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Monday
Jun182012

"Sin is a demon crouching at the door" (Gen 4:7, REB)

A crouching gargoyle from Notre DameHaving not read through the mostly British-used Revised English Bible (1989 revision of the 1972 New English Bible) in a while, I thought I was slowly go back through it as part of my morning Bible readings. Since the REB, like the NEB before it, often has a bit more literary flavor than other, more mainstream, translations, I decided to take a few notes as I read through it this time in regard to renderings and phrases that stand out. As time allows, I'll offer brief posts here about the more interesting examples. 

This morning in Genesis 4, I noticed the insertion of the word demon in v. 7--

"If you do well, you hold your head up; if not, sin is a demon crouching at the door; it will desire you, and you will be mastered by it" (emphasis added).

The context of the verse has to do with the conflict between Cain and Abel. After presenting their gifts to Yahweh, Abel's gift is approved and Cain's is rejected. The REB reads that "Cain was furious and he glowered" (4:5). Glowered is such a descriptive word here: "have an angry or sullen look on one's face; scowl: she glowered at him suspiciously" (New Oxford American Dictionary). Yahweh responds to Cain with the questions, "Why are you angry? Why are you scowling?" (4:6), and then he states the words in v. 7 that I quoted above. 

I thought this was an interesting phrase. Without the word demon, Sin is simply personified as a generic enemy in hiding, waiting to trip us (perhaps literally) up. The REB's addition of a demon is still a personification of sin, but now it takes a much darker, malevolent tone. 

Here is a comparison of the verse in Accordance with the phrase highlighted in both the REB and Hebrew. Note also the double red underline which will apply to part of the discussion below. 

I was curious to see if there was any textual basis for adding the word demon to the text, but I initially saw nothing in the Hebrew or in any variant that would lend itself to add the word demon. Although I did not do an exhaustive search, I could not find the word demon in any mainstream translations other than the earlier New English Bible, on which the REB is based. I did, however, find it in the translation created by Speiser in the 1983 Anchor Bible Commentary on Genesis:

"Surely, if you act right, it should mean exaltation. But if you do not, sin is the demon at the door, whose urge is toward you; yet you can be his master."

Speiser defends his use of demon in Gen 4:7 in his comment on the passage (p. 33): 

Now the stem rbṣ in Hebrew signifies "to couch." A pertinent noun is otherwise unattested in this language, but is well known in Akkadian as rābiṣum, a term for "demon." These beings were depicted both as benevolent and malevolent, often lurking at the entrance of a building to protect or threaten the occupants. Phonologically, rābiṣum, both noun and participle, would be matched in Hebrew by rōbēṣ. The adjective is independently attested. The noun is not; it would have to be regarded in the present instance as an early loanword from Akkadian. There can be no inherent objection to such a derivation, especially in the narrative before us, the locale of which is still in the vicinity of Eden, with the principle character settling eventually "east of Eden." It would thus be the rōbēṣ whose "urge" is directed toward Cain, but with whom Cain could still thwart if he would control his jealous impulses—all expressed with faultless syntax. 

John H. Walton (ZIBBCOT, Genesis, p. 38) offers a more brief explanation and summary of the above facts, but also offers this alternative meaning of administrator before leaning in the direction of demon:

An alternative is available if we access earlier Akkadian texts where the rabiṣu is not a demon but an important administrator who served a judicial function. In Ur III texts he was responsible for preliminary examination at trials. By the mid-second millennium, texts from Amarna and Ugarit showed the role of the rabiṣu respectively as local ruler and important witness of documents or at trials. The fact that the text mentions the desire to master Cain favors rabiṣu as a demon.

I polled a few other commentaries and found that a number of them also give credence to the possibility of a direct reference to the rābiṣum, or "crouching demon," or at least an allusion to it. Although I'm sure that certain religious groups would thrill to have an extra demon to reference in this passage, the fact remains that if this is a reference to the crouching demon, the overall idea is still used as a personification of sin by the writer of Genesis. He's telling us that Sin is like that old croucher, Rābiṣum, hiding unseen, waiting to trip us up when we don't expect it. Therefore, we have to be alert so that we master him before he masters us! I'm really surprised that more translations don't pick up on this idea. Personally, I think that would really preach!

As always, your thoughts, questions, comments, and rebuttals are welcome below.

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Reader Comments (8)

That's the way I always read it -- as a personified image of sin.

I also think it is a standard Jewish reading. The 1917 JPS has, "Sin is the demon at the door" and Everett Fox has "at the entrance is sin, a crouching-demon."

See also Michael Samuel's blog post on the subject.

June 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDoug

Thanks, Doug. I've got the 1985 JPS, which is one of the translations I looked at, but it did not have the addition of demon. I may have to see if I can track down the 1917 edition as it often seems to have interesting readings not in the later edition.

Thanks also for alerting me to Michael Samuel's blog. That looks like a good one to bookmark.

June 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterR. Mansfield

Actually, the 1917 JPS translation is in the public domain, so it is pretty easy to find electronically. One attractive presentation is at Mechon Mamre.

One reason the 1917 JPS translation is interesting because it was directly adapted from the RV-ASV, allowing us considerable insight into the exact points where the JPS translators differed. The dates are relatively close together too:

1885 RV OT
1901 ASV OT
1917 JPS

so issues of changes in language and advances in Biblical scholarship are not so great as when one compares, for example, the ASV with the RSV or the NASB.

June 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDoug

The footnote to the verse in the NET Bible includes a similar explanation, and I've blogged on it recently as well here: http://blog.shields-online.net/?p=322.

June 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMartin Shields

Mr. Mansfield, Olive Tree has a free module of the 1917 JPS bible that may be downloaded fro free.

Excellent post.

June 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJesús S.

Nope, don't buy it. Too much is unknown in the first 3 chapters of Genesis to start interjecting the theology of demons and/or sin.


Sin is the real culprit that necessitated the cross and its message.

'Don't tread on me' Sin or a snake?

June 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJimP

The JPS 1917 translation has "sin crouchest at the door" in Genesis 4:7--nothing with a demon. The connection to Akkadian rābiṣu was an original contribution from Speiser.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDrayton Benner

Thanks for the post. I once had a vision about this. It was many years ago and at first I did not know what it meant. The reason I am on this blog is because I have recently been brought back to my experience and the meaning of this verse. I wanted to know what crouching meant. I guess my vision helps answer your interpretation:
"During the night I awoke to strange noises coming up the entrance stairs to my second floor apartment. I got up immediately (I was not sleeping or dreaming at this point, I was awake!). My bedroom was just outside the front door. I walked slowly to the front door and stood there listening to the sounds moving up the stairs. It sounded like more than one of them talking in a weird language. I know they weren't humans speaking - I know what human languages sounds like. It sounded like a 'whispery watery sound', like strange, dark moving water. They were whispering to one another as they hurried up the stairs. Then I heard them move straight toward my front door. I just stood there behind the door listening. They sounded very close to the door, as if they were touching it. I also remember their whispering being close down to the ground, at the bottom half of the door. They must have been there for a good while whispering to one another."

I hope this helps all of you.

July 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBeliever

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