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The curse of Cain and the mark of Cain are phrases that originated from Genesis 4, where God declared that Cain (the firstborn son of Adam and Eve) be cursed for murdering his brother Abel. A mark was put upon him to warn others that killing Cain would provoke the vengeance of God, that if someone did something to harm Cain, the damage would come back sevenfold. Some interpretations view this as a physical mark, whereas other see the "mark" as a sign, and not as a physical marking on Cain himself. The King James Version reads, "...set a mark upon Cain...", the New American Standard reads, "... appointed a sign for Cain ..."
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).
There is no clear consensus as to what Cain's mark refers to. 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).
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. 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". Genesis 4:12 gives a two part sentencing for Cain's curse. The first concerns the earth that was cursed by Abel's blood. 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, namely the City of Enoch. 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. 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"). Syriac Christianity interprets the Greek version as Cain experiencing a real physical affliction 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".
The Hebrew word for mark ('Oth, אות) could mean a sign, omen, warning, or remembrance. 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. Some have speculated that the mark is a Hebrew letter placed on either the face or the arm. 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.
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).
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.
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.
In Syriac Christianity, early exegesis of the "curse" and the "mark", associated the curse of Cain with black skin. Some argue that this may have originated from rabbinic texts, which interpreted a passage in the Book of Genesis (Gen. 4:5: "And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell") as suggesting that Cain underwent a permanent change in skin color.
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".
The split between the Northern and Southern Baptist organizations arose over 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. 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. In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention officially denounced racism and apologized for its past defense of slavery.
The curse of Cain was used to support a ban on ordaining blacks to most Protestant clergies until the 1960s in both the U.S. and Europe. The majority of Christian Churches in the world, the ancient churches, 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 did adopt 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.
Like many Americans of the era, Mormons of the 19th century commonly assumed that Cain's "mark" was black skin, and that Cain's descendants were black and still under Cain's mark. 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, which was even held by many abolitionists of the time. This belief seemed to be confirmed by a scriptural passage in the Book of Abraham which suggested that Cain's bloodline was preserved on the ark through Egyptus (wife of Ham), an interpretation now rejected by the LDS Church. While Joseph Smith indicated his belief in the curse of Ham theory in a parenthetical reference as early as 1831, the only early reference to the curse or mark of Cain was in the Joseph Smith 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."
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, 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. 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 a being 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."
In 1978, LDS Church president Spencer W. Kimball reported receiving a revelation from God allowing all worthy male members (including those of black African descent) of the Church to receive the priesthood. 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.
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." Many Black Mormons say that they are willing to look beyond the former racist teachings and cleave to the church in part because of its powerful, detailed teachings on life after death.
The LDS Church issued an official statement about past racist practices and theories, 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."
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