Mark of Cain & Capital Punishment

Quick Notes for Monday, December 29 (’14)

Post-it-NotesThese posts that we’re doing on Mondays are just meant to be short exegetical observations or insights, usually geared toward getting us to see passages in an unfamiliar or new light. That’s why we have cleverly named this category “Quick Notes.” Sometimes there will be a couple of different notes in one post, as today. So, two suggestions I want to make: What was the famous “Mark of Cain” in Genesis 4, and what is the logic behind the ordinance of capital punishment given after the flood in Genesis 9?

What was the mark of Cain?

Cain kills Abel his brother, and God calls him out for it and exiles Cain from the land. Cain complains that the punishment is too severe, and insists that anyone who finds him will kill him. God replies in Genesis 4:15, “‘Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.'” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him.”

This “mark” is often seen as a mystery, like Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” While it’s probably not that important that we know exactly what it was, people do wonder. In his commentary on Genesis, Gordan Wenham says, “The nature of Cain’s sign or mark has been the subject of endless inconclusive speculation.” Since the sign is meant to deter people who might attack Cain, the majority of writers have concluded “that the mark of Cain must be something about him that shows he has divine protection, e.g., a tattoo, special hairstyle, or the like.” Wenham admits that there is little evidence for any of the suggestions, but thinks the “simplest” is the idea that Cain’s name is itself the sign, since it “sounds somewhat like” the Hebrew verb “shall be punished” (“yuqqam”). However, the explanation of Cain’s name was given already at the beginning of chapter 4, and there’s no hint in 4:15 that the sign has anything to do with it. Besides, the mark/sign appears to be something that comes into play at this particular point in time. Bruce Waltke, in his commentary, no reason offered, asserts that “This is apparently a protective tattoo.” John Calvin is characteristically more restrained and simply says: “It may suffice for us, that there was some visible token which should repress in the spectators the desire and the audacity to inflict injury.”

A suggestion I have not seen, but which seems to me fairly obvious, is that the “mark” was astral—a sign in the heavens. “Mark” here is the Hebrew word for “sign”—and the sun and moon and stars were specifically given the function in Genesis 1 of being for “signs” (same Hebrew word). If we had beenBlue_Stars_Wallpaper_sgltx reading from the beginning of Genesis (in Hebrew), when we get to Cain and the “sign” God appoints for him, we would immediately think of the sign-makers: the sun, moon, and stars. If you object that the sign was set “on” Cain, I would point out that the Hebrew preposition there is lamed (a single letter), which is a preposition that means, broadly speaking, “with reference to.” In fact, if the mark was actually physically on Cain’s body, the most appropriate preposition would be bet (also a single letter). So there you go, God sets or appoints a sign for, or about, Cain, so that no one who finds him would kill him. And a sign appears in the heavens—the first of many that will be appear in subsequent biblical history.

Why Should Man’s Blood Be Shed By Man?

After the flood, when Noah’s family disembarks from the boat, God reaffirms his creation mandate for them to be fruitful and multiply. He sets man (again) in authority over the lower created order. But at this point the Lord goes a step further than in the original creation story. To the blessings, he adds the directive (Genesis 9:5-6):

“And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.

Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.”

This verse is generally recognized to warrant, or require, capital punishment. It is also often seen as giving the reason why murder is so terrible: because the one murdered is made in God’s image. In the couple of commentaries I checked, the mention of God’s image in v. 6 is assumed to be made for this reason, to underscore the severity of the crime.

StarkBut what if the explanation (“for God made man in his own image“) explains the second clause rather than the first? That is, what if man being the image of God is not mentioned here to highlight the atrociousness of murder, but to explain why man has the authority to execute such severe judgment? Because man is the image of God, meant to exercise wise and just rule in the world, he may shed the blood of any man who so violates the moral order of the world through murder and other such crimes. “By man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” I think this makes better sense of the passage.

After all, when man is originally created, “the image of God” is connected explicitly with man’s dominion over creation (Genesis 1:26-28), and the Fall narrative is very much about Adam and Eve’s failure in that regard—the failure to exercise their lordship over the serpent and judge him as a wicked intruder into God’s sanctuary. After murdering Abel, Cain was protected by God from retribution. Maybe it was because man hadn’t reached the point of maturity yet to perform capital punishment. With the re-creation at the time of the flood, man was now being given that authority—a fuller exercise of the Image of God in which he was made.


5 thoughts on “Mark of Cain & Capital Punishment

  1. Good stuff. James Jordan makes the point about Noah being given the “flaming” sword because he was “judicially mature”, unlike Adam, able to judge between good and evil, which he does concerning Ham. A new “Physical” Covenant (with “all flesh”) was made, but that left the world open to another flood judgment, so circumcision set up a microcosmic substitute in Abraham – a Social “land and sea” copping the judgment instead of the physical ones. It makes sense that the final vengeance of all the blood shed since Abel meant the destruction of both circumcision and the Temple, the Jew-Gentile divide. Baptism makes every believer a Noah.

    I really like your point about the mark upon Cain being (or being related to) a sign in the heavens. Abel and Cain were the “grandchildren” of the heavens and the earth, with Abel being a heavenly cloud or mist, and Cain being a smith who works from the earth. A heavenly sign upon the earthy man is interesting. There were heavenly signs during the life of Christ, and also before the destruction of the Temple.


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