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Absurdity of Protecting Cain When No One Else Exists

According to the Genesis story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, God placed a mark on Cain to protect him from the vengeance of others. Cain had murdered his brother and as punishment God cursed him to banishment and eternal wandering. Genesis had already established, however, that only four people had ever existed at this time and one was now dead, leaving just three. So who was Cain worried about slaying him?

Against whom was God's mark supposed to protect him?


God's Judgment Against Cain

Although the story of Cain and Abel is one of the best known in the bible, it's actually quite short. Here is the portion dealing with Cain's punishment:
And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand; When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.

And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear. 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.

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. [Genesis 4:11-15]

The fact that Cain asked for and was given protection from people who shouldn't have existed is not exactly a subtle problem and it has long been obvious.

Many have tried to produce explanations, but few of those explanations have been very compelling — including the more scholarly ones. Sir James Frazer, for example, wrote:
"Thus adorned, the first Mr Smith - for Cain means Smith - may have paraded the waste places of the earth without the least fear of being recognized and molested by his victim's ghost. This explanation of the mark of Cain has the advantage of relieving the Biblical narrative from a manifest absurdity.

For on the usual interpretation God affixed the mark to Cain in order to save him from human assailants, apparently forgetting that there was nobody to assail him, since the earth was as yet inhabited only by the murderer and his parents. Hence by assuming that the foe of whom the first murderer went in fear was a ghost instead of a living man, we avoid the irreverence of imputing to the deity a grave lapse of memory little in keeping with the divine omniscience."

Other scholars have offered slightly more plausible ideas. All generally agree that the story can't be treated as literal history. Most also agree that the brevity of the story indicates that we are missing a great deal of info which would probably help it make better sense. The editor who pieced together the ancient legends probably combined multiple stories, leaving out details that didn't fit with their theological agenda but which might have eliminated the obvious absurdity.

Among those details would probably be the fact that stories from different times have been stitched together and so the story of Cain and Abel isn't supposed to occur immediately after Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden. Perhaps similar names allowed this to be done; perhaps names were changed to make things fit.

Beyond this, though, the details of scholarly explanations differ quite a bit. A number have argued that the story of Abel's murder may be a metaphor for ritual fertility sacrifices (noting, for example, that he was killed in a field). In this context, Cain's flight was part of the ritual, which often involved the person making the sacrifice having to leave the community briefly because of being made unclean, only being allowed to return after purification.


The Mark of Cain and Christian Racism

Because most Christians over the past couple of centuries have been unwilling to treat the Bible as anything other than literal history, other explanations have developed which were more appealing to the general public. The most common tended to use the story as a justification for racism. There are several versions of this sort of explanation, each focusing on different details of the story.

Some have argued that non-white, sub-human creatures existed outside the circle of Adam's white family and Cain needed protection from them — though he would go on to marry into them, creating a new hybrid race of humans sometimes associated with Jews. Others have argued that the "mark" put on Cain was color itself, making Cain the first black man who was from the start marked as untrustworthy and inferior to whites (this was popularized widely by Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism).

The most extreme ideas have been propagated by the Christian Identity movement. According to them, Cain was created when Satan or a demon (usually identified with the serpent) mated with Eve in the Garden of Eden. Cain was thus born to be evil and, as a consequence, all of his descendants have also been born to be evil. This, according to these believers, is the origin of Jews.

Such explanations have an ancient heritage: the early church fathers regarded Abel the shepherd as prefiguring Jesus, the perfect and innocent sacrifice at the hands of a perfidious brother. As Abel was identified with Jesus, Cain was identified with the Jews. Such ideas are not advocated openly and directly by many Christians today, but remnants of it can still be found and there remain attitudes which regard the story around Cain as part of the origin of ethnic and racial groups today.

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