Curse and mark of Cain
In Christianity and Judaism, the curse of Cain and the mark of Cain refer to the passages in the Biblical Book of Genesis where God declared that Cain, the firstborn son of Adam and Eve, was cursed for murdering his brother, and placed a mark upon him to warn others that killing Cain would provoke the vengeance of God. An alternate interpretation of the text sees the "mark" rather as a sign, one which would not have actually been a physical marking of Cain, himself. Though the text of the King James Version reads, "...set a mark upon Cain...", the New American Standard reads, "... appointed a sign for Cain ..."
The Bible refers to the curse of Cain in the fourth chapter of the Book of Genesis. This passage describes two brothers, Cain and Abel. Cain, the older, "was a tiller of the ground", while Abel "was a keeper of sheep" (Gen. 4:2). Eventually, each of the brothers performed a sacrifice to God; Cain sacrificed some of his crops to God, while Abel sacrificed "of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof" (Gen. 4:3–4). When God accepted Abel's offering, but not Cain's, Cain's "countenance fell" (Gen. 4:5), and he "rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him" (Gen. 4:8).
When God confronted Cain about Abel's death, God cursed him, saying:
- "What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground. 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." (Gen. 4:10–12)
As an act of irony, the curse by God focused strictly on neutralizing the benefits of Cain's primary skill, cultivating crops. When Cain complained that the curse was too strong, and that anyone who found him would kill him, God responded, "Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over", and God "set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him" (Gen. 4:15).
There is no scholarly consensus as to the original meaning and significance of the curse and mark of Cain. Because the name Cain (or qayin in Hebrew, meaning spear), is identical with the name Kenite (also qayin in Hebrew), some scholars speculate that the curse of Cain may have arisen as a condemnation of the Kenites. In the Bible, however, the Kenites are generally described favorably, and may have had an important influence on the early Hebrew religion.
There is also no clear consensus as to what Cain's mark would be. The word translated as "mark" in Gen. 4:15 is 'owth, which could mean a sign, an omen, a warning, or a remembrance. In the Torah, the same word is used to describe the stars as signs or omens, the rainbow as the sign of the flood (Gen. 9:12), circumcision as a token of God's covenant with Abraham, and the miracles performed by Moses before the Pharaoh. Thus, the text of the Bible only explicitly describes how the mark was to function as a sign or warning, not what form the mark took. Cain's curse and mark have been interpreted in several ways. Following the literal Biblical text, most scholars interpret the "curse" as Cain's inability to cultivate crops and his necessity to lead a nomadic lifestyle. They interpret the "mark" as a warning to others, but are unable to determine the form of the mark from the Biblical text.
Historically, some Christians have interpreted the Biblical passages so that the "mark" is thought to be part of the "curse". In the 19th century Latter Day Saints (known as 'Mormons') commonly assumed that Cain's "mark" was black skin, and that Cain's descendants were black and still under Cain's curse.
While the majority, if not all, of Cain's descendants would have been killed in the great flood, according to Mormons from the late 19th to mid 20th century, Cain's bloodline was preserved on the ark through Egyptus, wife of Ham (son of Noah). The Book of Abraham, accepted by Mormons as part of their canon, is the source of the story of this Egyptus who preserves "the curse.... as pertaining to the Priesthood" by surviving the flood as Ham's wife. One must note, however, that in this canonized source no connection is made between her and Cain (her lineage is not given), nor is anything mentioned concerning her skin color. Thus, though Mormons combined the widespread belief that Cain's curse was a blackness of skin with another idea common in Europe and America (that the curse of Ham for seeing his father's nakedness was black skin), the idea that Ham's wife preserved a curse of black skin inherited from Cain that was passed on is not canonized doctrine. This interpretation is now generally rejected by mainstream Mormons.
From Brigham Young: Let this Church which is called the Kingdom of God on the earth; we will summons the First Presidency, the Twelve, the High Council, the Bishopric, and all the Elders of Israel, suppose we summons them and appear here, and here declare that it is right to mingle our seed with the black race of Cain, that they shall come in with us and be partakers with us of all the blessings God has given to us. On that very day and hour we should do so, the Priesthood is taken from this Church and Kingdom and God leaves us to our fate. The moment we consent to mingle with the seed of Cain, the Church must go to destruction--we should receive the curse which has been placed upon the seed of Cain, and never more be numbered with the children of Adam who are heirs to the Priesthood until that curse be removed. (Speech by Gov. Brigham Young in Joint Session of the Legislature, giving his views on slavery, Feb. 5, 1852)
That curse was apparently removed in 1978 according to a Doctrine and Covenants revelation.
Accepting the theory that God had cursed black people, some have used the curse as a Biblical justification for racism, though it was more common to find the so-called "curse on Ham's descendants" (Genesis 9:25) used for that purpose. These racial and ethnic interpretations of the curse and the mark lost ground in the 19th century, and were abandoned by theologians by the mid-20th century, although the theory still has some following, especially among white supremacists.
The Zohar, a Kabbalistic text, states that the mark of Cain was one of the twenty-two Hebrew letters of the Torah, although the Zohar's native Aramaic doesn't actually tell us which of the letters it was. Some commentators, such as Rabbi Michael Berg in his English commentary on the Zohar, suggest that the mark of Cain was the letter vav.
Early and modern Christian
According to scholars, early interpretations of the Bible in Syriac Christianity combined the "curse" with the "mark", and interpreted the curse of Cain as black skin. Some argue that this may have originated from rabbinic texts, which interpreted a passage in the Book of Genesis ("And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell") as implying that Cain underwent a permanent change in skin color.
In an Eastern Christian (Armenian) Adam-book (5th or 6th century) it is written: “And the Lord was wroth with Cain. . . He beat Cain’s face with hail, which blackened like coal, and thus he remained with a black face".
The Irish Saltair na Rann (The Versified Psalter, AD 988), records Gabriel announcing to Adam: "Dark rough senseless Cain is going to kill Abel".
Adoption by Protestant groups
The split between the Northern and Southern Baptist organizations arose over slavery and the education of slaves. At the time of the split, the Southern Baptist group used the curse of Cain as a justification for the practice. In fact, most 19th and early 20th century Southern Baptist congregations in the southern United States taught that there were two separate heavens; one for blacks, and one for whites.
The doctrine was used to support a ban on ordaining blacks to most Protestant clergies until the 1960s in both the U.S. and Europe. The majority of Christian Churches in the world, the ancient churches, including the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox churches, Anglican churches, and Oriental Orthodox churches, did not recognize these interpretations and did not participate in the religious movement to support them. Certain Catholic Diocese in the Southern United States did adopt a policy of not ordaining blacks to oversee, administer the Sacraments to, or accept confessions from white parishioners. This policy was not based on a Curse of Cain teaching, but was justified by any possible perceptions of having slaves rule over their masters. However, this was not approved of by the Pope or any papal teaching.
Baptists officially taught or practiced various forms of racial segregation well into the mid-to-late-20th century, though members of all races were accepted at worship services after the 1970s and 1980s when many official policies were changed. In fact, it was not until 1995 that the Southern Baptist Convention officially renounced its "racist roots."
Pentecostals In the earliest years of the Pentecostal revivals, notably Azusa Street in Los Angeles, 1906-09 the mixing of the races was encouraged, and Jim Crow laws were defied. This was radical and broke new ground. It continued until 1924 when an official new Pentecostal denomination emerged, but many Pentecostal groups continued to allow mixing of the races in their services. (see articles on Azusa Street Revival). There had been an earlier tradition of encouraging the races to mix in revival meetings going back to the Cane Ridge revival of 1801, and Methodist preachers often continued this approach.(See Robert S. Ellwood Jr. One Way: The Jesus movement and its meaning. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc.) 1973, pg. 40-42).
Many Protestant groups in America had supported the notion that black slavery, oppression, and African colonization was the result of God's curse on people with black skin or people of African descent through Cain or through the curse of Ham, and some churches practiced racial segregation as late as the 1990s. Today, however, official acceptance and practice of the doctrine among "Protestant" organizations is limited almost exclusively to churches connected to white supremacy, such as the Aryan World Church and the New Christian Crusade Church.
The Mormon interpretation of "the curse of Cain", or the curse of black skin that befell Cain's descendants, is not the same as the "mark of Cain" set upon Cain himself by God. According to Moses 7:5-8
- And the Lord said unto me: Prophesy; and I prophesied, saying: Behold the people of Canaan, which are numerous, shall go forth in battle array against the people of Shum, and shall slay them that they shall utterly be destroyed; and the people of Canaan shall divide themselves in the land, and the land shall be barren and unfruitful, and none other people shall dwell there but the people of Canaan; for behold, the Lord shall curse the land with much heat, and the barrenness thereof shall go forth forever; and there was a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan, that they were despised among all people.
According to modern interpretations of LDS theology, the curse of blackness does not refer to skin color, but generally refers to those who lack the enlightenment of the gospel in their lives (Alma 32:35). The curse of blackness is removed when unbelieving people accept the light of the gospel (Alma 23:18). This particular teaching—that the curse of dark skin came upon the children of Cain because they practiced genocide on the people of Shum, rather than it being the result of the mark placed upon Cain by God—was radically different from the views widely held by most Evangelical Protestant groups in the U.S. during and before the life of Joseph Smith.
Statements concerning the curse of Cain clearly identify both the mark and curse with the "Negro" race, in Latter Day Saint writings and lectures. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both identify the Black people of African descent as descendants of Cain. The Latter Day Saint movement was founded during the height of white Protestant acceptance of the curse of Cain doctrine in America, as well as the even more popular curse of Ham doctrine, which was even held by many abolitionists of the time. While Joseph Smith, Jr. indicated his belief in the curse of Ham theory in a parenthetical reference as early as 1831 (Manuscript History 19 June 1831), the only early reference to the curse or mark of Cain was in his translation of the Bible, which included the following statement:
- And Enoch also beheld the residue of the people which were the sons of Adam; and they were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save it was the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black, and had not place among them.
Despite Smith’s idea that the descendants of Cain did not “mix” with the descendants of Adam, one of Smith’s associates later argued that Cain’s descendants did indeed survive the flood via the wife of Ham, son of Noah. On February 6, 1835, Smith's associate William Wines Phelps wrote a letter theorizing that the curse of Cain might have survived the deluge by passing through the wife of Ham, who according to Phelps must have been a descendant of Cain. (Messenger and Advocate 1:82) In effect, Phelps was attempting to provide a rational link between the curse of Cain and the curse of Ham. There is no clear indication that Smith agreed with Phelps on this idea; in 1842, however, he did write parenthetically in his notes the following:
- In the evening debated with John C. Bennett and others to show that the Indians have greater cause to complain of the treatment of the whites, than the negroes or sons of Cain.
Although Phelps's interpretation found substantial general support within some Latter Day Saint denominations, none of the major denominations of Mormonism embrace the idea or consider it relevant. There is evidence that Joseph Smith did not consider the restriction between blacks and the priesthood to be relevant in modern times, since he himself (and other Church leaders close to him) did ordain black men to the priesthood. However, the doctrine is an element of Mormon fundamentalism, which constitutes a small percentage of the overall Latter-day Saint movement.
Nevertheless, the lack of formal repudiation of LDS teachings regarding the Children of Cain, and the continual association with curses and marks with black skin, has continued to recall Mormonism's unique doctrines concerning race.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism)
After the death of Joseph Smith, Jr., The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the largest of several organizations claiming succession from Smith’s church. Brigham Young, the second President of the Church believed that people of African ancestry were generally under the curse of Cain. In 1852, he reportedly stated:
- [A]ny man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] … in him cannot hold the priesthood and if no other Prophet ever spake it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ….
These beliefs were used to justify a ban on ordaining Blacks to the LDS priesthood, although founder Joseph Smith, Jr. did himself ordain Blacks to the priesthood. However, this belief was never used as a reason for segregation of or within congregations. Segregation of congregations was common in churches in the southern United States during this time period.
Similar beliefs were taught by Young’s successors until the 1978 revelation from President of the Church Spencer W Kimball, however, it was never canonized doctrine, but was instead a widely held and widely taught belief.
In 1954, Church President David O. McKay taught: “There is not now, and there never has been a doctrine in this church that the negroes are under a divine curse. There is no doctrine in the church of any kind pertaining to the negro. ‘We believe’ that we have a scriptural precedent for withholding the priesthood from the negro. It is a practice, not a doctrine, and the practice someday will be changed. And that’s all there is to it.”
Racial restriction policy ended
There has neither been an official and explicit church repudiation of the doctrine nor an admission that it was a mistake. Many black church members think giving an apology would be a "detriment" to church work and a catalyst to further racial misunderstanding. African-American church member Bryan E. Powell says "There is no pleasure in old news, and this news is old." Gladys Newkirk agrees, stating "I've never experienced any problems in this church. I don't need an apology. . . . We're the result of an apology." The large majority of black Mormons say they are willing to look beyond the racist teachings and cleave to the church in part because of its powerful, detailed teachings on life after death. In 1998, there was a report in the Los Angeles Times that the church leadership was considering an official repudiation of the curse of Cain and curse of Ham doctrines, to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1978 revelation. This, however, was quickly denied by the LDS spokesman Don LeFevre. The Times later suggested that the publicity generated by its article may have caused the Church to put an official disavowal on hold.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles stated:
- There are statements in our literature by the early Brethren that we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things, and people write me letters and say, “You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?” All I can say is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or George Q. Cannon or whoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them. We now do what meridian Israel did when the Lord said the gospel should go to the Gentiles. We forget all the statements that limited the gospel to the house of Israel, and we start going to the Gentiles.
Modern opinion on racial interpretations
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a Christian backlash arose against use of the curse of Cain doctrine in racial politics, with the primary Christian denominations flatly rejecting it. Most Christians also point to Biblical references which refute the doctrine, including a reference in the Book of Numbers:And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman. 9 And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them; and he departed. 10 And the cloud departed from off the tabernacle; and, behold, Miriam became leprous, white as snow: and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous.—Numbers 12:1, 9, 10
Other Christian arguments include the following:
- The passage in Genesis relating to Cain makes no mention of the effects on his descendants.
- All descendents of Cain were destroyed in the global deluge.
- The effect of parts of the curse on the land could have only applied to Cain - and not blacks - who, historically, were unaffected (like all other surviving people) in their ability to cultivate land. If this interpretation held true, then 19th century Americans would not have enslaved them to do agricultural work in the United States.
- Moses' wife Tzipporah, Job, the Queen of Sheba, Ebed-Melech, Tirharkah, the Ethiopian Treasurer of Queen Candace, Hagar, some Egyptians, and other black people in the Bible were not mentioned as being partakers of the curse. Had the curse affected black people, at least one instance of it would have been mentioned in the Bible in that context to these people.
- Christianity was founded 2000 years ago; early documents do not make any references to blacks being cursed, and no manuscripts have been found in the Middle East that were written by Christian leaders of the period which support the exclusion of or prejudice against blacks, Ethiopians (Greek word for Black) or Kushites (Hebrew word for Black).
- The name "Pa-nehesi", a common name for "Nubians" among the Ancient Egyptians during the time of Moses. This name is also given to the third High Priest of Israel, Phinehas, who was the grandson of Aaron. Therefore it is impossible for the Curse of Cain to have any meaning in relation to Black people. At the very least, it makes no sense for the High Priest to have been given a name equivalent to the accursed, in the midst of an era when the books of Genesis and Exodus were being compiled. The Nubians were a Kushitic people, and therefore they were black. They were represented as black people in Ancient Egyptian paintings and multiple people named Pa-Nehesi were high priests during the 18th dynasty of Egyptian history, just prior to the Exodus.
- The racist interpretations of scripture did not exist before European colonization. These interpretations were most likely introduced by adherents of ethnocentric ideologies that were codified into the Western mindset. These ideologies adversely influenced the Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment periods.
- Objectively interpreting the idea of a mark of Cain to mean a change of skin color would require the existence of Biblical passages to equate the two. In Jeremiah 13:23 there is a distinction made between skin color and marks on the skin, which all but refutes the idea that Cain's mark was black skin: "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?".
- One effect of the curse was for Cain to struggle agriculturally, to be "driven" from the face of the Lord and that Cain would not settle in any specific place. For Canaan's curse it was to serve the people of Shem's line. Making the curse a racially based issue ignored the primary issues of the curse and the racial interpretation of the curse was used to justify black servitude to whites. The doctrine became part of the institution of slavery and it also influenced the reasoning of many racist white Christian institutions in the West.
Modern Baptist exegesis
Some Baptist denominations deny that Cain was cursed by God, but rather they believe that Cain brought the curse upon himself. "God does not say, 'Now I curse you.' He simply states the truth, 'Now you are cursed'". In this way, Cain's aggression was the curse, and the outcome was the death of Abel. Because of continued problems with anger and aggression, the curse was handed down to Cain's posterity and even to Lamech who killed in a manner similar to Cain.
In the same way, the teaching goes that Born Again believers are often cursed because of some of their struggles or sins, and they should work to overcome them, or the curses will be passed on to either their children or their descendants. If they do so, their curses will not be propagated to their posterity.
In popular culture
- In John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden, Charles and Adam are representative of Cain and Abel as are Adam's sons Caleb and Aron. Charles' scar on his forehead is allegorical of the "mark of Cain" and Adam and Charles' father Cyrus prefers Adam's gift over Charles' which leads to Charles beating Adam up (although not murdering him, in contrast to the Biblical story).
- Hermann Hesse uses the Mark of Cain as a motif in his novel Demian, where it symbolizes a person seeking his true self.
- The Mark of Cain is a British television film broadcast in 2007.
- Karl Edward Wagner's character Kane is described as one of the first humans, cursed to immortality and wandering after murdering his brother Abel, and to be immediately recognizable by his "murderer's eyes.
- In White Wolf's role-playing game series Vampire: the Masquerade, the curse of Cain (spelled Caine) is that of vampirism. Caine becomes the father of all vampires after being cursed by God, and the mark functions as a game-play mechanic which returns seven times the damage dealt to him.
- Neil Gaiman's The Sandman includes the character Cain directly as well as Abel (whom Cain repeatedly kills and who is in turn repeatedly resurrected) as inhabitants of the dream lord's realm. Cain is sent as a messenger to hell in Season of Mists as Lucifer will not kill him due to the mark, which is here a small black circle on his forehead, lest he suffers God's punishment.
- In the Final Crisis event Cain is reborn on Earth in the body of the immortal villain Vandal Savage. Sporting a tattoo-like mark covering his whole face, Cain sets off to take his vengeance on the being who imposed the mark on him: not directly God, but his angel of retribution, the Spectre.
- In the Spider-Man comics, Kaine, a flawed clone of Peter Parker, can burn others with the palm of his hand, leaving what is dubbed the Mark of Kaine.
- The alternative metal band Avenged Sevenfold took their name from a description of Cain's curse in Genesis 4:24 in the King James Version of the Bible. The song "Chapter Four" off of their album Waking the Fallen makes several references to the mark, as well as the murder itself.
- The album "Crowning of Atlantis" (1998) by the symphonic metal band Therion includes a song titled "Mark of Cain", dealing with the story of Cain's curse and its esoteric meaning in the Dragon Rouge philosophy.
- ^ Biblical quotations in this article are from the King James Version, unless otherwise noted.
- ^ Gen. 4:10–12, New International Version
- ^ Gen. 4:15, New International Version
- ^ Gen. 1:14
- ^ Gen. 17:11
- ^ Abraham 1:23-26
- ^ http://www.pbs.org/mormons/interviews/holland.html
- ^ a b https://www.kabbalah.com/k/index.php/p=zohar/zohar&vol=2&sec=69
- ^ Goldenberg, p. 180
- ^ Gen. 4:5
- ^ Origen, Sermons on Number, 18.4.
- ^ Tryggve Kronholm, Motifs from Genesis 1-11, pp. 135-42
- ^ The History of Abel and Cain, 10, in Lipscomb, The Armenian Apocryphal Adam Literature, pp. 145, 250 (text) and 160, 271 (translation)
- ^ D. Greene and F. Kelly, The Irish Adam and Eve Story from Saltair Na Rann (Dublin, 1976), 1:91, lines 1959-1960
- ^ Dictionary of African-American Slavery, p. 77
- ^ Dictionary of African-American Slavery.
- ^ "SBC renounces racist past - Southern Baptist Convention". http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_n21_v112/ai_17332136. [dead link]
- ^ Moses 7:22. For a side by side comparison of relevant sections of Joseph Smith’s translation to the KJV, see Curse of Cain/Genesis.
- ^ History of the Church 4:501
- ^ http://www.blacklds.org/history
- ^ Diary of Wilford Woodruff, January 16, 1852
- ^ Sterling M. McMurrin affidavit, March 6, 1979. See David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Greg Prince and William Robert Wright. Quoted by Genesis Group
- ^ http://scriptures.lds.org/en/od/2
- ^ Broadway, Bill (1998-05-30). "Black Mormons Resist Apology Talk". Washington Post. http://www.ldshistory.net/1990/mhablack.htm.
- ^ Ramirez, Margaret (2005-07-26). "Mormon past steeped in racism: Some black members want church to denounce racist doctrines". Chicago Tribune. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-blackmormons,1,708682.story?page=1&ctrack=1&cset=true.
- ^ Larry B. Stammer, “Mormons May Disavow Old View on Blacks,” L.A. Times, May 18, 1998, p. A1
- ^ ABC News report, May 18, 1998
- ^ Stammer, “Mormon Plan to Disavow Racist Teachings Jeopardized by Publicity,” Los Angeles Times, May 24, 1998
- ^ ("All Are Alike Unto God", pp. 1-2
- ^ http://eis.net.au/~paulh/gen8hp.html
- Schwartz, Regina M. (1997). The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism. Univ. of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-74199-0.
- Goldenberg, David M. (2003). "The Curse of Cain". The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World). Princeton Univ. Press. ISBN 0-691-11465-X.
- Nottingham, Theodore J. (1998). The Curse of Cain: The Untold Story of John Wilkes Booth. Sovereign Publications. ISBN 1-58006-021-8.
- Wood, Peter H. (1996). Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 Through the Stono Rebellion. W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-31482-0.
- Arbor, Ann (1971). White Attitudes toward Black People. Institute for Social Research of the University of Michigan. ASIN B000TA1IZW.
- Lester E. Bush, Jr. and Armand L. Mauss (1984). Neither White Nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church. Signature Books. ISBN 0-941214-22-2. http://www.signaturebookslibrary.org/neither/neithertitle.htm.
- Bringhurst, Newell (1981). Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The changing place of Black people within Mormonism. Greenwood Press. ASIN B000WVPORG.
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