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B'resheet/Genesis 4:7 But if you don't do well, sin crouches at the door; its desire is for you, but you can master it.
These words are part of a conversation betweenHaShem and Cain, the first-born son of Adam and Chava - HaShem is speaking, but the words of warning, as we now know with six millenia of hindsight, fell on deaf ears. Abel, Cain's younger brother has just brought an offering from the choicest of his lambs, which has met with approbation from HaShem, while Cain's offering did not. As the first-born and so by ancient tradition, the priest of the family, Cain's offering already covered or included Abel; while anyone can of course make a freewill offering to the L-rd at any time, Abel's offering was technically not necessary and irritated Cain: his face fell and he became grumpy. Seeing where things were headed, HaShem offered some words of advice.
The Hebrew of HaShem's words, starting in the previous verse, is considered difficult to translate and obscure. It is often shown indented in English translations to set it apart from the surrounding narrative, indicating that it is poetry. The noun , an abstract noun from the root with a 3ms possessive pronoun suffix - his desire - has a masoretic note to show that it only appears twice in the Hebrew Scriptures, here and "I am my beloved's, and his desire is for me (Song of Solomon 7:11, JPS). TheBaal HaTurim comments that "there are two types of desire: the desire of the wicked for sin and the desire of the Holy One, Blessed be He, for Israel." The ancient Rabbis suggest there are four types of desire: "the desire of a woman is for none but her husband: 'and your desire shall be for your husband' (B'resheet 3:16), the desire of the Tempter is for none but Cain and his associates: 'Sin crouches at the door, and towards you is its desire' (4:7). The desire of rain is for nought but the earth: 'You have remembered the earth, and them that desire her'1(Psalm 65:10). And the desire of the Holy One, blessed be He, is for none but Israel: 'And His desire is toward me' (Song 7:11)" (B'resheet Rabbah 20:7). Plaut too picks up on the connection with Chava, commenting that this reflects "G-d's words to Eve when she is punished (B'resheet 3:16)".
All the Jewish commentators see the word , as being a coded reference to the Evil Inclination2. Umberto Cassuto3 explains, "this symbolises the evil impulse; the analogy is that of an animal lying in wait for its prey; in other words, it will always be found in your path".Rashi adds, "this is the drive towards evil; it constantly longs and desires to trip you up". Giving in to the evil inclination - our natural human tendency - only makes things worse; the Sforno points out that "if you turn to him (the evil inclination) and succumb to your evil desires, as our sages say: the evil inclination within man grows stronger from day to day". He quotes here from the Talmud: "Rabbi Isaac stated, The [Evil] Inclination of a man grows stronger within him from day to day, as it is said, 'Only evil all the day' (B'resheet 6:5). Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish stated, The Evil Inclination of a man grows in strength from day to day and seeks to kill him, as it is said, 'The wicked watches the righteous and seeks to slay him' (Psalm 37:32)" (b. Sukkah 52a-b). Rabbi Assi paints a vivid word picture: "The Evil Inclination is at first like the thread of a spider, but ultimately becomes like cart ropes, as it is said, Woe to 'those who haul sin with cords of falsehood and iniquity as with cart ropes!' (Isaiah 5:18, JPS" (ibid.). The Sforno again: "sin awaits you and you will add iniquity to your sins, for such is the way of the evil inclination".
The commentators are equally unanimous in agreeing with the last phrase in that even though the urge to sin is compellingly powerful, its sway is not inevitable. Citing the last phase of the verse - "but you can master it", Rashi laconically comments, "if you want to, you will overcome it". Cassuto adds, "you are not delivered into its power, and if only you have the desire, you can oppose it and overcome it and free yourself from its influence", a comment that my good friend Tim Butlin has underlined and written in the margin: "Very important!"Hirsch takes that one step further and tellingly observes, "It has the power to master you, but it remains quietly behind your door. It does not come in to you by itself, uninvited. If it is at home with you, finally to become the master of your house, you must in the first instance have invited it in, set a chair for it at your table."
We reach the point, then, that is critical for us as believers in Messiah. How does sin enter our lives? Before we were believers, there was nothing, bar our own conscience, to prevent us committing sin; some of us were more successful than others at doing the right thing, but from Solomon to Rav Sha'ul the Scripture is quite definite: "Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins" (Ecclesiastes 7:20, ESV) - "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of G-d" (Romans 3:23). Rav Sha'ul adds, "all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, are controlled by sin" (3:9, CJB). But in Messiah, everything has changed: "if anyone is united with the Messiah, he is a new creation - the old has passed; look, what has come is fresh and new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17, CJB). We let sin into our lives by taking bad choices, by choosing to please ourselves rather than doing the right thing, by letting our flesh take control - food, drink, sex - instead of exercising the gifts of the Spirit such as goodness, patience and self-control (Galatians 5:22). But does this really matter?
First of all, Rav Sha'ul gives this imperative to the community in Rome: "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to G-d as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace" (Romans 6:12-14, NASB). We are to make a clean and permanent break with the past, with its sin habits and practices. Sha'ul repeats HaShem's promise that sin is not to be our master; we can choose not to sin, we are empowered by the Spirit not to sin and the victory has been won for us by Messiah Yeshua.
Yeshua Himself taught the crowds an important principle about spiritual warfare: "When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.' And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first" (Luke 11:24-26, ESV). This is that we cannot simply clear our lives of bad practices; that leaves our life clean and swept, but empty - with a "To Let" sign hanging on the front porch. We must actively fill our lives with two things: G-d and the things of G-d. They not only make us full, so the sign has changed from "To Let" to "No Vacancies", but Immanuel - G-d-with/in-us - fights with us to repel boarders and fend off attacks by the enemy attempting to regain a foothold within our lives.
Commenting on the original text, the Sforno said, "you can overpower it through the divine image within you, as the Sages say: Were it not that the Holy One, Blessed be He, helps him, he would not be able to stand, as it says, 'the L-RD will not abandon him to his power; He will not let him be condemned in judgment' (Psalm 37:33, JPS)". G-d is sharing His secret with the world: "the secret is this: the Messiah is united with you people! In that rests your hope of glory!" (Colossians 1:27, CJB) or more succinctly: "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (ESV). May we all be found in Him and He is us!
1. - This is a word-play on the Hebrew text: the verb there is , to overflow, which the Rabbis connect to , which is unused as a verb in the Hebrew Bible, meaning to desire or run after. Then the rains, which are given to water or irrigate the earth, are said to desire her.
2. - The rabbinic concept of an instinctive tendency or impulse within man which, left to itself, would prompt him to act in a manner contrary to the will of G-d. This is drawn from B'resheet 6:5, "every inclination of the thoughts of his heart is only evil continually" and 8:21 "for the inclination of man's heart is evil from his youth".
3. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part One - From Adam to Noah, Magnes Press Jerusalem 1978
Further Study: Psalm 19:14; Romans 8:12
Application: Have you swallowed the lie that we just have to live in a constant cycle of sin and repentance, never actually breaking free? It is time to spit that out of your life and know that we can choose not to sin, to stand victorious and never go there again. Yay!
08:17 22Sep13 Tim: Years ago Terry Virgo preached an excellent sermon on the grace to say "no". Very profound.
15:19 24Sep13 RS: Whilst I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of being able to say "No!" to the Adversary when he confronts you over issues you have dealt with, there are things in/from your past which often unknowingly still have influence over you.
© Jonathan Allen, 2013
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