What is the significance of the “mark of Cain” (Gen. 4:15)?
The text does not identify exactly what the sign was. Historically, this passage has often served as a scriptural support for Christian persecution of the Jews. For Cain, this was a mark of God’s special loving care and protection. For Jerome’s contemporary, Augustine, this idea proved to be a fertile concept for his comparison of Cain to the Jews. Curiously, Augustine, said nothing about this mark serving as a protective device; instead, he (and his contemporary, Jerome) subverted what was originally an act of grace and mercy into a fiendish excuse to treat the Jews with cruelty. In his “Reply to Flaustus the Manichean,”Augustine employed one of the most anti-Semitic tirades in his allegorical interpretation of Cain and Abel. Augustine wrote:
—Abel, the younger brother was killed by the elder; so too Jesus, head of the younger people, is killed by the elder people—the Jews.
—Just as Abel’s blood cursed Cain, so too does the blood of Jesus accuses the Jews.
—As Cain was cursed from by the earth, so too unbelieving Jews are cursed from the Holy Church.
—As Cain was punished to be a mourner and an abject on the earth, so too are the Jews.
In one lurid passage Augustine wrote:
Then God says to Cain: “Thou art cursed from the earth, which hath opened its mouth to receive thy brother’s blood at thy hand. For thou shalt till the earth, and it shall no longer yield unto thee its strength. A mourner and an abject wanderer shalt thou be on the earth.” It is not, “Cursed is the earth,” but, “Cursed art thou from the earth, which hath opened its mouth to receive thy brother’s blood at thy hand. So the unbelieving people of the Jews is cursed from the earth, that is, from the Church, which in the confession of sins has opened its mouth to receive the blood shed for the remission of sins by the hand of the people that would not be under grace, but under the law. And this murderer is cursed by the Church; that is, the Church admits and avows the curse pronounced by the apostle: ‘Whoever are of the works of the law are under the curse of the law.’ Then, after saying, Cursed art thou from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive thy brother’s blood at thy hand, what follows is not, For thou shalt till it, but, Thou shalt till the earth, and it shall not yield to thee its strength. . .”
—Cain was not punished with bodily death, so too the preservation of the Jews will be proof to believing Christians of the merited subjection of the Jews.
—And the Lord God set a mark upon Cain, lest anyone finding him should slay him. It is a most notable fact, that all the nations subjugated by Rome adopted the heathenish ceremonies of the Roman worship; while the Jewish nation whether under Pagan or Christian monarchs, has never lost the sign of their law, by which they are distinguished from all the other nations and peoples. No emperor or monarch who finds under his government the people with this mark kills them, that is make them cease to be Jews, and as Jews, to be separate in their observances, and unlike the rest of the world. Only when a Jew comes over to Christ, he is no longer Cain, nor goes out from the presence of God, nor dwells in the land of Nod, which is said to mean commotion.
Augustine’s polemical diatribe against the Jews scarred the nascent Christian psyche for millennium. It was this type of exegesis that led to the infamous decree in the days of Pope Innocent II and the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 that, thenceforth, all Jews and Saracens (a Muslim sect) must visually distinguish themselves from Christians and prominently display on their breasts the “yellow badge of shame.”