Lee said, “St. Paul says to the Hebrews that Abel had faith.”
(Mr.Hamilton) “There’s no reference to it in Genesis,” Samuel said. “No faith or lack of faith. Only a hint of Cain’s temper.”
Lee asked, “How does Mrs. Hamilton feel about the paradoxes of the Bible?”
“Why, she does not feel anything because she does not admit they are there.”
“Hush, man. Ask her. And you’ll come out of it older but not less confused.”
Adam said, “You two have studied this. I only got it through my skin and not much of it stuck. Then Cain was driven out for murder?”
“That’s right-for murder.”
“And God branded him?”
“Did you listen? Cain bore the mark not to destroy him but to save him. And there’s a curse called down on any man who shall kill him. It was a preserving mark.”
Adam said, “I can’t get over a feeling that Cain got the dirty end of the stick.”
(Samuel, East of Eden)

The sentence has passive voice and modality at the same time, I’m very confused. Would you improve my understanding about the sentence?

1 Answer 1


Present-tense shall is rapidly disappearing from English; a hundred years ago the OED was already saying of the use of shall in “hypothetical, relative, and temporal clauses denoting a future contingency”—that is, just such contexts as your example—that

Where no ambiguity results […] the present tense is commonly used for the future, and the perfect for the future-perfect; the use of shall, when not required for clearness, is apt to sound pedantic.

So there is no particular “modality” involved here. The sentence may be rewritten

And there’s a curse called down on any man who kills him.

That is, any man who kills Cain will be cursed.

What shall marks is not modality but register. The speakers are discussing the Bible—specifically, the ‘King James Bible’, a translation prepared when shall was in more frequent use, especially in legal contexts. The Bible’s use of shall is reflected in today’s popular catchphrase shalts and shalt nots for any set of rules:

Vatican issues driving shalts and shalt nots / The Vatican on Tuesday issued a “Ten Commandments” for motorists … — Denver Post, 2007
’Thou Shalts’ and ‘Thou Shalt Nots’ of Strawberry Plantingancientgardenerblog.blogspot.com

And in fact the Law, which is very conservative, still uses that sort of language:

Any man who shall in this state desert his wife and children, or either of them, or his wife where there are no children or child [...] shall be guilty of a felony of the third degree ... —Florida Statutes, 2012

So in the Biblical crime-and-punishment context it is very natural for the speaker to fall into this sort of archaic language.

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