Cain and Abel #6
Gen 4:7 is one of the most powerful verses in the Bible.
After rejecting Cain’s offering, God speaks to him and gives him a paradox to contemplate, a paradox that should guide him, and every person, throughout our lives. This verse, as we will see in a follow up post, also defines sin, and instructs us how we must deal with it.
But before we can continue to verse 7, let’s start with verse 6.
In verse 6 Cain is upset after God turned down his offering. God is asking him why he is angry and upset. The expression:
Your face has fallen
visually describes Cain’s feeling. We can clearly see in our mind’s eyes a person who is burdened by the weight of his negative feelings and thoughts, which do not allow him to lift his face up. When we see a man like this, we know he is suffering, upset, sad, or even depressed, but we cannot tell for sure what these negative, burdening feelings are. This is the state of Cain when God speaks to him.
If you do good deeds
Verse 7 presents to us a paradox. It has two contradictory meanings, each of them consistent with the text. The contraction starts with the double meanings of the word שְׂאֵת.
On one hand, שְׂאֵת means: to be lifted, to rise, to stand tall. In this is the case,
Means that if you do good deeds (or if you improve) you will rise, or you will stand tall, or the sin will be lifted, or you will be able to lift your fallen face (נָפְלוּ פָנֶיךָ). There are many subtle ways to interpret these two words. But regardless of the precise meaning, this interpretation tells Cain that if he is a good person, he will reap the benefit of his good behaviour. The text continues to elaborate:
וְאִם לֹא תֵיטִיב
And if you do not do good deeds (or improve)
Sin will crouch at your door (לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ). Under this interpretation we read the sentence as two opposite options: if you are a good person, you will be lifted, and if you are not, sin will be awaiting you.
Exactly the opposite can be read if we interpret the word שְׂאֵת as suffering or the endurance needed to carry heavy weight, as we can see, for instance, in Deut. 1:9 when Moses says:
וָאֹמַר אֲלֵכֶם בָּעֵת הַהִיא לֵאמֹר לֹא אוּכַל לְבַדִּי שְׂאֵת אֶתְכֶם
And at that time, I will not be able to carry (the burden) of you alone.
Under this interpretation, whether you will be good or whether you will not be good. You will be carrying sin, and nothing is promised to you in return.
The first interpretation, naturally, is the common one, but not because of the text. The text, deliberately, does not tell us which of the two is the correct one. The reason the first is the popular one, is simply because it is what we want to believe in. That is that “If I do good deeds, I will be rewarded.” After all we all want to believe in being rewarded.
It is much more difficult to comprehend the possibility that we need to be good for the very sake of being good, and nothing is promised in return.
This, by the way, is the heart of the book of Job. Yet, we mostly prefer to push this thought to the back of our minds. How difficult it is to know that we should do good, because good is what we should be doing, and not because we are expecting a reward. After all, if we do good deeds expecting a reward, are we good people or are we merely opportunistic?
Which of the two interpretations of the verse is the correct one?
I believe that the Bible deliberately hide it from us, forcing us to contemplate this paradox over and again. Because contemplating paradoxes, for which no logical answer exists is where non-logical truths start to emerge.
This is what spiritual growth is: when we let our inner self come to the surface. Only then can we look into our own hearts and know if we are those who do good things for the sake of being rewarded or do we do them because they are the right things to do, regardless of what our consequences to ourselves might be.
But this is not all. There is more to contemplate in verse 7. We will continue with it in the next post.