Three Cheers for Desire and Ambition

Sailing into Puget Sound in the spring of 1792, Captain George Vancouver of the Royal Navy anchored his boat in a sheltered bay he named Port Townsend.  Now, 227 years later, up on the quay in this pretty Washington town sits a decrepit-looking seventy-six-foot wooden fishing boat built nearby in 1937.  Western Flyer, sailed to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez by the great American writer John Steinbeck and his friend, “Doc” Ed Rickets in 1940, is now being adoringly restored by the master craftsmen of Port Townsend.  Steinbeck lovingly recounted that voyage in his 1952 book The Log From The Sea of Cortez.

That boating expedition was Steinbeck’s reward to himself for completing his famous novel The Grapes of Wrath although he himself regarded his later East of Eden as his greatest book.  I agree with him and am confident that I know the reason why the former is often assigned to American high school students while East of Eden is much less famous.  GICs (Government Indoctrination Camps, formerly known as public schools) approve of Grapes of Wrath because, with its themes of ruthless landlords and banks along with brave labor union organizers, it encourages teachers to engage in Left Wing advocacy.  East of Eden on the other hand is a staunchly religious book which cannot be understood without frequent reference to the Bible.

The very title, East of Eden is a quote from the Biblical narrative following God banishing Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim
and the fiery ever-turning sword,
to guard the way to the tree of life.
(Genesis 3:24)

A key theme of the novel is this response that God made to Cain upon whom a character in the novel is based.

Surely, if you do good there is uplift,
but if you do not do good sin crouches at the door;
its desire is for you, yet you will rule it.
(Genesis 4:7)

The Hebrew word for ‘you will rule’ is ‘timshol’ and Steinbeck’s entire novel revolves around that word and its implication that we have the moral power to resist the call of sin.

and you will rule

Still, we might well ask how can sin have a desire for a person? 

Anticipating our bewilderment, Scripture provides a clue one chapter in advance.

…in pain shall you bear children and your desire shall be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.
(Genesis 3:16)

We find that Genesis 3:16 about Eve, uses exactly the same wording as Genesis 4:7 about Cain.  Both verses speak of desire and ruling using the identical Hebrew words.  If we can understand Eve’s desire for Adam, then perhaps we’ll also understand sin’s desire for Cain.

Is woman’s desire for man identical to man’s desire for women?  The Bible tells us that the answer is “no”.  Adam lost a part of himself that was really Eve.  Upon awakening, Adam felt a gaping void in his being that only a woman could fill. From then, Adam and all his descendants  desperately seek the woman who will make them whole.  Without that woman, man doesn’t do well.  A disproportionate number of single men are poor and live violence-prone short, lonely lives. 

By contrast, women can manage in life without a man far better than men without a woman.  Even when corrected for age, widows endure far longer than widowers.  Yet women do desire men but in a different way.  Very few men seek a woman out of an urgent desire to have a baby.  But many women seek a man to help fulfill their desire to bring a new life into the world.  And whether the man merely provides a seed for the child or whether he becomes a lifelong father is up to him.  He makes that decision and determines whether the mother will be a single mother or a wife.  “He will rule over you.”

Similarly, in the Cain account, man can rule over his sin impulse.  He can transmute his desire for women into becoming a husband and father thereby benefiting others.  He can transmute his desire for money and power into ambition to build an enterprise that benefits many.  It is his decision.  If he does good, the drive to sin will be transformed positively.  If not, the sin will materialize destructively.  It is up to you whether you sin or whether you transform the urge into something better. “And you will rule it.”

So central is the idea of ‘timshol’ — you will be able to overcome the pull of sin, to East of Eden, that when Steinbeck submitted his completed manuscript to the publisher, he sent it in a wooden box he had carved himself.  On the lid, meticulously carved in bass relief is the Hebrew word Timshol.  You can see this box in the Steinbeck museum in Salinas, California.

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14 thoughts on “Three Cheers for Desire and Ambition”

  1. Jennifer E. King

    If you can rule over sin, i.e. turn it to good, does it not cease to be sin? How is a husband, especially all husbands as a general group, to be compared to sin? Surely you are not saying that all husbands are inherently bad.

    Certainly selfish, destructive desires, if allowed to command us, turn us away from God and set us on the path of our own destruction and the destruction of others. Shouldn’t this be the mirror opposite of a women’s relationship with her husband, however? It is the least selfish way to behave for a wife to accept her husband’s leadership and to devote her life to helping and advancing him. She does this for the good of their family – commonly sacrificing her own wants and even need when it is necessary to meet the needs of her husband and children. If she chooses a bad husband, it is devastating, of course, and too many women have been deeply harmed by dishonorable husbands, but there is the potential to choose a good husband, or for any bad man to turn good, which means good, love, honor, prosperity, and a healthy relationship with God is possible for them all. Her husband is not sin, he is a potential blessing which her serving can help to make a reality. How then is a wife’s submission to her husband like a man’s submission to sin, which is always disastrous? Also, although a man may rule over sin (I assume in terms of resisting it), one hopes that his God-given rule over his loving wife would be conducted in a wholly different way. Unlike sin, a wife intends her husband only good. She deserves his respect, gratitude, love and kindness for the good she tries to do for him.

    Forgive me if I am missunderstanding your point. It is usually quite clear, but this time I seem to be missing something.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Jennifer,
      Thanks for writing such a probing and thoughtful letter. Let me try and resolve your difficulty by outlining the limits of metaphor. An orca killer whale eats seals; my SUV takes gasoline. You could say that as seals “fuel” an orca, premium grade gasoline fuels my truck. You could even say that through the process of “burning” fuel in the presence of oxygen, both a killer whale and an internal combustion engine convert fuel into motion. However, regarding a whale as a form of conveyance just like my vehicle is carrying the comparison too far. Assuming that my car can go in water on the basis of my comparing my car to the whale is also taking the comparison too far. The way in which a woman desires a man is similar to and may be compared with the way sin desires man. These things must not be over thought. Please try reading the Thought Tool one more time but this time quickly and taking all points only on face value. I hope that helps. I’d love to delve deeply with you, Jennifer, into some complex philosophical issues but this Thought Tool probably isn’t the occasion.
      Good to hear from you

  2. Oh, one other thought – the way that sin has a desire for people – similar to the desire of a woman towards her husband – sin wants to conceive something (illicit and evil, of course) with you, robbing you of your generative forces which should be channeled elsewhere (as you said), and then bind you down/saddle you/burden you for the rest of your life, enslaving you to what you have produced, and probably more of it. Talk about a ball and chain. Or an albatross, my apologies to the albatross. Maybe that is why James chose his words in his New Testament epistle, “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when LUST HAS CONCEIVED, IT BRINGETH FORTH SIN: AND SIN, WHEN IT IS FINISHED, BRINGETH FORTH DEATH.” (James 1:14,15) Same eternal essence in both eras of Biblical warnings! Poor dumb Cain, may we all fare better than he did, of his own choosing!
    All my best to you and Mrs. Lapin!!!

  3. Wow, and he even carved the delivery box with the word “Timshol” in it to show how important the central theme of the book was – amazing. As you said, no wonder the public GIC’s (by the way, when, oh when, will the liberal anti-God anti-Judeo-Christian-roots crowd stop usurping the letters of the alphabet) don’t push East Of Eden as required reading. Thank God for all He teaches us through His Precious Word and thank YOU for your faithful service to Him in communicating hidden mysteries that cause us to grow in so many levels. I also notice that you cannot help but go back to the roots and beginning of everything – i.e., your Thought Tool begins with the (modern) history and founding of Port Townsend, rather than you starting with Steinbeck. I guess it is a residual trait of someone who is constantly returning to the beginning for roots and foundation in everything – you’ve got to back to Genesis 1:1 and the Garden of Eden before you address whichever topic you may be addressing. You never start in the middle of the story! My preacher is the exact same way in everything he does, preaches, and writes! Thank you for always being thorough and foundational, like GOD!!!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      That is so interesting, Celesta,
      I had never thought of your observation. What an insight! I will have to watch myself now to discover if it is really an innate tendency as you suspect.
      Thank you

  4. I am a special education teacher in an elementary GIC. I help coach sports teams as well. When not serving in that role I use my time to serve our church and private school with fund-raising, building/ground maintenance, and some music-leading and Bible-teaching when called upon.

    Additionally, I try to be as involved in my three young children’s lives as much as possible.

    However, I don’t have another business venture at this point.

    Would you say I’m not being productive enough with my time?

    Or would this look a little like the tribe of Levi who didn’t have a land inheritance but served in the tabernacle or Temple?

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Scott–
      Volunteering is all very well but it must come after you’ve tended your own vineyard. “They made me the tender of the vineyards; but my own vineyard I did not tend. (Song of Songs 1:6) It is certainly possible that you are not sufficiently caring for your own vineyard. As a teacher, you should surely explore a second job or a business. Not to the detriment of your family or your faith naturally but you probably could find the time to build up another vineyard

      1. Thank you for your response. I did not to speak incorrectly. I do exchange some of my working hours for my school-age children’s education at our private school.

        However, I do believe that I could earn much more with my own business.

        I’m trying to help the church while having two less monthly bills to pay for their education.

        I’m the P.K. (Preacher’s kid) so I’ve always been involved and around the church.

        1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

          I understand Scott,
          Thanks for the clarification. That’s good.
          I’m sure you agree that my basic point stands.
          Wishing you increased revenue,

  5. I think this is at least part of why the common male thread of dissatisfaction in marriage is sexual, while the common female thread usually has more to do with men’s level of involvement or contribution to the family.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      That’s right, Paul,
      All explained in Genesis.
      Looking forward to our interview,

  6. This thought tool should be mandatory (pun intended) reading for all who want to take life seriously.

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