Sin Crouching At The Door

Here is my translation of this theologically important verse (Genesis 4:7):

If you do well, will you not be exalted? But, if you do not do well, sin blocks the door and its desire is for you. Therefore, you must master your emotions.

The key understanding in this verse is that Qayin failed to control his emotions. In this verse, the door of temptation(see, for example, the RSV translation below) was occupied by homicide (a sin) motivated by jealous anger. Qayin, unable to control his rage, sinned by killing his brother. God instructs Qayin (and we, the readers) that emotions whose expression would be sinful must be controlled.

In other words, we are to manage sin by resisting those emotions that lead to sinful behavior. It is destructive emotions (anger, jealousy, greed, pride, etc.,) that lead to sinful behavior and it is these emotions that must be controlled.

Now, on to the exegesis.

This interpretation is qualitatively different than the conventional understanding. Here’s the RSV’s translation1)NOTE: The symbolism of the door is explicit in this, and most other, English translations.:

If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Now, the RSV (and all of the other English translations I’ve studied) make a crucial [but understandable2)Understandable because when the choice of an antecedent is not obvious it’s reasonably safe to favor proximity.] grammatical mistake. A mistake that leads the reader to believe that it is sin that must be mastered. The mistake arises from a fundamental difference between English and Hebrew. Hebrew, unlike English, is inflected for gender. For example, the English indefinite pronouns (e.g., ‘it’, ‘they’, etc.,) can refer to any noun. So, for example, the pronoun ‘they’ can refer to either a group of males or a group of women.

Not so in biblical Hebrew. Hebrew indefinite pronouns must always refer to a correctly gendered noun3)There are rare exceptions that occur in poetic passages. Genesis 4:7 is not such a passage.. In this case, the Hebrew word for sin is female and the Hebrew indefinite pronouns translated as ‘its’ and ‘it’ both refer to a masculine noun. As the Hebrew word for ‘sin’ is feminine, ‘its’ and ‘it’ cannot refer to sin. Here’s the RSV’s translation again but I’ve left the indefinite pronouns out:

If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; [masculine noun’s] desire is for you, but you must master [the masculine noun].”

The question before us, then, is to what do these two pronouns refer. To answer that question we turn to the previous verse, 4:6. Again, from the RSV:

The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?

The phrase “fallen countenance” is translated from the Hebrew phrase,נָפְלוּ פָנֶיךָ, literally translated as “your face has fallen“. In biblical Hebrew the word for face, (פָּנִיםpaneem) is masculine4)By the way, the Hebrew word for ‘door’ is also masculine but as the antecedent of ‘it’ doesn’t make sense, e.g., “the door is crouching at the door” but when accompanied by an adjective ‘face’ is used to indicate a person’s emotions, moods, and dispositions. So, for example, a “hard” face is indicative of defiance (Jeremiah 5:3), impudence (Proverbs 7:13), ruthlessness (Deuteronomy 28:50). A “shining” face is evidence of joy (Job 29:24). A “shamed” face points to defeat, frustration, humiliation (2Sam 19:5). A “flaming” face is one convulsed by terror (Isaiah 13:8). An “evil” face is a face marked by distress and anxiety (Genesis 40:7). And a “fallen” face stems from very strong anger or displeasure (Genesis 4:5-6).5)See Harris, et al (ref #1782a

We learn from this verse that we are to master our natural emotional impulses6)Also see the article, “Jan2017 – On Being Human. Qayin allowed himself to express his anger.

sin blocks the door: is translated from the Hebrew phrase  לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ the literal meaning of which is “regarding the door, sin [is] lying down“. Cassuto points out that the door is symbolic of temptation and represents decisions with which are faced in our day-to-day living.

you must master your emotions: translated from the Hebrew phrase,וְאַתָּה תִּמְשָׁל־בּוֹ, meaning “and you must rule over it“. Rightly understood, ‘it’ refers to the anger expressed by Qayin’s face (his fallen countenance). The emotion to be mastered in this story is an anger so deep that its expression (homicide) would be a very grave sin. Qayin stood before temptation’s door (his desire to act on his resentment) and acquiesced by taking out his rage at God’s rejection of his sacrifice by killing his brother.

ASIDE: As most scholars will tell you, the translation of Genesis 4:5-7 “bristles with difficulties”7)Sarna, pp 33-34. Much of the controversy surrounds the literary nature of the text and Sarna’s book is a good place to start if you’re interested in this aspect of translation. One particular [mis]understanding common to a number of Evangelical interpretations is that it is a demon or the devil that crouches in the door. However, there really is no linguistic, contextual, or literary context for such an interpretation.

Now, go and study

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Genesis 1:11-12 – Of Fruit Trees And Omnipotence

In Genesis 1:11 God instructs the earth to bring forth, among other forms of vegetation, “trees of fruit making fruit1)Alternatively, “trees bearing fruit making fruit” or “trees bearing fruit continually“.. However, the next verse reveals that the earth failed to fulfill God’s instruction. Instead, we learn in verse 1:12 that the earth is only able to bring forth “trees making fruit“. What’s going on here? Is God not omnipotent after all? Or, is the earth like the other pantheistic gods of the Ancient Near East, possessed of will able to disobey the commands of the divine?

The answer must be – by a fair reading of the Hebrew text – Yes! For a detailed explanation see my latest As It Is Written article – March2017 – Trees of Fruit.

Now, go and study

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The Translation Of Genesis 15:6


Genesis 15:6 (Highlighted)

In this post1)NOTE: you can read or download a PDF version of this posting here – Sept2016 – Whose Righteousness – God’s or Abram’s?. we’ll conduct an in-depth examination of Genesis 15:6, a verse that is critically important to the Protestant theology of justification by faith alone. All Bibles, of which I am aware, interpret this verse as God justifying Abram (i.e., imputing righteousness to Abram) on the basis of Abram’s faith.

Whether this is a valid, supportable translation of this verse is, therefore, an important question. Accordingly, we begin by noting a basic problem with the English translations, i.e., they all add words not attested in the Hebrew. Now, this is not necessarily bad practice unless the added words give rise to ambiguity or no linguistic or contextual foundation exists to support the added word(s).

We begin with the KJV’s translation of Genesis 15:6.

And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.

The KJV translators added the pronoun ‘he’ (colored red) which leads to a profound ambiguity. Is God or Abram the antecedent of ‘he’? Taken by itself, there is no linguistic or contextual reason to choose one or the other2)However, as far as I know, no Bible translates 15:6 such that Abram is the antecedent of ‘he’..

The NRS translators get around the ambiguity by inserting the words “the LORD3)יהוָה – variously translated as Adonai, Yahweh, Jehovah, or the LORD for the subject of counted 4)יַּחְשְׁבֶהָ – variously translated as ‘reckoned‘, ‘credited‘, or ‘accepted‘ in the various English translations as the antecedent. Here’s the NRS translation:

And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

( NOTE: The substituted phrase is colored red)

The problem with the NRS translation is that the Hebrew, יהוָה, is not contained in the second clause the Hebrew of 15:6! If you do not have a Hebrew Bible, here is 15:6 as it appears in the Hebrew. The first clause is colored brown, the second clause is colored orange:

 וְהֶאֱמִן בַּיהוָה וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה 

Examine both clauses and note that since יהוָה does not appear in the second clause, the NRS translation cannot be supported.

The Septuagint makes a different, but more subtle translation mistake in order to eliminate the ambiguity. They simply translate into Greek the Hebrew verb corresponding to ‘counted’ (ἐλογίσθη5)= indicative, aorist, passive, 3rd person singular) using the passive voice.Translated this way, the Septuagint’s translation reads,

And Abram believed God, and it was counted6)Passive form of ‘counted’ to him for righteousness.

But, this doesn’t really work either – for two reasons. First, it simply transfers the ambiguity from the subject of ‘counted’ to its object pronoun, ‘him’ (colored red). Thus, if the antecedent of ‘him’ is Abram, the subject of ‘counted’ must be God and all is consistent with the Christian theology of “justification by faith alone”. If, however, the antecedent is God, then Abram is doing the counting and it’s God’s righteousness that is in view, not Abram’s.

Second, the underlying Hebrew verb from which the Greek was translated7)יַּחְשְׁבֶהָ – Qal, waw consecutive imperfect, 3rd person with a 3rd person, singular suffix is not in the passive voice. It’s in the active voice. Thus, the use of “it was reckoned” is simply not attested. The Septuagint’s version constitutes a rather gross mistranslation.

So, what if these (and other) translators had just translated the actual Hebrew  without adding additional words or using misconjugated verbs? Had they done so, the result would be unambiguous. So, let’s dig into this idea of simply translating the Hebrew as it appears in the text. Here is a literal rendering of the text:

“Then-he-believed in-the-LORD and-reckoned-it to-him righteousness.”

(NOTE: the hyphenated English words are translated from a single Hebrew word. For example, the first Hebrew word, וְהֶאֱמִן, translates to the three English words “Then-he-believed

Grammatically this translation is completely correct and accurately reflects the Hebrew source. No words are inserted and the grammar is correct. So, what can we say about its interpretation?

Grammatically, the Hebrew of 15:6 consists of two independent clauses. Note that the subject of the verb ‘believed’ (הֶאֱמִן) in the first clause is Abram 8)From context – see the previous verse but the subject of the verb in the second clause is not, as we’ve seen, explicit. If the subject is not explicit, how does this make the text less ambiguous?

Actually, it does not. Recall your high school grammar and the rules governing implied subjects when dealing with multiple clauses (Hebrew and most other languages have the same rules). The rule is this: if two clauses in the same sentence are independent but only the first clause has an explicit subject, the the verb of the second subject is the same as the subject in the first clause. An example might be more illuminating.

Jim drove to the shopping center and walked home.

By the multiple clause rule, Jim is the subject of ‘walked’. Now, here’s another example constructed to be analogous to Genesis 15:5-6:

Mr. Anderson, Jim’s father took his son to the Mercedes dealer and promised that, upon graduation from college, Jim would have the pick of any car on the lot. He knew his dad would keep his promise and thought him  generous.

righteousness of godIn the first sentence (analogous to 15:5), Mr. Anderson (like God) makes a promise to his son, Jim (like Abram). In the second sentence (analogous to 15:6), Jim (Abram) takes his dad’s (God’s) promise as a certainty and, accordingly, regards his dad (God) as generous.

Now, applying this analogy (and the grammar rule) to 15:5, the verse correctly reads as Abram declaring the righteousness of God. The verse is not about Abram’s faith, but God’s.

Translation Details

Genesis 15:69)The translation key

צְדָקָה לּוֹ וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ בַּיהוָה וְהֶאֱמִן
 ncfsa  prep+3ms  cj+qal wcons ipf 3ms+3fs prep+Pn cj+hiphil, pf 3ms
 righteousness  to-him  and-reckoned-it  in-the-LORD  then-he-believed


וְהֶאֱמִן (və·he·emin)

This verb is structured with a vav prefixed to the verb’s perfect form indicating a non-consecutive narrative10)i.e., this clause is not part of a narrative sequence of clauses or it is the termination of a narrative sequence.. If the composer of the narrative had wanted to show a simple narrative sequence, he would have used the vav consecutive with the preterite. The perfect with vav conjunctive can have a variety of discourse functions, but here it probably serves to highlight Abram’s response to God’s promise by recognizing and attesting God’s righteousness – see discussion of vayyachshəveha below.

In the Hiphil (causative) stem, this verb means “to cause to be certain, sure” or “to be certain about,” “to be assured of.” In this sense the word in the Hiphil conjugation is commonly translated as “believed”. Unfortunately, the modern  conception of belief, in contrast to its ancient biblical meaning, has become a simple interior assent to the existence of a material object or agreement with an abstract idea.

In the causative sense of the verb, the clause claims that Abram came to be certain of the LORD’s promises over the course of the biblical narrative beginning in chapter 1211)See, for example, De Gruyter, Walter, Genesis 15: A Theological Compendium of Pentateuchal History, pp 80-82. The first clause, then, is about Abram having come to certainty that the LORD’s promises would be fulfilled. By using the Hiphil stem to terminate a narrative, the LORD’s promise of many descendents was the last drop of glue cementing Abram’s confidence in God’s faithfulness, i.e., fulfilling His promises.

Note the second word, בַּיהוָה, (ba·A·do·nai) is the name of the LORD prefixed with the preposition (Bet). Bet is most commonly translated as ‘in’, so that “in the LORD” is a reasonable translation. However, given the discussion of the previous verb, Abram’s belief is grounded in God’s promise, not the person of God. This becomes clear in the discussion of the second verb, וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ(vay·yach·shə·ve·ha), translated as “and-reckoned-it” – see below.


Vayyachshəveha translates into three English words, “and-reckoned-it“, where ‘reckoned’ is a third person masculine singular verb. As such the ‘he’ is implied, not explicit. In many cases, it is safe to add ‘he’ to 3rd person, masculine singular verbs so long as the added pronoun does not cause the kind of ambiguity exemplified in most English translations of 15:6.



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Biblical Hebrew: Lessons 1, 2, and 3 Now Available

podcast_cover_art - CopyLessons 1, 2, and 3 covering the definite article, the conjunction vav, the direct object marker, prepositions and a beginning set of nouns are all available for testing.

Suggestions and comments are always appreciated. Click on the Syllabus tab above when ready.

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