“I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’” –John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden in 1952. He wanted his two young sons to share his love for the beauty and the people of the Salinas Valley in California. When he was finished with his masterpiece he thought, “…everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.” He explained, “It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years.”
East of Eden pretends to tell us the story of two families and their confrontations with evil. It is really the story of Genesis, chapter 4. More precisely, it is a book about a single, equivocal word that has been given jurisdiction over mankind’s participation with existence. The book is ultimately a challenge for us to decide how we shall live.
If we look at the book of Genesis 4 in the King James translation of the bible, we will be a part of the conversation between God and Cain. In chapter 7, the focus of this writing, God tells Cain the following: 7 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. This is our promise from God that mankind Shall eventually rule over evil.
If we were to look at that same passage in the American Standard bible, Genesis 4:7 would read: 7 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.
In this version God tells us and Cain that we must rule over evil.
These two passages are very different. The first is a promise from God that we, all of us, will eventually rule over evil. Do good works, don’t let evil in the door, keep our heads down so evil doesn’t get a good look at us, and God will provide our everlasting salvation from evil. The second is an order from god to get out there and fight. Evil will not defeat itself, God needs and expects us to seek evil out and destroy it.
This equivocation about a very important idea in our lives, what exactly can and should be done about evil, has been created in our lives by two curious definitions of the word timshel.
Timshel is the word we would find in Genesis 4:7 if we were reading a Hebrew Bible. Timshel is not translated into “thou shalt” and it is not translated into, “do thou”. Timshel means, “thou mayest”. Thou mayest rule over evil.
We get a choice. We are not really commanded to rule over evil like slave warriors of a vengeful god and we are not sheep who, if we are quiet enough and afraid enough and stay in our caves, God will provide and we will be free from evil. Timshel means we can participate in our world. We can choose. We can be the architects and the pilots of our lives because we can choose or not choose evil. We can be god-like.
How can this matter to us? It can free us from the bonds of servitude and it can bring us out of our caves. We can exercise the free will we have been promised and we can make changes in our world because we are free to think.
We, in America, are right in the middle of our every four-year frenzy. We are privileged to be able to vote for the people to lead us. We have responsibilities in this process because our votes will influence other people’s lives. We should choose well and wisely for ourselves and others.
How we think about ourselves and others cannot be separated from this process. Politics is a child of ethics. Every time we vote we make decisions about what is the best way of life and what is the best way to live with other people. The decisions we make in the voting booth are a statement of us and they linger on in the ways our votes have changed our society over time.
We take some comfort in blaming the people we elect for not making the changes we expected them to make. We assault them for being as self-interested as we are, as though they must be different than we are, better, smarter, able to see farther, and able to fix problems that have plagued mankind since we crawled out of caves. They are a constant disappointment to us, because they are us and we don’t like what we are seeing in them.
To divert our failures as decent and reasonable people, we blame others for the failures of a country built for the people by the people. We say those politicians are ruining our country. We say this while we reelect Congress members more than 90% of the time.
If America is not what we expect it to be, whose fault is that. Why are we spending out time pointing fingers at the people we put into office? We are America. What is wrong with America is our fault. It is our fault the second we say it is someone else’s fault.
There is beauty in our great people and our great institutions. We should never forget that, especially when we are whipping ourselves up for political fights against our countrymen.
We are the people Steinbeck was trying to describe in the last scene of “The Grapes of Wrath”. Broken, without a future, hungry, a past so sad and full of the ugliness of mankind that all hope is only a dim memory obscured by the fog of need. A young mother gives birth to a still born child in a boxcar somewhere just outside of fields of food. In her pain she chooses to suckle an old dying man with her unneeded milk. She, it is written, in the middle of her pain chose to be life for another. Simply because she realized “Tho mayest”.
We, as Steinbeck probably meant, also have the chance to decide to do good or evil. We should honor that chance when we vote.