Gen 28:6, 7 tells of the story of Jacob following his mother’s advice. Respect for parents is built into the very fabric of the patriarchal stories in Genesis.

Commandment #6 – Sanctity of Human life

  • Gen 4:8-12, 15 records Cain’s punishment for the sin of murder
  • Gen 4:23, 24 – Lamech realizes that he has murdered someone and will suffer consequences
  • Gen 9:5, 6 records that murder was prohibited under the ancient Noahide covenant

Commandment #7 – Adultery prohibited

  • Gen 12:10-20, 20:1-17, 26:6-11 all record “adultery narratives” in which the patriarch is (correctly) chided for almost tricking a pagan king into committing adultery
  • Gen 19 records the appalling events involving attempted pack-rape of the two angels
  • Gen 39:7-9 – Joseph calls Potiphar’s wife proposal “a great evil and sin against God”.
  • Gen 49:4 – Reuben is scalded for his sin of incest
  • Gen 34 – the story of Dinah records a heinous incident involving her defilement (plus murder and lying)

Commandment #8 – Stealing prohibited and respect for property

  • Gen 30:33 – Laban and Jacob discuss the problem of stealing of wages and property
  • Gen 31:32-35 – Laban is angry about the sin of stealing the household gods
  • Gen 44:9 – Joseph’s brother accused of stealing his divination cup.

Commandment #9 – Lying prohibited; insistence of honesty and integrity

  • Gen 4 – the story of Cain being punished, among other things for not being honest with Abel and God in his statements
  • Gen 12:10-20, 20:1-17, 26:6-11 all record “adultery narratives” in which the patriarch is (correctly) chided for lying to a pagan king about their marital status
  • In the story of Jacob, he is pejoratively called Jacob = “deceiver”, Gen 27:36.
  • Gen 37:31-33 – Jacob rebuked for lying and deception

Commandment #10 – Coveting prohibited

  • Gen 3:6 – the woman is tricked by the serpent using the sin of covetousness
  • Job 31:9, 10 – Job says he is innocent of coveting his Neighbour’s wife.

Even the prohibition against eating blood is listed among the requirements in the Noahide covenant, Gen 9:4, 5.

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Someone posted this answer on my similar question (closed) and hope can be part of your answer:

"maybe due to lack of humans around and killing Cain the current only child could hinder the work of // blessed them, and said, “Have many children, so that your descendants will live all over the earth and bring it under their control. I am putting you in charge of the fish, the birds, and all the wild animals." Genesis 1:28 GNT

But on the other hand, God maybe mercy to those he wish to give mercy:

The Lord answered, “I will make all my splendor pass before you and in your presence I will pronounce my sacred name. I am the Lord, and I show compassion and pity on those I choose. Exodus 33:19 GNT

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  • @VNPython I'm not seeing the quotation you provided in the link cited. Your quotation looks more like a paraphrase or summarization. Please explain/elaborate.
    – agarza
    Sep 21, 2022 at 16:29
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Was Cain let off too lightly for murder? Not at all, if Cain knew what his life would followed, he would rather ask for death before he went out from the presence of the Lord.

Warning from the Lord. (Genesis 4:7 NIV)

7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

The Lord implied Satan was crouching to have Cain.

Penalty clause. (Genesis 4:11-12 NIV)

11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.

12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

Who was the law enforcer? The ground. The metaphor of this is, though everyone has sinned, everyone is given a chance to repent from the trial the Lord is given. The penalty stated the ground would not yield the crops enough for Cain, but as long as Cain kept wandering, he could still survive to find new crops.

Bargaining with the Lord. (Genesis 4:13-15 NIV)

13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear.

14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”

15 But the Lord said to him, “Not so (or "Very Well"; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.

At this moment, Satan and Cain were tangled as one. When Cain was driving out from the presence of the Lord, So as Satan. Being a heavenly Spirit, this punishment was more than Satan could bear.

Here comes an interesting question. Why would Cain afraid of being killed? or Satan afraid of being killed? Two possible answers;

  1. He assumed there were other men in other places would kill him.
  2. He foresaw his next generations would kill him.

No matter the answer in his mind, one thing for sure, that "revenge" and "killing" never left his mind. Cain was making a most foolish request for not being killed. Did the Lord ensure him not being killed? Not quite! I explain it later. Would a killer afraid of vengeance? Consider when Cain killed Abel, had he ever thought about vengeance from God? If Cain thought dead was the ultimate vengeance, how would a person die seven times?

To answer his plead, the Lord began with "Very Well".

The mystery

Genesis 4:17-24 was mysterious. I chose to use the English translation from Sefaria (www.sefaria.org) to illustrate;

  1. Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he then founded a city, and named the city after his son Enoch.

  2. To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad begot Mehujael, and Mehujael* begot Methusael, and Methusael begot Lamech.

  3. Lamech took to himself two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other was Zillah.

  4. Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds.

  5. And the name of his brother was Jubal; he was the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe.

  6. As for Zillah, she bore Tubal-cain, who forged all implements of copper and iron. And the sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.

  7. And Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; O wives of Lamech, give ear to my speech. I have slain a person for wounding me, And a lad for bruising me.

  8. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

Observation from Genesis 4:17-24

  1. Cain left with a sister as his wife
  2. Seven generation from Cain was listed. 1st Cain; 2nd Enoch; 3rd Irad; 4th Mehujael; 5th Methushael; 6th Lamech; 7th Tubal-Cain
  3. Cain built a city and he named it after his son Enoch. Cain was supposed to wander on earth according to his curse. He built a city to settle, meant he was feeding by his son Enoch. He broke the penalty demanded by the Lord.
  4. The detail of Cain's descendants recorded in Bible was very unusual, as eventually all of them were wiped out by the great flood, their achievement or personnel had no influence to the latter generations.
  5. Two sons of Lamech were given a name of Jabal and Jubal, but the third son was given a compound name called Tubal-Cain
  6. Tubal-Cain was described forging all kinds of tools from copper and iron, including weapon for killing for sure.
  7. Lamech knew the curse of Cain, that Cain should have enforced his curse to be read from generation to generation as his protection. In fact, Cain should still live at time of Tubal-Cain, consider the average age from Adam to Noah was over 900.
  8. The most mysterious part; verse 23: who was the man and the lad Lamech killed? and what involved his two wives?
  9. Verse 24: Did Lamech kill someone closer than his brother? Like Cain to Abel, that the curse needed to be seventy times of Cain?

I have the following extracted from Wikipedia

According to Rashi, Tubal-cain's name literally means "Cain's-Spices", with the Hebrew word Tū́ḇal (תובל) deriving from the word Tū́ḇlin (תבלין) meaning spices. Rashi states that he was named this, because he "seasoned and improved the work of Cain". In other words, because he was a blacksmith, who helped to make weapons which could be used to kill more efficiently, he invokes his ancestor Cain's sin of murder. Furthermore according to Tanhuma bar Abba, one day, Tubal-cain and his father, Lamech, were hunting together with Tubal-cain serving as an aid for his blind father. In the distance is Cain who Lamech believes to be an animal. He checks with Tubal-cain to see if it is an animal, but Tubal-cain deceives his father, and lets him shoot and kill his forefather Cain, possibly because of Tubal-cain's blood lust. When Lamech realizes what he has done, he throws his hands up in a fit of mourning, accidentally killing his son Tubal-cain. However Genesis Rabbah disagrees with this narrative.

This seems perfectly explain the mystery of verse 23 and 24, that the man was Cain, the lad was his son Tubal. Since Lamech killed his ancestor, a sin even greater than Cain killed his brother. It also explained verse 15b, for the blind Lamech couldn't see Cain, and therefore he could kill him.

Though a perfect story is not an essential in our faith. I believe the Bible provided these details, wanted us to know about these, and may be more;

  1. The warning from verse 7 : If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it. (NIV)
  2. In His mercy, a sinner will be given a chance to repent. Jesus died only once on the cross, and it is our only chance.
  3. Those who did not repent will live a miserable life of his own course. As in Cain example, he lived seven generations in fear, and still eventually been killed. Would he better off died at the last time with God?
  4. The seventy-seven of Lamech, vs the seven of Cain, staging the regret of the Lord who made human beings, seeing "how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth" (Genesis 6:5 NIV)

To answer the OP's questions

  • Was Cain let off too lightly? Not really. For he had suffered his long life with fear.
  • What biblical reasons might there be for God not striking Cain dead? Cain killed Abel, apparently due to envy. So God in His mercy, had given him a chance to repent in his life, which Cain failed to comply. However, if Rashi's story was near the truth, Tubal-Cain asked his blind father to kill Cain was a sly and deceiving, that Tubal-Cain was killed immediately.
  • And when God decrees a curse, what does that curse fully entail? A curse from God will happen exactly it literally says, in a way our wisdom can never be higher than the wisdom of the Lord.
  • Why did Cain claim that the punishment given would be greater than he could bear? It was claimed by Satan, who possessed Cain at that time.

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