The mark of Cain refers to the sign or mark that God put on Cain in Genesis 4:15. The speculations amongst Biblical scholars on what this mark was are endless.
What is the mark of Cain?
Does the Bible give us an answer to this question?
What are the lessons for us to learn?
I will briefly touch on these questions and provide relevant references for further study for those who want to go deeper.
Mark of Cain: The Background
The Biblical account comes from Genesis 4:17
And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him ( KJV)
Adam and Eve had just been driven from the Garden of Eden after the fall. Their two sons Cain and Abel went to offer sacrifices to God and God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but rejected Cain’s. Well, Cain was so furious that he committed the first murder in human history. He killed his brother Abel and God pronounced his judgment, just as He had done to his parents Adam and Eve. However, unlike his parents, Cain objected that his punishment was too much for him!
And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear (Genesis 4:13, KJV)
He goes further and states one of his concerns regarding his punishment:
“Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me (Genesis 4:14, KJV)
He was concerned that people will murder him if they find him. This is key to understanding this strange mark for it is in response to this concern that God put a mark on Cain so that “no one who finds him would kill him”( Gen. 4:15, NIV).
God put a sign on him. What what was this sign?
What is the Mark of Cain?
The big question is this: What exactly what this mark put on Cain? Of all the commentaries I have read, the ESV Study Bible notes gave a concise and helpful summary that succinctly answers this question.
“ In spite of much scholarly speculation, the precise nature of the mark is uncertain. It must have been something visible, but that is all that can be said”.(1)
C. Westermann in the classic Continental commentary series says it best
“I agree with those scholars who refuse to give any answer to this question…We must acknowledge that even the narrator himself had no definite idea of the form of the sign” (2)
This select quotations from Scholarly works give us the best foundation for ourunderstanding what the Mark of Cain was. We do not have enough information in the scripture to tell us what it was. We will do very well to stay within the limits of what the Bible wants us to know rather than venture unfounded speculations and sometimes unbridled imaginations!
The scripture is silent regarding the exact nature of the mark but still has a lot to tell us about this mark such as the purpose of the mark and some clues as to what it could be.
Mark of Cain : It was a visible sign
One thing we know is that the Mark of Cain was a visible sign.
The Hebrew word for “mark” here literally means “sign”, which could be used in different ways. Though we are uncertain what the exact nature of this sign was, we do know it must have been something external and visible, and most likely “something attaching to his person” (6).
Was it an external sign that confirmed God’s pledge to Cain to protect him? Think about the Rainbow after the flood, which was also an externally visible sign to Noah and others that God will no longer destroy the earth with a flood. Some commentators such as E. W Bullinger in his excellent Companion Bible Study notes thinks this sign meant God gave Cain a pledge(4). R. Jamieson et al in their Critical and Explanatory commentary on the whole Bible also shares a similar view that the mark was “some sign or token of assurance that his life would be preserved” (9).
N.M. Sarna in “ Genesis” points out, “ It is also possible, though less likely, that the “sign” consists of some occurrence that serves to authenticate the divine promise as being inviolable (5)
The word “mark” is a better choice than “sign”, mainly to better convey the message. The NET Bible notes state, the word “sign” to a present-day reader might imply that God “hung a sign on Cain” (3). Think about the way we use “signs” today, for example, road signs.
Mark of Cain: a tattoo? A dog?
I cannot wrap up this article without a word or two on the different propositions to suggest what this mark was. Here are a few examples. You will be fascinated at the imaginative speculations of some Biblical scholars! ( 2, 8, 9)
Here was some of the
1. A tattoo or incision on his face or forehead
This is the most common form. If this mark was a physical bodily sign, it might have been this, but we just do not know(7).
2. A different way of arranging his hair
4. God gave Cain a dog as his companion! This was the most fascinating to me, from a Jewish Rabbi!
5. Trembling of his body
6. “Ghastliness of his countenance”
7. “A wild ferocity of aspect that rendered him an object of universal horror and avoidance”
Was the Mark of Cain Supernatural?
The vast majority agree that this mark was some visible physical sign. However, the mark itself was supernaturally given!
It was a physical mark given supernaturally. Let us assume for a second that this mark was some scar on his forehead(I guess you know by now that we do not know what this is!). Think about how such a scar would been given. It could be compared to the Leprosy that came upon Miriam when they challenged Moses ( Num. 12:10). She suddenly became white as snow. The skin changes were a physical sign that were brought about supernaturally. Imagine the looks on the faces of those who were watching Miriam’s skin change before their eyes!
The point here to to understand how physical changes can be brought about by supernatural means. In other words, it was some kind of a miracle! It was a physical mark, but it was supernatural!
Mark of Cain or Mankind?
Some scholars have suggested that this mark was not just an issue for Cain alone as an individual but for a whole community or even the entire humankind. This is not so popular as “ the context points to an individual mark and not a mark for a group of people or the entire human race.
Mark of Cain: Protection or Authentication
What was the purpose or function of this mark?
There are two major views here. A minority have suggested that it was for authentication. Was God putting this mark to prove something about Cain? Think of how God gives us the Holy Spirit today as a token of authentication, proving that we belong to Him. Though the context is entirely different, at least you get the idea of authentication.
The story does not support the idea that this mark was given to authenticate anything about Cain.
As the Continental commentary series puts it, “the context shows clearly that the mark can only be meant as a protecting mark” (2).
I do not think there is much to be said about this, as the evidence overwhelmingly shows that the mark was to protect Cain and not authenticate anything. However, that protection was from God, so in some way, God was the pledging to protect him.
The mark was neither a stigma on Cain to draw attention to the first man who murdered another man and earned for himself a terrible curse from God!
Any Lessons for Us Today?
The fact that God did not tell us the exact nature of the Mark of Cain does not mean there are no truths or lessons from this verse to bless us today. Let me list a few things we can learn from this discussion
1. God, in His infinite wisdom, has chosen not to reveal a few things to us in the scriptures. An example is this mark of Cain. This is by no means a significant omission. If you know the LORD, you can be sure that this is never a possibility in the depths of His wisdom. Scriptures were written by men but the real Author was the Holy Spirit. It is plain wrong to imagine that Moses forgot to mention this or he just missed a few important points.
2. Speculating on what God has withheld is one of the biggest errors in biblical exegesis I have noted in studying the scripture. The error is most pronounced in the area of prophecy. The LORD has put in the scriptures what is important for us to know. Trying to reveal the unrevealed is a pit we must jump over and not fall into it. This naturally leads to the third.
3. It is not a sin to acknowledge gaps in our knowledge of the Word. I sometimes feel Theologians should be reminded that it is not a sin to acknowledge there are things we do not know in the scriptures. It is not a spiritual crime to say “ I don’t know”. We must not explain everything and an attempt to explain the unrevealed is a sure step to an error in our knowledge of the Word.
4. Our God is merciful
God punishes Cain for his sin and Cain did not show any remorse neither did he even ask for forgiveness. The scriptures do not give us any account of Adam with his wife Eve and Cain ever telling God they were sorry for their sin. However, God extended mercy to them. He designed some clothes for Adam and Eve and also extended mercy to give Cain a sign of protection despite their sin. Our first fathers were having a small foretaste of the fullness of the grace we have in Christ today.
Hope this brief article helps shed some light on this topic. You can check out similar articles below, our Glory & Grace Daily devotional for today, leave a comment below or send me an email using the ” Contact ” form above!
1. Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 58). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
2. Westermann, C. (1994). A Continental Commentary: Genesis 1–11 (p. 314). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
3. Biblical Studies Press. (2006). The NET Bible First Edition Notes (Ge 4:15). Biblical Studies Press.
(4)Bullinger, E. W. (2018). The Companion Bible: Being the Authorized Version of 1611 with the Structures and Notes, Critical, Explanatory and Suggestive and with 198 Appendixes (Vol. 1, p. 9). Bellingham, WA: Faithlife.
5. Sarna, N. M. (1989). Genesis (p. 35). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
6. Driver, S. R. (1904). The Book of Genesis, with Introduction and Notes (p. 67). New York; London: Edwin S. Gorham; Methuen & Co.
(7) Ross, A., & Oswalt, J. N. (2008). Cornerstone biblical commentary: Genesis, Exodus (Vol. 1, p. 59). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.
8. Poole, M. (1853). Annotations upon the Holy Bible (Vol. 1, p. 14). New York: Robert Carter and Brothers.
9. Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 1, p. 20). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.