7 God continues to speak to Cain. It is fair to say that this is one of the hardest verses in Genesis to translate and to understand. Skinner speaks for many commentators when he says that “every attempt to extract a meaning from the verse is more or less of a tour de force.”
Looking at the Hebrew of the verse, one detects immediately three oddities. First, what does one do with the fourth word in the verse, śeʾēṯ? In form it is an infinitive construct from nāśāʾ, “to lift up, raise,” but there is no following word to which it bears a construct relationship. There is a nomen regens but no nomen rectum! Thus the first few words read literally, “if you do well, a lifting up of … (?).” To be sure, there are a few instances where an infinitive construct acts as the nominative of the subject, but these are rare. Second, why is there lack of gender agreement between the subject and the predicate in ḥaṭṭāʾṯ (fem.) rōḇēṣ (masc. sing. participle), often translated “sin is crouching” (NIV; cf. RSV, NEB, AV)? Third, why are masculine pronominal suffixes used in both tešûqāṯô (translated above Its urge) and ʾattá timšol-bô (you are the one to master it) when the antecedent is ḥaṭṭāʾṯ (sin), which is feminine?
Scholars have sought to resolve these conundrums in the following ways. Some change the MT’s word order, placing ḥaṭṭāʾṯ, “sin,” after śeʾēṯ, “to lift up.” The phrase nāśāʾ ḥaṭṭāʾṯ then refers to the forgiveness of sin: “look, if you do well, there is forgiveness for sin.…” The main appeal of this suggestion is that it supplies a nomen rectum for śeʾēṯ. There is, however, no textual support for revising the word order. This suggestion may be a case of changing the text to conform to our understanding of Biblical Hebrew’s syntax.
Another approach is to insert words into the passage. For example, adding pānîm or pāneyḵā after śeʾēṯ enables one to translate: “if you do well, there is a lifting of the (or your) face.” This line then contrasts with the earlier falling of Cain’s face. If Cain refuses to capitulate to this moment of temptation, there can be a reversal of his feelings. He who now bows his head will be able to hold his head high.
A third position resorts to emending the text, both the consonants and the vocalization. Thus G. R. Driver makes the following five changes in the text. Following Gunkel and some ancient versions, he emends śeʾēṯ to tiśśāʾ. He supplies pāneyḵā after tiśśāʾ. He reads ḥaṭṭāʾṯ rōḇēṣ as dittography for ḥaṭṭaʾṯ tirbaṣ. He emends the Qal timšol into the Niphal timmāšel. Finally, he changes the two masculine pronominal suffixes into feminine ones. Thus Driver’s translation is: “If thou doest well, dost thou not lift up (thy countenance)? But if thou doest not well, sin will be crouching at the door, and its impulse is towards thee, and thou shalt be ruled by it.” The fact that such a translation requires at least five changes in the MT makes it unlikely.
A fourth approach is to emend only the vocalized text. Thus Dahood changes MT śeʾēṯ to šāʾattā (assimilation from šāʾantā, the 2nd masc. sing. perfect of šāʾan, “to be at ease”). He translates: “Look, if you have behaved well you will be at ease. But if you have not, sin will be lurking at your door.” The root to which Dahood refers—šʾn—is a rare one, occurring only in Job 3:18 and Jer. 48:11. In other words, he is prepared to reject a normal form of a very popular verb and replace it with an unusual form of a very rare verb. Such a proposal seems to compound the problem rather than resolve it.
Can sense be made out of the verse without alterations of any kind? Following the lead of Andersen, we suggest that the interrogative ha, though appearing only once, covers both the first ʾim (“if”) clause and the second one. Thus God’s speech in v. 7 consists of two rhetorical questions and one statement.
Hebrew śeʾēṯ then takes on nominative force, meaning “acceptance” (Gen. 19:21) or “forgiveness” (50:17), two common meanings of the verb nāśāʾ. As such, śeʾēṯ is an abbreviation of śeʾēṯ pānîm. There is no real problem reconciling feminine ḥaṭṭāʾṯ with masculine rōḇēṣ. Speiser has a long note to the effect that Heb. rōḇēṣ is to be connected with Akk. rabiṣum, “demon,” and it is rōḇēṣ that supplies the proper antecedent for the two masculine suffixes. Speiser goes on to say that in Mesopotamian demonology the rabiṣum could be either a benevolent being that lurks at the entrance of a building to protect the occupants, or just the opposite, a malevolent being that lurks at the entrance of a building to threaten the occupants. To be sure, the normal meaning of Heb. rāḇaṣ is “to lie down (in rest).” See, for example, the verb in this sense in connection with sheep (Gen. 29:2), with other animals in tranquility together (Isa. 11:6), and with people (Isa. 14:30; Ezek. 34:14). Gen. 49:9 is the one other clear instance, besides Gen. 4:7, that permits the translation “lie in wait for, lurk.” Little attention has been given to the fact that, in Hebrew, nouns that are feminine morphologically are sometimes treated as masculine. The best example of this point is the title given to the author of Ecclesiastes, certainly a male figure; he is called qōheleṯ, a feminine noun, and this title is always coupled with a masculine form of the verb.
Its urge is toward you. Sin’s urge is aimed at Cain. The word for urge here, tešûqá, is the same word used in the previous chapter for Eve’s feelings toward Adam (3:16). Similarly, what Cain can do to sin—you are the one to master [mšl] it—is described with the same verb used for Adam’s actions with Eve (“he shall be master over you,” 3:16). This is one illustration of the number of key phrases and ideas that are repeated in these chapters. Just as Adam and Eve knew they were naked (3:7), Adam knew his wife (4:1). God’s question “where is your brother?” (4:9) balances his earlier question, “where are you?” (3:9). There is a cursing from the earth for both Adam and Cain (3:17; 4:11). Both sinners are banished from God’s presence (3:24; 4:14), to east of Eden (3:24; 4:16). Such parallels, and there are many more, suggest either an original unity for chs. 3 and 4 or an unusually skilled redactor who has given the two chapters the guise of unity through the creation of verbal parallels. If the latter is the more cogent explanation, then those who inherited these two narratives have so changed the records as to make the original, if ever recoverable, unrecognizable. It is highly unlikely that the redactors tampered with their texts that drastically.
Cain is not to give in to this lurking sin. He is to master [timšol] it. The sense of the Hebrew form (2nd masc. sing. imperfect) is ambiguous; it may be read as a promise (“you shall master it”), as a command (“you must master it”), or as an invitation (“you may master it”). Although each of these is quite possible, notice that Cain does have a choice. He is not so deeply embedded in sin, either inherited or actual, that his further sin is determined and inevitable. The emphasis here is not on Cain as a constitutional sinner, one utterly depraved, but on Cain as one who has a free choice. When facing the alternatives, he is capable of making the right choice. Otherwise, God’s words to him about “doing well” would be meaningless and comic. Should he so desire, Cain is able to overcome this creature who now confronts him. The text makes Cain’s personal responsibility even more focused by its use of the initial emphatic pronoun: “you, you are to master it.”
7. In the Hebrew, accepted (7) is literally ‘a lifting up’ (cf. rvmg), an expression that can indicate a smiling as against a frowning (fallen, 6) face: cf. Numbers 6:26. The sense may be that the very look on Cain’s face gives him away; more probably it goes further, to promise God’s restoration (cf. 40:13) on a change of heart. The picture of sin … crouching at the door (rsv) is developed in the striking metaphor of taming a wild beast: so rsv, its desire is for you (Moffatt ‘eager to be at you’), but you must master it. The phrase is adapted from 3:16b, on which it throws back a sombre light.
4:7 “sin is crouching at the door” In this verse sin is personified as a wild animal whose desire is to destroy (cf. 1 Pet. 5:8). There is a possible Akkadian connection with the word “crouching” which was used of the demonic (BDB 918, KB 1181, Qal PARTICIPLE). This shows the true nature of sin in our world.
■ “and its desire is for you” This same term “desire” (BDB 1003, KB 1802) is used in Gen. 3:16. It shows that the purpose of evil is our destruction (i.e. “to control” and “to dominate”).
■ “but you must master it” The VERB (BDB 605, KB 647) is a Qal IMPERFECT. This shows that we are not a puppet in the hand of evil, but we have the ability, with God’s help, to resist evil (cf. Eph. 6:13; James. 4:7; 1 Pet. 5:9), to repent and be restored! Cain was not bound by Adam’s sin (cf. Ezek. 18:2–4). We are affected by Adam and Eve’s rebellion, but we are responsible for our own choices.
4:7 Because Cain’s jealous anger was incipient murder, God spoke to him in loving warning. Verse 7 may be understood in several ways:
- “If you do well [by repenting], you will be able to look up again in freedom from anger and guilt. If you do not do well [by continuing to hate Abel], sin is crouching at your door, ready to destroy you. His [Abel’s] desire is for you [i.e., he will acknowledge your leadership] and you will rule over him” [i.e., if you do well].
- “If you do well (or, as the Septuagint reads it, “If you offer correctly”) will you not be accepted?” The well-doing had reference to the offering. Abel did well by hiding himself behind an acceptable sacrifice. Cain did badly by bringing an offering without blood, and all his after-conduct was but the legitimate result of this false worship.
- The RSV says, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
- F. W. Grant says in his Numerical Bible, “If you do not well, a sin-offering croucheth or lieth at the door.” In other words, provision was made if he wanted it.
4:7 — “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.”
God told Cain that obedience always brings blessing, but Cain allowed his anger to lead him into terrible sin.
4:7 do well … countenance be lifted up. God reminded Cain that if he had obeyed God and offered the animal sacrifices God had required, his sacrifices would have been acceptable. It wasn’t personal preference on God’s part, or disdain for Cain’s vocation, or the quality of his produce that caused God to reject his sacrifice. sin is crouching at the door. God told Cain that if he chose not to obey His commands, ever-present sin, crouched and waiting to pounce like a lion, would fulfill its desire to overpower him (cf. 3:16).
4:7 will I not accept you The Hebrew phrase used here literally reads, “lifting up?” Since the phrase “lift up the face” is very common in the ot as an idiom for “showing favor” or “accepting” someone, this may be the intended meaning (although the word “face” is not present). If this meaning is chosen, the phrase implies that Cain did not do well and that his offering is deficient in some manner (see vv. 4–5). Alternatively, the word translated “lifting up” can also be used idiomatically to describe forgiveness, but this would not seem to fit the present context.
is crouching The Hebrew verb used here, ravats, normally indicates lying down, as in resting (29:2; Isa 11:6); it can also refer to lying in wait like a predator does when waiting for prey (Gen 49:9).
its desire is for you The Hebrew word used here, teshuqah, also occurs in 3:16 in relation to Eve’s desire for her husband. Both here and in the curse of 3:16, the context is negative: The desire represents something to be resisted, as it is connected to sin.
4:7 crouching at the door. The Hebrew suggests a threatening demon crouching outside the door of a house. Perhaps there is also an allusion to the serpent lying in wait to strike the heel (3:15; cf. 1 Pet. 5:8).
desire. See note 3:16.
rule over it. Knowing Cain’s heart, God warns him not to submit to the murderous temptation of the devil (cf. 1 John 3:12). Although unregenerate humans can rule over the ground and flocks, they cannot finally master sin (1:26 note; Ps. 53:3; Rom. 8:7).
4:7 Cain had to be acceptable according to God’s condition. “Sin” (the term hattah, Heb., appearing here for the first time in the O.T.; see Rom. 7:13, note) is personified as a wild animal, lurking at the door of Cain’s life, desiring to enslave him. The Lord urges Cain to overpower and master sin (cf. 1 Cor. 10:13; James 1:14, 15).
7. If thou doest well. In these words God reproves Cain for having been unjustly angry, inasmuch as the blame of the whole evil lay with himself. For foolish indeed was his complaint and indignation at the rejection of sacrifices, the defects of which he had taken no care to amend. Thus all wicked men, after they have been long and vehemently enraged against God, are at length so convicted by the Divine judgment, that they vainly desire to transfer to others the cause of the evil. The Greek interpreters recede, in this place, far from the genuine meaning of Moses. Since, in that age, there were none of those marks or points which the Hebrews use instead of vowels, it was more easy, in consequence of the affinity of words to each other, to strike into an extraneous sense. However, as any one, moderately versed in the Hebrew language, will easily judge of their error, I will not pause to refute it. Yet even those who are skilled in the Hebrew tongue differ not a little among themselves, although only respecting a single word; for the Greeks change the whole sentence. Among those who agree concerning the context and the substance of the address, there is a difference respecting the word שאת, (seait,) which is truly in the imperative mood, but ought to be resolved into a noun substantive. Yet this is not the real difficulty; but, since the verb נשא, (nasa,) signifies sometimes to exalt, sometimes to take away or remit, sometimes to offer, and sometimes to accept, interpreters vary among themselves, as each adopts this or the other meaning. Some of the Hebrew Doctors refer it to the countenance of Cain, as if God promised that he would lift it up though now cast down with sorrow. Other of the Hebrews apply it to the remission of sins; as if it had been said, ‘Do well, and thou shalt obtain pardon.’ But because they imagine a satisfaction, which derogates from free pardon, they dissent widely from the meaning of Moses. A third exposition approaches more nearly to the truth, that exaltation is to be taken for honour, in this way, ‘There is no need to envy thy brother’s honour, because, if thou conductest thyself rightly, God will also raise thee to the same degree of honour; though he now, offended by thy sins, has condemned thee to ignominy.’ But even this does not meet my approbation. Others refine more philosophically, and say, that Cain would find God propitious, and would be assisted by his grace, if he should by faith bring purity of heart with his outward sacrifices. These I leave to enjoy their own opinion, but I fear they aim at what has little solidity. Jerome translates the word, ‘Thou shalt receive;’ understanding that God promises a reward to that pure and lawful worship which he requires. Having recited the opinions of others, let me now offer what appears to me more suitable. In the first place, the word שאת means the same thing as acceptance, and stands opposed to rejection. Secondly, since the discourse has respect to the matter in hand, I explain the saying as referring to sacrifices, namely, that God will accept them when rightly offered. They who are skilled in the Hebrew language know that here is nothing forced, or remote from the genuine signification of the word. Now the very order of things leads us to the same point: namely, that God pronounces those sacrifices repudiated and rejected, as being of no value, which are offered improperly; but that the oblation will be accepted, as pleasant and of good odour, if it be pure and legitimate. We now perceive how unjustly Cain was angry that his sacrifices were not honoured, seeing that God was ready to receive them with outstretched hands, provided they ceased to be faulty. At the same time, however, what I before said must be recalled to memory, that the chief point of well-doing is, for pious persons, relying on Christ the Mediator, and on the gratuitous reconciliation procured by him, to endeavour to worship God sincerely and without dissimulation. Therefore, these two things are joined together by a mutual connection: that the faithful, as often as they enter into the presence of God, are commended by the grace of Christ alone, their sins being blotted out; and yet that they bring thither true purity of heart.
And if thou doest not well. On the other hand, God pronounces a dreadful sentence against Cain, if he harden his mind in wickedness and indulge himself in his crime; for the address is very emphatical, because God not only repels his unjust complaint, but shows that Cain could have no greater adversary than that sin of his which he inwardly cherished. He so binds the impious man, by a few concise words, that he can find no refuge, as if he had said, ‘Thy obstinacy shall not profit thee; for, though thou shouldst have nothing to do with me, thy sin shall give thee no rest, but shall sharply drive thee on, pursue thee, and urge thee, and never suffer thee to escape.’ Hence it follows, that he not only raged in vain and to no profit; but was held guilty by his own inward conviction, even though no one should accuse him; for the expression, “sin lieth at the door,” relates to the interior judgment of the conscience, which presses upon the man convinced of his sin, and besieges him on every side. Although the impious may imagine that God slumbers in heaven, and may strive, as far as possible, to repel the fear of his judgment; yet sin will be perpetually drawing them back, though reluctant and fugitives, to that tribunal from which they endeavour to retire. The declarations even of heathens testify that they were not ignorant of this truth; for it is not to be doubted that, when they say, ‘Conscience is like a thousand witnesses,’ they compare it to a most cruel executioner. There is no torment more grievous or severe than that which is hence perceived; moreover, God himself extorts confessions of this kind. Juvenal says:—
“Heaven’s high revenge on human crimes behold;
Though earthly verdicts may be bought and sold,
His judge the sinner in his bosom bears,
And conscience racks him with tormenting cares.”
But the expression of Moses has peculiar energy. Sin is said to lie, but it is at the door; for the sinner is not immediately tormented with the fear of judgment; but, gathering around him whatever delights he is able, in order to deceive himself, he walks as in free space, and even revels as in pleasant meadows; when, however, he comes to the door, there he meets with sin, keeping constant guard; and then conscience, which before thought itself at liberty, is arrested, and receives double punishment for the delay.
And unto thee shall be his desire. Nearly all commentators refer this to sin, and think that, by this admonition, those depraved lusts are restrained which solicit and impel the mind of man. Therefore, according to their view, the meaning will be of this kind, ‘If sin rises against thee to subdue thee, why dost thou indulge it, and not rather labour to restrain and control it? for it is thy part to subdue and bring into obedience those affections in thy flesh which thou perceivest to be opposed to the will of God, and rebellious against him.’ But I suppose that Moses means something entirely different. I omit to notice that to the Hebrew word for sin is affixed the mark of the feminine gender, but that here two masculine relative pronouns are used. Certainly Moses does not treat particularly of the sin itself which was committed, but of the guilt which is contracted from it, and of the consequent condemnation. How, then, do these words suit, ‘Unto thee shall be his desire?’ There will, however, be no need for long refutation when I shall produce the genuine meaning of the expression. It rather seems to me a reproof, by which God charges the impious man with ingratitude, because he held in contempt the honour of primogeniture. The greater are the divine benefits with which any one of us is adorned, the more does he betray his impiety, unless he endeavours earnestly to serve the Author of grace to whom he is under obligation. When Abel was regarded as his brother’s inferior, he was, nevertheless, a diligent worshipper of God. But the first-born worshipped God negligently and perfunctorily, though he had, by the Divine kindness, arrived at so high a dignity; and, therefore, God enlarges upon his sin, because he had not at least imitated his brother, whom he ought to have surpassed as far in piety as he did in the degree of honour. Moreover, this form of speech is common among the Hebrews, that the desire of the inferior should be towards him to whose will he is subject; thus Moses speaks of the woman, (3:16,) that her desire should be to her husband. They, however, childishly trifle, who distort this passage to prove the freedom of the will; for if we grant that Cain was admonished of his duty in order that he might apply himself to the subjugation of sin, yet no inherent power of man is to be hence inferred; because it is certain that only by the grace of the Holy Spirit can the affections of the flesh be so mortified that they shall not prevail. Nor, truly, must we conclude, that as often as God commands anything we shall have strength to perform it, but rather we must hold fast the saying of Augustine, ‘Give what thou commandest, and command what thou wilt.’
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