Otto Procksch described Genesis 4:7 as the most obscure verse in Genesis, and he may well be right. One of the more curious things to note about this verse is that it is clearly intended to remind the reader of Genesis 3:16, the punishment of the woman. This is clear because the syntax and terminology in the two verses is virtually identical, and yet in both instances rather unusual.
Compare the verses, first Gen 3:16b:
then Gen 4:7b:
The existence of the parallel is indisputable, but what is the significance? Read on for my thoughts…
The links between the passages are not confined to these syntactical and lexical ones.1 Returning to Gen 3:15, the punishment of the serpent, we have these words:
ובין זרעך ובין זרעה
הוא ישופך ראש
ואתה תשופנו עקב
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your seed and her seed.
He will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.
Here God promises enmity between the woman and the serpent, between her seed and its. Genesis 2 had depicted a world without such enmity, but the results of disobedience in chapter 3 show how enmity has infected all aspects of creation. All relationships are damaged: God with people, man with woman, man and woman with creation, even woman with her children.
Of particular interest, however, in the light of Genesis 4, is this reference to the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. And that’s because when we reach chapter 4 we actually meet the woman’s seed, her firstborn, Cain. Furthermore, based on Akkadian cognates, many scholars believe that Gen 4:7 makes reference to a demon (רבץ)2 depicted by God as lying in wait for Cain. Could this be a “seed of the serpent” anticipated in Gen 3:15?
If this is the case, then the first murder is tied closely back to the events of chapter 3. Gen 3:16 spoke of the consequences of disobedience and the same words in Gen 4:7 speak about the consequences of sin. Genesis 3 anticipated a struggle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, and here is the first skirmish. And just as it went the serpent’s way in Genesis 3, here again the seed of the serpent triumphs and the outcome anticipated by Gen 3:15 fails to eventuate.
Cain fails to heed God’s warning, he fails to strike the serpent’s head. That would have to wait for another…3
- For a broader discussion of the links between Genesis 2-3 and 4 see Alan J. Hauser, “Linguistic and Thematic Links Between Genesis 4:1–16 and Genesis 2–3,” JETS 23.4 (1980): 297–305.
- In the MT rōbēṣ, a masculine singular participle rather than the feminine expected after חטאת and so perhaps better read as a reference to a type of demon as suggested by the Akkadian cognate rābiṣu(m). The Akkadian verb rabāṣu(m) literally means something like “lurker” and often refers to a reclining position adopted by people or animals. If the term here refers to some sort of demon which is characterised by this posture, it would be quite an appropriate description of a serpent’s offspring!
- Of course, in the present context, the next candidate for this position is probably Noah, although the connections are less precise.