"You Can Be Its Master"

Two readings, one ancient and one modern. First, Genesis 4: 1-16, New JPS Translation, 1985.
Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have gained a male child with the help of the Lord.’ She then bore his brother Abel.

Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil, and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell.

And the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you distressed, and why has your face fallen? 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. Yet you can be its master.’

Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Come, let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.

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

And he said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’

Then He said, ‘What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! Therefore, you shall be more cursed that the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.’

Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is too great to bear! Since You have banished me this day from the soil, and I must avoid your presence and become a restless wanderer on the earth -- anyone who meets me may kill me.’

The Lord said to him, ‘I promise, if anyone kills Cain sevenfold vengeance shall be taken on him.'And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest anyone who met him should kill him.

Cain left the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
That last phrase, “east of Eden,” John Steinbeck used as the title of his 1952 novel. In one passage from that novel, the Chinese servant, Lee, is talking to Samuel about those first 16 verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis.
“Well, the story bit 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 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....

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. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been that these very different translations could be made....

I respectfully submitted my problem to one of these sages, read him the story, and told him what I understood from it. The next night four of them met and called me in. We discussed the story all night long.... Every two weeks I went to a meeting with them, and in my room here I covered pages with writing....

You should have sat through some of those nights of argument and discussion. The questions, the inspection, oh, the lovely thinking—the beautiful thinking. After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis.

My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too—‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’
‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’...

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.’...

Now, there are many 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 his brother he has still the great choice.
He can choose his course and fight it through and win....

It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man.... Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.... It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.

I have no bent toward gods. But 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.’”
What is Lee so excited about? Why does he get hooked by one verse from Genesis 4, plunge into two years of intense exegesis about it, and conclude that ‘thou mayest’ is humanity’s ladder to the stars?

The story of the conflict between Cain and Abel reflects the real conflict in the Ancient Mid-East between the tillers of the ground and the keepers of sheep. It is also one of many times in the Hebrew Scriptures that a parent or parental figure’s real or apparent preference for one sibling over another causes trouble.

The key verse, Genesis 4:7, comes before Cain kills Abel. Cain is feeling sad because Yahweh “had regard for” Abel and his offering, but not for Cain and his offering.

Yahweh says, Why so sad?
“If you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin couches at the door. Its urge is toward you. Yet you can be its master.”
You can be its master.

The King James Version says, “Thou shalt rule over” sin – which Lee reads as promising that humans will triumph over over sin.

The American Standard Version says, “Do thou rule over” sin – which Lee reads as a command, an order to triumph over sin.

Of the 20-odd major translations into English, the only one that uses “thou mayest” is the JPS (Jewish Publication Society) Translation, 1917, of the Tanakh.* This would be the one in use by English-speaking Jews of Steinbeck’s time. If Steinbeck consulted with a Rabbi -- and apparently he did -- the phrase they would have talked about was, “thou mayest rule over” sin.

"You can be its master," is from the New JPS Translation, 1985.

“Thou mayest rule over it” – which Steinbeck takes to mean, “You are allowed to choose; you have free will” -- sounds to me more like, “You might prevail (thou mayest rule over). Go ahead; give it a shot. You might win against sin.” So I went with the New JPS, "You can be its master." It’s a mix of “you’re allowed” and a sort of “Si, se puede” (yes we can) encouragement. You can be sin's master.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Timshel: Thou Mayest"
See also
Part 2: Determinism Is Beside the Point
Part 3: Can't Get To Freedom By Ourselves
*The Tanakh consists of 39 books: the same 39 books which, in a
somewhat re-arranged order, constitute the Protestant "Old Testament."

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