The Mark of a Man

[ 9 minutes to read ]

Whither shall I go from thy spirit?
or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
~ Psalm 139:7

What was the mark of Cain?

[T]he ever enigmatic Holmes came into the breakfast room where Watson was engaged in the most important meal of the day. Holmes entered with some sort of barbed spear and informed Watson he had worked up a hearty appetite by spending the morning trying to pierce a pig carcase through with a single effort with the spear. He had been unsuccessful, but had gained his objective and was satisfied that he could not with his best effort transfix the pig.

Holmes, of course, is the famous fictional detective and his actions and preoccupations appear most singular, but they were a part of his life’s work. He had a theory on a case in Doyle’s short story, “The Adventures of Black Peter.” Nonfictional detectives, investigators, and forensic scientists research and test various ways of ending life. They find out such things as that it is impossible to crush a human skull with your bare hands. If I recall correctly, it takes somewhere around 1,100 pounds of pressure to crush a human skull, but certainly more pressure than a human being can produce with his hands alone.

We can safely conclude that Cain did not crush Abel’s skull, at least not with his bare hands. To crush his brother’s skull, Cain would have had to use a very heavy object like a big rock, which would’ve been difficult to wield in a close quarter fight. Of course, Cain didn’t have to crush Abel’s skull to kill him. He could’ve caused enough blunt force trauma to do that with a smaller rock, a tree limb, or some of his farming tools, since he was a worker of the soil (Genesis 4:2). Maybe Abel’s death didn’t involve his cranium directly. Perhaps Cain used a stone knife, or throttled his brother with his bare hands. I suppose a spear could’ve been thrown, or used as a lance. We can probably rule out a slower weapon such as poison. Though Cain obviously thought of this act beforehand (Genesis 4:5-7), the language of Genesis 4:8 lends itself to a crime of passion and some sort of fatal act.

Cain’s Arc

The Genesis account doesn’t tell us how Cain murdered his brother Abel, but that he did is crucial to the account. I’m referring to the narrative in Genesis 4:1-18, which gives us the history of Cain and the primary mention of him in the Bible. This account follows directly after the fall and curse narrative in Genesis 3 and is drawn on later in the Bible. The writer of Hebrews included Abel among the faithful in Hebrews 11:4, noting he acted by faith and was righteous. The Apostle John used Cain in his warning against hating your brother in 1 John 3:12. John notes that Cain was evil and murdered his brother out of hatred and jealousy, and that he was of the Devil.

These later mentions are admittedly brief, but they confirm what type of story Cain’s is. His protagonistic arc is downward, ending lower than where it began. So, in classical terms, we would call it a tragedy. Though it is a well constructed story, it is history, Scripture, and theology. For Cain there is no redemption, so his is an anti-redemption story. He is an archetypal sinner experiencing judgment after causing the death of his brother. His account moves the meta-narrative of Scripture forward after the fall and the curse.

The post-fall curse narrative includes the prophetic promise of the seed of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent and reconcile the enmity caused by sin (Genesis 3:15). The birth of Cain is a man from the Lord and instigates reflection on the promise. Is this the promised seed? As the story unfolds, it is clear Cain is not the promised seed, but is of the seed of the serpent (1 John 3:12).

About the Ground

Cain’s brother Abel is born and we are told their vocations. Abel was a shepherd and Cain a farmer, a tiller of the soil. By verse 2, we have tapped into an important biblical theme, the ground. Two different Hebrew words are used to refer to the ground. They have some synonymous overlap, but also have nuanced distinction across their respective semantic ranges. Both terms are used in chapters 1-4 and combine to 47 uses, which is about once every couple of verses. Given the creation narrative of the first two chapters and the fall and post-fall narrative in chapters 3 and 4, we would expect high usage of terms referring to the earth and ground. However, the land is an important biblical theological theme that traces throughout the rest of Scripture. References to the land carry intertextual weight and play an important role in this account.

The first and most common term in this account is the Hebrew `adama, which means ground or soil in this context. The word appears six times in the text. Cain was a tiller of the soil (Genesis 4:2). He brought from the produce of the soil for an offering (Genesis 4:3). Abel’s blood cried out from the soil (Genesis 4:10). Cain was cursed from the soil (Genesis 4:11) and his tillage would not produce the strength of the soil as a result (Genesis 4:12). Finally, Cain was driven out from the soil, the face of the earth (Genesis 4:14).

The second term used is the Hebrew `eres, which means land or earth. It can refer to the entire earth, or any part of the earth, especially in territorial terms. The word is used three times in the text. It is mentioned in the second part of the curse, where Cain is fated to be a wanderer in the land (Genesis 4:12), which Cain repeats in his complaint (Genesis 4:14). The last usage is a territorial reference to the land of Nod (Genesis 4:16).

As we read the accounts canonically, the creation narrative in chapter 1 is a cosmic scale account and chapter 2 gives a synoptic creation narrative that shifts focus from the cosmic to the terrestrial scale, and even further focuses to the garden and Adam and Eve. Verse 4 reiterates that God created the heavens and the earth and verse 5 builds expectation by noting there was no man to till the soil that produced plants and herbs. We see a balanced harmony intended in the creation between the soil and the man.

The first man was created out of the soil (Genesis 2:7) and the soil produced food for the man (Genesis 2:9). The animals were created out of the soil and Adam gave them all names (Genesis 2:19). The Lord made a woman as a complementary mate for the man and chapter 2 ends with harmony and balance between humans, animals, plants, and the soil.

Chapter 3 has the fall and curse narrative. After Adam and Eve sinned, God cursed the soil for man’s sake so he would have sorrowful and frustrating labor to eat the produce of the soil the rest of his life (Genesis 3:17). Further, man was cursed with death. He had been taken from the soil and he would return to the soil in death (Genesis 3:19). Adam was then driven from the harmony of the garden and the alienation motif emerges. He went forth from the garden to till the soil to sustain his life (Genesis 3:23), but he did not have the harmony he had before.

History of Cain

The Cain narrative in chapter 4 tells of the first human death. It is no death by natural causes, but rather death by a direct act of sin (Genesis 4:7-8). Abel’s body not only returned to the soil in death, but the soil swallowed his blood and cried for judgment (Genesis 4:10-11). However, we might expect Cain’s blood would be given to the soil to recompense Abel’s blood, but that is not what happened. Let’s look at the narrative as it unfolds.

Verses 3-5 recount the inciting incident for the action of the story. Cain and Abel both brought an offering to Yahweh. The word for offering means a gift or tribute. It is the word typically used of grain offerings and freewill offerings. These offerings were typically bloodless, but the word could apply to blood sacrifices in some contexts. Readers may be tempted to make much of the difference between the offerings—Cain brought his farmer’s fruits and Abel brought a firstborn of his flock. The word used indicates the offering was a gift, or a voluntary offering. We are not told that they were instructed to bring it, or instructed what to bring. Hebrews 11:4 emphasizes that Abel’s offering was brought by faith and therefore accepted. The implication is that Cain’s was not brought by faith and that agrees with Yahweh’s words to Cain in Genesis 4:6-7.

Cain’s situation was progressively complicated by the rejection of his offering and acceptance of his brother’s. Cain was very angry and obviously contemplated what to do about it. Yahweh speaks to Cain in verses 6-7 and sets up Cain’s crisis choice. Cain’s rejection highlighted his alienation from his Creator, and removing Abel will not reconcile him to Yahweh. Cain must master sin rather than being ruled by it. Cain must choose whether he will humble himself and put faith in Yahweh and be accepted, or kill his brother to get him out of the way. The climax of the story is reached in verse 8 when Cain kills Abel in the field.

The resolution of the story begins when Yahweh confronts Cain about his brother Abel in verses 9-10. Cain is given opportunity for confession but chooses evasion. Yahweh knows what Cain has done already and reiterates how the soil cries out for justice, building the suspense and expectation for Cain’s blood to be shed. The reader is prepared for Cain’s death, but the author gives us a different resolution instead.

Yahweh curses Cain in verses 11-12. Cain had already inherited the curse from his father in Genesis 3, but now he is doubly cursed. He is further alienated from the soil and the human race. Cain’s complaint in verse 13 highlights the fact that Cain is suffering the fate worse than death, a living death. Cain is cursed to wander as an alien from the soil and man and live in that unreconciled state in constant fear. He adds in verse 14 that his alienation from the creation also means his alienation from Yahweh the Creator. He will live out his existence without reconciliation, without redemption.

The consequence of Cain’s alienation is that everywhere he goes, he will be hunted and killed (Genesis 4:15). Yahweh responds by setting a mark on Cain that will dissuade people from killing him. Here the reader may get distracted by speculations about what this mark was. Was it like a tattoo, a birthmark, a scarlet M, a hideous alteration of his appearance, etc.? If that was important, we would be told enough to know what it was. It is more important what the mark means than what it was in terms of appearance. Some suppose it was a token of mercy or grace, but that is not how the story reads.

Cain’s fate was the opposite of redemption—damnation. Cain was evil and of the devil (1 John 3:2). Cain was an archetypal sinner whose story depicts alienation and the need of reconciliation. Reconciliation and redemption were denied Cain, and rather immediate death, Cain lived on in that miserable state. Yahweh did not promise to prevent his death, but to dissuade people from killing him. The mark on Cain prolonged his life of unbelief and alienation. This is confirmed in his final act in the biblical record. Rather than trusting Yahweh and believing his word, he built a city to live in (Genesis 4:17). The word for city indicates a guarded settlement. The guard could possibly have been a wall, so he lived out his life in a prison of his own making. From there the Genesis account leaves Cain and follows his descendants.

What About the Mark?

The story of Cain is an historical narrative. The Bible contains various literary genres such as prophecy, like the oracles in Isaiah, poetry, as in the Psalms, discursive instruction, like the Sermon on the Mount, and historical narrative, like the history of Cain, among others. God inspired Scripture to communicate his revelation to man and instruct in the knowledge of God and the way of truth. The different genres are different devices used to communicate that truth. So the history of Cain is for our learning and edification as well as being accurate, factual history. Cain’s history teaches us the consequences of sin and our need for redemption and reconciliation. It is clear and not some sort of riddle or code we have to scour for hidden meanings.

What was the mark of Cain? No one knows. If it was important, it would’ve been clearly communicated. What does the mark mean? It meant alienation and warns of the consequence of eternal damnation. We will all go the way of Cain except we repent and trust in Jesus Christ and be reconciled to the Creator and his creation.

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