Old Testament

Perhaps Sin is Not Crouching at the Door (Genesis 4:7)

Whenever one challenges a translation that most English translations use, it is natural to be skeptical. I know I was… at least initially. But, as I have chewed on the data and worked it over in my mind, I have become much more sympathetic to the idea that most English translations get Genesis 4:7 wrong.

Genesis 4:7 is most commonly interpreted as sin personified as a wild animal crouching outside the door, ready to pounce! But, I would like to advocate for an alternative understanding. Perhaps Genesis 4:7 is not talking about sin crouching at the door but about God providing a sin offering for Cain as a means of reconciliation.

English Translations and Genesis 4:7

I imagine that most readers did not even know there was a possible alternative rendering of Genesis 4:7. This is largely because of the near-unanimous translation of Genesis 4:7. Here is a list of major English translations with their rendering of Genesis 4:7.

ESVIf you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”
NASB“If you do well, 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.”
CSBIf you do what is right, won’t you be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
NETIs it not true that if you do what is right, you will be fine? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to dominate you, but you must subdue it.”
NIVIf you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
LEBIf you do well will I not accept you? But if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. And its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”  
KJVIf thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.
NKJVIf 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.”  
RSVIf 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.”
YLTIs there not, if thou dost well, acceptance? and if thou dost not well, at the opening a sin-offering is crouching, and unto thee its desire, and thou rulest over it.’

A quick survey of the major English translations of Genesis 4:7 shows that only the YLT (Young’s Literal Translation) departs from the norm. All other translations are rather unified on this verse. So, why does the YLT offer the translation of sin offering rather than sin?

Sin and Sin Offering are the Same Word in Hebrew

It may surprise the non-Hebrew student to know that in the Hebrew Bible, the word for sin and sin offering are the same. The Hebrew word is hattat (חַטָּאת), and the premier Hebrew Lexicon (known as HALOT) states that hattat is used 155 times in reference to sin, and 135 times in reference to sin offering. If you think that is confusing, remember that in most cases the meaning is contextually obvious.

Perhaps an illustration might help. For example, the word “bank” in English has many different meanings. And although the word “bank” can mean more than four distinct ideas, the fluent English speaker has no problems discerning which meaning is intended because the context usually makes that clear. So it is in other languages, and so it is with the word hattat (sin, or, sin offering). So, this is not really a textual issue. We know what the text says. But what does it mean?

The Complicating Factor of Hebrew Gender

Many languages utilize gender to communicate effectively. For example, in Spanish, when referring to small house, you would use the phrase casa pequeña. Casa, the Spanish word for house, is feminine (usually marked by ending in a), and so the adjective pequeña must also end with the letter a. But, if you were referring to a small horse, the phrase would be caballo pequeño. The Spanish word for horse, caballo, is masculine (usually marked by ending in o). Thus, the adjective must now agree with the noun it modifies, taking the form pequeño. Isn’t grammar great?!

Although English does not follow any gender rules for grammar, Hebrew does. And the word for sin or sin offering, hattat, is feminine. However, the complication is that the words that are supposed to be modifying sin or sin offering in Genesis 4:7 are masculine! Let me try to illustrate that with my own translation, emphasizing the gender of the words in question.

If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin (fem)…. It is he who is crouching at the door. His desire is for you, but you must rule over him.

So, to be clear, sin is feminine. However, the verb “crouching” is masculine, along with the modifier of desire and object of rule. So this verse is a grammatical oddity and not your average Hebrew! How do we make sense of these grammatical oddities?

Examples of Masculine Modifiers to the Feminine Word Sin Offering

Although having masculine modifiers with a feminine noun is rare, it is not without precedent. In fact, the best precedent we have in the Hebrew Bible is when a male sin offering is used. For example, Exodus 29:14 talks about a sin offering (feminine) but refers to the offering with a masculine modifier. This works because the sin offering is a male bull. Leviticus 4:21 and 4:23-24 provide similar examples where the feminine noun, sin offering, is referred to by masculine modifiers because the sin offering itself is male.

So, although it is rare to have masculine modifiers for a feminine noun (we should expect feminine modifiers), the examples we have of this are when the sin offering is male (a bull, goat, etc.).

Challenging the Idea of “Crouching” in Genesis 4:7

But a sin offering would not be crouching ready to pounce! The idea of sin crouching at the door ready to pounce is such vivid imagery and preaches quite well. But, the word translated as “crouching” might not mean that at all. It is the Hebrew word ravats (רבץ), which is often used of the peaceful rest of flocks and herds. In fact, you are probably familiar with Psalm 23:2, “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” The word for “lie down” is the same word, ravats (רבץ). I have yet to see a commentary on Psalm 23 say that the Lord makes us crouch down ready to pounce. The point is that the word for crouching could just as easily (perhaps more easily) refer to lying down, resting, and waiting peacefully. Context has to determine that as well.

What Would Genesis 4:7 Mean as a Sin Offering?

If we take hattat to mean sin offering instead of sin, a viable interpretation of Genesis 4:7 is still possible. Rather than a warning that sin is ready to pounce and devour Cain, this verse would be an offer of God’s mercy and an opportunity to offer a sacrifice to reconcile with God. If I might paraphrase Genesis 4:7 it would be like this:

If you do the right thing, you will be accepted. But if you do not do the right thing, there is a sin offering available for you to use to cover that transgression.    

The last phrase is most problematic. “Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” could be interpreted in a couple ways in this view. Some have interpreted the “Its desire” as “His desire” in a reference to Abel’s desire and love for Cain. And as the older brother, Cain must “rule over him.” That works quite well with the grammar of the passage, but the difficulty is that Abel might be too far removed to be the natural referent of the pronoun. It is not impossible, but is a little difficult in my mind.

The other main option would be to take the masculine pronouns as a referent to the sin offering. So, the desire of the sin offering is for Cain. In this case, it is the personification of the sin offering (which is similar to how the traditional view personifies sin in this context). And the phrase, “you must rule over it” would be a reference to the need for Cain to care for the sin offering and appropriately offer it.

I should note that the word for “rule” is not inherently negative. It is the word that is used of the luminaries having “rule” over the day and night (Gen 1:16), and of Abraham’s servant who watched over all his possessions (Gen 24:2). So, a generic care might be completely appropriate in this context.

Why Talk about a Door in Genesis 4:7?

One last piece of evidence that I think is worth considering would be the mention of the “door” (פֶּתַח). Although the typical understanding of this passage is metaphorical, specifically that sin is crouching just outside the door, ready to pounce once someone exits, it is possible this reference to the door could be actual.

This word for door is the same word that is used regularly for the entrance to the tabernacle (cf. Exod 29:4, 11, 32; 38:8, 30; 40:5, 6, etc.). Although the tabernacle or temple did not yet exist, it later became the place for the Israelite to bring his sacrifice (Lev 1:3). In fact, the altar is specifically described as being “at the entrance” (פֶּתַח) of the tabernacle (Lev 1:5).

If, as I would contend, the tabernacle and temple are symbolically oriented to point back to the garden of Eden, then the door referred to in Genesis 4:7 could simply be the entrance to the garden of Eden. When mankind was banished from the garden of Eden, a cherub was placed east of the garden, guarding the entrance (Gen 3:24). So, the garden of Eden, just like the tabernacle (Exod 26:18-22), had an east entrance.

Rather than humanity going as far away from the garden as possible, it is more likely they stayed nearby. And whenever they offered sacrifices to the Lord, they most likely offered them at the entrance of the garden, the place of closest proximity to God’s presence. The mention of the door/entrance in Genesis 4:7 gives some strong considerations why it might be better to translate hattat as sin offering rather than sin.

Newer is Not Always Better

It might interest readers to know that Michael Morales has written an academic treatment on this issue, proposing that sin offering is a more viable translation. In Morales’s article, he mentions the fact that, in addition to Young’s Literal Translation, Adoniram Judson (1788–1850), Adam Clarke (1762–1832), and Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown (1877) all translate hattat as sin offering.

The Greek translation of the Old Testament, which happened sometime in the 3rd century BC, also gives evidence that the sacrificial context was thought by those translators to be prominent.

“Have you not sinned if you offer rightly but do not divide rightly? Be still! His recourse will be to you, and you will rule him.”

Lexham English Septuagint, Gen 4:7

Notice that, although the issue of sin versus sin offering is not really addressed in the translation, the translators clearly identify a context of sacrifice. Furthermore, they also take the last phrase to be a reference to Abel (as mentioned earlier).

This is obviously a bit of a difficult issue. But, I am becoming increasingly convinced that, although most English translations translate Genesis 4:7 as sin, there are strong reasons for challenging that interpretation.

Photo by Geran de Klerk on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

4 Comments

  • Stephen Duwe

    Great article! Helpful indeed. Loved finding your website and seeing all you’ve been up to since college/seminary.

    After reading this, my thought becomes: what does this mean for Gen 3:16 and the curse on the woman? As many do, I will connect these two verses in teaching on the curse or womanhood or counseling, etc. to explain the “desire” of the woman. it seams to come up often enough. Wondering if I need to adjust my parallel thoughts between the verses?

    • Peter Goeman

      Great to hear from you Stephen! Glad the article was thought provoking. Interestingly enough, I used to interpret Gen 3:16 positive and 4:7 negative. But over the past few years I have moved to interpreting both as positive statements. Gen 3:16 speaks of the positive love a woman has for her husband (cf Song of Songs 7:10). Irv Busenitz wrote an article that really impacted me on that issue. But early on I saw more disconnect between the two passages. I think I’m moving slightly closer now since I interpret them both more positively now. It is an interesting issue.

  • Michele

    I love this article SO MUCH. My entire blog site is to try to encourage others to study the words in their bibles, but I never see anyone else explaining this, until your article here. =) We can see all sorts of truths when we look at the Hebrew and Greek and parts of speech… it is quite amazing. I’ve found 2 major things thus far: No deadly wound was healed, and the English words for forever, eternal, eternity and everlasting (G165, G166) does not mean that AT ALL. The proper word for eternal and everlasting is G126 which is only used 2 times. It’s pretty incredible and just shows the depths that Satan will go to attempt to deceive God’s set-apart saints. Thank you for sharing, Peter! <3

  • Richard Foerster

    Finally, I have found someone who would more acurately voice my thinking on this subject. For years I thought there was another intrepretation for this verse. The conventional view often troubled me, so I looked deeper and was amazed at how easily (and grammatically viable) this optional view ‘can’ fit. My immediate problem stemmed from the parrallell reference (from Gen 3:16 – 4:) with the use of desire for both Eve and Cain. I tried to reconcile Eve’s desire with that of a crouching lion. seeking to devour Adam. Along with realizing that ‘crouching’ could also mean ‘resting’. I had to allow further studies to understand the contextual use (the text is about the “offerings”) and close association of the sin/sin offering (Christ is considered as sin/sin offering for us 2Cor 5:21). My searching opened the possibility that both venues promote a more accurate warning / promise from GOD. It was refreshing to see that God was offering a solution to Cain’s diliema, as well as a warning. The focus could be from which side of the sin/offering you stand.

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