Q&A: What’s going on in Genesis 4:7?
And one more from the about page:
Is Genesis 4:7, the first words, halo im-teitiv s’eit, an example of the idiom of a condition with antecedent but no stated consequence? Would the last of the words apply to Cain (as KJV implies) or to Cain’s offering (JPS)?
Genesis 4:7 is clearly poetry, so we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s a little difficult to understand.
The first word, halo, generally introduces a question, but in this case it’s a rhetorical question, perhaps used as an exclamation.
The second and third words, connected by a hyphen, mean “if you do well.” The words are addressed to Cain. These present the condition.
The fourth word means “rise.” It’s the consequence of “if you do well,” and the grammatical form is tenseless and devoid of agreement. (For those who care: it’s an infinitive absolute. The word comes from the root nun.sin.aleph. In the infinitive the nun drops out, and a final tav is appended: laseit. The infinitive absolute consists of the infinitive without the initial l- [“to”], which is how we get s’eit.)
To make sense of s’eit here, we we have to look back to Genesis 4:5–6, where the opposite verb nafal is used idiomatically. In Genesis 4:5, Cain’s “face fell” (nafal) — he was upset or angry — and in the next verse God asks Cain why his “face fell” (again nafal). God’s lesson is that that, if Cain does well, he will (have a face that doesn’t fall but rather that will) rise; and if he doesn’t do well (the continuation of Genesis 4:7), “sin will couch at the door.”