It features prominently in Steinbeck's East of Eden. The book's title is a familiar expression, a way of reflecting the human condition outside the garden which is depicted in early chapters of the Bible, the place where the first human beings walked with God.
Unbeknownst to me until I began reading the novel, East of Eden is a retelling of the Cain and Abel narrative, found in Genesis 4:1-16. That's the archetypal story driving the plot.
The narrative is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s, reaching back as early as the American Civil War and as late as the beginnings of World War I. The story begins in Connecticut and Massachusetts, pulls in pictures from the Western frontier, and culminates in California. The big, existential question taken up by Steinbeck is that of human agency, particularly whether or not we are fated to be either good or evil, or if we are free. Determinism versus free will.
That's where the Cain and Abel story comes in. It's threaded throughout. But four characters, Adam and Charles Trask, and Aron and Caleb Trask, become representative of Abel and Cain, or a bent toward good and a twisting toward evil.
Genesis 4:7 becomes central, all because of a single term. The King James Version renders this verse, "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."
The American Standard Version reads, "If thou doest well, shall it not be lifted up? and if thou doest not well, sin coucheth at the door; and unto thee shall be its desire; but do thou rule over it.”"
Three characters, Samuel Hamilton, Lee, and Adam Trask, discuss the narrative. If the correct rendering is thou shalt, Adam, Samuel, and Lee see this as a divine promise, one God didn't deliver on, or that humankind has yet to achieve. If the correct rendering is do thou, the men see it as a divine order, a command that appears impossible to keep. Either way, the group is perplexed.
Lee goes to the Hebrew, and he finds that the word under dispute is timshel. Lee is a Chinese man. And he has family in San Francisco. The elders in his family like to kick around questions like this one. So they take up the question. They study the original texts. They reach out to a local Rabbi. And they come to a conclusion. They determined that this word, timshel, was very important. They also determined timshel would be better rendered, "thou mayest." "Thou mayest rule over sin."
This makes all the difference. We are neither fated to be evil, nor are we determined to be good. Rather, we are free. Samuel Hamilton is captured by the thought. He continues the conversation with Lee, and Samuel says:
'Thou mayest rule over sin,' Lee. That's it. I do not believe all men are destroyed. I can name you a dozen who were not, and they are the ones the world lives by. It is true of the spirit as it is true of battles--only the winners are remembered. Surely most men are destroyed, but there are others who like pillars of fire guide frightened men through the darkness. 'Thou mayest, Thou mayest!' What glory! It is true that we are weak and sick and quarrelsome, but if that is all we ever were, we would, millenniums ago, have disappeared from the face of the earth. A few remnants of fossilized jawbone, some broken teeth in strata of limestone, would be the only mark man would have left of his existence in the world. But the choice, Lee, the choice of winning! I had never understood it or accepted it before.
We are left to discover how each character will use their freedom, how they will exercise their will. Through their struggles we discover our own propensity toward evil, our vulnerabilities, our temptations and our sins. But we also are left to question the reasons for the good that we do. Is it really true that right action is an evidence of "winning" over sin? Are some inclined toward good by nature, by virtue of genetics, or by chance?
Any person, however, with a well developed Christian anthropology, or doctrine of humankind, will call these questions into question. They'll see in these exchanges a form of Pelagianism, an ancient heterodoxy that holds human beings are morally neutral, among other things. They'll question whether or not Samuel Hamilton's outlook opens the door for a form of self-righteousness or the pursuit of works-salvation. They might grant that you could draw the above conclusion from Genesis 4:1-16 alone, but that the remainder of the biblical story adds more layers, offers wider perspectives. Maybe together we'd conclude that there is a need to bring grace into the equation, that we'd need to explore ways in which the will toward the good is an evidence of God's activity, God's initiative, God's redeeming and reconciling work.
East of Eden is great literature. Why? It raises the great questions. If you haven't read it, read it. Or not. Let me rephrase. If you want to read it...