Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Mark of Cain by Ruth Mellinkoff

The story of Cain found in Genesis 4 is very short and highly ambiguous. It brings up more questions than it answers. Why did God accept Abel's offering, but not Cain's? Did Cain repent of his murder of Abel? Why did God protect Cain from being murdered himself? Why did Cain fear being murdered when the only other humans were his parents? How did Cain eventually die? Or did he? What was the mark of Cain?

Numerous theologians from antiquity, the Middle Ages, and modern times have attempted to fill in the blanks with their own interpretations. According to Ambrose and other commentators, the mark (or sign) of Cain was a protective symbol to keep Cain alive so that he had an opportunity to repent. However, Jerome and others assert that the reason God kept Cain alive was to torment him further and Basil considered the mark of Cain as a kind of scarlet letter proclaiming his crime rather than a protective symbol.

The Genesis Rabbah (Bereshith 22:12) gives multiple theories as to what the sign of Cain was: An event such as the Lord causing the sun to shine or suspending judgement until the Flood, a disfigurement such as giving Cain leprosy or a horn growing out of his head, and making Cain himself a sign to other murderers or penitents. One rabbi even supposes the Lord gave Cain a dog as a bodyguard to prevent others from murdering him.

In Revelation, marks on the forehead are used both for protection of the righteous (7:3, 9:4), and as a mark to identify those who are evil (14:9-10). The mark on the forehead is also a protection in Ezekial 9:4-6, and Aaron, the brother of Moses is instructed to wear a mark on his forehead (Exodus 28:36-38). Along these same lines, followers of Yahweh are instructed to wear a mark in Deuteronomy 6:8, 11:18.

Psuedo-Jonathan Targum to Genesis 4:15 states the mark placed upon Cain was one of the letters of God's name YHWH placed on his face. The Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer tells us that the mark was one of the letters of the alphabet placed on Cain's arm. The Zohar also states that God put one of the letters of the alphabet on Cain.

The most popular interpretation of Cain's mark for most of Christian history, cited by some early Christian works, such as The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan, and the writings of Bede, state that Cain's trembling and moaning is the sign.

Others say that the mark of Cain was a physical deformity. In the Irish Lebor Gabála Érenn, the mark of Cain was the inability to grow a beard. Whereas the Irish Saltair na Rann states that the mark was a lump on his forehead. In the Saltair na Rann, Cain later dies when a tree hits him on the lump in a freak accident. Another account of Cain's death is found in Jubilees 4:31 where he dies from his house falling down on top of him. One of the versions of The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Benjamin 7 states that Cain died in the Flood.

The most popular deformity to assign to Cain throughout the centuries is the growth of a horn, which makes his descent Lamech mistake him for a wild animal and shoot him with an arrow (Midrash Tanhuma, on Genesis 11, Jasher 2:26-31). In the Armenian book called The History of Cain and Abel, the horn or horns cry out with a loud voice that Cain murdered his brother wherever he went. A Cornish play Gwreans an Bys gives Cain horns, but also makes him hairy.

Although it's more common for black skin to be the sign of Ham's curse (for seeing the nakedness of his father Noah), black skin has also been thought to be the mark of Cain. Midrash Rabbah Genesis 22:6 says Cain's face was blackened when God rejected his sacrifice. The Armenian History of Cain and Abel says God was so mad at Cain He beat his face with hail that was blackened like coal, and thus Cain's face became black. This tradition continues in Mormonism today (Moses 7:8,22, Abraham 1:22-24, Mormon Doctrine by Bruce R. McConkie, Mormonism and the Negro by John Stewart, The Church and the Negro by John Lund). (As this book was written in 1981, Mellinkoff does not mention the current Mormon folk belief that Cain is in fact Bigfoot, an idea derived from the description of Cain found in The Miracle of Forgiveness by Spencer W. Kimball.)

Mellinkoff also mentions a couple non-theological interpreations of Cain's sign. The medieval play, the Mactacio Abel, transforms the story of Cain into a satire on fifteenth-century legal practices with God's protection of Cain being compared to a King's pardon, which was much abused during the time. Demian by Hermann Hesse interprets the sign of Cain as being a certain expression on his face indicating intelligence and boldness and an unwillingness to go along with the herd.

Early Christians such as Ambrose, Augustine and Bede, associated Cain with the Jews and compared Cain's killing of Abel with the Jews killing Christ. The sign of Cain in this instance is that the Jewish race will never be killed, but forever be cursed to wander the earth. Isidore of Seville says that the sign of Cain is circumcision specifically, an idea several later Church figures adopted. In 1215, Pope Innocent III decreed that Jews wear clothing to distinguish them from Christians, making the sign of Cain literal, a practice that continued sporadically throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and Nazi Germany.