Curse and mark of Cain

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"Mark of Cain" redirects here. For other uses, see Mark of Cain (disambiguation).

The curse of Cain and the mark of Cain are phrases that originated in the story of Adam and Eve in the Jewish and Christian Bibles. In the stories, if someone did something to harm Cain, the damage would come back sevenfold. Some interpretations view this as a physical mark, whereas other interpretations see the "mark" as a sign, and not as a physical marking on Cain himself. The King James Version of the Bible reads "set a mark upon Cain".


Main article: Cain and Abel

The name Cain (He. qayin, meaning spear) is identical with the name Kenite (also qayin in Hebrew), which led some scholars to speculate that the curse of Cain may have arisen as a condemnation of the Kenites. However, in the Hebrew Bible, the Kenites are generally described favorably, and may have had an important influence on the early Hebrew religion (see Kenite hypothesis).[citation needed]

There is no clear consensus as to what Cain's mark is. The word translated as "mark" in Gen. 4:15 is 'owth, which could mean a sign, an omen, a warning, or a remembrance. In the Torah, the same word is used to describe the stars as signs or omens (Gen. 1:14), the rainbow as the sign of God's promise to never again destroy his creation as with the flood (Gen. 9:12), circumcision as a token of God's covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17:11), and the miracles performed by Moses before the Pharaoh (Exodus 4:8,9,17,28; 7:3; 8:23; 10:1,2).

Curse of Cain[edit]

Glasgow Botanic Gardens. Kibble Palace. Edwin Roscoe Mullins - Cain or My Punishment is Greater than I can Bear ( Genesis 4:13), about 1899.

The narrative of the curse of Cain is in the text of Genesis 4:11-16. The curse was a result of Cain murdering his brother Abel and lying about the murder to God.[1] When Cain spilled his brother's blood, the earth became cursed as soon as the blood hit the ground. In a sense, the earth was left "drinking Abel's blood".[2] Genesis 4:12 gives a two part sentencing for Cain's curse. The first concerns the earth that was cursed by Abel's blood.[3] Should Cain attempt to farm the land, the earth would not yield produce for him. This may imply why he went on to build cities,[4] namely the City of Enoch.[5] The second part of the curse marks Cain as a fugitive (Hebrew: נע‎ ) and wanderer (Hebrew: נד‎ ). The combination of these Hebrew words נע ונד‎, "fugitive" and "wanderer", is unique in the Hebrew Bible. Modern interpretation of the Hebrew verse 12 suggest that Cain went on to live a nomadic lifestyle as well as being excluded from the family unit.[6] In the Septuagint, the emphasis of Cain's curse is dramatically increased by the combination of the Greek participles στένων καὶ τρέμων ("groaning and shaking upon the earth").[7] Syriac Christianity[8] interprets the Greek version as Cain experiencing a real physical affliction[9] that when witnessed by others, they would know who he is. Philo interprets the Greek verse 12 as an allegory for Cain's fear of being soulless. The Samaritan Pentateuch and the Targums translate to "an exile and unstable".[10]


Origen stated that all the descendants of Cain perished in the Flood, and that all humankind therefore descends from Seth.[11]

Mark of Cain[edit]

The Hebrew word for mark ('Oth, אות‎) could mean a sign, omen, warning, or remembrance.[12] The mark of Cain is God's promise to Cain for divine protection from premature death with the stated purpose to prevent anyone from killing him. It is not known what the mark is, but it is assumed that the mark is visible.[13] Some have speculated that the mark is a Hebrew letter placed on either the face or the arm.[14] The Septuagint translates the mark as a "sign". Thus, it is speculated that the mark served as a sign to others to not commit the same offense.[15]


Abba Arika ("Rab") said that God gave Cain a dog, making him an example to murderers. Abba Jose ben Hanan said that God made a horn grow out of Cain. R. Hanin said that God made Cain an example to penitents (Gen. Rab. 22:12).[15]

Rashi comments on Genesis 4:15 that the mark was one of the Hebrew letters of the Tetragrammaton: "He engraved a letter of His [God's] Name onto his [Cain's] forehead."[16]

In Kabbalah, the Zohar states that the mark of Cain was one of the twenty-two Hebrew letters of the Torah, although the Zohar's native Aramaic does not actually tell us which of the letters it was. Some commentators, such as Rabbi Michael Berg in his English commentary on the Zohar, suggest that the mark of Cain was the letter vav.[17]


According to author Ruth Mellikoff, commentators' interpretations of the nature of the "mark" depended on their views regarding the status of Cain, as either given additional time to repent, or further shamed.[18]

Racial controversy[edit]

At some point after the slave trade in the United States began, many[citation needed] Protestant denominations began teaching that the mark of Cain was a dark skin tone, although early descriptions of Romani as "descendants of Cain" written by Franciscan monk Symon Semeonis suggest this belief had existed for some time. Protestant preachers wrote exegetical analyses of the curse, with the assumption that it was dark skin.[19]

Early church exegesis[edit]

In Syriac Christianity, early exegesis of the "curse" and the "mark", associated the curse of Cain with black skin, although not in a racial sense.[20]

In an Eastern Christian (Armenian) Adam-book (5th or 6th century), it is written: "And the Lord was wroth with Cain. . . He beat Cain's face with hail, which blackened like coal, and thus he remained with a black face".[21] Again, this indicating that his face, and not his body, being changed had no bearing on any racial or ethnic group.

Baptist segregation[edit]

The split between the Northern and Southern Baptist organizations arose over doctrinal issues pertaining to slavery and the education of slaves. At the time of the split, the Southern Baptist group used the curse of Cain as a justification for slavery. Some 19th- and 20th-century Baptist ministers in the Southern United States taught that there were two separate heavens; one for blacks, and one for whites.[22] Baptists have taught or practiced various forms of racial segregation well into the mid-to-late-20th century, though members of all races were accepted at worship services.[23] In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention officially denounced racism and apologized for its past defense of slavery.[24]

The curse of Cain was used to support a ban on ordaining blacks to most Protestant clergies until the 1960s in both the United States and Europe[citation needed]. The majority of Christian churches in the world, including the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox churches, Anglican churches, and Oriental Orthodox churches, did not recognize these interpretations and did not participate in the religious movement to support them. Certain Catholic dioceses in the Southern United States adopted a policy of not ordaining blacks to oversee, administer the sacraments to, or accept confessions from white parishioners. This policy was not based on a "curse of Cain" teaching, but was justified by the widely held perception that slaves should not rule over their masters. However, this was not approved of by the Pope or by any papal teaching.[25]

Curse of Ham[edit]

The Curse of Cain was often conflated with the Curse of Ham. According to the Bible, Ham discovered his father Noah drunk and naked in his tent. Because of this, Noah cursed Ham's son, Canaan to be "servants of servants". (Genesis 9:20-27) One interpretation states that Ham married a descendant of Cain, who was black, so that the descendants of Canaan were both marked with black skin and cursed to be servants of servants. While there is no indication in the Bible of Ham's wife descending from Cain, this interpretation was used to justify slavery and was particularly popular in America during the Atlantic slave trade.[26][27]

Modern scholars now believe the Canaanites are of Semitic origin, and unrelated to black Africans.

Latter-day Saints[edit]

Mormonism began during the height of white Protestant acceptance of the curse of Cain doctrine in America, as well as the even more popular curse of Ham doctrine. Like many Americans,[26][27] Mormons of the 19th century commonly assumed that black Africans had Cain's "mark" of black skin,[28] and Ham's curse to be servants of servants.[29] While Joseph Smith indicated his belief in the curse of Ham theory in a parenthetical reference as early as 1831,[30] the only early reference to the curse or mark of Cain was in the Pearl of Great Price, which included the following 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." (Moses 7:22) The Old Testament student manual, which is published by the Church and is the manual currently used to teach the Old Testament in LDS Institutes, teaches that Ham's wife was a descendant of Cain:

Therefore, although Ham himself had the right to the priesthood, Canaan, his son, did not. Ham had married Egyptus, a descendant of Cain (Abraham 1:21–24), and so his sons were denied the priesthood.[31]

As related by Abraham O. Smoot after his death, Apostle David W. Patten said he encountered a black man in Paris, Tennessee, who said that he was Cain. The account states that Cain had earnestly sought death but was denied it, and that his mission was to destroy the souls of men. This further strengthened the connection between mark of Cain and black skin.[32][33]:85 The recollection of Patten's story is quoted in Apostle Spencer W. Kimball's The Miracle of Forgiveness, a popular book within the LDS Church.[34]:127–128

Priesthood ban[edit]

There is evidence that Joseph Smith did not consider the restriction between blacks and the priesthood to be relevant in modern times, since he himself (and other church leaders close to him) did ordain black men to the priesthood,[35] notably Elijah Abel and Walker Lewis.

After the death of Joseph Smith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) was the largest of several organizations claiming succession from Smith's church. Brigham Young (the second President of the Church) accepted the idea that people of African ancestry were generally under the curse of Cain, and in 1852 he made a statement that people of black African descent were not eligible to hold the church's priesthood.[36] The ban on priesthood was not used as a reason for segregation of congregations, which was common in churches in the southern United States during this time period, but it affected black members differently than in other churches because the LDS Church has a lay priesthood in which virtually all worthy male members become priesthood holders.

While Young never made clear the reasons for the priesthood ban, several of his successors defended it as being a result of the curse of Cain, though some disagreed. Sterling M. McMurrin reported that, in 1954, church president David O. McKay said: "There is not now, and there never has been a doctrine in this church that the negroes are under a divine curse. There is no doctrine in the church of any kind pertaining to the negro. We believe that we have a scriptural precedent for withholding the priesthood from the negro. It is a practice, not a doctrine, and the practice someday will be changed. And that's all there is to it."[37]

In 1978, LDS Church president Spencer W. Kimball reported receiving a revelation from God allowing all worthy male members of the church to receive the priesthood without regard to race or color.[38][39] The news was greeted with joy and relief from Mormons. Although the church had previously been criticized for its policy during the civil rights movement, the change seems to have been prompted by problems facing mixed race converts in Brazil.[40]

There has neither been an official and explicit church repudiation of its policy nor an admission that it was a mistake. Many black church members think giving an apology would be a "detriment" to church work and a catalyst to further racial misunderstanding. African-American church member Bryan E. Powell says: "There is no pleasure in old news, and this news is old." Gladys Newkirk agrees, stating: "I've never experienced any problems in this church. I don't need an apology .... We're the result of an apology."[41] Many Black Mormons say that they are willing to look beyond the former teachings and cleave to the doctrines of the church, in part because of its powerful, detailed teachings on life after death.[42]

The LDS Church has issued an official statement about past practices and theories regarding skin color, stating: "[t]oday, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, ... Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form."[43]

The Old Testament student manual, which is published by the Church and is the manual currently used to teach the Old Testament in LDS Institutes, teaches that Canaan could not hold the priesthood because of his race:

Therefore, although Ham himself had the right to the priesthood, Canaan, his son, did not. Ham had married Egyptus, a descendant of Cain (Abraham 1:21–24), and so his sons were denied the priesthood.[31]

Civil rights[edit]

When Utah was considering slavery, Brigham Young told the Utah Territorial Legislature that the curse of Cain required slavery. He argued that until all of the descendants of Abel had access to the priesthood, that the descendants of Cain should remain in servitude.[44]:28 He argued that because they did not have the right to the govern in the affairs of the Church, because of the priesthood ban, that they shouldn't have the right to govern in the affairs of the state, including voting.[44]:47 He warned that if they made the children of Cain equal to them, that they would be cursed.[44]:48 He also argued that if someone married a descendant of Cain, that they would also have the same curse.[44]:48

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Byron 2011, p. 93.
  2. ^ Byron 2011, p. 95: Genesis 4:11
  3. ^ Byron 2011, p. 97: Kugel, 163
  4. ^ Byron 2011, p. 97: Wenham, 108
  5. ^ Not to be confused with Zion (Latter Day Saints)
  6. ^ Byron 2011, p. 97.
  7. ^ Byron 2011, p. 98: Brayford, 254
  8. ^ Byron 2011, p. 100.
  9. ^ Byron 2011, p. 98: See footnote 14
  10. ^ Byron 2011, p. 98-100.
  11. ^ Origen, Sermons on Number, 18.4.
  12. ^ BDB, Francis Brown; Samuel Rolles Driver; Charles Augustus Briggs. The Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: with an appendix containing the Biblical Aramaic; coded with the numbering system from "Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible" (7. print. 1997 ed.). Peabody: Hendrickson. p. 16f. ISBN 9781565632066. 
  13. ^ Byron 2011, p. 119: Mellinkoff, 1942, p.210; Moberley, 2007, p.11-28
  14. ^ Byron 2011, p. 120: (Tg. Ps.-J. Gen 4:15, Pirqe R. El. 21)
  15. ^ a b Byron 2011, p. 120: Gen. Rab. 22:12
  16. ^ "Genesis - Chapter 4 (Parshah Bereishit) - Tanakh Online - Torah - Bible". Retrieved 2012-09-21. 
  17. ^ Zohar Parshat Bereshit (Requires login.)
  18. ^ Mellinkoff, Ruth (1981). The Mark of Cain. University of California Press,. p. 13. ISBN 9780520906372. 
  19. ^ Priest, Josiah Slavery as it Relates to the Negro or African Race (1843)
  20. ^ Goldenberg 2003, p. 180.
  21. ^ The History of Abel and Cain, 10, in Lipscomb, The Armenian Apocryphal Adam Literature, pp. 145, 250 (text) and 160, 271 (translation)
  22. ^ "Land of the Till Murder". Ebony. April 1956. 
  23. ^ Miller, Randall M.; Smith, John David (1988). Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 78. ISBN 0-313-23814-6. Slaves were accepted for membership in the same manner as whites. After expressing a desire to join a church, one was required to relate his or her religious experience. If the congregation was favorably impressed by one's testimony, the applicant was accepted into the fellowship and was baptized. When black church members moved from one community to another, they were given letters of dismissal which they might place with another Baptist church. Black church members worshiped in the sanctuary with whites, participated in the service of Holy Communion, and contributed to help support the various programs of the denomination. Still blacks and females in antebellum Baptist churches held a membership status subordinate to that of white adult males, since that group determined denominational policies and procedures. 
  24. ^ Kunnerth, Jeff (21 June 1995). "Baptists Renounce Racist Past". Orlando Sentinel. 
  25. ^ Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery.
  26. ^ a b Benjamin Braude, "The Sons of Noah and the Construction of Ethnic and Geographical Identities in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods, "William and Mary Quarterly LIV (January 1997): 103–142. See also William McKee Evans, "From the Land of Canaan to the Land of Guinea: The Strange Odyssey of the Sons of Ham,"American Historical Review 85 (February 1980): 15–43
  27. ^ a b John N. Swift and Gigen Mammoser, "'Out of the Realm of Superstition: Chesnutt's 'Dave's Neckliss' and the Curse of Ham'", American Literary Realism, vol. 42 no. 1, Fall 2009, 3
  28. ^ Brigham Young's Speech on Slavery, Blacks, and the Priesthood, Feb 5, 1852 . Reprint by Utah Lighthouse Ministry
  29. ^ Smith, Joseph (1836). Wikisource link to Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate/Volume 2/Number 7/Letter to Oliver Cowdery from Joseph Smith, Jr. (Apr. 1836). Wikisource. pp. 290. 
  30. ^ Manuscript History 19 June 1831[full citation needed]
  31. ^ a b Old Testament Student Manual Genesis-2 Samuel. 
  32. ^ Wilson 1904
  33. ^ Whiting 2003
  34. ^ Kimball, Spencer W. (1969), The Miracle of Forgiveness, Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, ISBN 0-88494-444-1 
  35. ^ "Black History Timeline". Retrieved 17 January 2013. 
  36. ^ Wilford Woodruff, Diary of Wilford Woodruff, January 16, 1852. "[A]ny man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] … in him cannot hold the priesthood and if no other Prophet ever spake it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ".
  37. ^ Sterling M. McMurrin affidavit, March 6, 1979. See David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Greg Prince and William Robert Wright, page[page needed]. Quoted by Genesis Group
  38. ^ "Spencer W. Kimball – Significant Events". Retrieved 2012-09-21. 
  39. ^ Official Declaration 2  (LDS standard works); see also: Official Declaration 2
  40. ^ Bushman, Richard (2008). Mormonism: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press. pp. 111–12. ISBN 0-19-531030-6. 
  41. ^ Broadway, Bill (1998-05-30). "Black Mormons Resist Apology Talk". Washington Post. 
  42. ^ Ramirez, Margaret (2005-07-26). "Mormon past steeped in racism: Some black members want church to denounce racist doctrines". Chicago Tribune. 
  43. ^ "Race and the Priesthood",, LDS Church 
  44. ^ a b c d Young, Brigham (1987), Collier, Fred C., ed., The Teachings of President Brigham Young: Vol. 3 1852–1854, Salt Lake City, Utah: Colliers Publishing Company, ISBN 0934964017, OCLC 18192348 


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