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The gender of sin

August 11, 2013

As it turns out “sin” is firmly feminine and that could make the whole house of cards fall down.

The argument goes like this. We don’t know exactly what it means when in Gen. 3:16 it says

and your desire shall be for your husband.

In fact, that phrase makes women look a whole lot nicer than they really are, so it can’t be the right interpretation.

The solution then is to investigate the meaning of Gen. 4:7,

sin is lurking at the door;
its desire is for you,
but you must master it.

We know what that means – sin is trying to have you/ruin your life. Perhaps it means “sin desires to control you.” Yes, that sounds right. Therefore, Eve desires to control Adam – this is also the translation found in the NET Bible, and the NLT – and according to the theologians of complementarianism a husband must assert his rulership over his wife.

Nothing knew here – moving right along – but not so fast. Apparently, Gen. 4:7 does not say

sin is lurking at the door
its desire is for you
but you must master it.

No, it says –

sin is lurking at the door
his desire is for you
but you must master him.

But sin is feminine, and so who is the “him” in this passage? Is it Abel? Perhaps it should read,

sin is lurking at the door
Abel’s desire is for you
but you must master him.

Or perhaps this is one of those texts whose original form has been lost. Here is the Hebrew. Please correct me if I am wrong – but isn’t sin feminine, and Cain is supposed to master something that is masculine?

לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ;

וְאֵלֶיךָ, תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ,

וְאַתָּה, תִּמְשָׁל-בּוֹ.

So I ask you, is it fair to prove the nastiness of women from a text that nobody understands? Do you think it makes you look smart?

And, on top of it all, why think up another unpleasantness for the Song of Solomon? Some of us need hope, we need to think that that great love of our life could be around the next corner, a love that is reciprocal. But the NET Bible says no, don’t dream of that, because the lover(the guy) just wants to have his way sexually with her, that’s what it is all about. In the NET Bible, the women aren’t very nice, and the men aren’t very nice either.

Here is the relevant part of the NET Bible note for teshuqa, normally translated as “desire,”

Many interpreters conclude that it refers to sexual desire here, because the subject of the passage is the relationship between a wife and her husband, and because the word is used in a romantic sense in Song 7:11 HT (7:10 ET). However, this interpretation makes little sense in Gen 3:16. First, it does not fit well with the assertion “he will dominate you.” Second, it implies that sexual desire was not part of the original creation, even though the man and the woman were told to multiply. And third, it ignores the usage of the word in Gen 4:7 where it refers to sin’s desire to control and dominate Cain. (Even in Song of Songs it carries the basic idea of “control,” for it describes the young man’s desire to “have his way sexually” with the young woman.)

So, let’s deconstruct:

1) Any kind of behaviour can fit with “he will dominate you.”

2) A new factor has just been introduced, pain in giving birth

3) Gen; 4:7 is the great unknown

4) Now they have ruined Song of Solomon also, because the rest of us thought that it celebrated mutuality, but the NET Bible says “he wants to have his way with her,” and that’s a euphemism for not getting consent – according to Wiktionary anyway –  “To have sexual intercourse with, especially without the consent of one’s partner.”

I wouldn’t let my kids read the NET Bible, it needs a warning on it.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. August 11, 2013 11:01 pm

    Suzanne, I don’t completely understand your logic in this post. But there does seem to be a flaw in it.

    Genesis 4:7, in the first line, includes the unambiguously masculine participle רֹבֵץ. So it is not just in the second and third line that we have a masculine. Therefore it seems clear that at least in this verse חַטָּאת, unusually, is not feminine but masculine. After all, some Hebrew nouns are variable in gender.

    Or maybe BDB is correct in its suggestion, concerning the gender of חַטָּאת: “Gn 4:7 no exception for רֹבֵץ is noun = crouching beast”.

    In either case, there is nothing in the Hebrew to suggest a shift of subject from “sin” to “Abel”. And there is surely no “great unknown”, just a verse whose precise nuances are uncertain. But I think we can agree that in neither verse is תְּשׁוּקָה simply about sexual desire.

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    August 12, 2013 12:56 am

    Hi Peter,

    I just can’t put it together.

    At the door
    sin (fem.) is couching (masc.)
    for you his desire
    and you shall master him.


    at the door
    sin (fem.) the demon/beast (masc.)
    for you his desire
    and you shall master him

    But nobody has ever translated רֹבֵץ as a noun.

    Can sin just change gender? Don’t Hebrew words have fixed gender? It just isn’t clear to me, but perhaps you can clarify. Thanks so much.

    I have just found “sin is the demon at the door.” I guess that would make sense.

  3. August 12, 2013 8:04 am

    This post sent me right over to the NET Bible and its note on Isaiah 34:14. And I let my children read there of the relatively benign nocturnal animals, “Yes, nocturnal animals will rest there and make for themselves a nest.” Surely these are the wise owls and the cute hedgehogs and the silly opossums.

    They cannot have a hint of the demonic, of the sin-full, of the female Lilith. (Now I want to write a BLT post on Lilith and Genesis 4:7). What is she doing in the garden and why would she show up when the children do, when the boy Abel does?

    Oh be careful little eyes what you see –

  4. August 12, 2013 8:30 am

    Suzanne, I don’t think the word suggests a demon, and certainly not a female one like Lilith. The verb רבץ is used of wild and domestic animals. So this is more like a metaphor. In this metaphor the animal’s “desire” is probably to eat Cain and destroy him, so we are thinking of a beast like a lion, not a hedgehog or an opossum. (Opossum, Kurk? No biblical author had ever seen a marsupial, as they live only in the Americas and Australia – unless you have some far-fetched creationist explanation of that.)

    But yes, Hebrew words can change gender, or perhaps more to the point authors can be creatively flexible with gender, or simply make mistakes. Looking through BDB you can find many nouns noted as being of either gender. Or, as you suggest, there can be textual issues. Perhaps here the common (feminine) word for sin was substituted for a rare or archaic masculine word, but the editor failed to change the agreements. But perhaps also the original author saw the possible misunderstandings of using the feminine here. This sin is not the stereotypically feminine one of sexual temptation, but the more masculine one of aggression and taking power.

  5. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    August 12, 2013 9:49 am

    The NET Bible suggests a demon, not me. An Akkadian demon. THat is because the lack of gender agreement does bother some commentators.

    Also the close comparison with Gen. 3:16 makes it seem like teshuqa must mean to consume, and yet it is also found in the Song of Solomon. Anyway the conclusion, that a husband is required to overpower his wife, just as Cain must overpower sin, is rather unpleasant. But it isn’t really parallel, because Gen 4:7 is an address to Cain to dominate sin, but the domination of the husband is addressed to Eve as part of her misery, not as a requirement addressed to the husband. I think these need two be disentangled a bit,

  6. August 12, 2013 10:19 am

    Susanne, Can you remind us where and by whom the interpretations get entangled? Yes, I know the NETS editors do this. And I recall you posted some elsewhere quoting some theologians’ misogyny as interpretations: This is the first time I’ve seen the gender of sin. Thanks for posting.

    Peter, “Yes, nocturnal animals will rest there and make for themselves a nest” (NET Bible Isaiah for Lilith) somehow reminds me of this discovery – in that place of rest called heaven (and on Noah’s ark) – made by Jim Jackson’s dog. Pardon me for quoting all of these American and somewhat biblical lines – without Lilith per se – but with lots of “them pretty girls ganged around” and with a few “possums” too:

    I’m going back where I come.
    I’m going back where I come.
    I’m going back to Giles County.
    My wife died and left me a bounty.
    Me and them pretty girls ganged around.
    That’s the reason I’m going to Giles County.

    Had an old dog whose name was Blue.
    You know Blue was mighty true.
    You know Blue was a good old dog.
    Blue treed a possum in a hollow log.
    You can know from that he’s a good old dog.

    Blue treed a possum out on a limb.
    Blue looked at me and I looked at him.
    Grabbed that possum, put him in a sack.
    “Don’t move, Blue, ’til I get back.”

    It rained, it rained, yeah.
    It rained, it rained, yeah.

    Who been here since I been gone?
    Little bitty girl with the red dress on.
    Who been here since I been gone?
    Little bitty girl with the red dress on.

    Old Blue’s feet was big and round.
    Old Blue’s feets was big and round.
    Never ‘lowed a possum to touch the ground.

    Me and Blue went out on a hunt.
    Blue treed a possum on hollow stump.
    You know Blue was a good old dog.
    Blue treed a possum in a hollow log.
    You will know from that he’s a good old dog.

    But old Blue died and I dug his grave.
    I dug his grave with a silver spade.
    I laid him down with a golden chain.
    And at every link I called his name.

    One Blue, you good dog you.
    One Blue, you good dog you.

    Blue laid down and died like a man.
    Blue laid down and died like a man.
    Now he’s treein’ possums in the promised land.
    I’m goin’ to tell you just to let you know,
    Old Blue’s gone where good dogs go.

    When I hear old Blue bark.
    When I hear old Blue bark.
    Blue treed a possum in Noah’s Ark.
    Blue treed a possum in Noah’s Ark.

  7. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    August 12, 2013 10:36 am

    i think that using Gen. 4:7 in order to interpret Gen. 3:16 is the standard. It is in Grudem’s Theology, page 464, in the NLT, in an article by Susan Foh, but I think all complementarians interpret “desire” as the urge to control and dominate, and as something that must be overruled. On the CBMW website, Ware says that the husband must assert his rulership.

  8. August 12, 2013 10:46 am

    Suzanne, by all means disentangle the two verses. But you could also conflate them to mean “Eve, Adam’s desire will be for you, but you must master him!” Of course that is not what the last line of 3:16 says, but in fact the exact opposite in the same words. Interesting that in 3:16 yimshal is usually translated as a straight future, because it did happen, but in 4:7 the feminine version timshal is usually translated as jussive, because it didn’t happen. But then I don’t think you would like a jussive in 3:16.

    Kurk, if there were possums on Noah’s Ark, how did they get to America and Australia but not to Eurasia? But I don’t want to turn this into an anti-creationist rant.

  9. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    August 12, 2013 11:17 am

    I think Ware has turned it into a jussive. The man must assert rulership. Yes, I did notice the difference in the verb in English but not in the Hebrew.

  10. August 12, 2013 12:27 pm

    Thanks, Sue. I’m trying to wrap my head around this argument but the circularity in the reasoning has my noggin spinning: “Adam only rightly bears the responsibility as the head of the sinful human race, when Eve sinned first, if he is viewed by God and Paul as having authority and ultimate responsibility over the woman.”

    Peter, was Lilith on the Ark, and where now have we found her?

  11. August 14, 2013 8:32 pm

    It seems to me that the idea of “control/domination” is read into that original Hebrew word for “desire” in all instances. Why should we assume that in the Cain passage, the meaning is “sin desires to control you”? It seems to me that what it’s saying is that sin desires Cain himself, not the control and domination of him. We could just as easily say the word was about wanting oneness/union with. Couldn’t we?

  12. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    August 15, 2013 6:12 pm

    I used to think that one could discover some meaning in this text. But now, I am not so sure.

  13. August 15, 2013 8:32 pm

    תשׁוקה refers to strong desire, not explicitly sexual. In Gen. 3.16 the clause has no meaning apart from the context of the entire verse. It is about the woman being pulled in opposite directions, and so the intended family harmony (with the child bearer at the center) is disrupted: she bears children and should focus on them, but she is drawn to her husband (no explanation given, so fellas cannot read any sort of sexual magnetism into the passage), and yet, sadly, her husband will use it against her.
    And gender is not variable in Hebrew. That is quite an exaggeration. A few common nouns show both masculine and feminine agreement (e.g., דרך “way, road”), but also have a dominant pattern. The problem is when students of Hebrew too tightly associate grammatical gender with morphology. For example, the -(a)t feminine ending was not native in Afro-asiatic (Rebecca Hasselbach, Chicago, has persuasively argued that it was originally a derivational ending to mark singulatives or individuation, with a secondary function of marking abstracts). It was only at some relatively “late” point before the Semitic tree broke away that this morpheme was re-analyzed as a marker of feminine gender. The result is that many common stock Semitic words don’t follow the 1st-yr textbook explanation of gender in Hebrew. Even so, every noun has a dominant gender (and most exhibit only one or the other) that is signalled by agreement.
    And so, in Gen 4.17, the word חטאת, which is *everywhere* else feminine (demonstrated by agreement with adjectives or verbs) must be either feminine, with a grammatical error by the author (in using the masc sing רבץ instead of the fem sing רֹבֶצֶת) or it reflects some very ancient proverb (?) from a historical dialect when “sin” was masculine (I really doubt this latter suggestion, I only offer it as a logically possible explanation, not a likely one). Even the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (ed. Clines) suggests that the text is corrupt.

  14. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    August 15, 2013 9:23 pm


    Thanks so much for this. No, I don’t think of teshuqa as “sexual desire” but more of an open-ended “desire” “longing” or some kind of inclination, open to the context. For me, the context is one of physical conception, as I see it in the lines preceding, but I don’t really think that I have an answer to what it means.

    Your explanation of gender in Gen. 4:7 is really great stuff. Abstracts are feminine in many languages, come to think of it.

    Have you read my post on Beauty and the Beast? Just fun, really. But demonstrates the disjunction between sex and gender.

  15. August 15, 2013 9:53 pm

    Robert, I would also thank you for clarifying the issues of Hebrew gender here.

  16. August 25, 2013 5:42 am

    Either way the context is patriarchal oral tradition, that should tell us something in itself.

  17. August 26, 2013 9:49 pm

    Suzanne, your latest post has given me a convenient other example of a Hebrew noun of variable gender, as confirmed by BDB: אַיָּל “deer”, which shows that Robert’s statement “gender is not variable in Hebrew” is something of an over-simplification. If this word is exceptionally feminine in Psalm 42, then why can’t חַטָּאת be exceptionally masculine in Genesis 4?

  18. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    August 26, 2013 10:39 pm

    The deer is supposed to be a haplography. That’s the commentary analysis. Perhaps the LXX had a different manuscript since they translated it as feminine. I am just asking the questions here. I also saw it as an example of a non-agreement of gender, but others think it is a haplography.

  19. August 27, 2013 9:38 am

    Well, Suzanne, it is the easy way out to claim, without other evidence, that anything in the text that doesn’t conform to our modern norms of fixed grammatical gender is a result of textual corruption. That could equally explain the anomaly in Genesis 4. But I have another hypothesis which may be more likely, that gender in Hebrew was originally rather flexible, and that any textual changes have tended to be in the opposite direction, towards conformity to grammatical standards. One might find evidence for and against this in comparisons of MT, DSS, LXX, Samaritan and ancient inscriptions. But has anyone done a detailed study of the gender anomalies which we find in various ancient texts?

  20. August 27, 2013 11:27 am

    Peter, I like your hypothesis. It’s pretty clear that the NET Bible translator(s) must make another hypothesis and that it’s only just merely that. What do you make of the translation choice at Psalm 29:9a, which seems to be based on weird hermenuetics?

  21. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    August 27, 2013 11:06 pm


    Your hypothesis about gender agreement is interesting. I haven’t read anything on this before. My instinct says the opposite, that gender agreement was more rigid and is becoming less so. But this is purely conjecture. If you read anything on this topic, I would love to hear about it.


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