"Mark of Cain" and "Curse of Ham"

I know the two title biblical afflictions have been intrepreted (and are still intrepreted) by some racist folk as the dark skin of sub-Saharan Africans. I was wondering if the people who have argued this theory, more in the past when it seemed their was more popular support, ever tied it to other darker-skinned (comparative to Europeans) peoples, like Indians, Native Americans, and Australian Aborigines? From what I’ve read, a lot of the popular support in the U.S. came when trying to defend the treatment of black people during slavery and Jim Crow. Was it used similarly in other places (including Apartheid-era South Africa)?

Cecil did a couple of columns about the curse of Ham.


When I was a mere Nottlet, our babysitter was a sweet little old lady from Mississippi. Sweet, but a racist. She told me that black people were descendants of Cain. She said God put a mark, a curse upon Cain, “and that’s why they’re dark.” I was just a kid, but I looked it up in the Bible. What I read seemed to be not a curse, but a protection on Cain and his descendants. That’s how it seemed to a kid reading the RSV. I thought it was a little strange to be granting protection for a guy who had just offed his own brother. Quirky Guy, that God. But, hey, if I understood God, I’d be a god myself. :cool:

Pretty soon, an actual Old Testament scholar will drop by and confirm that our babysitter, the late Lillian Gibbs, was jampacked with organic fertilizer.

Oops. I meant to say Straight Dope Science Advisor CK Dexter Haven did a couple of columns on Noah and Ham.

All props to Dex.

Actually, the Mark of Cain is a display of God’s mercy.

In Genesis 4:12, the Lord proclaimed judgement over Cain’s murder of Abel. The punishment is basically this:

That’s from Gensis 4:11-12

Cain then said, “This is too much for me to bear. Anyone who finds me would kill me.”

Then God says,

The Mark of Cain is protection, but at the same times also brands Cain as a murderer. From one’s point of view, it seems to be an indication of God’s mercy. If the mark is visible (I have no idea if it is or not), then it kind of cruel too.

Beyond everything else wrong with that thinking…I’ve always wondered, what’s this about decendents of Cain? God killed off everybody in the whole world, except Noah and his family, who were decendents of Seth. There wouldn’t be any decendencts of Cain around. Seem to me if you’re going to base you understanding of the world on a fairytale you could at least get the fairytale straight.

In fact there is no indication in the Book of Genesis what the “Mark of Cain” was, and the situation is only worsened by the popularity of the phrase “Mark of Cain.”

The Vulgate Latin can be translated in two ways: “the Lord placed a sign on Cain” or “the Lord made Cain [as] a sign.”

That’s all the solid information we have (and it’s not very informative). Everything else is mere speculation. A determining factor in later interpretations was whether Cain was thought to have repented sincerely or not. Those who believed he repented understood the “sign” to be protection, awarded by a forgiving God. Those who believed he was not repentent believed the “sign” was a physical deformity or a warning to others.

The idea that Cain’s punishment was black skin was first mentioned in an ancient Jewish commentary, the Rabbah, but only really became a popular view in Medieval times. Mormonism abandoned the theory in the late 1970s.

Except that Cain’s descendents are traced to one Lamech, who had two wives, three sons, and a daughter Naamah (unusual for the patriarchal Biblical authors to mention the name of a daughter). Noah’s wife’s name is never given; some Biblical scholars think that the point of the Cain lineage (which is an almost perfect doublet of the Seth lineage) was to lead to Naamah, who in their hypothesis was Noah’s wife, carrying the Cain lineage on past the Flood.

Ya know, I’ve been wondering…

What possible mark could one put on somebody, such that NObody who met them would want to kill them?

Couldn’t be writing. Not everybody can read. “Don’t Kill Me, Please” tattooed on the forehead is right out.

Besides, I think that would tend to make people want to kill the wearer.

A smiley face? A peace sign? Something that would cross all cultural divides… something that screams “don’t kill me”…

It’s not black skin. Lots of people kill black people specifically for that reason. Also the other way around, so it’s not white skin. Yellow skin? Nope, people kill people regardless of their skin color.

Maybe green? Gray? I know I’d think twice before offing a member of the BlueManGroup… but that’s really more for their music, which is actually pretty good.

Leprosy, perhaps? Alms for a poor (ex)leper? Maybe god was going for the pity vote.

Rosacia? Again, what form would it take?

A big red “S” and some tights, perhaps?
Maybe something like this: http://images.amazon.com/images/P/B0006SSP9O.01.LZZZZZZZ.jpg?

Well, according to the Midrash Rabbah (Bereshith XXII:12), opinions varied from the Lord making the sun shine particularly on Cain, to him becoming a leper, to God giving him a dog! Others said he grew a horn, though we’re not told whether this was on his head.

The thing is that placing marks on criminals was very common practice for thousands of years. Branding cattle and humans has always been seen a useful way to tell groups apart. Hitler did the same to the Jews, today people do it to themselves.

In the end asking which mark Cain bore is like asking exactly what style of beard Santa Claus wore.

Well…okay. But first of all, as noted, Lamech is mentioned as being both the decendent of Cain and of Seth. (And, in the first case, as being the father of Naameh and in the second the father of Noah which if there’s a connection, would make them brother a sister.) And of course there’s no mention that Naamah was his wife, but if she was…well, then we’re all decendents of her as well as Noah and would all have the Mark (or is the Mark gene ressessive :wink: ?)

Of course that also rasies the question of why god would wipe out the whole earth for wickedness but carefull preseve a specimin of the Bad Seed.

And while we’re at it, where did Cain’s wife come from?

Allowing a branch of Cain’s family to survive the flood in some mysterious way allowed theologians to explain how “undesirables” (including some mythical half-humans) could possibly exist. The Mormons used this explanation without offering a complete theory and so did many others through history.

However, other scholars developed the notion that black people were the progeny of some pre-Adamite race. There was never any attempt to reconcile these ideas with the all-drowning deluge.

Two different Lamechs. (You’ll find that there are a over half a dozen identical or extremely similar doublet names, like Methuselah/Methushael and Jared/Irad in the two genealogies.

As for “preserving the bad seed,” I’m not enough of an expert on the ways in which Jewish people viewed judgment relative to kinship, nor on the whole Naamah hypothesis, to formulate an opinion. Fortunately we have a few scholarly Jews on the board, who may perhaps enlighten us.

A Van Dyke. Geez, ask a hard one! :smiley:

Something that struck me strange, and I couldn’t find an answer to, is Lamech a desecendant of Seth or Cain?

Confuses me too, but Polycarp seems to be saying there are two of them, one decendent of Cain who was the father of Naamah and one who was the decendent of Seth and the father of Noah. (You would think, with the Earth only hundereds of years old and so few people about, they could come up with a few more different names!..but I digress.)

I also don’t understand the Naamah hypothesis…I don’t se anywhere it suggests that she was Noah’s wife. But beyond that, I’m taking up the issue not as one of Jewish scholorship but in relation to the virulent idea that some people are in fact “bad seeds” because of some tie to that naughty Cain. That is, againt Asknott’s babysitter (howerver sweet she might be :)) not against the prevailing scholarly thought on the subject.