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Now says the grand father I will not distroy the seed of michal and his wife; and cain I will not kill you, nor suffer any one to kill you, but I will put a mark upon you. What is that mark? you will see it on the countenance of every African you ever did see upon the face of the earth, or ever will see...What old Mr. Young* said before the Utah Legislature is, unfortunately, representative of that brand of folk theology that has passed down even to the current day. Cain killed his brother, we read, and God cursed him with black skin, everyone knows. Except what everyone knows ain't necessarily so.
I tell you, this people that are commonly called negroes are the children of old Cain. I know they are, I know that they cannot bear rule in the preisthood...
-- Mormon Prophet Brigham Young, Feb 5, 1852
The backstory for the biblically impaired is this: Cain got jealous of his brother and killed him. So God cursed Cain and put a mark on him. Then chattel slavery**.
So with that in mind we're going to take a little stroll through Genesis 4 to discover exactly what we know and don't know about the curse and the mark of Cain.
...Cain brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell.So here we have the setup: sibling rivalry, no doubt. Cain is a farmer and brings God a nice tray of steamed veggies. Abel brings a plate of steaming-hot mutton, basted in honey. It has been argued that God rejected Cain's offering because Cain acted from an impure heart, or maybe because God demanded a blood offering in this specific case***. We don't know why, we only know that Cain got bummed and God gave him a little talking to about attitude (vv 6-7). Cain then applied this newfound insight by killing his brother (v 8). Uh-oh. Houston, we have a problem.
-- Gen 4:2-5
God confronts Cain and Cain utters the famous line about Abel's now-neglected hives, Am I my brother's beekeeper? God ignored the question and instead laid The Smackdown on Cain. Here's what he said:
Now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you cultivate the ground, it will no longer yield its strength to you; you will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth.There's the curse of Cain. What was the curse? That he could no longer farm. Cain had been a farmer, now the ground that had received his brother's blood would no longer yield anything to him.
-- Gen 4:11-12
That's also the whole of the curse. Cain was fired and he would never work outside this town again. He would have a brown thumb. Sow as he might, he would never, ever reap. Not even a mustard seed. It would suck for a farmer, no doubt. But that is the curse of Cain and the whole of it. There is no indication it would apply to his descendants or anyone but Cain.
Still, as you might imagine, getting fired from your first job by God is a pretty hard thing to take, even if it's not on TV. Cain was nonplussed:
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is too great to bear! Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Your face I will be hidden, and I will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”Cain didn't expect the best of luck in his future endeavors, though it could have been worse: God might have simply killed him. Or maybe this was worse. For Cain, living in a time where only one man had ever died, now had to live in constant fear that Abel's sons and daughters and nieces and nephews and maybe even parents might decide to do him in once and for all. They might even think they were doing God's will in offing the cursed, murderous old vagabond.
-- Gen 4:13-4
Despite the righteous rationalizations of would-be assassins, if God wanted Cain killed, he would have done it himself. So upon further review, God did something else to Cain:
So the Lord said to him, “Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord appointed a sign for Cain, so that no one finding him would slay him.As the KVJ says, the Lord set a mark upon Cain. So what was this mark or sign that God puts on Mr. Not-a-Farmer? We simply do not know. Besides black skin, a popular guess in the
-- Gen 4:15
I suspect that any mark that made him stand out would make him more of a target than less. But I don't know because the Bible doesn't say. Anyone who tells you that they know what the mark is is speculating, no matter how confident their tone.
But for those who claim to know, their claims must correspond with what we do know about it -- the reason for it and its effects -- to be taken seriously. In other words, any proposed "mark of Cain" must conform to the following truths:
- The mark/sign must be protective*****. The mark was appointed to keep Cain safe among people with good reason to kill him. God promised to visit personal vengeance seven times on anyone who killed Cain and the mark was evidence of that promise.
- The mark/sign must be only for Cain. Not only is there no indication that it was genetic or heritable; given its nature of protecting Cain from the consequences of his personal guilt there is no reason that it might be.
- The mark/sign must display a work of mercy on God's part. God cursed Cain, and when Cain appealed that judgment, God gave Cain the mark. The mark is not the curse: it is a protection from some of the curse's logical effects.
* Who when he arrived in Salt Lake City was the Governor, the Prophet, and the President of the only bank in town. No wonder he had so little time to read his Bible.
*** Even though grain offerings would be fine later (c.f. Lev 2)
**** Plus we're completely ignoring the speculative hoops we must jump through to get Cain's descendants to the dry side of Noah's flood and into sub-Saharan Africa, whence Virginian tobacconists could offer them long-term employment contracts.
***** Black skin turns out to be not especially protective, fwiw.