Saving Cain: Theological Musing on Death Penalty

by Nestor Ravilas

Rumor has it that the intensified fight of the current administration against criminality would lead to the restoration of capital punishment. Debates on the efficacy of death penalty in curbing crimes immediately spark so as to pave the way for its revival. Some from Evangelical backyard were prompt enough to offer theological and biblical foundation for its acceptability. This does not surprise me at all since death penalty is not only a legal issue, but a moral one as well. Thus, religious pundits feel the need to swarm the public space and offer their best opinion to morally guide both the public and our law makers.

Those who favored the revival of death penalty seemingly are winning the public discussion by default. Who, in the first place, would dare to challenge biblical passages such as Genesis 9:6 and Romans 13 that seemingly approved death penalty and summoned us to invariably submit to the ultimate power of the state that was divinely entrusted to rule its subjects? Nonetheless, against this overwhelming approval I would try to register my own theological musing on the subject matter. But since the road towards it is long and tedious, I would break this reflection into digestible bits. Consider, therefore, this one as the first instalment of this series. Let me start then with Genesis Gen. 9:5 & 6. Portion of it says…
“… that I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed…” The formula actually is not unique to biblical narrative; but simply echoes the popular dictum of do ut des that exemplifies the basic foundation of retributive justice – receiving in return what one has given. It might be an incipient version of Lex Taliones, a matured version of Israel’s judicial practice of revenge preserved in Deuteronomy 19. At any rate, Gen. 9.6 invariably legitimises death penalty for murder as way of exacting equal punishment. Lest we celebrate prematurely for this discovery, it would be best to observe first prudence and ask what occasioned this propagation of exacting life for the life taken. What compelled God to institute this penal arrangement right after the big flood?
What in my opinion is the most neglected part in the early biblical history is the cryptic evaluation of violence that inadvertently renders Gen. 9.6 devoid of any sensible context. We have to recall that what instigated the flood is the escalation of wickedness in the face of the earth (Gen. 6.5). It was not particularly elaborated what this wickedness was until corruption and violence were mentioned later on (6.11). And when God intimated to Noah his intention to destroy humanity, violence was the only offered reason for such brutal plan (6.13). Thus, we could speculate as to what those people specifically committed to gain the notoriety of wickedness, but violence could not be dropped as the main reason why God sent the flood to submerge the world.
What caused the earth to be filled with violence that compelled God to destroy it? It is like we were asked to ride a time machine and ended up in Genesis 6 where the world is already full of violence without having informed how it all came to that. It would probably help us grapple the question if we go back a little where violence has first appeared – the original violence. So Cain drew the first blood and introduced violence in the created universe, and since then, curtailing its multiplication has been the divine preoccupation. We have to notice that the life of Cain was not asked by God from him as payback to what he did to Abel. And by this, we could further deduce that it has never ever come to his mind since he himself put a mark on Cain as protection against those who might find and kill him. So God wanted the shedding of blood to be stopped right on the first victim, refusing even to shed the blood of Abel’s killer. Then why we ended up in Gen. 6 with the earth full of violence?
There are details in the conversation between God and Cain that need some clarification; details that would remain unanswered if we take the narrative historical. Who would kill Cain and what would probably be the motive of those who would wish to kill him? Does becoming an exile and wanderer an automatic condition to be an object of killing? Key to this confusion is the response of God to Cain’s concern that out there someone might find and kill him. God said, “Not so, anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” The word vengeance appeared this early in biblical language, and as we commonly assume if something is present in language, that for sure is present too in culture. So in response to Cain’s fear, God said that he will be avenged seven times.
It was not clear, however, if God himself was the one to carry out the business of revenge. Remember that God refused to shed more blood by not taking the life of Cain. So why God would suddenly avenge Cain seven times against those who would kill him? And why God had to put a mark on Cain for protection if he has indeed threatened to severely punish those who will dare to kill him? It would be logical to assume therefore that God was not the agent to carry out revenge once Cain was found and murdered. What did God’s words mean then?
Could it be possible that God, or the author of Genesis 4, was only describing the nasty practice of revenge? That once Cain was found and killed, he will be avenged in return and violence will then escalate in insurmountable proportion? And to bring up again my question here, who will search and kill Cain in the first place, to which God was up to protect him from? Could it be those who would seek him to avenge the death of Abel? The original violence was already committed and its escalation was at the threshold once it was not stayed. God refused to kill Cain and put a mark on him instead to protect him from anyone who would pursue him to avenge the death of Abel. This would also prevent the need to avenge Cain afterwards. By doing so, this prevent the occurrence of unending cycle of revenge. The marking, then, whatever it was, was the first divine mechanism to prevent the escalation of violence.
It seems that the device succeeded for a while since no violence erupted after the original one. Revenge however is notorious. Rene Girard spent so many pages to warn us how nefarious this impulse for retaliation that it could erupt anytime without any warning. Unfortunately, the urge for revenge once again visited the family of Cain. Lamech was not able to resist it, he succumbed into it.
I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” (Gen. 4.24)
Lamech has exceeded what was prevented by God to occur in Cain’s case. And the narration has ended without giving any details as to what happened next after the excessive retaliation of Lamech.
Chapter 6 of Genesis appeared then as the culmination of the violence God has forestalled in the beginning. The earth was now full of violence that the need for its destruction is inevitable. When it was carried out and God has to start all over again with few sentient beings he was able to keep, he has to work a little harder to avoid repeating the ghastly history of early civilisation. The marking was now deemed useless to manage violence. Thus, the need to come up with a new scheme is crucial and imperative. Life for life! This is viewed as to satisfy fairness as basic mandate of do ut des. One’s right for revenge was recognised, one’s right for payback is given, and the perpetrator has to give back what he has taken. But you cannot take life for mere injury as what Lamech did. Excessive revenge was therefore declared wicked, and later unlawful.
We are now centuries away from the period described in Genesis 9, a vast period that justifies a time for critical reflection. Did this new religious and legal mechanism succeed in curbing the escalation of violence? The sage from Nazareth whose immense wisdom able to evaluate the popular morality of do ut des and of lex talionis from the time of Genesis 9 up to the reign of the judges, the institution of the monarchy, the consequent split into two kingdoms, the siege and exile, the violent return to rebuild the Jewish state and religion, the sporadic wars during the second temple Judaism, and the war waged by the Roman empire, uttered his final verdict against the impotence of the device. As the marking in Gen. 4 has outdone its usefulness and replaced by the new method, Jesus now tells his followers, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not retaliate! Rather, love your enemy!” It seems that in the genealogy of mechanisms that counter and control the multiplication of violence, Jesus is introducing a new ethical device that would hone and enhance the old one.
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