Last week I finished rereading one of my favorite books, East of Eden, by John Steinbeck and I once again marveled at the insightful writing. East of Eden is one of those books that keeps you thinking long after you finish and it helps you make connections to your life and to the Gospel. The book chronicles the relationship between two brothers whose lives mirror the story of Cain and Abel from the Bible, however you end up liking the "Cain" character more than the "Abel" character; the former has more depth and more conflict, making it better for the reader to connect to the character and the story. The central theme in this book is the idea of timshel, the Hebrew word for "thou mayest."

Here's a quick excerpt:

"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. . .

“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. 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."

When I reread this I felt like Steinbeck accuately summed up the Plan of Salvation: choice, timshel, thou mayest. We have complete control over where we go and who we are. This is a heavy responsiblity, but one our Heavenly Father obviously thinks we can handle. I love the concept and applicability of agency. Choice is so liberating, making it possible for us to accomplish or not accomplish anything. Of course when it comes to our own salvation, we need rely on the Atonement, but that in itself is a choice; we choose to rely on divine power.

In the book, the Cain representation is faced with the idea of timshel, a concept that alters his destiny and a concept that makes the whole Cain and Abel story more understandable and applicable to our lives. I just love this book!

*what books are your favorites that make you think?*


emily said...

You call that a quick exerpt?

Anonymous said...

That was quite the exerpt- not to sure it was so quick, but it was a good one. Your thoughts and connections with the book and the Gospel are very interesting- I like them!!

dpw said...

Great observations--you already know how I feel about agency. If you take only one thing with you to college that I've taught you, it will surely be this: "It's always fair when you get to choose!"

michelle said...

Not a quick excerpt, but a very good one. I forgot how much I love that book, maybe it's time to re-read it. I have so many favorites, but To Kill a Mockingbird is one, as well My Name is Asher Lev.

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