And the LORD said unto him: 'Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.' And the LORD set a sign for Cain, lest any finding him should smite him. JPS

The bible doesn't say what kind of sign god gave to Cain. This surely requires explanation. I noticed that the KJV and others translate the word into "mark", but the verse doesn't say that. The Hebrew word here is אות "oth" which translates into "sign" most of the time.

I was thinking perhaps in this context the word אות means something else. Perhaps over here the word אות means "covenant" as in Genesis chapter 9 and 12 where this word is related to "covenant". Is such an interpretation plausible? This is merely a suggestion. My question mainly is what does the word אות mean here and throughout the bible? Does it connote anything more than just "sign" or not?

  • Of the 83 times that oth appears in scripture, the KJV uses the word 'token' to translate it 14 times, which might be worth bearing in mind.Such as Psalm 86:17 'Show me a token for good'. It was something visible, in some way. Show me. It was something that was demonstrated.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 15, 2018 at 14:01

2 Answers 2


Again, sources from here:

1) Discussing this case of אות

The majority of Jewish commentators do understand that God made some sign on Cain's face or body, although there is significant disagreement in Rabbinic literature as to what this sign was (a horn, writing on his face, etc.), and they don't really explain why it would prevent him from being killed. This is what those translating it as sign would follow.

Kimhi, Ibn Ezra and others suggest that God convinced Cain that no one would smite him, using an אות to convince him (just as God uses other signs elsewhere to convince people). This is explained very nicely by MY Ashkenazi in his commentary, Hoil Moshe, where he suggests that the אות that convinced Cain was the previous comment, that a strong punishment would fall on whoever would attack/kill him, and that calmed Cain. According to this interpretation, treaty or covenant would work very well (in fact, Hoil Moshe groups this word together with Havtacha, or promise), although translating as a sign might still also work.

2) אות elsewhere in Scripture

Overall, when you think of this word throughout scripture, it seems to connote a reason to do an action, so it sort of serves as a reminder or reassurance, and is also usually something visible. The rainbow is an אות ברית, the sun and moon are אותות, etc. etc. (concordance here), and in all those cases it seems to be best translated as a sign (not as a covenant as you suggest from Genesis 9). However, in other places, (e.g. Exodus 31, where the Sabbath is called an אות), there seems to be no visible aspect of such a treaty or reminding/reassuring factor, it might be translated differently. However, even there it might be that seeing Jews keeping the Sabbath is a sign, so maybe not.

3) Other translations of אות

A quick web search shows "sign", "token", "guarantee", "miracle", "mark", an likely more.

(Note: The word אות is likely related to את, אותו, etc. and perhaps related to אוה, as noted by Brown, Driver and Briggs. )

  • I don't have time to explore this now, but another factor to consider is that an אות is sometimes placed, and sometimes given.
    – user22655
    Mar 14, 2018 at 21:00

On the basis of the MT mentions of this term [אות] (along with the graphic variants of the same conceptual root, like העד > עוד [Gen 43:3], or תו [Eze 9:4]) we may establish that 'sign', or 'mark' is an average way to translate it. But the correct translation of this term must take to account that this 'sign' is an 'agreed sign' (see e.g. Gen 9:12), a mark which two sides have agreed (in perfect harmony between them, or, through force of circumstances - for one side or both).

We find an example of extensive use of this term in Exo (3:12; 4:8, 9, 17, 28, 30; 7:3, 8, and more other mentions). In the case of the Exodus Ten Plagues' Story we may note that even the magicians of Egypt were compelled, through force of the happenings, to accept the 'testimony' (literally, 'voice', MT) of the signs, so to reach the stage where the expression of truth was inavoidable ("And the magicians said to Pharao: This is the finger of God." [Douay-Rheims]).

In the case of Cain, he did must accept the sign imposed to him by God. The first side of that 'agreement' was - then - God. The other side were all the men capable to kill Cain (to revenge the murder of the good Abel). The agreed sign put on Cain (a body sign? a 'danger atmosphere' which wrapped Cain? other?) remembered every men did run up against Cain not to kill him.

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