God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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.”


November 29, 2009 - Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , ,


  1. This is very helpful. I have not yet attempted to translate any of the patriarchal narratives – your clues here will be remembered when I start (maybe some long time in the future).

    Comment by bobmacdonald | December 7, 2009

  2. I have a question pertaining to this particular verse. It regards the Hebrew word teshuqatho [תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ]. It has a 3rd person, masculine, singular pronominal suffix attached to it [ו], meaning “his/ its desire,” with emphasis on the suffix being masculine.

    Now, it’s commonly believed that “his desire” is referring to the desire of “sin” which “lies at the door.” Yet, the Hebrew word translated as “sin” is chatta’th [חַטָּאת] which is a feminine-gendered noun.

    In order for the “desire” to be that of “sin,” wouldn’t it be necessary for a feminine-gendered pronominal suffix to be attached to teshuqah, referring to “sin” which is also feminine-gendered?

    WHat are your thoughts?

    Comment by parshanuth | December 11, 2009

  3. ” Genesis 4:7 is clearly poetry, so we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s a little difficult to understand.”

    What is it about it that makes it poetry? It is not clear in any of the English translations I am referencing. If it is poetry why is it difficult to understand, even if only a little?


    Comment by Bill Spence | December 20, 2011

  4. Have you seen this verse in the Septuagint? “Hast thou not sinned if thou hast brought it rightly, but not rightly divided it? be still, to thee shall be his submission, and thou shalt rule over him.” Paul read the LXX. Do you think it might have been this verse that inspired him (as well as the Holy Spirit, of course) to write, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15)?

    Comment by Don Modarelli | May 7, 2021

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