Curse and mark of Cain

From Wikipedia:

In Christianity and Judaism, the curse of Cain and the mark of Cain refer to the Biblical passages in the Book of Genesis chapter 4, where God declared that Cain, the firstborn of Adam and Eve, was cursed, and placed a mark upon him to warn others that killing Cain would provoke the vengeance of God.

Biblical reference

The Bible refers to the curse of Cain in the fourth chapter of the Book of Genesis. This passage describes two brothers, Cain and Abel. Cain, the older, "was a tiller of the ground", while Abel "was a keeper of sheep". (Book of Genesis 4:2). Eventually, each of the brothers performed a sacrifice to God; Cain sacrificed some of his crops to God, while Abel sacrificed "of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof". (Gen. 4:4.) When God accepted Abel's offering, but not Cain's, Cain's "countenance fell",[1] and he attacked Abel and killed him in the field.[2]

When God confronted Cain about Abel's death, God cursed him, stating:

"What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth."[3]

As an act of irony, the curse by God focused strictly on neutralizing the benefits of Cain's primary skill, cultivating crops. When Cain complained that the curse was too strong, and that anyone who found him would kill him, God responded, "Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over," and God "put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him."[4]



There is no scholarly consensus as to the original meaning and significance of the curse and mark of Cain. Because the name Cain (or qayin in Hebrew, meaning spear), is identical with the name Kenite (also qayin in Hebrew), some scholars speculate that the curse of Cain may have arisen as a condemnation of the Kenites. In the Bible, however, the Kenites are generally described favorably, and may have had an important influence on the early Hebrew religion.

There is also no clear consensus as to what Cain's mark would be. 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,[5] the rainbow as the sign of the flood (Gen. 9:12), circumcision as a token of God's covenant with Abraham,[6] and the miracles performed by Moses before Pharaoh. Thus, the text of the Bible only explicitly describes how the mark was to function as a sign or warning, not what form the mark took.[citation needed]

Cain's curse and mark have been interpreted in several ways. Following the literal Biblical text, most scholars interpret the "curse" as Cain's inability to cultivate crops and the necessity that he lead a nomadic lifestyle. They interpret the "mark" as a warning to others, but are unable to determine the form of the mark from the Biblical text.[citation needed]

Historically, some Christians have interpreted the Biblical passages so that the "mark" is thought to be part of the "curse". In 18th century America and Europe, it was commonly assumed that Cain's "mark" was black skin, and that Cain's descendants were black and still under Cain's curse. Accepting the theory that God had cursed black people, racists have used the curse as a Biblical justification for racism. These racial and ethnic interpretations of the curse and the mark have been largely abandoned even by the most conservative theologians since the mid-20th century, although the theory still has some following among white supremacists and an older generation of whites, as well as a very small minority of Christian churches.[citation needed]


The Zohar, a Jewish text, states that the mark of Cain was the letter vav.[citation needed]

Early and modern Christian

According to some scholars, some early interpretations of the Bible in Syriac Christianity combined the "curse" with the "mark", and interpreted the curse of Cain as black skin.[7] Relying on rabbinic texts, it is argued, the Syriacs interpreted a passage in the Book of Genesis ("And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell") as implying that Cain underwent a permanent change in skin color.[8]

Ephrem the Syrian (306-378): “Abel was bright as the light, / but the murderer (Cain) was dark as the darkness".[9]

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".[10]

The Irish Saltair na Rann (The Versified Psalter, AD 988), records Gabriel announcing to Adam: "Dark rough senseless Cain is going to kill Abel".[11]

According to Catholic mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich, "Cain's posterity gradually became colored. Hams children also were browner than those of Shem. The nobler races were always of a lighter color. They who were distinguished by a particular mark engendered children of the same stamp; and as corruption increased, the mark also increased until at last it covered the whole body, and people became darker and darker. But yet in the beginning there were no people perfectly black; they became so only by degrees" [1].

African slave trade

The curse of Cain has been used as an explanation for the dark skin shades of people in various parts of Africa, and a justification for racism and slavery, and a ban in interracial marriage. These racial implications are closely linked to the related implications derived from the curse of Ham doctrine, which has a much longer history, and has often been combined (or some would say conflated) with the curse of Cain doctrine, as well as the "curse of Esau" doctrine.

An early American reference to the mark of Cain doctrine in the context of modern racial issues was in a poem by Phyllis Wheatley, herself a black slave, who wrote in 1773, "Remember Christians, Negroes black as Cain, May be refined and joined the angelic train".[citation needed]

Adoption by Protestant groups

The split between the Northern and Southern Baptist organizations was over slavery and education of slaves, and by the 18th century, about 40 percent of Southern Baptist preachers in South Carolina owned slaves. At the time of the split, the Southern Baptist group used the curse of Cain as justification of the practice. In fact, most 19th and early 20th century Southern Baptist congregations in the southern United States taught that there were two separate heavens; one for blacks, and one for whites.[12]

The doctrine was used to support a ban on ordaining blacks to most Protestant clergies until the 1960s in the U.S. and Europe. The Coptic, Ethiopian, Orthodox, Thomasite and the Catholic church did not recognize these interpretations and did not participate in the religious movement to support them. Certain Catholic Diocese in the Southern United States did adopt a policy of not ordaining blacks to oversee, administer sacraments to, or accept confessions from white parishioners. This policy was not based on a Curse of Cain teaching, but was justified by any possible perceptions of having slaves rule over their masters. (Dictionary of African-American Slavery)

Baptists and other denominations including Pentecostals officially taught or practiced various forms of racial segregation well into the mid-to-late-20th century, though all races were accepted to worship services after the 1970s and 1980s when many official policies were changed. In fact, it wasn't until 1995, that the Southern Baptist Convention officially renounced its "racist roots." [13] Nearly all Protestant groups in America had supported the notion that black slavery, oppression, and African colonization was the result of God's curse on people with black skin or of African descent through Cain[citation needed] or through the curse of Ham, and some churches practiced racial segregation as late as the 1990s, including Pentecostalism. Today, however, official acceptance and practice of the doctrine among Protestant organizations is limited almost exclusively to churches connected to white supremacy, such as the Aryan World Church and the New Christian Crusade Church.


In Mormonism, the racial interpretation of the curse of Cain has taken a circuitous route. Statements concerning the curse of Cain are unclear in Latter Day Saint scripture, and though the interpretation had, at one time, found general support within some Latter Day Saint denominations, all major denominations of Mormonism now officially reject it. However, the doctrine is an important element of Mormon fundamentalism, which constitutes a very small branch of the faith.

The Latter Day Saint movement was founded 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, which was even held by many abolitionists of the time. While Joseph Smith, Jr. indicated belief in the curse of Ham theory in a parenthetical reference as early as 1831 (Manuscript History 19 June 1831), the only early reference to the curse or mark of Cain was in his translation of the Bible, 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".[14]

Nevertheless, according to other parts of Smith's translation, the descendants of Cain were destroyed in the deluge.[citation needed] This has led some to understand that the black people referred to by Smith were not the same as modern African peoples.

Despite Smith's idea that the descendants of Cain did not "mix" with the descendants of Adam, one of Smith's associates later argued that Cain's descendants did indeed survive the flood via the wife of Ham, son of Noah. On February 6, 1835, Smith's associate William Wines Phelps wrote a letter theorizing that the curse of Cain might have survived the deluge by passing through the wife of Ham, son of Noah, who according to Phelps must have been a descendant of Cain. (Messenger and Advocate 1:82) In effect, Phelps was attempting to provide a rational link between the curse of Cain and the curse of Ham. There is no clear indication that Smith agreed with Phelps on this idea; in 1842, however, he did write parenthetically in his notes the following:

"In the evening debated with John C. Bennett and others to show that the Indians have greater cause to complain of the treatment of the whites, than the negroes or sons of Cain".[15]

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Main article: Blacks and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

After the death of Joseph Smith, Jr., The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the largest of several organizations claiming succession from Smith's church. Brigham Young, the church's president, clearly believed that people of African ancestry were under the curse of Cain. In 1852, he reportedly stated:

"[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...."[16]

Throughout his ministry, Young maintained his view that black skin was part of the curse of Cain, and that black people were still under that curse. On February 5, 1852, Young stated:

"What is that mark? you will see it on the countenance of every African you ever did see upon the face of the earth, or ever will see.... I tell you, this people that are commonly called negroes are the children of old Cain".[17]

On October 9, 1859, he again addressed the curse of Cain, as well as an additional curse of slavery, known as the curse of Ham, stating:

"Cain slew his brother. Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to that line of human beings. This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin. Trace mankind down to after the flood, and then another curse is pronounced upon the same race—that they should be the 'servant of servants;' and they will be, until that curse is removed; and the Abolitionists cannot help it, nor in the least alter that decree".[18]

Similar doctrine was continued by Young's successors as President of the Church, such as John Taylor, who held the same belief of Phelps that Cain's descendants survived the flood via the wife of Ham. In 1881, Taylor stated:

"And after the flood we are told that the curse that had been pronounced upon Cain was continued through Ham’s wife, as he had married of that seed. And why did it pass through the flood? Because it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God".[19]

Throughout the years, various church leaders and theologians spoke on the curse of Cain doctrine. Some of the ideas propounded in these sermons and writings included the following:

1. That Cain would not be allowed to enter God's presence, nor would he enjoy the companionship of any member of the Godhead
2. That Cain would be called Perdition and not be resurrected to a degree of glory; He would lose any chance of exaltation
3. That the earth would not "yield unto Cain her strength," (or in other words, he would be agriculturally cursed)
4. That a mark would be placed upon Cain so that others would not try to kill him
5. That this mark was "Black skin"
6. That Cain would have to live as "a vagabond" on the earth and that he would not taste of death
7. That any mixing of Cain's seed with any others (such as in interracial marriage), would pass the effects of the curse upon their descendants.
8. The denial of the priesthood and temple ordinances to Ham and his descendants (a few church leaders taught that Ham's wife was a descendant of Cain), those being of Black African descent (except in rare occasions), until after Abel's descendants had a chance to receive the gospel and hold the priesthood. No blessing would be denied these people after the resurrection, but it would be denied in this life.
9. In 1881, church president John Taylor said "And after the flood we are told that the curse that had been pronounced upon Cain was continued through Ham's wife, as he had married a wife of that seed. And why did it pass through the flood? Because it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God." (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 22 page 304).

In 1954, church leader David O. McKay taught "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."[20]

Racial Restriction Policy reversed

In 1978, the church announced a revelation from God officially renouncing its policy of excluding blacks from the priesthood.

Full Repudiation Requested

Even with urging from a number of black Mormons, there has never been an official and explicit church repudiation of the doctrine, or an admission that it was a mistake. In 1998, there was a report in the Los Angeles Times that the church leadership was considering an official repudiation of the curse of Cain and curse of Ham doctrines, to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1978 revelation. (Larry B. Stammer, "Mormons May Disavow Old View on Blacks", L.A. Times, May 18, 1998, p. A1). This, however, was quickly denied by the LDS spokesman Don LeFevre. (ABC News report, May 18, 1998). The Times later suggested that the publicity generated by its article may have caused the church to put an official disavowal on hold.[21]

Apostle Bruce R. McConkie stated:

"There are statements in our literature by the early Brethren that we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things, and people write me letters and say, "You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?" All I can say is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or George Q. Cannon or whoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. It doesn't make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them. We now do what meridian Israel did when the Lord said the gospel should go to the Gentiles. We forget all the statements that limited the gospel to the house of Israel, and we start going to the Gentiles".[22]

Modern opinion on racial interpretations

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a Christian backlash arose against use of the curse of Cain doctrine in racial politics, with the primary Christian denominations flatly rejecting it. Most Christians also point to Biblical references which refute the doctrine, including a reference in the Book of Numbers:

"And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman. 9 And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them; and he departed. 10 And the cloud departed from off the tabernacle; and, behold, Miriam became leprous, white as snow: and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous".[23]

Other Christian arguments include the following:

1. That the passage in Genesis relating to Cain makes no mention of the effects on his descendants.
2. That the effect of parts of the curse on the land could have only applied to Cain - and not blacks - who historically, were unaffected (like all other surviving people) in their ability to cultivate land. If this interpretation held true, then 19th Century Americans would not have enslaved them to do agricultural work in the United States.
3. That Moses' wife Tzipporah, Job, Queen of Sheba, Ebed-Melech, Tirharkah, and the Ethiopian Treasurer of Queen Candace, Hagar, Egyptians, and other black people in the Bible were not mentioned as being partakers of the curse. Had the curse affected Black people, at least one instance of it would have been mentioned in the Bible in that context to these people.
4. That Christianity and the Bible was founded 2000 years ago, and early documents do not make any references to blacks being cursed, and no manuscripts have been found in the middle east by Christian leaders of those periods that support the exclusion or prejudice against Blacks, Ethiopians (Greek word for Black) or Kushites (Hebrew word for Black).
5. That the racist interpretations of scripture did not exist before European colonization. These interpretations were likely introduced by ethnocentric ideologies that were codified into the Western mindset. This ideology adversely influenced the Protestant reformation and enlightenment period.
6. That objectively making the idea of a Cain's mark into a change of skin color would require Biblical passages to equate the two, however, in the Book of Jeremiah 13:23, there is a distinction made between skin color and marks on the skin, which all but refutes the idea that Cain's mark was Black skin: ("Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?").
7. That one effect of the curse was for Cain to struggle agriculturally, to be "driven" from the face of the Lord and that Cain would not settle in any specific locale. For Canaan's curse it was to serve the people of Shem's line. Making the curse a racially-based issue ignored the primary issues of the curse and was used to justify black servitude to whites. The doctrine became part of the institution of slavery and reasoning of many racist white Christian institutions in the West.

Modern Baptist exegesis

Some Baptist denominations deny that Cain was cursed by God, but rather Cain brought the cursing on himself. "God does not say, 'Now I curse you.' He simply states the truth, 'Now you are cursed'".[2] In this way, Cain's aggression was the curse, and the outcome was the death of Abel. Because of continued problems with anger and aggression, the curse was handed down to Cain's posterity and even to Lamech who killed similarly to Cain.

In the same way, the teaching goes that Born Again believers are often cursed because of some of their struggles or sins, and should work to overcome them, or they will be passed on to their children or descendants. If they do so, their curses will not be promulgated to their posterity.