What Is the Mark of Cain?

God branded the Bible's first murderer with a mysterious mark

1885 Painting of Cain
Cain, 1885. National Gallery, Prague. Heritage Images / Getty Images

The mark of Cain is one of the Bible’s earliest mysteries, a strange incident people have wondered about for centuries.

Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, killed his brother Abel in a fit of jealous rage. Humanity’s first homicide is recorded in chapter 4 of Genesis, but no details are given in Scripture as to how the murder was committed. Cain’s motive seemed to have been that God was pleased with Abel’s sacrificial offering but rejected Cain’s. In Hebrews 11:4, we get the hint that Cain’s attitude ruined his sacrifice.

After Cain’s crime was exposed, God imposed a sentence:

"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." (Genesis 4:11-12, NIV)

The curse was twofold: No longer could Cain be a farmer because the soil would not produce for him, and he was also driven from the face of God.

Why God Marked Cain

Cain complained that his punishment was too harsh. He knew others would fear and loathe him, and probably try to kill him to get his curse out of their midst. God chose an unusual way to protect Cain:

"But the Lord said to him, 'Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.' Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him." (Genesis 4:15, NIV)

Although Genesis does not spell it out, the other people Cain feared would have been his own siblings. While Cain was Adam and Eve’s oldest son, we are not told how many other children they had in the time between Cain’s birth and Abel’s slaying.

Later, Genesis says Cain took a wife. We can only conclude she must have been a sister or niece. Such intermarriages were banned in Leviticus, but at the time Adam’s descendants were populating the earth, they were necessary.

After God marked him, Cain went to the land of Nod, which is a wordplay on the Hebrew word "nad," which means "wandering." Since Nod is never mentioned again in the Bible, it is possible this may have meant Cain became a lifelong nomad. He did build a city and named it after his son, Enoch.

What Was the Mark of Cain?

The Bible is purposely vague about the nature of the mark of Cain, causing readers to guess what it may have been. Theories have included such things as a horn, a scar, tattoo, leprosy, or even dark skin.

We can be sure of these things:

  • The mark was indelible and probably on his face where it could not be covered.
  • It was instantly understandable to people who may have been illiterate.
  • The mark would have struck fear into people, whether they worshipped God or not.

Even though the mark has been debated through the ages, it is not the point of the story. We are to focus instead on the seriousness of Cain’s sin and God’s mercy in letting him live. Further, although Abel was also the brother of Cain’s other siblings, Abel’s survivors were not to retaliate and take the law into their own hands. Courts had not been established yet. God was the judge.

Bible scholars point out that Cain’s genealogy listed in the Bible is short. We do not know whether some of Cain’s descendants were ancestors of Noah or his sons’ wives, but it does seem that Cain’s curse was not passed on to later generations.

Other Marks In the Bible

Another marking takes place in the book of the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 9. God sent an angel to mark the foreheads of the faithful in Jerusalem. The mark was a "tau," the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in the shape of a cross. Then God sent six executioner angels to slay all people who did not have the mark.

Cyprian (210-258 A.D.), bishop of Carthage, said the mark represented the sacrifice of Christ, and all who were found in it at death would be saved. It was reminiscent of the lamb’s blood the Israelites used to mark their doorposts in Egypt so the angel of death would pass over their houses.

Yet another mark in the Bible has been hotly debated: the mark of the beast, mentioned in the book of Revelation. The sign of the Antichrist, this mark restricts who can buy or sell. Recent theories say it will be some sort of scanning code or embedded microchip.

Without doubt, the most famous marks mentioned in Scripture were those made on Jesus Christ during his crucifixion. After the resurrection, in which Christ received his glorified body, all the injuries he received in his scourging and death on the cross were healed, except for the scars on his hands, feet, and in his side, where a Roman spear pierced his heart.

The mark of Cain was put on a sinner by God. The marks on Jesus were put on God by sinners. The mark of Cain was to protect a sinner from the wrath of men. The marks on Jesus were to protect sinners from the wrath of God.

Cain’s mark was a warning that God punishes sin. Jesus’ marks are a reminder that through Christ, God forgives sin and restores people to a right relationship with him.

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