Thursday, April 30, 2015


Do you have a list of the best novels you have ever read?
In the late 1970s or early ’80s I first made a list of “Best Ten” novels—those that I had read and found most impressive. With little hesitation, I put John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” (1952) on that list. And it’s still there.
Back when I was a seminary student—and that is more than 50 years ago now—one of my favorite professors was Dr. Dale Moody. He was my systematic theology teacher, but in class one day he talked about the value of reading good novels.
He mentioned “East of Eden” as an example of the kind of novel he was talking about.
Because of being extremely busy as a seminary student and pastor, then as a graduate student, and then later as a Japanese language school student, it was not until the summer of 1969 that I started reading novels.
The first one I chose was “East of Eden.”
Since I enjoyed that book so much, I have averaged reading a novel a month ever since. (That is what I do to relax at bedtime.)
This month I read “East of Eden” again as it was the selection for the Great Books KC April meeting. June also read it, and then before attending the April 25 discussion we watched (also for the second time) the 1955 movie based on the book .
James Dean was the main character in the movie, which was based on only about the last fourth of the book. And while it is not a bad movie, it certainly does not have the profundity of the Steinbeck novel.
The theme of the book centers on the meaning of the Hebrew word timshel used in Genesis 4:7. (And there are allusions throughout the book to the story of Cain and Abel as found in the fourth chapter of Genesis.)
Most newer translations of the Bible translate timshel as “you must.” That is maybe about the same meaning as the translation in the KJV as well as the 1899 Douay version: “thou shalt.”
Those words are a command, which we humans may or may not be able to carry out.
However, in the novel Lee, the amazing Chinese servant and one of the most interesting characters in the book who doesn’t even appear in the movie, concludes with the help of Chinese scholars and a rabbi that timshel should be translated “thou mayest.”

Both the Complete Jewish Bible (1998) and the New American Bible (2011) translate timshel as “you can,” words with the same meaning as “thou mayest.”
Moral freedom, then, becomes the key theme in “East of Eden.” Humans have the freedom to choose a life of hope and redemption, to forget the past and even what their parents did to them. Everyone has the freedom to break free from past constraints and to forge a better future.
While working on this article, I received an email showing some of the world’s most creative statues and sculptures. (See those amazing works here.) 
One was “Freedom” (pictured below) by Zenos Frudakis and located in Center City, Philadelphia. It illustrates well the idea of timshel as interpreted in “East of Eden.”

If timshel, God’s word to Cain, means “thou mayest” (you can), which it well might, it is a wonderful word of freedom and promise.
A lingering, and troublesome, question, though, is this: if we have moral freedom, if we can choose good instead of evil, why do we humans so often choose that which is not good for ourselves and for others?


  1. Leroy,

    While the subject of this book is not focused on your topic today, I want to recommend a book I've just finished which I found a moving read because of the story and the way the story is told. The book is "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr. While reading it last week, the book won the 2015 Pulitzer for Fiction. It tells the story of a blind girl in France and an orphaned boy in Germany growing up as WWII engulfs Europe and brings these two people together in a small town in France.

    I'm not sure if I would put it on a Top Ten list, but it has moved me to the place where I don't want to start my next book because I'm still thinking about this one. To me, that's the sign of a great book.

  2. Thanks for your participation in the Great Books KC group and your reference to it in this post. If others in the Kansas City metro area want to know more about the group they can check the following web address:

  3. Leroy, I'm back.
    I did consult Brown Driver and Briggs Hebrew Lexicon of the Old Testament (1st edition 1907, but still considered THE authority at SBTS when I studied there 1962-1968). timshel is second person singular imperative form of mshl, basic meaning "to rule." But imperative is never absolute. As the West Texas saying goes, "It's one thing to tell a man to go to hell, it's another to send him there." In Old West cowboy culture as popularly interpreted, some times a man fast with a gun could send a man to hell.In my free will theology, God never enforces his will upon us. He tells Cain, (and us) to master sin, but he doesn't make us do it. Since God created us in the divine image with freedom to act morally, he cannot make us be good. We do not have moral freedom to be good unless we also have freedom to be bad. Unfortunately, we seem to have a proclivity toward being bad, but a corresponding procilivity to be good. What would your favorite OT prof Dale Moody have said about this conundrum? In his commentary on Genesis, Gerhard von Rad says of the latter part of Gen. 4:7, " . . . it shows sin as an objective power which . . . is outside the man and over him, waiting eagerly to take possession of him. The man, however, ought [sic] to master it and curb it." Von Rad offers us no help on why the man didn't. Nor does the passage. Deterministic theology provides an answer, but not one in accord with Biblical theology as a whole.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Charles. I appreciate you sharing some of your knowledge about both Hebrew and theology.

      I am not sure how Dr. Moody would have answered the question I ended with, but he strongly believed in freedom of the will, it seems. As you may remember, he was highly criticized by some Southern Baptists because of his belief that apostasy is possible through human choice. This, of course, was contrary to the old Baptist insistence on "once saved, always saved."

  4. In addition to Charles Kiker, my Thinking Friend who posted above, other Hebrew students/scholars have also commented. One is Tim Freeman, a Facebook friend of Thinking Friend Keith Herron, who kindly linked to this blog article on his Facebook page yesterday.

    Tim wrote, "Interesting as the verb form is Qal imperfect indicating an incomplete action...more like you ruling over him (desire)...not a complete action but one that continues."

  5. Thinking Friend J.P. Kang in Seattle wrote,

    "A Jewish explanation for human behavior may be illuminating:

    "The rabbis played upon one of the spellings of the Hebrew word for heart, לֵבָב [lay-vav] noting that the two bets indicated the two competing inclinations of the heart to evil [ra'] and good [tov]. By contrast, western Christianity has the idea of original sin.

    "Also, the pronunciation of the word at the end of Genesis 4:7 should more accurately be transliterated as timshol (the o would be long like "oh" if the word were written independently, but here is shortened to an "aw" since it is immediately followed by the preposition+pronoun "bo" marking the direct object "it"). But that is a minor point, and timshel probably reflects a particular Jewish community's pronunciation (possibly Ashkenazi or Yiddish though I am not too familiar with those dialects).

    "Your post makes me want to read 'East of Eden' for the first time!"

  6. Along other lines, local Thinking Friend Fred Herren sent these comments:

    "Excellent thoughts about 'East of Eden' and human freedom.

    "In case anyone else hasn't pointed this out, the Steinbeck quote in the image on your blog has a typo in the last line: should say 'if,' not 'it.'"

    1. Yes, I noticed that, but it was a copied image and there was no way (that I knew of, at least) to correct it. I went ahead and used it thinking that people would get the point in spite of the typo.

  7. And Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson writes,

    "I like Steinbeck, too, Leroy, and have read all of his novels with much appreciation for his theological acumen."

    1. Dr. Hinson, I have also read all, or at least most, of Steinbeck's novels and have enjoyed them all. Of course "Grapes of Wrath" is a great novel, and my wife thinks it is better than "East of Eden." But I still like the latter better.

  8. NPR this morning gave us an example of how novels can influence behavior. This segment on NPR indicates that young people who have read "Harry Potter" books are more accepting of persons from minority cultures.

    1. Yes, I think that novels can influence behavior -- but in negative or unwholesome ways as well as in positive ways, as in the example you shared, Clif.

      I wonder how novels such as, say, "Fifty Shares of Grey" influence behavior.

  9. Most of Wilbur Smith's works just for fun - "Sunbird" and "When the Lion Feeds" top that list. Clive Cussler's works - also just for fun. Clavell's "Shogun" and Michner's "The Covenant" for a better understanding of the world.

  10. One other book, "Der Weg Zum Lesen", a collection of short stories by Van Horn Vail. And 4 other prolific authors - Frederick Forsythe, Louis L'Amour, Leon Uris, and Alistair MacLean. I think I just enjoy reading for fun.

    Currently I am not reading a novel, but rather the journal of Sue Spenser, "African Creeks I Have Been Up".

  11. I read "Grapes of Wrath" in school, and it is a great novel. Some years later I read "East of Eden," and was even more impressed. I remember looking at the large book as mostly an extended meditation on chapter 4 of Genesis, even as it was simultaneously a good candidate for the "great American novel." Thanks for the thoughtful essay.

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