Genesis 4:7
If you do well, shall you not be accepted? and if you do not well, sin lies at the door. And to you shall be his desire, and you shall rule over him.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(7) If thou doest well.—This most difficult verse is capable of a satisfactory interpretation, provided that we refuse to admit into this ancient narrative the ideas of a subsequent age. Literally, the words mean, If thou doest well, is there not lifting up? It had just been said that his countenance fell; and this lifting up is often elsewhere applied to the countenance. (Comp. Job 10:15; Job 11:15.) “Instead, then, of thy present gloomy despondent mood, in which thou goest about with downcast look, thou shalt lift up thy head, and have peace and good temper beaming in thine eyes as the result of a quiet conscience.” The second half of the verse is capable of two meanings. First: “if thou doest not well, sin lieth (croucheth as a beast of prey) at the door, and its desire is to thee, to make thee its victim; but thou shalt rule over it, and overcome the temptation.” The objection to this is: that while sin is feminine, the verb and pronouns are masculine. There are, indeed, numerous instances of a verb masculine with a noun feminine, but the pronouns are fatal, though most Jewish interpreters adopt this feeble explanation. The other interpretation is: “If thou doest not well, sin croucheth at the door, that is, lies dangerously near thee, and puts thee in peril. Beware, therefore, and stand on thy guard; and then his desire shall be unto thee, and thou shalt rule over him. At present thou art vexed and envious because thy younger brother is rich and prosperous, while thy tillage yields thee but scanty returns. Do well, and the Divine blessing will rest on thee, and thou wilt recover thy rights of primogeniture, and thy brother will look up to thee in loving obedience.” (Comp. the loving subjection of the wife in Genesis 3:16.)

We have in this verse proof of a struggle in Cain’s conscience. Abel was evidently outstripping him in wealth; his flocks were multiplying, and possibly his younger brothers were attaching themselves to him in greater numbers than to Cain. Moreover, there was a more marked moral growth in him, and his virtue and piety were more attractive than Cain’s harsher disposition. This had led to envy and malice on the part of Cain, increased, doubtless, by the favour of God shown to Abel’s sacrifice; but he seems to have resisted these evil feelings. Jehovah would not have remonstrated thus kindly with him had he been altogether reprobate. Possibly, too, for a time he prevailed over his evil tempers. It is a gratuitous assumption that the murder followed immediately upon the sacrifice. The words of the Almighty rather show that repentance was still possible, and that Cain might still recover the Divine favour, and thereby regain that pre-eminence which was his by right of primogeniture, but which he felt that he was rapidly losing by Abel’s prosperity and more loving ways.

Genesis

THE GROWTH AND POWER OF SIN

WHAT CROUCHES AT THE DOOR

Genesis 4:7
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These early narratives clothe great moral and spiritual truths in picturesque forms, through which it is difficult for us to pierce. In the world’s childhood God spoke to men as to children, because there were no words then framed which would express what we call abstract conceptions. They had to be shown by pictures. But these early men, simple and childlike as they were, had consciences; and one abstraction they did understand, and that was sin. They knew the difference between good and evil.

So we have here God speaking to Cain, who was wroth because of the rejection of his sacrifice; and in dim, enigmatical words setting forth the reason of that rejection. ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?’ Then clearly his sacrifice was rejected because it was the sacrifice of an evil-doer. His description as such is given in the words of my text, which are hard for us to translate into our modern, less vivid and picturesque language. ‘If thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door; and unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ Strange as the words sound, if I mistake not, they convey some very solemn lessons, and if well considered, become pregnant with meaning.

The key to the whole interpretation of them is to remember that they describe what happens after, and because of, wrong-doing. They are all suspended on ‘If thou doest not well.’ Then, in that case, for the first thing-’sin lieth at the door.’ Now the word translated here ‘lieth’ is employed only to express the crouching of an animal, and frequently of a wild animal. The picture, then, is of the wrong-doer’s sin lying at his door there like a crouching tiger ready to spring, and if it springs, fatal. ‘If thou doest not well, a wild beast crouches at thy door.’

Then there follow, with a singular swift transition of the metaphor, other words still harder to interpret, and which have been, as a matter of fact, interpreted in very diverse fashions. ‘And unto thee shall be its’’ {I make that slight alteration upon our version} ‘desire, and thou shalt rule over it.’ Where did we hear these words before? They were spoken to Eve, in the declaration of her punishment. They contain the blessing that was embedded in the curse. ‘Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.’ The longing of the pure womanly heart to the husband of her love, and the authority of the husband over the loving wife-the source of the deepest joy and purity of earth, is transferred, by a singularly bold metaphor, to this other relationship, and, in horrible parody of the wedded union and love, we have the picture of the sin, that was thought of as crouching at the sinner’s door like a wild beast, now, as it were, wedded to him. He is mated to it now, and it has a kind of tigerish, murderous desire after him, while he on his part is to subdue and control it.

The reference of these clauses to the sin which has just been spoken of involves, no doubt, a very bold figure, which has seemed to many readers too bold to be admissible, and the words have therefore been supposed to refer to Abel, who, as the younger brother, would be subordinate to Cain. But such a reference breaks the connection of the sentence, introduces a thought which is not a consequence of Cain’s not doing well, has no moral bearing to warrant its appearance here, and compels us to travel an inconveniently long distance back in the context to find an antecedent to the ‘his’ and ‘him’ of our text. It seems to be more in consonance, therefore, with the archaic style of the whole narrative, and to yield a profounder and worthier meaning, if we recognise the boldness of the metaphor, and take ‘sin’ as the subject of the whole. Now all this puts in concrete, metaphorical shape, suited to the stature of the bearers, great and solemn truths. Let us try to translate them into more modern speech.

1. First think, then, of that wild beast which we tether to our doors by our wrong-doing.

We talk about ‘responsibility’ and ‘guilt,’ and ‘consequences that never can be effaced,’ and the like. And all these abstract and quasi-philosophical terms are implied in the grim, tremendous metaphor of my text ‘If thou doest not well, a tiger, a wild beast, is crouching at thy door.’ We are all apt to be deceived by the imagination that when an evil deed is done, it passes away and leaves no permanent results. The lesson taught the childlike primitive man here, at the beginning, before experience had accumulated instances which might demonstrate the solemn truth, was that every human deed is immortal, and that the transitory evil thought, or word, or act, which seems to fleet by like a cloud, has a permanent being, and hereafter haunts the life of the doer, as a real presence. If thou doest not well, thou dost create a horrible something which nestles beside thee henceforward. The momentary act is incarnated, as it were, and sits there at the doer’s doorpost waiting for him; which being turned into less forcible but more modern language, is just this: every sin that a man does has perennial consequences, which abide with the doer for evermore.

I need not dwell upon illustrations of that to any length. Let me just run over two or three ways in which it is true. First of all, there is that solemn fact which we put into a long word that comes glibly off people’s lips, and impresses them very little-the solemn fact of responsibility. We speak in common talk of such and such a thing lying at some one’s door. Whether the phrase has come from this text I do not know. But it helps to illustrate the force of these words, and to suggest that they mean this, among other things, that we have to answer for every deed, however evanescent, however long forgotten. Its guilt is on our heads. Its consequences have to be experienced by us. We drink as we have brewed. As we make our beds, so we lie on them. There is no escape from the law of consequences. ‘If ‘twere done, when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.’ But seeing that it is not done when ‘tis done, then perhaps it would be better that it were not done at all. Your deed of a moment, forgotten almost as soon as done, lies there at your door; or to take a more modern and commercial figure, it is debited to your account, and stands inscribed against you for ever.

Think how you would like it, if all your deeds from your childhood, all your follies, your vices, your evil thoughts, your evil impulses, and your evil actions, were all made visible and embodied there before you. They are there, though you do not see them yet. All round your door they sit, ready to meet you and to bay out condemnation as you go forth. They are there, and one day you will find out that they are. For this is the law, certain as the revolution of the stars and fixed as the pillars of the firmament: ‘Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap’ There is no seed which does not sprout in the harvest of the moral life. Every deed germinates according to its kind. For all that a man does he has to carry the consequences, and every one shall bear his own burden. ‘If thou doest not well,’ it is not, as we fondly conceive it sometimes to be, a mere passing deflection from the rule of right, which is done and done with, but we have created, as out of our very own substance, a witness against ourselves whose voice can never be stifled. ‘If thou doest not well’ thy sin takes permanent form and is fastened to thy door.

And then let me remind you, too, how the metaphor of our text is confirmed by other obvious facts, on which I need but briefly dwell. Putting aside all the remoter bearings of that thought of responsibility, I suppose we all admit that we have consciences; I suppose that we all know that we have memories; I suppose we all of us have seen, in the cases of others, and have experienced for ourselves, how deeds long done and long forgotten have an awful power of rising again after many long years.

Be sure that your memory has in it everything that you ever did. A landscape may be hidden by mists, but a puff of wind will clear them away, and it will all lie there, visible to the furthest horizon. There is no fact more certain than the extraordinary swiftness and completeness with which, in certain circumstances of life, and often very near the close of it, the whole panorama of the past may rise again before a man, as if one lightning flash showed all the dreary desolation that lay behind him. There have been men recovered from drowning and the like, who have told us that, as in an instant, there seemed unrolled before their startled eyes the whole scroll of their earthly career.

The records of memory are like those pages on which you write with sympathetic ink, which disappears when dry, and seems to leave the page blank. You have only to hold it before the fire, or subject it to the proper chemical process, and at once it stands out legible. You are writing your biography upon the fleshly tables of your heart, my brother; and one day it will all be spread out before you, and you will be bid to read it, and to say what you think of it. The stings of a nettle will burn for days, if they are touched with water. The sting and inflammation of your evil deeds, though it has died down, is capable of being resuscitated, and it will be.

What an awful menagerie of unclean beasts some of us have at our doors! What sort of creatures have you tethered at yours? Crawling serpents, ugly and venomous; wild creatures, fierce and bloody, obscene and foul; tigers and bears; lustful and mischievous apes and monkeys? or such as are lovely and of good report,-doves and lambs, creatures pure and peaceable, patient to serve and gentle of spirit? Remember, remember, that what a man soweth-be it hemlock or be it wheat-that, and nothing else, ‘shall he reap.’

2. Now, let us look for a moment at the next thought that is here; which is put into a strong, and, to our modern notions, somewhat violent metaphor;-the horrible longing, as it were, of sin toward the sinner: ‘Unto thee shall be its desire.’

As I explained, these words are drawn from the previous chapter, where they refer to the holy union of heart and affection in husband and wife. Here they are transferred with tremendous force, to set forth that which is a kind of horrible parody of that conjugal relation. A man is married to his wickedness, is mated to his evil, and it has, as it were, a tigerish longing for him, unhallowed and murderous. That is to say-our sins act towards us as if they desired to draw our love to themselves. This is just another form of the statement, that when once a man has done a wrong thing, it has an awful power of attracting him and making him hunger to do it again. Every evil that I do may, indeed, for a moment create in me a revulsion of conscience; but it also exercises a fascination over me which it is hard to resist. It is a great deal easier to find a man who has never done a wrong thing than to find a man who has only done it once. If the wall of the dyke is sound it will keep the water out, but if there is the tiniest hole in it, the flood will come in. So the evil that you do asserts its power over you, or, in the vigorous metaphor of my text, it has a fierce, longing desire after you, and it gets you into its clutches.

‘The foolish woman sitteth in the high places of the city, and saith, Whoso is simple let him turn in hither.’ And foolish men go after her, and-’know not that her guests are in the depth of hell.’ Ah! my brother! beware of that siren voice that draws you away from all the sweet and simple and pure food which Wisdom spreads upon her table, to tempt the beast that is in you with the words, ‘Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.’ Beware of the first step, for as sure as you are living, the first step taken will make the second seem to become necessary. The first drop will be followed by a bigger second, and the second, at a shorter interval, by a more copious third, until the drops become a shower, and the shower becomes a deluge. The river of evil is ever wider and deeper, and more tumultuous. The little sins get in at the window, and open the front door for the full-grown house-breakers. One smooths the path for the other. All sin has an awful power of perpetuating and increasing itself. As the prophet says in his vision of the doleful creatures that make their sport in the desolate city, ‘None of them shall want her mate. The wild beasts of the desert shall meet with the wild beasts of the island.’ Every sin tells upon character, and makes the repetition of itself more and more easy. ‘None is barren among them.’ And all sin is linked together in a slimy tangle, like a field of seaweed, so that the man once caught in its oozy fingers is almost sure to be drowned.

3. And now, lastly, one word about the command, which is also a promise: ‘To thee shall be its desire, and thou shalt rule over it.’

Man’s primitive charter, according to the earlier chapters of Genesis, was to have dominion over the beasts of the field. Cain knew what it was to war against the wild creatures which contested the possession of the earth with man, and to tame some of them for his uses. And, says the divine voice, just as you war against the beasts of prey, just as you subdue to your purposes and yoke to your implements the tamable animals over which you have dominion, so rule over this wild beast that is threatening you. It is needful for all men, if they do not mean to be torn to pieces, to master the animal that is in them, and the wild thing that has been created out of them. It is bone of your bone and flesh of your flesh. It is your own evil that is thus incarnated there, as it were, before you; and you have to subdue it, if it is not to tyrannise over you. We all admit that in theory, but how terribly hard the practice! The words of our text seem to carry but little hope or comfort in them, to the man who has tried-as, no doubt, many of us have tried-to flee the lusts that war against the soul, and to bridle the animal that is in him. Those who have done so most honestly know best how hard it is, and may fairly ask, Is this useless repetition of the threadbare injunction all that you have to say to us? If so, you may as well hold your tongue. A wild beast sits at my door, you say, and then you bid me, ‘Rule thou over it!’ Tell me to tame the tiger! ‘Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a hook? Wilt thou take him a servant for ever?’

I do not undervalue the earnest and sometimes partially successful efforts at moral reformation which some men of more than usual force of character are able to make, emancipating themselves from the outward practice of gross sin, and achieving for themselves much that is admirable. But if we rightly understand what sin is-namely, the taking self for our law and centre instead of God-and how deep its working and all-pervading its poison, we shall learn the tragic significance of the prophets question, ‘Can the leopard change his spots?’ Then may a man cast out sin from his nature by his own resolve, when the body can eliminate poison from the veins by its own energy. If there is nothing more to be said to the world than this message, ‘Sin lieth at thy door-rule thou over it,’ we have no gospel to preach, and sin’s dominion is secure. For there is nothing in all this world of empty, windy words, more empty and windy than to come to a poor soul that is all bespattered and stained with sin, and say to him: ‘Get up, and make thyself clean, and keep thyself so!’ It cannot be done.

So my text, though it keeps itself within the limits of the law and only proclaims duty, must have hidden, in its very hardness, a sweet kernel of promise. For what God commands God enables us to do.

Therefore these words, ‘Rule thou over it,’ do really point onwards through all the ages to that one fact in which every man’s sin is conquered and neutralised, and every man’s struggles may be made hopeful and successful, the great fact that Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, came down from heaven, like an athlete descending into the arena, to fight with and to overcome the grim wild beasts, our passions and our sins, and to lead them, transformed, in the silken leash of His love.

My brother! your sin is mightier than you. The old word of the Psalm is true about every one of us, ‘Our iniquities are stronger than we.’ And, blessed be His name! the hope of the Psalmist is the experience of the Christian: ‘As for my transgressions, Thou wilt purge them away.’ Christ will strengthen you, to conquer; Christ will take away your guilt; Christ will bear, has borne your burden; Christ will cleanse your memory; Christ will purge your conscience. Trusting to Him, and by His power and life within us, we may conquer our evil. Trusting to Him, and for the sake of His blood shed for us all upon the cross, we are delivered from the burden, guilt, and power of our sins and of our sin. With thy hand in His, and thy will submitted to Him, ‘thou shalt tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the dragon thou shalt trample under foot.’4:1-7 When Cain was born, Eve said, I have gotten a man from the Lord. Perhaps she thought that this was the promised seed. If so, she was wofully disappointed. Abel signifies vanity: when she thought she had the promised seed in Cain, whose name signifies possession, she was so taken up with him that another son was as vanity to her. Observe, each son had a calling. It is the will of God for every one to have something to do in this world. Parents ought to bring up their children to work. Give them a Bible and a calling, said good Mr. Dod, and God be with them. We may believe that God commanded Adam, after the fall, to shed the blood of innocent animals, and after their death to burn part or the whole of their bodies by fire. Thus that punishment which sinners deserve, even the death of the body, and the wrath of God, of which fire is a well-known emblem, and also the sufferings of Christ, were prefigured. Observe that the religious worship of God is no new invention. It was from the beginning; it is the good old way, Jer 6:16. The offerings of Cain and Abel were different. Cain showed a proud, unbelieving heart. Therefore he and his offering were rejected. Abel came as a sinner, and according to God's appointment, by his sacrifice expressing humility, sincerity, and believing obedience. Thus, seeking the benefit of the new covenant of mercy, through the promised Seed, his sacrifice had a token that God accepted it. Abel offered in faith, and Cain did not, Heb 11:4. In all ages there have been two sorts of worshippers, such as Cain and Abel; namely, proud, hardened despisers of the gospel method of salvation, who attempt to please God in ways of their own devising; and humble believers, who draw near to him in the way he has revealed. Cain indulged malignant anger against Abel. He harboured an evil spirit of discontent and rebellion against God. God notices all our sinful passions and discontents. There is not an angry, envious, or fretful look, that escapes his observing eye. The Lord reasoned with this rebellious man; if he came in the right way, he should be accepted. Some understand this as an intimation of mercy. If thou doest not well, sin, that is, the sin-offering, lies at the door, and thou mayest take the benefit of it. The same word signifies sin, and a sacrifice for sin. Though thou hast not done well, yet do not despair; the remedy is at hand. Christ, the great sin-offering, is said to stand at the door, Re 3:20. And those well deserve to perish in their sins, that will not go to the door to ask for the benefit of this sin-offering. God's acceptance of Abel's offering did not change the birthright, and make it his; why then should Cain be so angry? Sinful heats and disquiets vanish before a strict and fair inquiry into the cause.Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? - The Lord does not yet give up Cain. In great mercy he expostulates with him. He puts a question which implies that there is no just cause for his present feelings. Neither anger at his brother, because his offering has been accepted, nor vexation in himself, because his own has not, is a right feeling in the presence of the just and merciful God, who searches the heart. Submission, self-examination, and amendment of what has been wrong in his approach to God, alone benefit the occaslon. To this, accordingly, the Lord directs his attention in the next sentence.

If thou do well, shalt thou not be accepted? - To do well is to retrace his steps, to consider his ways, and find out wherein he has been wrong, and to amend his offering and his intention accordingly. He has not duly considered the relation in which he stands to God as a guilty sinner, whose life is forfeited, and to whom the hand of mercy is held out; and accordingly he has not felt this in offering, or given expression to it in the nature of his offering. Yet, the Lord does not immediately reject him, but with longsuffering patience directs his attention to this, that it may be amended. And on making such amendment, he holds out to him the clear and certain hope of acceptance still. But he does more than this. As Cain seems to have been of a particularly hard and unheedful disposition, he completes his expostulation, and deepens its awful solemnity, by stating the other alternative, both in its condition and consequence.

And if thou do not well, at the door is sin lying. - Sin past, in its unrequited and unacknowledged guilt; sin present, in its dark and stubborn passion and despair; but, above all, sin future, as the growing habit of a soul that persists in an evil temper, and therefore must add iniquity unto iniquity, is awaiting thee at the door, as a crouching slave the bidding of his master. As one lie borrows an endless train of others to keep up a vain appearance of consistency, so one sin if not repented of and forsaken involves the dire necessity of plunging deeper and deeper into the gulf of depravity and retribution. This dread warning to Cain, expressed in the mildest and plainest terms, is a standing lesson written for the learning of all mankind. Let him who is in the wrong retract at once, and return to God with humble acknowledgment of his own guilt, and unreserved submission to the mercy of his Maker; for to him who perseveres in sin there can be no hope or help. Another sentence is added to give intensity to the warning.

And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. - This sentence has all the pithiness and familiarity of a proverb. It has been employed before, to describe part of the tribulation the woman brought upon herself by disobedience, namely, the forced subjection of her will to that of her husband in the fallen state of humanity Genesis 3:16. It is accordingly expressive of the condition of a slave under the hard bondage and arbitrary caprice of a master and a tyrant. Cain is evidently the master. The question is, Who is the slave? To whom do the pronouns "his" and "him" refer? Manifestly, either to sin or to Habel. If to sin, then the meaning of the sentence is, the desire, the entire submission and service of sin will be yielded to thee, and thou wilt in fact make thyself master of it. Thy case will be no longer a heedless ignorance, and consequent dereliction of duty, but a willful overmastering of all that comes by sin, and an unavoidable going on from sin to sin, from inward to outward sin, or, in specific terms, from wrath to murder, and from disappointment to defiance, and so from unrighteousness to ungodliness. This is an awful picture of his fatal end, if he do not instantly retreat. But it is necessary to deal plainly with this dogged, vindictive spirit, if by any means he may be brought to a right mind.

If the pronouns are referred to Habel, the meaning will come to much the same thing. The desire, the forced compliance, of thy brother will be yielded unto thee, and thou wilt rule over him with a rigor and a violence that will terminate in his murder. In violating the image of God by shedding the blood of thy brother, thou wilt be defying thy Maker, and fiercely rushing on to thy own perdition. Thus, in either case, the dark doom of sin unforsaken and unremitted looms fearfully in the distance.

The general reference to sin, however, seems to be the milder and more soothing form of expostulation. The special reference to Habel might only exasperate. It appears, moreover, to be far-fetched, as there is no allusion to his brother in the previous part of the address. The boldness of the figure by which Cain is represented as making himself master of sin, when he with reckless hand grasps at all that comes by sin, is not unfamiliar to Scripture. Thus, the doer of wickedness is described as the master of it Ecclesiastes 8:8. On these grounds we prefer the reference to sin, and the interpretation founded on it.

There are two other expositions of this difficult sentence which deserve to be noticed. First. "And as to thy brother, unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him with all the right of the first born." But (1) the reference to his brother is remote; (2) the rights of primogeniture are perhaps not yet established; (3) the words do not express a right, but an exercise of might against right arising in a fallen state Genesis 3:16; (4) the Judge of all the earth is not accustomed to guarantee the prerogatives of birth to one who is in positive rebellion against him, but, on the other hand, he withdraws them from the unworthy to confer them on whom he will. For these reasons we conceive this exposition is to be rejected. Second. "And unto thee shall be sin's desire; but thou shalt overcome it." But (1) the parallelism between the two members of the sentence is here neglected; (2) a different meaning is assigned to the words here and in Genesis 3:16,, (3) the connection between the sentence thus explained and what goes before is not clear; (4) the lesson taught is not obvious; and (5) the assurance given is not fulfilled. On these grounds we cannot adopt this explanation.

The above address of the Lord to Cain, expressed here perhaps only in its substance, is fraught with the most powerful motives that can bear on the mind of man. It holds out acceptance to the wrong-doer, if he will come with a broken heart and a corresponding expression of repentance before God, in the full faith that he can and will secure the ends of justice so that he can have mercy on the penitent. At the same time it points out, with all clearness and faithfulness to a soul yet unpractised in the depths of iniquity, the insidious nature of sin, the proneness of a selfish heart to sin with a high hand, the tendency of one sinful temper, if persisted in, to engender a growing habit of aggravated crime which ends in the everlasting destruction of the soul. Nothing more than this can be done by argument or reason for the warning of a wrong-doer. From the mouth of the Almighty these words must have come with all the evidence and force they were capable of receiving.

7. If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?—A better rendering is, "Shalt thou not have the excellency"? which is the true sense of the words referring to the high privileges and authority belonging to the first-born in patriarchal times.

sin lieth at the door—sin, that is, a sin offering—a common meaning of the word in Scripture (as in Ho 4:8; 2Co 5:21; Heb 9:28). The purport of the divine rebuke to Cain was this, "Why art thou angry, as if unjustly treated? If thou doest well (that is, wert innocent and sinless) a thank offering would have been accepted as a token of thy dependence as a creature. But as thou doest not well (that is, art a sinner), a sin offering is necessary, by bringing which thou wouldest have met with acceptance and retained the honors of thy birthright." This language implies that previous instructions had been given as to the mode of worship; Abel offered through faith (Heb 11:4).

unto thee shall be his desire—The high distinction conferred by priority of birth is described (Ge 27:29); and it was Cain's conviction, that this honor had been withdrawn from him, by the rejection of his sacrifice, and conferred on his younger brother—hence the secret flame of jealousy, which kindled into a settled hatred and fell revenge.

If thou doest well, or, for the future shalt do well, i.e. repent of thy sin, amend thy life, offer thy offerings with a willing and cheerful mind and honest heart, in faith and love, as Abel did,

shalt thou not be accepted? Or, pardoned, received into favour? Or, exalted, and either preserved in or restored unto those rights of the first-born, which thou art conscious to thyself that thou hast forfeited? Or, elevated in thy looks, i.e. would not, or should not, thy countenance have been upright and pleasant, which now is sad and dejected?

Sin is here taken, either,

1. Properly; so the sense is: Sin will be growing upon thee; one sin will bring in another, and that malice and purpose of revenge against thy brother, which now lies hid in the secret chamber of thy mind and heart, lies at the door ready to break forth into the view of the world in open murder. Or,

2. For the punishment of sin, as it is taken Genesis 19:15 Leviticus 5:1 20:20 Numbers 18:1 2 Kings 7:9 Zechariah 14:19: so the sense is, If thou wilt go on in sin, and execute thy wicked purpose, which I perceive lies working in thy heart, be sure thy sin will find thee out, as it is said Numbers 32:23. Thou shalt not long enjoy the fruits of thy wickedness, but a dreadful judgment shall tread upon the heels of thy sin, and lie like a furious mastiff dog at the very door of thy house, to seize upon thee at thy first coming in or going out. For that person or thing which is very near to us, or at hand, is said to be at the doors, Matthew 24:33 Jam 5:9.

Unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. Those two clauses may relate either,

1. To sin, which may he here spoken of as a person, as it is Romans 7:8-11, &c. So the place may be rendered and expounded thus, The desire of sin is to thee, i.e. to assault, seduce, conquer, and destroy thee; as it is said, Luke 22:31, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you, & c. Or thus, its desire, objectively, not subjectively taken, i.e. thy desire, intention, or resolution of sinning, that evil motion of thy heart against thy brother, shall be against (as the Hebrew particle el oft signifies) thee, i.e. howsoever at present it pleaseth thee, yet it is really not only against him, but against thyself, and will certainly turn to thy own ruin; but (for so the particle and is commonly taken) if thou be wise, give no place to it, but resist it, do thou rule (for the future tense is oft put imperatively, as in the ten commandments, and it frequently signifies not what a man can or shall do, but his duty or what he ought to do, as is evident from Genesis 20:9 Malachi 1:6 Luke 3:14) over it, i.e. conquer and subdue it, which is thy duty; or, thou shalt rule over it, i.e. by my grace assisting thy endeavours, thou shalt be enabled to subdue thy evil concupiscences and passions, and so overrule, prevent, or remove those punishments which otherwise sin will infallibly bring upon thee. Or,

2. To Abel, and so the sense is, and (as for thy brother Abel, to whose faith and piety I have given this public and honourable testimony, which thy naughty heart makes an occasion of envy and malice, and intention of murder, that thou mayst not by a mistake be led to the perpetration of so horrid a crime, know that this favour of mine concerns only his spiritual privilege, and the happiness of the life to come, which thou despisest; but it makes no change in civil rights, nor doth it transfer the dominion from thee, whose it is by birth, unto him; nor doth he so understand it; for notwithstanding this) unto thee shall be his desire, subject, i.e. he shall and will nevertheless yield to thee as his superior, and thou, according to thy own heart’s desire,

shalt rule over him. If it be said the name of Abel is not here mentioned, it may be answered, that this is sufficiently included in the pronouns his and him, and it is not unusual to put those relative pronouns alone, the antecedent being not expressed, but to be gathered either from the foregoing or following words; of which see Poole on "Genesis 3:1". If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?.... That is, either if thou doest thy works well in general, doest good works in a right way and manner, according to life will of God, and directed to his glory, from right principles, and with right views: so all the Targums,"if thou doest thy works well;''for it is not merely doing a good work, but doing the good work well, which is acceptable to God; hence that saying,"that not nouns but adverbs make good works:''or particularly it may respect sacrifice; if thou doest thine offering well, or rightly offereth, as the Septuagint; or offers not only what is materially good and proper to be offered, but in a right way, in obedience to the divine will, from love to God, and with true devotion to him, in the faith of the promised seed, and with a view to his sacrifice for atonement and acceptance; then thine offering would be well pleasing and acceptable. Some render the latter part of the clause, which is but one word in the original text, "there will be a lifting up" (k); either of the countenance of the offerer, and so, if Cain had done well, his countenance would not have fallen, but have been lifted up, and cheerful as before; or of sin, which is the pardon of it, and is often expressed by taking and lifting it up, and bearing it away, and so of easing a man of it as of a burden; and in this sense all the Targums take it; which paraphrase it,"it or thy sin shall be forgiven thee:"

and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door; if thou dost not do good works, nor offer an offering as it should be offered, sin lies at the door of conscience; and as soon as that is awakened and opened, it will enter in and make sad work there, as it afterwards did, Genesis 4:13 or it is open and manifest, and will be taken cognizance of, and punishment be inflicted for it; or else the punishment of sin itself is meant, which lies at the door, is at hand, and will soon be executed; and so all the Targums paraphrase it."thy sin is reserved to the day of judgment,''or lies at the door of the grave, reserved to that day, as Jarchi. Some render the word a sin offering, as it sometimes signifies; and then the sense is, that though he had sinned, and had done amiss in the offering he had offered, nevertheless there was a propitiatory sacrifice for sin provided, which was at hand, and would soon be offered; so that he had no need to be dejected, or his countenance to fall; for if he looked to that sacrifice by faith, he would find pardon and acceptance; but the former sense is best:

and unto thee shall be his desire; or "its desire", as some understand it of sin lying at the door, whose desire was to get in and entice and persuade him to that which was evil, and prevail and rule over him. The Targum of Jonathan, and that of Jerusalem, paraphrase it of sin, but to another sense,"sin shall lie at the door of thine heart, but into thine hand I have delivered the power of the evil concupiscence; and to thee shall be its desire, and thou shalt rule over it, whether to be righteous, or to sin:''but rather it refers to Abel; and the meaning is, that notwithstanding his offering was accepted of God, and not his brother Cain's, this would not alienate his affections from him, nor cause him to refuse subjection to him; but he should still love him as his brother, and be subject to him as his eider brother, and not seek to get from him the birthright, or think that that belonged to him, being forfeited by his brother's sin; and therefore Cain had no reason to be angry with his brother, or envious at him, since this would make no manner of alteration in their civil affairs:

and thou shall rule over him, as thou hast done, being the firstborn.

(k) "elevare", Montanus; "erit sublevatio", Fagius, "elatio", Drusius, "elevatio erit", some in Vatablus, Mercerus; so Aben Exra; "remissio", Junius & Tremellius, Schmidt; "venia erit", Pagninus; so Ainsworth.

If thou doest well, shalt thou not be {e} accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the {f} door. And unto thee shall be his {g} desire, and thou shalt rule over him.

(e) Both you and your sacrifice shall be acceptable to me.

(f) Sin will still torment your conscience.

(g) The dignity of the first born is given to Cain over Abel.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
7. If thou doest well, &c.] A verse well known for its difficulties. The rendering in the marg. “shall it not be lifted up?” should be followed. Literally the first clause runs thus: “Is there not, if thou doest well, to lift up?” The infinitive “to lift up” must be taken as an infinitival substantive = “a lifting up,” with reference, in all probability, to the previous phrase, “the falling” of Cain’s countenance. The meaning then is, “If thou doest well, and makest thy offering with a pure and right motive, thy face, instead of falling, shall be lifted up in happiness.” This, on the whole, seems better than the alternative rendering “is there not forgiveness?” The word “to lift up” admits of the meaning “to forgive,” but is hardly likely to be used in this sense without an object, and before any mention of sin has been made.

sin coucheth] The meaning is, “and, if thou doest not well and cherishest evil in thy heart, then, remember, sin, like a savage wild beast, is lying in ambush ready to spring out upon you.”

“Sin” is here mentioned for the first time. Ḥattâ’th has a varied significance, and might here mean either “guilt,” or “punishment,” or “the active principle of sin.” And in view of the personification in the next clause, this last meaning is here to be preferred.

The Hebrew text of Genesis 4:7 is probably corrupt.

The LXX took the first clause to refer to a ritual inaccuracy in sacrifice, and mistranslated the words “sin coucheth,” failing to perceive the metaphor: οὐκ, ἐὰν ὀρθῶς προσενέγκῃς, ὀρθῶς δὲ μὴ διέλῃς, ἥμαρτες; ἡσύχασον. “If thou madest thine offering rightly, but didst not rightly divide it, didst thou not sin? hold thy peace.” In other words: “you broke the ritual rules of offering; you have no right to complain.”

The Latin reads: Nonne, si bene egeris, recipies? sin autem male, statim in foribus peccatum aderit; sed sub te erit appetitus ejus, et tu dominaberis illius.

shall be his desire, &c.] Better, as marg., “is its desire, but thou shouldest rule over it.” Evil, like a savage animal, is ravening for thee; but thou hast strength, if thou hast the will, to overcome it. The alternative rendering of the text, “his desire … over him,” introduces the idea of one brother’s authority over the other, which seems foreign to the context.

The metaphor of sin as a wild beast ready at any moment to spring upon, and get the mastery of, the man who will not make the effort to do what he knows to be right, embodies deep spiritual truth. The evil passions, always ready to take advantage of the will that refuses to hear the voice of the better self, have often in literature been likened to a wild beast, cf. Tennyson’s In Memoriam, Canto 118:

“Arise and fly

The reeling Faun, the sensual feast;

Move upward, working out the beast,

And let the ape and tiger die”;

and George Meredith’s expression: “The unfailing, aboriginal, democratic, old monster, that waits to pull us down” (Diana of the Crossways, p. 14, edit. 1892).

his desire … rule over] The phrase is identical with that in Genesis 3:16, but obviously the words have a different signification suitable to the context. That these words should refer to the younger brother is the interpretation of the text (R.V.), to which no exception can be taken on lexical or grammatical grounds. But the relation of a younger to an elder brother is not that which is likely to be described in this way. It is better to refer the phrase to the personification of sin, over which Cain can, if he will, obtain the mastery.But her joy was soon overcome by the discovery of the vanity of this earthly life. This is expressed in the name Abel, which was given to the second son (הבל, in pause הבל, i.e., nothingness, vanity), whether it indicated generally a feeling of sorrow on account of his weakness, or was a prophetic presentiment of his untimely death. The occupation of the sons is noticed on account of what follows. "Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground." Adam had, no doubt, already commenced both occupations, and the sons selected each a different department. God Himself had pointed out both to Adam-the tilling of the ground by the employment assigned him in Eden, which had to be changed into agriculture after his expulsion; and the keeping of cattle in the clothing that He gave him (Genesis 3:21). Moreover, agriculture can never be entirely separated from the rearing of cattle; for a man not only requires food, but clothing, which is procured directly from the hides and wool of tame animals. In addition to this, sheep do not thrive without human protection and care, and therefore were probably associated with man from the very first. The different occupations of the brothers, therefore, are not to be regarded as a proof of the difference in their dispositions. This comes out first in the sacrifice, which they offered after a time to God, each one from the produce of his vocation. - "In process of time" (lit., at the end of days, i.e., after a considerable lapse of time: for this use of ימים cf. Genesis 40:4; Numbers 9:2) Cain brought of the fruit of the ground a gift (מנחה) to the Lord; and Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock, and indeed (vav in an explanatory sense, vid., Ges. 155, 1) of their fat," i.e., the fattest of the firstlings, and not merely the first good one that came to hand. חלבים are not the fat portions of the animals, as in the Levitical law of sacrifice. This is evident from the fact, that the sacrifice was not connected with a sacrificial meal, and animal food was not eaten at this time. That the usage of the Mosaic law cannot determine the meaning of this passage, is evident from the word minchah, which is applied in Leviticus to bloodless sacrifices only, whereas it is used here in connection with Abel's sacrifice. "And Jehovah looked upon Abel and his gift; and upon Cain and his gift He did not look." The look of Jehovah was in any case a visible sign of satisfaction. It is a common and ancient opinion that fire consumed Abel's sacrifice, and thus showed that it was graciously accepted. Theodotion explains the words by καὶ ἐνεπύρισεν ὁ Θεός. But whilst this explanation has the analogy of Leviticus 9:24 and Judges 6:21 in its favour, it does not suit the words, "upon Abel and his gift." The reason for the different reception of the two offerings was the state of mind towards God with which they were brought, and which manifested itself in the selection of the gifts. Not, indeed, in the fact that Abel brought a bleeding sacrifice and Cain a bloodless one; for this difference arose from the difference in their callings, and each necessarily took his gift from the produce of his own occupation. It was rather in the fact that Abel offered the fattest firstlings of his flock, the best that he could bring; whilst Cain only brought a portion of the fruit of the ground, but not the first-fruits. By this choice Abel brought πλείονα θυσίαν παρὰ Κάΐν, and manifested that disposition which is designated faith (πίστις) in Hebrews 11:4. The nature of this disposition, however, can only be determined from the meaning of the offering itself.

The sacrifices offered by Adam's sons, and that not in consequence of a divine command, but from the free impulse of their nature as determined by God, were the first sacrifices of the human race. The origin of sacrifice, therefore, is neither to be traced to a positive command, nor to be regarded as a human invention. To form an accurate conception of the idea which lies at the foundation of all sacrificial worship, we must bear in mind that the first sacrifices were offered after the fall, and therefore presupposed the spiritual separation of man from God, and were designed to satisfy the need of the heart for fellowship with God. This need existed in the case of Cain, as well as in that of Abel; otherwise he would have offered no sacrifice at all, since there was no command to render it compulsory. Yet it was not the wish for forgiveness of sin which led Adam's sons to offer sacrifice; for there is no mention of expiation, and the notion that Abel, by slaughtering the animal, confessed that he deserved death on account of sin, is transferred to this passage from the expiatory sacrifices of the Mosaic law. The offerings were expressive of gratitude to God, to whom they owed all that they had; and were associated also with the desire to secure the divine favour and blessing, so that they are to be regarded not merely as thank-offerings, but as supplicatory sacrifices, and as propitiatory also, in the wider sense of the word. In this the two offerings are alike. The reason why they were not equally acceptable to God is not to be sought, as Hoffmann thinks, in the fact that Cain merely offered thanks "for the preservation of this present life," whereas Abel offered thanks "for the forgiveness of sins," or "for the sin-forgiving clothing received by man from the hand of God." To take the nourishment of the body literally and the clothing symbolically in this manner, is an arbitrary procedure, by which the Scriptures might be made to mean anything we chose. The reason is to be found rather in the fact, that Abel's thanks came from the depth of his heart, whilst Cain merely offered his to keep on good terms with God-a difference that was manifested in the choice of the gifts, which each one brought from the produce of his occupation. This choice shows clearly "that it was the pious feeling, through which the worshiper put his heart as it were into the gift, which made the offering acceptable to God" (Oehler); that the essence of the sacrifice was not the presentation of a gift to God, but that the offering was intended to shadow forth the dedication of the heart to God. At the same time, the desire of the worshipper, by the dedication of the best of his possessions to secure afresh the favour of God, contained the germ of that substitutionary meaning of sacrifice, which was afterwards expanded in connection with the deepening and heightening of the feeling of sin into a desire for forgiveness, and led to the development of the idea of expiatory sacrifice. - On account of the preference shown to Abel, "it burned Cain sore (the subject, 'wrath,' is wanting, as it frequently is in the case of חרה, cf. Genesis 18:30, Genesis 18:32; Genesis 31:36, etc.), and his countenance fell" (an indication of his discontent and anger: cf. Jeremiah 3:12; Job 29:24). God warned him of giving way to this, and directed his attention to the cause and consequences of his wrath.

"Why art thou wroth, and why is thy countenance fallen?" The answer to this is given in the further question, "Is there not, if thou art good, a lifting up" (sc., of the countenance)? It is evident from the context, and the antithesis of falling and lifting up (נפל and נשׂא), that פּנים must be supplied after שׂאת. By this God gave him to understand that his look was indicative of evil thoughts and intentions; for the lifting up of the countenance, i.e., a free, open look, is the mark of a good conscience (Job 11:15). "But if thou art not good, sin lieth before the door, and its desire is to thee (directed towards thee); but thou shouldst rule over it." The fem. חטּאת is construed as a masculine, because, with evident allusion to the serpent, sin is personified as a wild beast, lurking at the door of the human heart, and eagerly desiring to devour his soul (1 Peter 5:8). היטיב, to make good, signifies here not good action, the performance of good in work and deed, but making the disposition good, i.e., directing the heart to what is good. Cain is to rule over the sin which is greedily desiring him, by giving up his wrath, not indeed that sin may cease to lurk for him, but that the lurking evil foe may obtain no entrance into his heart. There is no need to regard the sentence as interrogative, "Wilt thou, indeed, be able to rule over it?" (Ewald), nor to deny the allusion in בּו to the lurking sin, as Delitzsch does. The words do not command the suppression of an inward temptation, but resistance to the power of evil as pressing from without, by hearkening to the word which God addressed to Cain in person, and addresses to us through the Scriptures. There is nothing said here about God appearing visibly; but this does not warrant us in interpreting either this or the following conversation as a simple process that took place in the heart and conscience of Cain. It is evident from Genesis 4:14 and Genesis 4:16 that God did not withdraw His personal presence and visible intercourse from men, as soon as He had expelled them from the garden of Eden. "God talks to Cain as to a wilful child, and draws out of him what is sleeping in his heart, and lurking like a wild beast before his door. And what He did to Cain He does to every one who will but observe his own heart, and listen to the voice of God" (Herder). But Cain paid no need to the divine warning.

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