Crouching Demon, Hidden Lamb
‘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 rule over it.’ Genesis 4:7 raises a lot of questions. What does it mean for Cain to do well? Who or what is the ḥattāt (usually translated ‘sin’) crouching at the door? And where is this door? The grammar also raises some questions. Since ḥattāt is feminine, why is the participle ‘crouching’ masculine? And why are the pronouns in the final sentence masculine (lit. ‘his desire’ and ‘over him’) if they are referring to the feminine ḥattāt?
I’ve read various answers to these questions, but recently I stumbled across an approach I hadn’t seen before. In a 2012 article titled ‘Crouching Demon, Hidden Lamb: Resurrecting An Exegetical Fossil in Genesis 4.7’, L. Michael Morales argues in favour of an alternative translation which had some proponents in the 17th-19th centuries.
Noting the now widely accepted cultic elements of the early chapters of Genesis and especially the parallels between the garden in Eden and the tabernacle/temple, Morales proposes that ḥattāt should be translated as ‘sin offering’, a common meaning for the word, rather than ‘sin’. The door (petaḥ) would then be the most recently mentioned entranceway in Genesis, the now guarded entrance to the garden (Gen. 3:23-24). This, he suggests, seems plausible in light of later legislation which commands that the people of Israel bring their offerings to the door (petaḥ) of the tabernacle (Lev. 1:3, 3:2, 4:4). On this reading, the use of the masculine participle (‘crouching’) with the feminine noun (‘sin offering’) could potentially be justified if the sin offering was a male animal (Exodus 29:14 may offer a parallel). The idea, then, is that there is an animal crouching at the entrance to the garden ready to be sacrificed. The first half of the verse could therefore be rendered: ‘If you do not do well, at the door a sin offering is lying down’ (p.188).
The alternative reading of the second half of the verse is, I think, less convincing. (Morales does almost admit this: ‘[T]his translation is not entirely free from difficulty’, p.188.) Retaining the masculine gender of the pronouns, Morales proposes ‘and to you will be his desire, but you must rule over him’. This is a pretty literal rendering of the Hebrew but leaves the identity of the ‘his’ and ‘him’ unspecified. Morales argues that the constant contrast between Cain and Abel throughout the narrative and the fact that no other character has been introduced implies that God is talking about Abel and that this is part of the frequent Genesis theme of competition for the rights of the firstborn. Abel will desire the rights, but Cain is to retain them and exert them over Abel. The parallel phrase in Genesis 3:16 is seen to support this reading as both are understood to be talking about the impact that a sinful act has on a human relationship.
Putting the pieces together, Morales proposes the understanding: ‘If you do well will not [your countenance] be lifted? If you do not do well, at the door a sin offering is lying down. Now to you will be his desire, but you must rule over him’ (p.186).
It’s an interesting reading and a good way of solving some of the difficulties produced by the grammar and the traditional translation, but I think there are some problems. Perhaps the biggest problem is that God’s words to Cain become not a warning to take control over the sinful desire facing him, but a reassurance that if he can’t overcome this temptation he can subsequently gain forgiveness. While it’s certainly true that God is gracious and merciful, and that this can be seen in Genesis, this portrays God as having a rather low view of the severity of sin. ‘Try not to do it, but there’s always the opportunity for forgiveness if you do.’ This doesn’t sit easily with the perspective of God on sin elsewhere in the book (Gen. 2:17; 4:10-12; 6:5-7 et al).
It is also hard to understand why, if God had given a clear offer of forgiveness, Cain doesn’t take him up on this offer and make this sacrifice after killing Abel. The absence of such a sacrifice is particularly striking in light of the fact that Cain doesn’t ignore God after his offence against Abel. When challenged by God, Cain first tries to cover up what he has done (4:9) but then appeals to God’s gracious nature by claiming his punishment is more than he can bear (4:13). If God had told him there would be the opportunity to make a sin offering if he did the wrong thing, why did he not do that?
Morales’ reading does a good job of dealing with the grammatical difficulties in Genesis 4:7 and answers some of the questions raised by the more common rendering, but ultimately it fails to make sense in the broader context of the narrative. The complexity of the crouching demon remains.