Timshel (“Thou Mayest”)

John Steinbeck’s Midrash on Cain and Abel

The best midrash on the story of Cain and Abel was not written by an eminent Talmudic scholar or a medieval rabbinic sage, but by a 20th century author born right here in Salinas. I am, of course, referring to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

Midrash is the process of interpreting and explaining the biblical text developed by the rabbis of the Talmud. Their midrashim can be found in the Talmud and were also collected in various anthologies. But the process of midrash continued throughout the centuries and continues today. 

And although John Steinbeck probably was not aware of the term, he was indeed engaging in the process of midrash when he wrote East of Eden. 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.”

Steinbeck was well-versed in the Bible and was particularly drawn to the story of Cain and Abel, and to one word within that story: timshel. This word occurs early in the story. Cain, a tiller of the soil, brings an offering to God of the fruit of the soil. Abel, a shepherd, offers God “the choicest of the firstlings of his flocks.” 

God pays heed to Abel’s offering, but not to Cain’s. The text does not explain why, perhaps because it is obvious: Abel’s was the choicest of his flocks, while Cain’s was just ordinary fruit. This is the first of many times that God plays favorites between brothers.

Cain is distraught at God’s response, and God, notices Cain’s despair. “Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen?” God asks. “Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin couches at the door. Its urge is toward you, but you can rule over it.” 

These last words caught Steinbeck’s attention. Not satisfied with relying on English translations, he consulted the Jewish scholar Louis Ginzberg about the Hebrew text, specifically about the word which he renders timshel.

There is a difficulty rendering this word in transliteration. 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.

But Steinbeck was not so much interested in the pronunciation as he was in the meaning of the particular grammatical form. It is, in fact, second person imperfect, which refers to an act that has not yet occurred. And, as often is the case in Hebrew, it has a variety of meanings.

In East of Eden, the source of information about this word is the Chinese servant Lee. He recalls that when Samuel had read the Cain and Abel story to the family, Lee was intrigued by it, and examined it “word for word” (p. 346). He consulted a couple of translations, the King James and the American Standard, and was not satisfied with them. King James translates the phrase, “thou shalt rule over him” as if to “promise that Cain would conquer sin.” (p. 346) The American Standard, on the other hand, says “Do you rule over him,” which is not a promise, but an order. Lee decided that he needed to find its original meaning. 

Lee explains that he went to San Francisco, to his family association to consult with the revered sages. He discussed the text with four of these sages, all of whom were over 90 years of age. The engaged a rabbi to teach them Hebrew, and then, when they had learned more than the rabbi, another rabbi was brought in. Two years later, they were ready to tackle the verse in question. Their conclusion: the word timshel should be understood to mean “thou mayest rule over it.”

Lee explains to his family why the King James and American Standard translations are inadequate and why the Hebrew is so important: 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.’” (p. 349)

Lee continues, “’Thou mayest’… 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.”

Steinbeck wants to emphasize that we human beings have free will, that we may choose good or choose evil, that we may rule over sin, or not. And while this interpretation is consistent with biblical thinking on the matter, it is not the only way to understand the text. As I said, the particular grammatical form has a variety of meanings; Steinbeck is entitled to embrace one and use it throughout his novel, but he oversteps when he tries to show that it is the original, and therefore only justifiable, rendering of the term.

But it is more than Steinbeck’s interest in this word that makes East of Eden such a great midrash. Rather it is how he tells his story to reflect the themes of the biblical text. The story focuses on Adam Trask and his younger half-brother Charles. Steinbeck chooses the same initials, A and C for the brothers who will play out the story of Abel and Cain in their lives. 

One day when the two brothers are playing a game called peewee and Adam is winning, Charles suddenly attacks his brother hitting him repeatedly with the bat, knocking him unconscious. Although he does not die, as Abel does in the Bible, there is the implication that Charles has indeed mortally wounded Abel. Shortly thereafter, when the boys are fighting again, we are told that “Adam looked at his brother as the condemned look hopelessly and puzzled at the executioner.”

As brothers often do, Adam and Charles compete for their father’s affection. And Charles perceives that his father loves Adam more. He recalls the birthday when he bought his father a beautiful knife. “Where’s that knife,” Charles laments, “I never even saw him hone it… What did he do with it? ... You brought him a mongrel pup you picked up in the woodlot…That dog sleeps in his room. He plays with it while he’s reading. He’s got it all trained. And where’s the knife?”

Just as God pays heed to Abel’s offering, but not to Cain’s, Cyrus Trask –at least in the mind of Charles—pays heed to Adam’s birthday offering, but not to Charles’s. And so Adam suffers another beating at the hands of his brother.

And shortly thereafter, Charles receives his “mark of Cain.” He is working on the farm one day, clearing rocks from the land, when a he encounters a large boulder. Never one to back down to a challenge, he desperately tries to pry it loose with an iron bar, but when the bar slips, its upper end smashes against his forehead, knocking him out and leaving him with a large torn welt that will turn into a permanent scar. In a letter to his brother, Charles writes, “It looks…like somebody marked me like a cow…. I don’t know why it bothers me…. It just seems like I was marked.”

In the biblical story, Cain complains that his punishment of being banished from the soil is too much, and that he would become a restless wanderer; protected with the mark of Cain, he settles east of Eden. Steinbeck has Charles settle on the family farm, while Adam becomes a wanderer, which turns out not to be the awful fate that Cain imagines it would be.

Throughout the book we are introduced to characters who cannot overcome their proclivity to sin and evil. Charles is the first, but the most important is certainly Cathy Ames. In Jewish terms, we would say that Cathy never develop a yetzer tov, a good inclination, and therefore her innate yetzer ra was allowed to run rampant destroying everyone and everything that got in her way. 

It is not a coincidence that Steinbeck chose the name Cathy, with a “C,” because like Charles, she is another incarnation of Cain, committing the most heinous of sins throughout her life. If Steinbeck believes that we can indeed rule over sin, Cathy is an example of someone who does not. In fact, she is portrayed as being incapable to choosing anything but evil.

Finally, we are introduced to another generation of Cain and Abel, Adam’s son’s Cal and Aron. They, too, struggle with each other, as brothers do. At one point, when Aron has disappeared, Adam asks Cal, “Do you know where your brother is?” Cal replies, “How do I know? ... Am I supposed to look after him?” Like Cain, Cal denies responsibility for his brother. 

To make a very long story short, Aron runs away and enlists in the Army, and is killed in fighting. But this time, as we approach the end of the book, someone accepts responsibility. 

Cal speaks to his dying father: “I did it … I’m responsible for Aron’s death and for your sickness. I took him to Kate’s I showed him his mother. That’s why he went away. I don’t want to do bad things—but I do them.”

At the end of the novel, Lee begs for Adam to give Cal his blessing. “Don’t leave him alone with his guilt…Let him be free.” And Adam, as he is dying, whispers one word: “Timshel!” He thus affirms that Cal has indeed, by accepting responsibility, demonstrated that he is capable of ruling over sin.

East of Eden is a literary masterpiece in which we see the story of Cain and Abel replayed in the lives of two generations of Salinas Valley families. Steinbeck demonstrates the powerful themes of this biblical story, and their contemporary relevance. We should not read the biblical words, without reflecting on Steinbeck’s lesson that we, indeed, can rule over sin if we choose to do so.