February 29, 2012 by J. Madson
Much ink has been spilled over the slaying of Abel by his brother Cain. One of the more pernicious interpretations of the story is that it explains the origin of black skin. This interpretation became particularly popular during the rise of the Euro-American slave system. David Goldenberg argues that the idea of Cain’s “mark” as black skin became common in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries coinciding with the rise of African slavery.[i] This justification for slavery and its racist tentacles eventually reached the early Mormon faith where blacks were later denied priesthood and temple ordinances, and black skin became synonymous with Cain’s mark. The belief that black-skinned individuals shared common ancestry with Cain was common in America of the 1800’s,[ii] but what was unique in the Mormon case was the manner in which this common belief became part of the Mormon institutional decision to deny members of African origin the priesthood and the ability to participate in certain religious ordinances.
For current members of the Mormon church, there have been public and official statements saying that past Mormon leaders “spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world,” and that we would do well to “forget everything” they have said “in days past that is contrary” to the church’s current position (i.e. that skin color is unrelated to worthiness, priesthood, and ordinances).[iii] The late prophet, President Hinckley, directly addressed racism in declaring that no one “who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ.”[iv] However, in spite of such statements, certain myths persist.
Three decades have passed since the priesthood ban was lifted and various statements have been made renouncing racism; yet racist folklore continues among some Mormons. It is not uncommon to hear references to Cain, Ham, pre-existence fence sitting, and other attempts to explain previous policy. In 2003, the Pearl of Great Price television program, featuring prominent BYU religion department instructors as part of a discussion panel, again perpetuated some of these very myths. This program was re-aired multiple times, and as late as 2008. It is likely that these folklores will continue until these explanations are publically and formally denounced. In the interim, it is important that these myths be confronted whenever they arise. This paper is one individual’s attempt to publically denounce the folklore that individuals with black skin carry a mark of Cain, a curse, or any other racist explanation relating the priesthood ban with Cain.
Furthermore, it is this author’s position that not only has the focus on race in the story of Cain and Abel contributed to institutional racism and caused great harm to numerous individuals, but that it has prevented us from grappling with the story of Cain and Abel, and from understanding some of the foundational lessons that can be learned from this story about humanity, the nature of God, and civilization’s ties to violence and retribution.
The Mark of Cain – God’s protection?
We are told in the scriptural text that Cain cares for the land, and Abel the flocks. Cain is the older, Abel the younger. Cain and Abel both offer sacrifice and Abel’s is accepted while Cain’s is not. This leads to a mimetic rivalry between the two brothers. Cain is angry and his “countenance falls.”[v] This rivalry reaches mimetic crisis with Cain luring his brother out into the field where he kills his younger brother Abel. Cain in turn is cursed. But, what is the curse of Cain? It is not a mark, but rather 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 not a curse but 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 here that 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 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 don’t 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 retribution is not acceptable. Unlike other foundational myths, the victim in this case is innocent.[vi] Murder is condemned but Cain is also given a mark that will “protect him from the very process of rivalry that has made him defenseless.”[vii] The mark differentiates Cain in both reminding us that he is a murderer and that God will protect him. Sevenfold is not on Cain but anyone who kills him. The Lord is establishing the principle that even though Cain is a murderer and even though we all might think he should be killed, it is forbidden.
Perhaps another 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)
The Hebrew word for mark used here in the text is ’owth.[viii] This is the same word used to describe the lights in the firmament, the rainbow as a mark of God’s covenant with humanity, with Abraham a mark of covenant in circumcision, as a covenantal mark of blood on the doorpost to protect the Israelites, and also to describe the Sabbath as a mark of God’s covenant.[ix] In all of these instances, it appears that the proper understanding of the mark is covenantal.
The only instance where we find the word black in relation to Cain is not found in either the Genesis account or Pearl of Great Price account of Cain and Abel but in Joseph Smith’s revealed text of Moses 7. In Moses 7, Enoch has a vision where he sees the various nations leading up to the flood. In verse 22, we find this statement:
“And Enoch also beheld the residue of the people which were the sons of Adam; and they were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save it was the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black, and had not place among them.”
How do we interpret this passage? In the surrounding verses, Enoch tells us that Satan holds a great chain, that he veils the whole earth with “darkness,” and that the heavens weep tears. This is all clearly points to symbolic language.
A number of verses earlier, the only other use of the word black in the book of Moses is used by Enoch as he describes a “blackness” coming upon the children of Canaan because “the land was cursed” with much heat and barrenness as a result of genocide against the people of Shum.[x] In all of these instances, the scriptures do not explain exactly what “blackness” or “black” specifically means. Furthermore, we know that Canaanites were not black Africans, so in this instance “blackness” could not refer to skin color as we use the term today. The Canaanites lived in the areas covering modern-day Israel, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, and surrounding regions, and were culturally and linguistically similar to the Israelites.[xi]
How should this knowledge affect our understanding of the words “black” in referring to the seed of Cain? The scriptures do not state that the seed of Cain had “black skin.” The term “black” in the verse is more likely a symbolic representation just as the term “blackness” was being used symbolically, a few verses earlier, to describe the Canaanites character rather than their skin color. This symbolic use of the word black also occurs in the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon. In Lamentations, Jeremiah even goes so far as to suggest that the Israelites’ skin became “black like an oven” because of severe famine, clearly a parallel to the heat and barrenness or famine in the land among the Canaanites that caused “blackness” to come upon them.[xii] Even when the term “black” is associated with skin color it is still being used symbolically or at a minimum much differently than we use the term today when referring to skin color.
As far as Cain and the mark are concerned, the text says nothing to imply that the mark was in anyway related to skin color. Furthermore, the text says nothing to indicate that any such mark would be passed on genetically to Cain’s descendants. The mark is rather a mark of protection signaling God’s desire that no one exact revenge upon Cain. Again, the text is clear that the curse placed upon Cain was strictly related to the cultivation of land. The Mormon’s Second Article of Faith alone, which states that each person is responsible for his or her own sins, should be enough to remove the idea that any group or individual should be denied priesthood because of a six thousand year old murder.[xiii] It is quite possible that many of these myths arise from our own psyche. Perhaps we read the scriptures through our own racist lens, and need to justify our worldviews concerning race and even the idea that we are a chosen, unique people. As Anne Lamotte said, “You have probably created God in your image when He hates all the same people you hate.”
In part two, I will discuss some ideas on what the text actually means. I will address why Jesus sees Abel as a prophet and the first in a long line of martyrs. What is God’s position on murder, revenge, and the very foundations of civilization? Specifically, I will be addressing the two conflicting visions for God’s kingdom and how the Cain and Abel story helps us understand that God is a God of non-violence and rejects all forms of retribution.
[i] David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton U. Press, 2003).
[ii] For further documentation of this development and the ties between slavery and biblical justification, see Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 (Cambridge U. Press, 2006); Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification for American Slavery (Oxford U. Press, 2002); Benjamin Braude, Sex, Slavery, and Racism: The Secret History of Noah and His Sons (Knopf, 2005); and David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton U. Press, 2003).
[iii] Bruce R. McConkie, “All Are Alike Unto God,” BYU, August 17-19, 1978
[iv] Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Need for Greater Kindness,” April 2006, Conference
[v] David Goldenberg argues that a sixth century mistranslation in apocryphal Armenian literature led to the statement that Cain’s “countenance fell” as meaning Cain’s face turned dark. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham.
[vi] E.g. The Roman myth of Romulus and Remus
[vii] James G Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred (Harper San Francisco 1991), 26.
[viii] Hugh Nibley suggested various interpretations for the mark in his book Abraham in Egypt. None of those included skin color.
[ix] See Genesis 1, 9, 17. Exodus 12, 31.
[x] Some confusion has been caused by the similarity of the names Cain and Canaan when discussing race. The names Cain and Canaan are in no way related. The Hebrew words for the two are Qayin and Kena’an.
[xi] The Canaanites also shared a very similar culture to the Israelites. Both groups were part of the same linguistic family, Semitic. In fact, the Hebrew language came from a Canaanite dialect. It is also important to realize that the conquest of the lands of Canaan may also play a part in the polemical language and descriptions of the Canaanites.
[xii] In Job 30, Job speaks of his black skin. In Joel 2:6 we read of faces gathering “blackness” because of the horror of war and desolation in the day of the Lord’s coming. In Jeremiah 8:21, Jeremiah says he is “black” because of the pain he feels for the house of Israel. Nahum 2:10 speaks of “blackness” befalling Nineveh because of destruction. In Lamentation 5:10, Jeremiah speaks of Israel being “black” in skin because of famine.
[xiii] It is this author’s opinion that the LDS rejection of the idea of original sin and individual accountability led to ideas like pre-existence fence sitting. This allowed LDS to explain a priesthood ban that appeared racist in terms of sin, justice, and generally fit their understanding of Deity.