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Entries in Cain (1)


"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.