With the recent statement disavowing aspects of Mormonism’s tangled history with racism, attention has turned to Bro Brigham and his legacy of the priesthood ban. As is well known, Young believed in line with many of his contemporaries and modern LDS scripture that the mark of Cain mentioned in the Bible was black skin and that Cain’s descendants could be identified with people of African ancestry. As such, they were a lineage under God’s malediction and unworthy of the priesthood, in contrast with those descended from Seth (the rest of humanity).
I think it hardly needs to be said that this theological interpretation has had tragic and lasting consequences and fortunately the LDS community is beginning to come to grips with the extent to which various forms of racism have found space in Mormon scripture, thought, and theology. No longer does the church accept and teach the notion that “black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse” or that “blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else.”
But even though the doctrine of the curse of Cain is no longer officially promulgated, and contemporary Latter-day Saints are generally much less concerned with sacred lineages and racial distinctions than were their forbears, it is worth pointing out that modern biblical scholarship has an important contribution to make to the whole discussion of the scriptural origins of the ban per Brigham Young and Joseph Smith. And I’m not speaking here merely of the fact that a close reading of the biblical narrative shows that the sign [Hebrew ‘ot] that God gave to Cain had nothing to do with black skin or that it even applied to his descendents, and nor am I referring to the fact that Joseph Smith misread the biblical account when he conflated the descendents of Cain with Canaanites (cf. Moses 7:8, 22) or interpreted the curses placed on Cain, Ham, and Canaan as having any relation to the social, religious, and political fortunes and status of modern peoples of African descent. I am rather speaking of the literary evidence that in the earliest version of Genesis Cain was not featured as the ancestor of a disfavored segment of humanity set against the favored lineage of Seth, but was the ancestor and father of humanity as a whole.
Biblical scholarship has come to recognize that underlying the present form of the book of Genesis are two narrative documents treating the primeval history of Israel’s world that at some point were conflated together into a redacted whole. These documents include a narrative reflecting priestly concerns and theology, or what is called the Priestly source, and another narrative that we may call non-P.
For our purposes, what is important to note is that each of these sources contain their own distinctive genealogy connecting the first man Adam all the way down to Noah and that in their original literary contexts these genealogies would have stood independent from one another. In the non-P version the genealogy included Adam, Cain, Enoch, Irad, Mehujael, Methushael, Lamech, and Enosh (Gen 4:1-26), while in P Adam was linked to Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Yared, Enoch, Methushelah, and Lamech (Gen 5:3-28).
Looking at these genealogies, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that somehow they are related to one another. Even without training in biblical Hebrew, one can recognize that many of the transliterated names sound very similar. And when examined more closely in the Hebrew, a pattern of linguistic parallels and correspondence emerges.
Adam ——— Adam
Cain (qayin) ——— Kenan (qenan)
Enoch ——— Enoch
Irad ——— Yered
Mehuyael ——— Mahalalel
Metushael ——— Metushelah
Lamech ——— Lamech
Enosh ——— Enosh
[See further David Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches, 68]
The P source uses many of the same names or close equivalents to the non-P narrative, but in a different sequence and genealogical form. In P the genealogy moves from Adam, Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Yared, Enoch, Methushelah, to Lamech, whereas in non-P the genealogy moves from Adam, Cain, Enoch, Irad, Mehujael, Methushael, Lamech, to possibly Enosh.
The fact that these lists of ancestors are are so closely parallel and yet are found in drastically different sequences suggests that they were probably originally constructed to stand independent from one another (though I think it is also very likely that the P author used the names of the non-P source to develop his version of the genealogy from Adam to Noah). In each case there is a linear genealogy tracing from father to son with Adam and Eve having only one son to carry on the family lineage. In non-P, what is likely the earliest version of the primeval history, there was no Seth as an alternative lineage to that of Cain. There was only Cain. Although there is a brief reference to Seth in a non-P context in Gen 4:25-26, this passage is likely a late redactional bridge attempting to blend and harmonize the two P and non-P genealogies (note how far removed this passage is from the story of Adam and Eve and the birth of Cain and its conspicuous appearance immediately before P in chap 5).
The ironic upshot of this analysis is that according to the earliest author of Genesis, we are all descended from Cain! There is no curse of Cain that applies to only one segment of humanity. That idea is actually a product of later biblical redaction and then subsequent post-biblical interpretation. Rather, in the spirit of the original non-P biblical author, it would be more appropriate to say that all of us have participated in the curse of Cain and earned its bitter fruits when we have acted violently or unjustly to our brother or sister, as Cain did.