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It is critical for Yoder to accentuate God’s unexpected response to Cain’s egregious offense. Having previously spared the lives of disobedient Adam and Eve, God now spares murderous Cain who had no justifiable or even reasonable motive for killing his brother. God’s justice does not immediately demand life for life. God seems entirely unconcerned with equal recompense. Rather he makes explicit to Cain that Cain’s relationship with the soil is forever altered and that his actions have unalterable consequences with which he must now learn to live. Cain suspects that these consequences will not end with banishment from the soil. He fears the vengeful reflex of society. Cain assumes that, without any sort of divine prompting, the wider world citizenry will be morally outraged at his conduct and will take it upon themselves to bring him to deadly justice. Remarkably, God shares Cain’s concern, both for Cain’s sake and for wider society. So he protects Cain and all future felons who commit “capital offenses” by harnessing for his purposes the human fear that vengeful retaliation might be worse than the original offense warrants. The mark of Cain thus points to the circle of vengeance in which Cain finds protection. God did not create this circle; he simply used it to keep a bad situation from getting worse.
Cain, Lamech, and Suspect Civilization
Yoder sees the origin of the state in the vengeful societal reflex that Cain feared. Though no formal government existed at that time, the dynamic of deterrence toward which fallen humans gravitated without divine provocation is the underlying dynamic of the sword-bearing state. The state is thus a fallen institution that springs from human efforts at self-preservation. As soon as this violent reflex arose among humans, God sought to chasten it by placing it under his jurisdiction. Because governing structures are predicated upon human sinfulness, God’s people must always remember that such structures are fraught with ambivalence.
The dangerous potential of this reflexive deterrent is quickly realized in Cain’s near descendant Lamech, who claims vengeful protection for himself and escalates it beyond reasonable proportion (from “sevenfold” to “seventy-sevenfold” according to Gen 4:24). This is to be expected, says Yoder, because “the justified violence of government is always open to abuse. Just as the protection of Cain escalated into the brutality of Lamech, so the claims governments make to protect their citizenry tend to escalate into the serious menace of uncontrollable wholesale destruction.” This consistently realized potential for abuse does not, however, render the state useless for God’s purposes. God orders the fallen state to accomplish relative good despite itself because people are better off with any kind of government—even a tyrannical one—than they are without one. The sword-bearing state is thus another example of how God takes a human response to the consequences of sin and “ordains” or “orders” it to accomplish his purposes.
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