November 23, 2014

''Timshel'' (Thou Mayest) - And Why It Makes All The Difference

Filippo Vitale, ''Cain and Abel''

John Steinbeck's East of Eden is perhaps the lengthiest work of literature based on the story of Cain and Abel. Though its 601 pages are intimidating at first, they contain powerful truths and reflections.

Summary (although you really should read the book for yourself)

"Set in the rich farmland of California's Salinas Valley, this sprawling and and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families--the Trasks and the Hamiltons--whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel." (description found in my copy)

East of Eden takes place over a long period of time. It details two sets of Father-Son and Brother-Brother relationships which reflect the Biblical narrative of Cain and Abel. John Steinbeck, though very subtle in many ways, leaves nothing to interpretation as to who is who: Cyrus Trask begets Adam and Charles Trask, while Adam Trask in turn begets Aron and Caleb Trask.

Most of the novel focuses on Adam Trask and his relationship with Cathy Ames, a wicked woman who finds pleasure in manipulating and crushing those who stand in her way, with no other seeming purpose than her own ambitions.  "The trouble is that since we cannot know what she wanted, we will never know whether or not she got it," writes Steinbeck.

Caleb, dark and withdrawn, is devoured by jealousy of his brother Aaron, who is loved by all and whose academic success is praised by their father Adam, while Caleb's business endeavours are utterly rejected. In his anger, Caleb takes his revenge, which results in Aron dying.

The Biblical Reference

Here is the story of Cain and Abel as quoted in the novel (this is important):

Adam started to speak and Samuel looked up at him and he was silent and covered his eyes with his hand. Samuel read, " 'And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord has respect unto Abel and to his offering. But unto Cain and to his offering he has not respect.' " (...) " 'And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And the Lord said unto Cain, "Why art thou wroth? And why is thy countenance fallen? 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."" 'And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him' "

From the reading of this passage follows a discussion between Adam Trask, Samuel Hamilton and Lee (Adam's cook and housekeeper - Cathy did not stay with him long) on the meaning of the story and questions as to why Cain's offering was rejected. Though the discussion does not resolve at the time, Lee later recalls ''the story bit deeply into me and  and I went into it word for word (...) the more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me."

"Timshel," The Hebrew Word That Changes Everything

It is by comparing two English translation that Lee makes his discovery:

(...) 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. (...)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 begun to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer has been that these very different translations could be made."

Lee then applied himself to studying Hebrew and discussed the issue with Chinese sages, who also took on the study of Hebrew and engaged a learn rabbi.  After two years of these studies, the sages found the answer they were looking for. As Lee recalls :

This was the gold from our mining: 'Thou mayest.' 'Thou mayest rule over sin.' (...)The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin (...). 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. (...) For if 'Thou mayest'--it is also true that 'Thou mayest not.' (...)(...) for in his weakness and his filth and in his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win. (...)

'Timshel' And The Moral Struggle Between Good and Evil
In East of Eden, the idea of choice between good and evil is a prominent theme.

Cathy Ames, who has followed an evil path since her youth, is confronted to it when her son Aron expresses his disgust at her lifestyle. She feels remorse for the first time. When confronted to this reality and the possibility of a choice, however, she commits suicide rather than abandoning her ways.

When his father Adam refuses his gift, Cal Trask is also faced with a choice: he can either forgive his father or he can jealousy consume him and seek revenge on his brother Aron. This time, Cal chooses evil, just like Cain in the biblical narrative: He exposes Aron to a disturbing family secret which prompts Aron to enroll in the army, where he eventually dies in battle.

However, the novel does not end there. Upon fully realising the evil he has committed, and though he is guilty of one of the most repulsive crimes, Cal repents and seeks forgiveness. His life is then at a crossroads: Cal cannot change the past, but he can still choose to live the right way.

DISCLAIMER: East of Eden Is Not Theology...

The purpose of literature is to deepen our understanding of human nature and the human condition. This is the perspective from which I read East of Eden. It is not a perfectly accurate retelling of the story of Cain and Abel compared to the biblical narrative, as it focuses on man's abilities for overcoming evil rather than God's grace.

I have even read somewhere that the hebrew word 'timshel' as employed in the Cain and Abel narrative is better translated in the imperative, and that God's words to Cain must be understood as :''You are planning to sin, and it is ready to overtake you. But you, Cain, are commanded to conquer it instead.''

In my opinion, however, and even from the perspective that 'timshel' is a command, Steinbeck's premise in East of Eden stands: Cain has free will in the face of a choice between good or evil. He is free to make his own decision, though the objectively right and moral one is that of good.

Picture from the 1955 ''East of Eden'' movie featuring James Dean. It's an awful movie, don't watch it.

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