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So I was spending some time with the Hebrew under the Cain and Abel narrative in Genesis 4. I noticed a peculiarity in the Hebrew in God's instructions to Cain after his offering was rejected. I think it may challenge the way that the theology of sin is understood since this is the first place we see the term.

I'm focusing on Genesis 4:7

(KJV) "sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him."

(NIV) "sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

(NRSV) "sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

(CEB) "sin will be waiting at the door ready to strike! It will entice you, but you must rule over it."

But here is the peculiar thing: Hebrew has gender on its pronouns unlike many english terms, and its nouns are also gendered (also unlike english). You can see this come through in the KJV where the verse ends with "him" but all the others end with "it".

Here is a quick link to the interlinear Hebrew for reference.

The question I have is basically: "What is the "it" which the end pronoun refers to and what does that mean?

The most basic form of my confusion is that "sin" (חַטָּאָה) is unquestionably a feminine noun. But the final "it" that Cain must master is a masculine it. Also "its desire" has a masculine possessive. But again, this is not referring to the noun for sin (which is clearly feminine).

But the word for door is masculine. Is that what one must master? I think trying to trace pronoun genders for meaning is a fascinating way of looking at the text, and this one has me thrown a bit.

  • the truth is that "crouches" (רבץ) is already in masculine form (the feminine form would be רבצת), so you may as well ask why that term is masculine instead of focusing on "it" that's in the end of the verse. I see you already included that in your answer. +1. – Bach Jun 1 at 16:02
  • Thank @Bach, it's a participle, so "it/he/she crouches," the conjugated subject-verb-action, is a false translation and loses the anthropomorphic image that the author picked as well as the gender split. The participle converts the verb to a noun that is the manifestation of that action. – Gus L. Jun 1 at 16:47
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As normally happens, when articulating this question, the answer seems to have appeared.

The Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon says: "noun feminine (Genesis 4:7 no exception)"... It says that the next word, "crouching" is not "sin [is] crouching (e.g. verb conjugated 3fs as all the major translations render it)" but instead is a participle (noun form from verb) which means a better translation is "sin (feminine) [is] a crouching one/creature (masculine)."

So a translation I might make emphasizes the anthropomorphization of sin into a crouching beast at the door. Furthermore, the NIV has a possessive "your door" instead of what the hebrew says as "the door" which the other translations I mentioned capture.

Here's what I have. I would love criticisms on this. I was unclear if the referent of our rule was over the door or over sin, the thing. I also converted "you should rule" (which NIV/NRSV/CEB suggest, but KJV does not) to the future statement of how Cain will live with this beast at the door.

Here's my translation with more clarity on the pronoun references:

Genesis 4:7b, Sin is a crouching being at the door. That being's desire is for you, Cain, and you will rule over that creature.

It appears that sin is a thing that is not in us, but that is outside of us and that we rule over. But that's a whole separate question. There is a verb "to sin" (to miss/to go wrong) but that is not used here. That seems to be capturing the meaning of the Hebrew better.

Does that make sense?

Edit: Found the following in Bereshit Rebbah 22 (c300-500AD).

It is not written here 'she crouches' [chatat is feminine] but 'he crouches' - in the beginning the sin is weak like a lady, and after it strengthens as a male. Said rabbi Akiva: in the beginning it looks like a thread of a spider, and at the end it becomes like the rope of a boat, since it is written...

These ancient Rabbi don't seem to notice the participle and that it is the referent of the pronouns. "The croucher" is clearly a masculine noun and thus the target of the pronouns. It has nothing to do with some sort of gender transition and/or the strength/weakness of females vs males.

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In your opening paragraph, you seem? to be making an assumption that some try to assign the ‘it’ to ‘sin’, to fit their theology? The ‘it’ is referring to the ‘desire’, and Cain is told to master that desire. And this view fits the genders of the Hebrew in that text.

Explanation: The ‘desire’ is ‘caused’, or is a result of the ‘sin’ [noun]. The ‘fall’ of man resulted in spiritual death, separation from God, separation from the righteousness that God provided/gave to Adam. That ‘sin nature’, (flesh) which essentially works at being, or wanting to be self-righteous. That ‘desire’ to ‘work’ for, or ‘be’, or ‘rely’ on self-righteousness is what Cain was told to master. (Control). And this desire applies to all of us, the ‘flesh’ wants to dominate.

When analysing Hebrew, you need to avoid trying to read any doctrinal foundation into its meaning.

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  • But they weren’t separate from God. Cain and Abel were right there cooking offerings and talking with God. It was separation from the tree of life and cursing of the ground and womb that were the consequences of eating the fruit. – Gus L. Jul 10 at 9:46
  • They were dead. Death means separation. You are looking at this situation ‘naturally’. They were physically alive, there was a physical presence, but they were spiritually dead. Spiritually separated. THEY had no life, even though their physical bodies did. – Dave Jul 10 at 19:30
  • No such distinction is made in that text. Death is not a dualistic concept in the Hebrew Bible as far as I know. – Gus L. Jul 10 at 20:11
  • Then .... how do you see the Hebrew Bible defining death? – Dave Jul 10 at 21:35
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(Genesis 4:7) What is Cain Ruling Over? Sin? The Door?

The question I have is basically: "What is the "it" which the end pronoun refers to and what does that mean?

"it " meaning Sin

Genesis 4:3-7 (NASB)

3 So it came about [a]in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground. 4 Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; 5 but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. 6 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, [b]will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

God urged Cain to "do well to doing good.” (Vs7a) .God tells him, "But if you do not to well, sin is crouching at the door"(Vs 7b). Then God asks him, "but you must get the mastery of it" ( "it " meaning Sin)

Obviously God wanted Cain to respond to his warning and to be restored to favor.

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