Sarah Jessica Parker once commented, “So many roads. So many detours. So many choices. So many mistakes.” The innumerable choices that humans may make in lifetime and the thousands of paths available are overwhelming. With free will, it seems that a person may be able to end up anywhere, and so many of those places may be the wrong place. Without limits and without guidelines, without a command to overcome sin in one’s life, anything is permissible, even those wrong places. How much free will do people have and what choices are humans able to make? John Steinbeck seeks to answer this question in his book East of Eden. However, he made one big mistake to the detriment of his point. Steinbeck’s misinterpretation of one biblical Hebrew word in his book East of Eden creates a flawed view of free will and his character Cal’s ability to use it.
Steinbeck uses one word as the central point of his novel East of Eden. This word is the Hebrew word “Timshel.” It is used in Genesis when God when speaks to Cain as he entertains the idea of murdering his brother Abel. Timshel is translated “you must rule” in the verse 4:7, which reads, “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” In the novel, one of the characters, Lee, becomes confused by differing translations of the word timshel in the King James Version and the American Standard Bible. The King James reads “Thou Shalt,” and the American Standard reads “Do thou” (Steinbeck 299). The KJV’s translation can be taken as either a simple future tense verb (a promise) or as an imperative mood verb (a command), while the ASB gives a verb that can only be taken imperatively. Given this, one might assume that the verb is meant to be imperative in both cases. However, Lee (and presumably Steinbeck) only reads the KJV version as a promise. Lee, baffled by this apparent contradiction, sets out with scholars of his acquaintance to discover the real meaning of Timshel. They conclude that “timshel” means “thou mayest,” a subjunctive verb. On page 301, Lee cries, “Don’t you see? 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 way the way is open. For it ‘Thou mayest,’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’” Lee’s quote sums up Steinbeck’s entire book. If there is choice, then Cal has a right to chose whether he wants to care for his brother or hurt him. There is no right or wrong answer—the consequences of one action may be less pleasant, but each has the right to choose whether to be righteous or sinful. Lee says that Timshel is the most important word in the world; it is certainly the most important word in the book. But what if Steinbeck was wrong about the meaning of timshel?
The Hebrew word transliterated timshel or timshol is תִּמְשָׁל. The root word of timshel is mashal (מְשָׁל), which is a primitive root verb meaning “to rule, have dominion, reign” (Strongest, 1430). Timshel’s prefix is תִּ. This is a combination of the Hebrew Letter “Taw” and the vowel mark “Chireq,” which makes the “i” as in “mitt” sound. The תִּ prefix changes its verb to the imperfect tense of, among a few other things, the second person masculine form (Raizen). Thus, the subject of the verb is whomever the speaker is speaking. In this case, it is Cain. According to Esther Raizen, a Hebrew professor at University of Texas, “The imperfect tense a number of moods, among them imperative.” Imperative seems to be the most common form of the imperfect tense, and Bible scholars seem to assume that timshel is Genesis 4:7 is most accurately rendered so. Every major translation of the Bible translates this word in some form of imperative (KJV, Amplified, NASB, NIV, ESV). This means that timshel is command, perfectly rendered “you must rule over it.” In essence, God said to Cain, “You are planning to sin, and it is ready to overtake you. But you, Cain, are commanded to conquer it instead.” There is free will, but there is no acceptable alternative to obedience. God did not give Cain an alternative—disobedience incurred God’s wrath—but He did give him free will. In Genesis 4:8, Cain killed his brother. In verse 12, he was dealt his punishment.
Had Steinbeck understood the meaning of timshel, his novel East of Eden would have taken a different stance on free will. Steinbeck suggests that one has the right to choose whether he or she will let sin rule his or her life. On page 301, as mentioned before, Lee says, “The way is open. For if “Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not…’ that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he still has great choice.” He continues on page 302, “But think of the choice! That makes a man a man.” In other words, the right to choose if one will go the way of righteousness or the way of sin is what gives a man his humanity. With this point of view, timshel is not a command; it is permission to live how one wishes. It means that it is permissible for Cal to be mean. Cal is not trapped in his sin nature—as Lee said, Cal “could control it—if [he] wanted” (Steinbeck 541)—but neither is he required to break out of it. At the end of the book, Cal’s father speaks his dying word to his son, “Timshel” (Steinbeck 601). In this one word, he is giving Cal permission to choose his own path, reminding him that he can choose the right way if he wants to. If Steinbeck had a correct understanding of the word timshel, Cal’s story would have taken a different direction. Instead of being a story of choice and consequence, it would be a story of redemption and forgiveness. Without a command to overcome sin, there is no requirement of righteousness, no sin, and no need for a savior. If mastering sin is simply a better option, then the reader can only expect that Cal would end up where he did—struggling to overcome his wicked bent all by himself, hoping to make good decisions.
An understanding of the true meaning of timshel, “You must,” is the basis of every choice of right or wrong. If we have the right to choose anything we like, then we may choose to do the wrong thing if the pleasure outweighs the negative consequences. If, however, we are commanded to overcome wrongdoing, then the only permissible choice is the righteous choice. This is not restrictive, but gracious. If one lives this way, his choices will be more obvious, his detours more pleasant, and his roads straighter. Roads starting from a right choice do not lead to mistakes. Therefore, there is no need to fear the future. The road is clearly marked, and when the traveler knows where he is headed, the journey will be beautiful.
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