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By Israel Drazin
People think that biblical narratives are clear and easily understandable, and that the explanations of the stories offered in clerical sermons or written in ancient documents such as the Talmud, Midrashim (imaginative elaborations of the Bible), and medieval commentaries are true. Actually neither idea is true. Good literature contains ambiguities and obscurities leaving readers the opportunity to imagine details and, in a sense, add, as a second author, to the story. Biblical narratives are like parables, designed to attract readers by means of startling unclear details that prompt them to think why the biblical character acted properly or improperly and learn from their interpretations of these acts how to behave.
A Midrash supposes that Cain was not the son of Adam, but the offspring of the snake who also seduced Eve to swallow the forbidden fruit. This, of course, is not in the Bible. Genesis 4 states that the first created humans Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel. Genesis says that one day “Cain spoke to Abel his brother,” but doesn’t disclose what Cain said or Abel answered. Then Cain kills Abel, but Genesis doesn’t reveal why he did so. God, who supposedly knows everything, asks Cain where his bother is. God curses Cain, who we are told was a “tiller of the ground,” twice, that the earth will no longer “yield you her strength” and he will be “a fugitive and a wanderer in the earth.” Cain wails that this “punishment is greater than I can bear,” but the Bible is unclear whether Cain is repenting that he murdered his brother or is whining that he can’t bear the pain of the punishment. He also moans that he is afraid people “will slay me,” even though there is no human on earth other than he and his parents. God replies that whoever kills Cain will be punished “sevenfold,” without explaining what He is saying. Is it seven times something and, if so, what? Are there seven punishments; does He mean Cain will die seven generations later, or something else? God puts a mark on Cain “lest any finding him should smite him,” without divulging what kind of mark it is. Is it a punishment, a protective device, or a symbol of God’s pardon? Cain then marries, dwells in the land of Nod, has a son, builds a city, and names it after his son. But where did the wife come from, why was there a need for a city when there were only three humans on earth, and how was it possible for Cain to settle in Nod when God cursed him to be a wanderer? So ends the Cain story; or does it?
Genesis 4: 18 reveals that one of Cain’s descendants is Lamech. In 4:23 and 24, Lamech laments to his two wives that he killed a man. He cries, “If Cain will be avenged sevenfold, surely Lamech seventy-seven times.” But, again, Genesis is unclear who Lamech killed, why did he do so, what is he saying, and what happens to him. Thus, the Cain and Lamech episodes are profoundly obscure. Additionally, could the two events be related? Could Lamech’s story be the ending of the Cain tale?
Dozens of interpretations of Genesis 4 developed, all imaginary because there is no way of knowing what the author intended. The ancient Jewish Midrash called Genesis Rabbah, for example, offers seven ideas. Other Jews, Christians, Muslims, novelists, and poets proposed others. Some considered the mark a device or means of stopping people from killing Cain, such as a dog that protected him. Or the mark was a letter from God’s name with magical saving powers. Some say this letter or other mark was placed on his forehead, although, not surprisingly, the Bible doesn’t mention a forehead. Others saw the mark as a punishment. It forced Cain to move constantly, he developed an unceasing moaning and groaning, a jerking and trembling, or the ground quaked wherever he set foot. Some said he was inflicted with a blemish, such as a hooked nose, a black face, or leprosy. Some suggested that he was unable to grow a beard. This prompted the artist of a painting of Jesus’ last supper to portray the traitor Judas with no facial hair. Still others said he became very hairy, or grew a horn or horns. The hairiness and horns portray him as an inhuman animal.
This notion that God placed horns on Cain’s head was prompted by Lamech’s story, which some interpreters see as the conclusion of the Cain tale. The author of the horn idea imagined that Lamech went hunting, saw a being with horns, thought it was an animal, killed it, and discovered that he executed his ancestor Cain.
This idea that Cain wore horns led some people to identify Jews with Cain. Anti-Semites described Jews as they thought Cain was pictured, with a hooked nose, horns, and constant wandering. This, of course, is irrational since, according to the Bible, Cain is not the ancestor of the Jews and, additionally, the Bible states that children aren’t punished for their parent’s deeds. The early fourth century Christian scholars Ambrose and Augustine varied this notion slightly. They suggested that Cain is the prototype, not the ancestor, of the Jews and Abel of Christians. They said that the mark of Cain is the circumcision. Fortunately, enlightened people reject this idea today.
(Another source for the belief that Jews wear horns is the misinterpretation of the Bible’s Hebrew word keren. Moses descended from Mount Sinai with keren showing in his face. Keren means “rays,” its intent here, indicating the joyous impact of Moses’ “meeting” with God, but also “horns,” the mistranslation in the Vulgate. Another source for the wandering Jew legend is the fable that Jesus, a Jew, cursed another Jew while Jesus was on the way to his crucifixion. Jesus said this man would wander until he returned. The initial fable was soon expanded to include all of Jesus’ coreligionists.)
The twentieth century philosopher, novelist, and Nobel Prize Winner Hermann Hesse offered another interesting interpretation of the obscure Cain tale. He saw Cain as the personification of the superior human. These people wear the mark of intelligence and boldness on their faces. They have ideas that are radically different, more elevated and insightful, than those of the general population. The masses fear these thinkers because the thinkers’ ideas threaten their basic misguided notions, the superstitions that are the foundation of their lives; and they seek to kill them figuratively and actually. It is only through the proper use of their intelligence and keeping silent about their views (wandering away from others) that intelligent people can survive unmolested.