“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
Sin – The first time we read the Hebrew word hatat (sin) is here in the story of Cain. Does that surprise you? It should. What about Adam and Eve? What about the naked snake and the Tree and all that? Wasn’t that sin?
Those aren’t the only questions implied in this passage. How would Cain know that what he did with his offering was on the borderline? In fact, how would Cain know anything about offerings and sin? What would it mean to Cain for God to say, “You may rule over it?” And what does it mean for God to say that doing well means his offering will be accepted? Doesn’t that sound like earning righteousness? Finally, there is that very unusual word, teshuqah (desire). Found only three times in Scripture, this word is critically important to understanding the nature of sin. Yes, there’s a lot to consider here. So, let’s get started.
The Hebrew verb hata literally means “to miss the mark.” It’s like shooting at a target but not hitting the bull’s eye. This word is the most frequent word for sin in the Bible, but it is used in Genesis only four times. It encompasses both the idea of missing the target and of failing to reach a goal. When it is used in religious contexts, it usually means a failure to do what is expected. That seems to be the case in this verse. God expects a certain behavior from Cain. But Cain does not produce that behavior. He fails to meet the goal.
That seems obvious, doesn’t it? But wait! God doesn’t say to Cain, “You have sinned.” He says that hatat lies at the door desiring you. Once again, we have a question. Does this mean that Cain has not yet sinned? Cain didn’t do what God expected. He brought an offering that was turned away. Isn’t that already sin? Apparently it isn’t. God does not tell Cain that he needs to confess and repent. God tells him that he needs to go do the right thing. Sin seeks the opportunity to take control, but it has not consummated that desire yet. All Cain needs to do is correct his behavior to avoid this unholy marriage.
There’s a very important lesson here. So often we feel as though the presence of the specter of sin is enough to defeat us. We reflect on a history of failures to do the right thing and we become paralyzed by the looming darkness. We think that it’s already too late to change. We feel sin clawing at our door, ravenous to devour us and we just can’t imagine a way to resist. So, we fail. We have been there so many times, one more failure seems inevitable. Our attempt to bring something to God backfires and we go away feeling that we just will never measure up.
But none of this is God’s point of view! Life for Cain, and for us, is filled with decision opportunities. Just like Cain, we think we’re on the right path, just doing things in the ordinary way. Then we are confronted by the Lord. We realize that we’re headed in the wrong direction. God says, “Just do what’s right.” We need to recognize that there is no sin in going the wrong way until God points out our error. Then things change. Now we can avoid sin by simply doing what is right. The monster outside the door can’t get in if we do the right thing. And doing the right thing doesn’t depend at all on how I feel at the moment. Sad, mad or glad, doing the right thing protects me from hatat.
How do I know what the right thing is? Ah, that’s another question. In Cain’s story, we can confidently assume that Cain knew – and that God knew that Cain knew. And when you really think about it, isn’t that true for us too? Doesn’t God confront you in precisely those areas of your life where you already know what the right thing to do is? What kind of God would He be if He expected you to do the right thing but knew that you didn’t know what it was?
Topical Index: sin, hata, right thing, missing the mark, Cain, Genesis 4:7