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.
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.
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.
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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