On Sin and Gen 3-4

This started out as a comment on Caelius’s site but it mushroomed into a full-scale post so I’m putting it here. Check out his post on original sin and his response to my query for the background.

Okay–on the LXX (the Greek translation of the OT done in 2nd cent. BC Alexandria and used widely by the early church): the midrashic tradition from which it proceeds functions by beginning with God’s initial displeasure. That is, it returns to the question of why God accepted Abel’s offering and not Cain’s. Interpreters of the time suggested that Cain’s offering was rejected because he kept the good stuff for himself and offered up the bad stuff or committed some other sort of irregularity in the offering procedure. Thus, the division language has to do with what parts of the offering Cain assigned to himself and what he assigned to God. In this view, therefore, bad liturgy *is* responsible for the world’s first murder…

There is no doubt that the Masoretic (received Hebrew) text is corrupt here and this is one of the cases where the LXX is no help at all. This is most likely because of the anthropomorphized portrayal of sin–generally speaking, the LXX didn’t like anthropomorphizing in any way that could possibly suggest a multiplicity of gods and would gloss over it or retranslate it in a more monotheistic way. I don’t have the JPS version around–I’d love to see how they deal with it.

One of the reconstructions that I have heard takes sin lurking at the door (lie as in “lie in wait…”) and that the attraction between sin and man is the same as that between woman and man. The question then remains how to best configure the ruling verb. An Indo-European language itches to put it into the subjunctive and/or future and the differing treatments of the verb in the English versions reflect the different subjunctive options—especially choosing between an optative (may/might/be able), jussive (shall), or imperative (must) force. Jerome uses the future dominaberis suggesting either a simple future or a jussive. The kicker, of course, is that Hebrew doesn’t have a subjunctive; it doesn’t conceptualize time and probability that way with reference to verbs (and I haven’t used my Hebrew in so long that I shouldn’t try to identify the form without a reference work close at hand… If I had to guess it looks like qal imperfect which can have a future sense.).

So, to round out the translation issues, it seems fitting that Gen 3:16 and 4:7 ought to be translated in strict parallel. That is, the conjunctions ought to agree and the choice of the verb mood ought to agree. Note that my favorite whipping boy, the NRSV, fails miserably on this count by offering both a different conjunction and different moods. So which conjunction? How do the two statements about desire and ruling relate to one another? Should they be joined with an “and” or a “but”? Hebrew does not differentiate; both are viable options. I lean toward “but”, myself as it complicates things. 🙂 [Note here a classic example of the difficulty of the plain-sense reading—either choice is grammatically and logically possible…] Now, which verb? Given the overall tenor of 3:14-19, a simple future/jussive is the most logical. However, is this the most natural reading—the plain-sense—for 4:7? It does seem a bit more conditional despite the formal parallelism. Could the NRSV actually be right (for a change)?

Exegetically where does this get us? Well, there’s no doubt that there is a parallel construction in the Hebrew text between woman and sin. It’s not one that I especially like but we would be remiss in not identifying it and working with it to see what the exegetical options are. Eve has a lust for Adam but his calling is to rule over her. Sin has a lust for Cain but his calling is to rule over it. Chapter 3 suggests that these pronouncements should be read as generalities. Ergo, women or wives have a lust for their husbands but their calling is to rule over them; sin has a lust for men/husbands but their calling is to rule over it. [And yes, it’s most definitely “rule”–the verb is mshl, the same verb used in Gen 1 to talk about the sun and moon ruling over the day & night, etc. from whence cometh interesting but way off topic issues on rabbinic astrology…] So, are wives and sin to be conflated? I’m sure many patristic authors probably thought so. I don’t, of course. Furthermore, I think this connection is a direct contradiction of Gen 2:18-25. Husbands and wives—the two-person affection unit—is constructed for mutual support and assistance. They are to help one another. Sin does not and cannot do this. Sin cannot be conflated with the wife. Thus, another model is needed.

The model that emerges is the man in tension. On one side is his wife who lusts for him. On the other is sin, also lusting for him. Is his job to master them or to master himself in regard to them? Choosing the one and putting away the other; cleaving to one, rejecting the advances of the other. In fact, this construction parallels a great deal of the rhetoric of wisdom literature. If we personify our mapping a little more, the man stands pulled between his wife and the “other woman.” Proverbs goes into great detail personifying wisdom as the wise woman, the effective householder, the canny and competent wife. Folly is personified as the adulteress, the loose woman, the “other woman.”

Now, how do we interpret this text and make meaning of it for us. We don’t live in an officially patriarchal culture so some rereading and reconstructing must be done. (I suspect one of the reasons why so many of these texts were so patriarchal is because the women didn’t read and didn’t particularly care what was written. Obviously, neither is true today.) The way that I read it is that lust is the essential paradigm for sin. (Please note that this is totally different from saying that lust is original sin.) Just as two lovers feel lust—a passionate, non-rational desire for one another—so sin and humanity have a similar relationship. Classically sin in general and original sin in particular have been discussed as a thing towards which humans have an innate proclivity. What I find so interesting in this text is that it suggests that it’s a two-way street: sin personified has a proclivity for humanity as well—it’s an active thing that plays upon our desires, tempting and seducing us, not an inanimate thing to which we are drawn. As humans striving to be faithful we must master our own lusts and direct them to the appropriate object of our desire, the partner and helper with whom we become one. Furthermore, my reading of the paradigm would suggest that receiving help from the partner is an addition to mastering sin itself. Of course, in the background of all discussions of partners and helpers is the relationship between the soul and God of which the partner-relationship is a shadow.

There’s more here and this deserves more work but this is where it’s at for the moment.

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About Derek Olsen

I'm a layman within the Episcopal Church with a PhD in New Testament and an interest in most things medieval, monastic, and liturgical. My chief job is keeping up with my priestly wife and our two awesome kids. In addition to that, I earn a living, run the St Bede's Breviary, listen to loud goth/industrial music, and do some stuff for the church. I currently serve as Secretary to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music where I'm also co-chair of the Calendar committee and chair of the Digital Publications committee.
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4 Responses to On Sin and Gen 3-4

  1. Caelius says:

    Quite interesting. I like the idea of there being a tension between whatever unitive relationship we have with sin and the unitive relationship we have with another human being. Bringing the wisdom literature into it seems like a good idea.

  2. Annie says:

    Interestingly, I read caelius last night for the first time. You have some interesting links on your blog.

    I’m also glad that you brought in the wisdom literature. At first glance, the patristic view is disconcerting for me and I want, as much as possible, to explain it away. For the fun of it, last night, I checked the New English version, too. I check all my versions, you know. It chooses the opposite contruction for the main text and the similar construction for the footnotes. (Did I say that right?)

    Anyway, interesting discussion.

    Annie

  3. *Christopher says:

    Derek, this is also helpful for understanding Paul’s perspective on “burning”. Certainly conducive to a virtues or ascesis approach. Please do offer more.

  4. Derek the Ænglican says:

    Thanks, y’all. I always like it when various sections and genres of Scripture can be tied together. Of course, if things fit too neatly it’s generally a sign that you’re forcing something but I don’t think that’s the case here… 🙂

    There is lots to fool with here. The patriarchal aspects of the text are, I think, important to work with. That is, I think that we have to look at what the text gives us and in this case it gives us a reading that is repugnant to modern gender sensibilities. One way to handle this is to ignore it and find a different basic reading. I think that’s really problematic. The text says what it says whether I like it or not. What the text says flatly is not necessarily the Word of God in the text though. Proper interpretation is a tricky process and should not be short circuted by our own prejudiced notions of what we’d like to read. This is one of my criticsm of feminist/anti-patriarchal reading. They don’t always let the text speak but tell it what it can and can’t say. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for oppressive texts, but I am for listening openly and honestly to what the text is presenting. Interpretation and application are apart of the reading process that occur after the inital listening phase.

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