East of Eden and Timshel

By Chase Duffy

For the last three weeks, I have been immersed in John Steinbeck’s master work of literature, East of Eden. Determined after his release of The Grapes of Wrath, he set out to write one more classic novel of epic proportions. It took him twelve years, but by the end he released over six hundred pages of pure gold. East of Eden was released in 1943 and spent two years atop the NYT Bestseller list. The book is often simply described as Steinbeck’s modern-day retelling of the Book of Genesis. This is accurate, but perhaps simultaneously too broad and too narrow. First, the book truly only focuses upon the first four chapters of Genesis, the story of Cain and Abel. More than just a retelling, however, the book is a modern Epic, an offspring of Homer’s great poems. This intricacy allows for deep character development throughout generations. In no other book, besides Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, have I been so invested in so many fictional characters’ lives. Steinbeck’s writing was so beautiful that, when I finished the last line, I couldn’t help but shed a tear. I am straying perhaps too far from the biggest message in the book, but to understand this we must first know the story of Cain and Abel.

Cain and Abel

Central to the plot of the story, and the main lesson, is chapter four of Genesis. One of the world’s most well known stories, it says:

“Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.’

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’[d] While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’

“I don’t know,” he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

10 The Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. 11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.’

While reading this story, East of Eden‘s main characters ponder its significance. Samuel Hamilton points out that, since Abel died childless, we are all sons of Cain. The telling of the story prompts Adam Trask, the other leading patriarch, to comment on the fairness of God’s judgement; he thinks it wasn’t too fair for God to look upon Abel’s offering with favor, and Cain’s without. Samuel agrees that it may not be fair, but rationalizes God has a right to preference and points out that Cain didn’t have to kill Abel. Lee, a wise Chinese man less hindered by entrenched Western thought, decides to analyze verses 6-7 with elders, wise men in the Lee family whose only fault is a taste for opium. Nearly ten years later, Lee comes back with his discovery and the reason why Timshel is the most important word in the entire story.


Lee, like many wise men before him, realized the value of any story that has been around for centuries. By his logic, if it has been around for that long and influenced that many lives, there must be a supreme truth hidden in it.His most important recognition, however, was that the original authors of The Bible did not write in English. His mission became to learn Hebrew and translate the story of Cain and Abel exactly as the author intended. He found that different Bibles had different translations for verses 6-7, with some translating God’s words to Cain as “thou must triumph over sin” and some translating as “thou shalt triumph over sin”. The actual word in Hebrew was Timshel, a word that when directly translated meant neither of these things. He presented his findings to Adam Trask and Samuel Hamilton one night, saying:

“‘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?'”

In this passage, Lee minutely alters the translation of the story and the entire meaning changes. God is not demanding that followers triumph over sin, nor is he prophesying that no matter what, followers shall prevail. Instead, we see God’s gift of free will given to Cain. “Thou mayest” means that Cain has a choice to give in to evil, and he also has a choice to fight it, beat it, and be good. The fact that we are all sons and daughters of Cain is no coincidence. We are all imperfect beings, and we all have the daily choice to prevail over evil or give in to it. Timshel.

If I can give you one piece of advice, it would be to read East of Eden as soon as possible. It was truly an amazing book.

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