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East of Eden

John Steinbeck

Important Quotations Explained

Quotes Important Quotations Explained

Quote 3

“Don’t you see? . . . The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you 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.”

Lee says these words during his discussion of the Cain and Abel story with Samuel and Adam in Chapter 24. He has just revealed to the other men the outcome of the research he did on the meaning of timshel, the word that God utters to Cain when exiling him to the lands east of Eden. According to one translation of the Bible, God orders Cain to triumph over sin, while according to another, God promises Cain that he will defeat sin. Lee’s research, however, has revealed that timshel means “thou mayest,” implying that God tells Cain that he has a choice whether or not to overcome sin. Lee sees this idea of free choice over evil a token of optimism that is central to the human condition. He attempts to convince Adam and Cal of the validity of timshel and ultimately succeeds, as Adam gives Cal his blessing and Cal realizes he himself has the power to overcome his family’s legacy of evil.