Genesis 4:1-8 (NASB)
Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the Land of Nod, east of Eden.
Genesis 4:16 (NASB)
A few years back, I began reading through the great American novels that I had never read before. The books that I was not required to read in school and had never picked up previously. Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, various essays by Mark Twain. And my favorite discovery in this time was John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Steinbeck’s epic tale of family struggle and guilt and freedom, of predestination and forgiveness resonated in a way that few books can. It quickly rose to be my favorite book of everything I have ever read.
Steinbeck himself considered it his magnum opus. After completing the manuscript, he wrote “I finished my book a week ago […] Much the longest and surely the most difficult work I have ever done… I have put all the things I have wanted to write all my life. This is ‘the book.’ If it is not good I have fooled myself all the time. I don’t mean I will stop but this is a definite milestone and I feel released.” It was highly based on his experiences in the Salinas Valley and influenced by his Episcopalian upbringing. Reflecting on this work, Steinbeck said “I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one . . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, and in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil... and it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue is immortal.”
And Steinbeck covered this, in particular, through the midrash-like exploration of the story of Cain and Abel and the word timshel in verse seven.
Midrash refers to the exegesis or process of interpreting and explaining the biblical text developed by rabbis of the Talmud. When capitalized, it also refers to a specific compilation of these writings, which are still used for instruction today. Steinbeck devotes an impactful portion of the book and its themes to the exploration and exegesis of God’s instruction to Cain in verse 7.
“Do you remember when you read us the sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis and we argued about them?”
“I do indeed. And that’s a long time ago.”
“Ten years nearly,” said Lee. “Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word. The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me. Then I compared the translations we have—and they were fairly close. There was only one place that bothered me. The King James version says this—it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says, ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin.”
Samuel nodded. “And his children didn’t do it entirely,” he said.
Lee sipped his coffee. “Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been that these very different translations could be made.”
“My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too—‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek.”
Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”
Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”
“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”
“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.
Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. The Viking Press. 1952.
Steinbeck truly mined gold with this exploration of the translation of timshel from the Hebrew. When it stands alone, it is pronounced timshol, with a long “o” in the final, accented syllable. But in this passage, as often happens in Hebrew, the word is connected to the word that follows, and therefore loses its accent. So, instead of a long “o” the vowel is reduced, and the word is most correctly pronounced timsh’l. Steinbeck chose to render this sound with an “e” and the word is usually pronounced timshel.
Steinbeck was not so much interested in the pronunciation as he was in the meaning of the particular grammatical form. It is second person imperfect, referring to an act that has not yet occurred. Something of possibilities. The capacity for good and evil in all of us.
Here is the choice each of the characters in East of Eden face, as do we all. No matter how deep-rooted the sin, there is always a chance for redemption. In the Orthodox Jewish translation from The Chumash: The Stone Edition the passage reads: "Surely if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door. Its desire is toward you, yet you can conquer it."
And conquer it we can, through the power that strengthens all things we do.
But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:37-39 (NASB)
It’s a series of choices to follow, to take up our cross daily and obey, which leads to conquering, which leads to the victory, just as it is a series of choices to ignore the call, to walk away, and to try to live this life divorced from God. Every choice is an opportunity.