|"Cain" Fernand Cormon. 1880. (Musée d'Orsay, Paris)|
Copyright © Edward Riojas
The footnote in my study bible simply says "...the mark was never explained and is not important." It may be true that no explanation was ever given, but removing its importance seems an overstep.
I am referring, of course, to the mark placed on Cain.
The account of Cain and Abel overflows with tragedy. It contains so much horror of the Fall that some details appear trivial by comparison, and therefore are relegated to a position of less importance. Such is the case with the mark on Cain, given so that others would not dare kill him. God‘s mark of warning has, however, inspired some interesting theories.
The earliest recorded opinions are from Jewish scholars, who offer little consensus. One suggested that a single Hebrew character from the tetragrammaton – the four letters forming the Name of God – was indelibly placed on Cain’s forehead. Another taught it was indeed a Hebrew character on either Cain’s head or arm, but did not indicate which of the 22 it was. Yet another scholar boldly claimed it was the Hebrew letter “Waw.” Of course, an even earlier Jewish scholar went on his own tangent and explained that Cain grew a single horn out of his forehead. As if that would keep others from adding a trophy to their man-caves.
The Middle Ages produced suggestions of a different kind, which eventually morphed into some rather unsavory ideas. Different scenarios emerged suggesting God made Cain’s face black – one theory included a pummeling with hail – although Cain was not racially changed. That little detail, it seems, was simply too tempting.
Eventually, different groups caved into the notion that Cain’s sin of murder lead to the creation of a new race, and the ensuing genie has refused to go back into the bottle. Some Protestant groups latched onto the idea. Southern Baptists, in particular, used it as an argument for slavery leading up to the Civil War. Not wanting to miss the square-wheeled bandwagon, Latter Day Saints joined in. They might have raised an eyebrow or two when they claimed Native Americans were of Israelite ancestry, but they didn’t look so odd with the claim that all blacks descended from Cain. But much more than simple color, it was believed they also inherited Cain’s curse. Some stigmas are indeed hard to erase.
Others within the Church suggest the mark was a cross, although such a prophetic sign would mean little, if anything, to the first inhabitants who, according to Cain’s lament, had notion enough to kill Cain for the murder. One must wonder, however, what singular, horrifying tattoo would scream “Don’t even touch me.” Perhaps interwoven Seraphim with flaming swords. Perhaps even a glowing reflection of the face of God. Doubtless such a sight would not be welcomed by people reeling from the Fall and feeling too keenly the effects of sin. Such shunning would cause Cain to be a wanderer without a home for the rest of his sojourn on earth.
On the other side of Paradise we will someday understand the importance of Cain’s mark, but for now ignorance will have to suffice. Even in the tragedy of Cain and Abel, however, there seems a thread of prophecy that points to the Savior and His love for us. In Holy Baptism we have been indelibly marked by Christ Jesus, not as protection against mortal danger but as a promise of immortality. We are His. We sojourn this side of Eternity as foreigners and strangers, but are given a foretaste of our heavenly home and its banquet in the Lord's Supper. We shun the world and its brokenness, hold fast to the Word, and look beyond the grave to our true home, where God Himself has marked our names in the palm of His hand.