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 the temptation to sin by resisting those emotions that would motivate sinful behavior. It is these destructive emotions (e.g., anger, jealousy, greed, pride, etc.,) that lead to sinful behavior and it is these emotions that must be controlled. Our war against sin is not with sin directly. Rather, our battle is one of choosing between God’s will and the temptation that arises from our emotions. Put more simply, we are not to succumb to sinful desire but instead must resist acting on its corresponding temptation.
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, (פָּנִים – paneem) 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 in a horribly sinful way.
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 mastered7)The root of the verb used here, mashal – here translated is ‘master’ – means someone in charge of or responsible for something, i.e., a master, foreman, directory, line-boss, etc. 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 because of his anger) 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”8)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
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||NOTE: The symbolism of the door is explicit in this, and most other, English translations.|
|2.||↑||Understandable because when the choice of an antecedent is not obvious it’s reasonably safe to favor proximity.|
|3.||↑||There are rare exceptions that occur in poetic passages. Genesis 4:7 is not such a passage.|
|4.||↑||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”|
|5.||↑||See Harris, et al (ref #1782a|
|6.||↑||Also see the article, “Jan2017 – On Being Human“|
|7.||↑||The root of the verb used here, mashal – here translated is ‘master’ – means someone in charge of or responsible for something, i.e., a master, foreman, directory, line-boss, etc.|
|8.||↑||Sarna, pp 33-34|