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Saturday, March 7, 2015

Steinbeck and the Most Important Word in the World



Have I mentioned that I love Steinbeck?  Of course I have; John Steinbeck is the best. Take for example, this discussion of Cain and the most important word in the world, from his novel East of Eden:


                “Do you remember when you read us the sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis and we argued about them?”
                “I do indeed.  And that’s a long time ago.”
                “Ten years nearly,” said Lee.  “Well, the story bid deeply into me and I went into it word for word.  The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me.  Then I compared the translations that we have-and they were fairly close.  There was only one place that bothered me.  The King James version says this-it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry.  Jehovah says, ‘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.’ It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin.”
                Samuel nodded.  “And his children didn’t do it entirely,” he said.
                Lee sipped his coffee.  “Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible.  It was very new then.  And it was different in this passage.  It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now this is very different This is not a promise, it is an order.  … The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance.  The King James translation makes it 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?”
                “Yes, I see.  I do see.  But you do not believe this is divine law.  Why do you feel its importance?”
                “Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time.  I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important.  Now, there are millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience.  And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’  Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be.  But ‘Thou mayest’!  Why that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of brother he has still the great choice.  He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”  Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.  

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