“If you do well, shall you not be accepted? And if you do not well, sin lies at the door. And to you shall be its desire, and yet you may rule over it.” Genesis 4:7
Do Well – Nahum Sarna has the appropriate comment about this text. He says that “it bristles with difficulties.” That just might be an understatement. What seems so easily understood on the surface masks all kinds of problems with the original Hebrew. The problems begin with the first clause, but if we are going to understand something very important about this first use of the Hebrew word for sin (hatat), we will just have to sort our way through all this.
The opening phrase of the verse is halo eem-teitiv s’et. Literally, this question reads, “Is there not if you do well lifting up?” The key word here is s’et. This noun means elevating or giving honor or dignity. It is used to describe a high office, the place of the first born or God’s majesty. But notice that it is not used to speak about forgiveness. God is not telling Cain that if he does what is right, he will be forgiven (accepted). That would imply righteousness on the basis of merit, and even here, in a verse that appears to suggest merit for good works, the verb carefully avoids this conclusion.
What God is saying is about Cain’s state of mind, not about God’s relationship to Cain. Cain is crestfallen. He is humiliated. He is angry. God offers him some practical emotional therapy. “Do what you were expected to do and your countenance will be lifted up.” In other words, correct behavior will alter your mood. It is not Cain’s initial action that creates the vulnerability to sin. It doesn’t matter at this point why Cain brought his offering. God focuses on the reaction that Cain displays when his offering is rejected. God tells Cain that the emotional train he is riding will take him to sinful behavior. God’s advice is about emotional control, not about confession and repentance.
When we realize that this is a conversation in the counselor’s office, we see that God is not endorsing any covenant other than grace. God is teaching Cain how to handle the reaction to life when it is not under Cain’s control That pretty much describes our lives too. Things don’t always work out the way we planned. We encounter rejection, failure and set-backs. Just like Cain, we may find ourselves in an emotional slump. The key to righteous behavior is not denying the feelings. It is not putting on a stoic face or grinning and bearing it. It is most definitely not putting on a mask of false optimism. God’s solution to emotional vulnerability is doing the right thing. The answer is action. In the final analysis, God is saying that it doesn’t really matter how you feel. It matters what you do. That doesn’t mean that your feelings don’t count. Of course they count. They are like mile markers on the highway. They tell you which direction you are going and how fast you’re getting there. But they are only indicators. They help you by adding information you need in order to make a decision.
“What’s the matter, Cain? Don’t you realize that if you take action and do what you know is right, your whole demeanor will change. That change will protect you from falling further into sin’s clutches because you will master your feelings.” Did you notice that God doesn’t even mention what He wants Cain to do. Cain already knows what to do. The question is simply, “Will he do it?” Most of us discover that the confrontation with sin is never really about ignorance. We usually stumble over something that we already know we should do, but we just don’t want to do it. God’s advice to Cain rings true with us too. Take the right action. Do it now. No matter how small the act is, it will be enough to get moving in the right direction.
Topical Index: Cain, Genesis 4:7, emotions, action, the right thing, s’et