Beit Gamaliel

The House of Gamaliel: The confluence of knowledge and faith.

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Master the Serpent

serpentHebrew can be a perplexing language. Unlike most alphabets of the world, a Hebrew “letter” represents a sound, a number, and a concept. When two Hebrew letters are put together, it creates a new sound, new number, and new concept. Lacking any vowels, Biblical Hebrew can present Bible translators with many riddling problems of how to translate a text. Because of these issues, the translators are faced with making choices on how to translate a passage where an archaic word, or textual anomaly seems to exist. Thus, the translators put forth a translation that, to them, seems to convey the true intent of the author based upon context, cultural underpinnings, syntax from extra-biblical sources, or understanding related words. Yet, we know as humans that we are influenced by our presuppositions be they theological, anthropological, sociological, etc…. Objectivity is ALMOST impossible!

While several anomalies exist in the book of Genesis, I would like to propose another interpretation on a text that seems to have been a problem: Genesis 4:7. After reading several translations to view their understanding of its meaning and interpretation from the Midrash Rabbah, the Targums, the LXX (Septuagint), and several modern translations. Some of the older texts have a different take on the text; whereas, the modern translations seem to follow one particular interpretation. Yet, they do not seem to consider the overall context and the grammatical issues within the context. To this, we will explore the grammatical anomalies first, and then we will consider the overall context in which this specific text is within.

Consider the Hebrew, and my translation of the text, which will sound wooden.

Genesis 4:7

ז הֲלוֹא אִם-תֵּיטִיב, שְׂאֵת, וְאִם לֹא תֵיטִיב, לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ; וְאֵלֶיךָ, תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ, וְאַתָּה, תִּמְשָׁל

“Whether not if you cause good, lifted up; and if not cause good to open a sin/sin-offering; one crouching, and to you his desire; but/and, you, you will rule over him.”

When we see the text in this awkward arrangement it seems a little strange from what we are used to reading. What is clear is that God is questioning him and informing him of what will result if he does good or bad. In the second question with its warning, there is a break in the Hebrew text between the word “sin” and, in our English translation, “crouching.” However, in the English translations this is not seen. In the English translations, we read, “sin is lying.” But, in the Hebrew grammar this cannot work.

Unlike other languages, Hebrew words have both a male and female rendering. For example, echad is the masculine for the number one. Echat is the feminine for number one. Deuteronomy 6:4 reads, “The LORD is one (echad)”. When a noun is being modified by another word, it must agree in both gender and number. However, this is not the case here.

If, as the English translations read, “sin” is being modified by “lying, “ then it must agree in Gender and number. But, it does not. The Hebrew word for sin, which is the 9th word in the sentence above, counting from the right, is feminine singular; whereas, the 10th word that is translated “lying” in the English is a qal (this is a stem in the Hebrew verb system) masculine singular participle (active). Thus, if we take the English for what it reads we are violating the grammatical rules, making it state something that may not be intended.

The question is, “What does this word translated ‘lying’ really modify?” In the previous two verses there is no word that could qualify except Cain himself, but this does not seem to work: is Cain “crouching and desiring himself”? Also, the grammar does not support it. Whatever “it” may be, the word is masculine singular and functions as a participle.

A participle usually functions in three ways:

  1. an adjective describing a noun which is near it;
  2. a predicate (i.e, The man is lying under the car) which normally follows the noun it modifies
  3. a noun or what is known as a “substantive,” (i.e., Lying on the floor is uncomfortable); or,
  4. a noun functioning by itself, with no modifiers.

In our case, it seems to be the last. option 4.

If it were an adjective, the noun it is describing would have the same gender and number. This would be true of a predicate and a substantive as well if the word is connected with the feminine singular word “sin.” Thus, the word MUST be acting by itself with no modifier referring to someone or something as “crouching one.”

The remaining text seems to support characteristics of being masculine and singular and not Cain himself. The desire of this “crouching one” derives from a masculine singular entity. Furthermore, within the text a preposition with an objective pronoun is present, “to you,” which further satisfies that it is not Cain acting against himself, but some another entity. And lastly, God tells Cain that he must rule over ‘him’ not ‘her’.

In my opinion, this understanding best fits the reading of the text within its grammatical and syntactical confines. But, there still remains the question: who or what is this masculine singular entity? I think the answer can be found in the prior context.

In Genesis 3, we read the strange tale of a snake talking to a woman. Within the narrative we come to realize that the serpent is actually the nemesis of all humanity. This story reaches its climax in Genesis 3:15 where Moses records God’s judgement against the snake:

“And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;”

What kind of seed can the serpent have? Did Moses mean that the serpent will have baby snakes that will come forth and attack humans? No, the serpent will produce seed by enticing and deceiving individuals, humans, making them adversaries to God and one another, violating the very basis of the Torah to love God and to love our neighbor! So what was crouching at the door desiring to have Cain? The Serpent!

Is there any other biblical evidence to support this? Yes there is! John provides a profound insight about Cain “spiritual parent”. “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12). Sadly, Cain did not master the serpent, but rather became a seed of the Serpent!

Nothing has changed! The enemy of our souls desires to birth his seed in each of us, to make us enemies of God and each other. But God declares in Genesis 4:7 that “if we do what is good” we will master the serpent. He can be conquered through our submission to God’s Living and Written Word. May we choose, rather, to be the seed of Abraham.

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