January 14, 2010 by J. Madson
A couple of weeks ago, the old Cain curse = black skin myth came up again on this blog. I, for one, am tired of hearing this myth peddled about which besides being racist is not scriptural. Let me explain.
We are told in the scriptural text that Cain tills the land, Abel the flocks. Cain is the older, Abel the younger. Cain and Abel both offer sacrifice and Abel’s is accepted (ie it works) and Cain’s is not. One common argument of scholars is that if you want to know what sacrifice is meant to do, see what happens when it fails. In this instance, Cain’s failed sacrifice results in the death of Abel (or as Rene Girard would explain, sacrifice was meant to prevent the death of another). Now regardless of whether you accept this proposition, lets continue… Cain in turn is cursed, cursed with what? Well, it is not a mark. He is cursed from tilling the earth and to be a wanderer/nomad.
“And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. 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.” (Genesis 4:8–12)
This is the curse that Cain receives in verse 12: that he will lose the gift of agriculture and he will be a wanderer on earth. Nowhere do we read that the curse consists of a mark or black skin.
What the scriptures do make clear in the next verses, however, is that the mark is a protection for Cain. It is Cain who feels that his loss of agriculture and sentence to be a wanderer is too much of a punishment. He specifically fears that whoever finds him will kill him. Cain protests to the Lord
“Surely You have driven me out this day from the face of the ground; I shall be hidden from Your face; I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth, and it will happen that anyone who finds me will kill me” (Genesis 4:14)
“Behold thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the Lord, and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that he that findeth me will slay me, because of mine iniquities, for these things are not hid from the Lord.” (Moses 5:39)
Note: Cain rightly understands that many will want revenge on him for killing Abel. This is of course part of the mimetic rivalry or revenge cycle. But what is of interest to me is the Lord’s response. The Lord does not pardon Cain; he rightly acknowledges his guilt and Abel’s innocence, but he still protects Cain.
“And the LORD said to him, “Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD set a mark on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him.” (Genesis 4:15)
“And I the Lord said unto him: Whosoever slayeth thee, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And I the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.” (Moses 5:40)
It is here that the Lord marks him with a “sign of protection” or if you dont like protection pick another word, but it is clear that the mark is meant to make clear to everyone that Cain should not be harmed. God makes it clear in the text that both murder and this revenge stuff isn’t gonna fly. The mark is self-explanatory in the scriptures and it makes it clear what the mark is for. Sevenfold is not on Cain but anyone who kills him. I think its pretty clear that the Lord is letting everyone know that even though Cain is a murderer and even though we all might think he should be killed, it is forbidden.
Perhaps a better translation will illustrate
“My punishment is too great to endure! Look! You are driving me off the land today, and I must hide from your presence. I will be a homeless wanderer on the earth; whoever finds me will kill me.” But the Lord said to him, “All right then, if anyone kills Cain, Cain will be avenged seven times as much.” Then the Lord put a special mark on Cain so that no one who found him would strike him down” (Genesis 4:13-15)
Not only does the Lord protect Cain with this mark but he lives on to have spouses, children, and found civilization
“And Cain went out from the presence of Jehovah, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden. And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch.” (Genesis 4:16-17)
Both Cain and Abel offered sacrifice but only the one with blood seemed to be efficacious whereas the one by Cain failed and the ill feelings towards Abel persisted and resulted in death. I have no doubt Cain was complaining but he was truly fearful his life would be taken (as would be expected for revenge on killing Abel) and the Lord apparently understood the same and marked him so that everyone knew Cain was off limits for killing and made a prohibition against murder in general (ie sevenfold).
So in conclusion, there is no scriptural basis for the mark on Cain having any relation to skin color. The mark is rather a mark of protection signaling God’s desire than no revenge be taken upon Cain. I often wonder if many of these myths arise from our own psyche and need to justify our rivalries and hate for others. As Anne Lamotte said, “You have probably created God in your image when He hates all the same people you hate.”
Some questions or thoughts for discussion:
Why does God protect Cain? The scriptures are clear that God does not want anyone to kill Cain and revenge Abel’s death. Why? Why does God prohibit revenge even on the guilty?
What are we to make of Lamech who kills a man for wounding him and a young man for bruising him? Is the pact that Lamech and Cain enter with Satan the very act of killing itself?