Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Mark of Cain

Alice C. Linsley

There has been much speculation about the mark of Cain (Genesis 4:15). What was the mark that the Creator placed on him as a protective sign? To answer this question, more information about Cain's context is needed. The Bible tells us that Cain was a city builder and a ruler. He was one of the "mighty men of old." His descendants were craftsmen, some of whom worked metal (Genesis 4). This places Cain in the Neolithic Period, between 5500 and 3000 B.C. He may have been a contemporary of "Otzi the Iceman" who died in the Alps about 5300 years ago.

Genesis presents contradictory views about Cain's father. In one view, Cain is Adam's son, born of Eve. Genesis 4:1 says, "Adam knew/lay (yadah) with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain." It should be noted that the Hebrew and the Greek versions do not explicitly name Adam in this verse. Instead they read, "The man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain." Contrast this with Genesis 4:25 which says "Adam knew his wife again, and she gave birth to a son whom she named Seth." Why is Adam not named as Cain's father in Genesis 4:1 while Adam is explicitly named as Seth's father in Genesis 4:25?

Genesis explicitly states that Eve gave birth to the ruler whose royal line is listed in Genesis 4. When Eve gives birth in Genesis 4:2 she declares kan-itti. That is to say: "I have gotten a ruler." The Bible scholar E.A. Speiser noted that Qany(ty) or Qanitti is related to the Akkadian itti, as in itti šarrim, which means "with the king." Akkadian was the language of Nimrod's territory (c. BC 2290-2215) and according to Genesis 10 Nimrod was a Kushite ruler.  It is not surprising then to find that Akkadian shares many roots and words with Nilotic languages. Among the Oromo of Ethiopia and Somalia, itti is attached to names. Examples include Kaartuumitti, Finfinneetti, and Dimashqitti. That itti is associated with Nilotic rulers is evident in the name of the famous queen Nefertitti.

Having established a cultural context for Cain, we must explore the marks on the body made by peoples of the Nile Valley. These include tattoos and scarification. It is evident that this was practiced by some among Abraham's ancestors because the Deuteronomist (writing about 1500 years after Abraham) attempted to ban the practice. 

“You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the LORD.” Leviticus 19:28

Both tattoos and scarification are very ancient practices. Otzi's body was covered with over 50 scars. These were produced by fine cuts in the skin. Charcoal was rubbed into the cuts. This may be how the mark of Cain was produced.

Or he may have had a tattoo. Many peoples of Africa decorate their bodies by puncturing the skin to insert a small amount of dye. Among the Nilotic peoples scarification was used to beautify; the more intricate the pattern, the more beautiful the woman. Aboriginal populations paint their bodies for ceremonies and dances.

Tattoos were more than a decoration. They were also a sign of status. Facial scarification (ichi scarification) indicates that the person has been initiated into nobility. It is a status symbol. It is possible that the mark on Cain refers to the scars specific to archaic rulers. Throughout the Bible Cain is the archetype of the earthly ruler. By the time that Jude wrote his epistle (c. 68 AD), Cain was solidly established as the ruler archetype. Jude warns those who might abandon Christ that God punishes those who rebel against Him. He uses three men as examples: Cain the ruler, Balaam the prophet, and Korah the priest.

Scarification is often a sign of mourning or grief. The Aborigines of Australia mourn the loss of their loved one with physical cuts on their bodies. They represent one of the oldest living cultures in the world. According to 1 Kings 18:28, the prophets of Baal cut themselves with knives when their god did not answer them. This scarification is an example of self-mortification.  Did God cut Cain's flesh or does the mark of Cain have a more spiritual meaning?

In Isaiah 44:5, we read that writing God's name on the hand marks one as God's servant:
This one will say, “I am the LORD’s,”
another will be called by the name of Jacob,
yet another will write on the hand, “The LORD’s,”
and adopt the name of Israel.

By writing God’s name on his hand, the convert to Judaism made it evident that he has chosen to serve the Lord. This appears to have been acceptable to the rabbis, though it seems to be contrary to the Leviticus 19:28 prohibition. The Leviticus prohibition, however, seems to pertain to people marking themselves, not to God marking us.

The mark put on Cain expresses an act of grace. Cain deserved to die for killing his brother, but the Lord placed a mark of protection on him so that his exile would not result in immediate death. Cain’s just punishment was death, yet God showed him grace by sparing his life. Instead Cain was to be exiled from his people. Even then God shows Cain grace by placing a mark on him, not a brand of shame, but a mark of protection.

Reflecting on this great grace shown to his ancestor, Lamech the Elder challenges God to show him greater grace In Genesis 4. If grace was shown to Cain (7), then Lamech, by confessing his sin to his wives, claims a greater measure of grace (77). Lamech, the Younger is assigned even greater grace because he is said to have lived 777 years. Lamech the Younger is the son of Methuselah and Naamah, and he became the father of righteous Noah.

St. John Chrysostom recognized that the story of Lamech is about God’s mercy shown to sinners. He placed the emphasis exactly where it should be.

“… since the one [Lamech] neither killed his brother after exhortation, nor needed an accuser, nor shrunk from answering when God questioned him, but even without any accuser both pleaded again himself, and condemned himself more severely, he obtained pardon. (St John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Epistle of St Paul to the Romans, Homily XXXI, Romans XVI:5)

The Jewish Study Bible claims that the “poem of Lamech” [Genesis 4: 23,24] attests to the violence associated with Lamech and Cain, and “to the increasing evil of the human race.” Apparently the interpreters exclude themselves from the human race because they go on to state: “The people of Israel will emerge from the lineage of the younger son’s replacement [that is from Seth], not from that of the murderous first born [that is Cain].” (The Jewish Study Bible, p. 20. Brackets mine.) Of course this is not what the Bible reveals. The lines of Cain and Seth intermarried so that their descendants share a common ancestry.

How easy it is to take the attitude that Cain and his descendants were sinners, but Seth’s descendants were righteous. Yet the lines of Cain and Seth intermarried and God showed grace to both, even allowing Lamech’s daughter, Naamah, to bear the righteous Lamech, the father of Noah and the ancestor of Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus Messiah.

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