R. C. SmithEssays

The Mark of Cain

Of course, it is just a story. None of the protagonists are real, in the sense that they have ever lived and died, or live eternally. But it is a story that everybody feels they know, and a story that has given rise to a commonly used expression, or portentous metapher. And almost always it is used wrongly, in direct opposition to its true meaning. This persistent misconception baffles me, because everybody can look it up, it’s just a few lines of text in one of the world’s allegedly most read books, clear and easy enough to understand. This doesn’t bode well for humanitiy’s powers of properly understanding more complex issues, I’m afraid …

But, this is about the story of Cain, and the mark.

Here is an example – Verdi, Macbeth:

Banquo:

King Duncan has been murdered!

All:

(…) God, you can look into our hearts,

aid us, we trust in you alone.

We look to you for light and counsel

to tear through the veil of darkness.

Deadly castigator let your formidable,

ready anger take the villain

and mark his head as you marked

that of the first murderer.

Not so at all, All. Here is the true tale of the mark (Genesis, King James version):

And the LORD said unto Cain, (…) What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand; when thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.

And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.

And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden. And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch.

Not a punishment, that mark, not a stigma, but a passport, a safeguard for the fugitive. Interestingly, neither God nor Cain, both knowing human nature, doubt that protection is needed for a fugitive, a vagabond, a stranger. But by His mark God doesn’t castigate or ostracize the sinner, He enables him to safely settle and live in human society. Get it?

(Of course, Himself being no stranger to murderous fits of anger, God may tend to deal more leniently with this particular sin than with others …)

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