Cain and Abel #13
In Gen 4:15 God accepts Cain’s concern for his own safety. He provides Cain with a sign, a protection no other man has ever received. This sign not only voids Cain’s ‘punishment’, it also ensures that Cain’s future would turn out to be better than the farming life he was leaving behind.
What is that Ot (אוֹת) that God gave to Cain?
In Hebrew the word Ot (אוֹת) can mean one of two things. The first is a tangible symbol to remind or illustrate something abstract. For instance, in Genesis 9:12 God says to Noah:
אֶת-קַשְׁתִּי, נָתַתִּי בֶּעָנָן; וְהָיְתָה לְאוֹת בְּרִית, בֵּינִי וּבֵין הָאָרֶץ
I create my rainbow in the cloud, to be a symbol of the covenant between me and the earth
In this regards, a symbol can be anything from a rainbow in the sky to the emblems on the flags of the tribes of Israel. Circumcision, too, is an Ot for the connection between God and the people of Israel. In later Hebrew, the word was modified to describe the characters of the alphabet.
This interpretation gave rise to the many stories and legends about the Mark of Cain, as a physical mark, a letter tattooed onto his body. Unfortunately, for long time the Baptist church had claimed that Cain’s mark was dark skin colour. This was their way to justify their support of the un-Christian practice of slavery.
The other meaning of the word Ot (אוֹת) is something magical, a supernatural power. For instance, in Exodus 4:17 God instruct Moses to use the rod to do the magic in front of king Pharaoh:
וְאֶת הַמַּטֶּה הַזֶּה תִּקַּח בְּיָדֶךָ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה בּוֹ אֶת הָאֹתֹת
And in your hand, you shall take this rod with which you will do the magic
Among those who believe that this is the right meaning, some feel that this supernatural power protects Cain not only from other people but also from anything else that can harm him. That is, if nothing can harm Cain, they claim, he must still be alive today.
While you may dismiss this interpretation as making no-sense, we must never forget that each interpretation has its reasons, and what makes no sense to one makes perfect sense to another. Just remember how many interpretations there are to the question why God kept Cain alive and why He would make Cain’s life better after he killed Abel. Can we be sure that our interpretation is the right one? Can we be sure it is the ONLY right one?
In this blog, as we often mention, we do not choose one interpretation over another. We only check that it is consistent with the text. As long as an interpretation is consistent with the text, let’s respect it. After all, as humans, if we read the Bible with the arrogance that we fully understand it, we have not understood it at all.
For the full text in both Hebrew and English see: https://mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0104.htm
[…] it would be a different name for the city of Jericho). But there is no doubt that Cain, with the mark of Cain as a protection, is becoming rich and influential, and as we will see in the next post, his […]
You managed again to highlight very different kinds of considerations in one extremely interesting article. How could religions exploit a verse in such a horrible, contemptuous way? The Bible is not telling us in what way the ‘Ot’ was visible, if at all. But 1.: Cain was clearly protected by… Read more »
Thank you Eleonora for another excellent, yet challenging, question. The truth is that I do not have an answer, as you are asking not about the Bible but rather why people chose to interpret it the way they do. As you must have figured out already, I believe that ambiguity… Read more »