“It Might Be the Most Important Word in the World”

There’s this little part of Genesis 4 that I didn’t realize was exceptionally significant until I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Of course, I’m referring to the Cain/Able debacle, and God’s intervention:

The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother and killed him.
(Genesis 4:6-9)

Steinbeck uses two of his characters, Lee and Adam, to teach us all something really significant about this passage:

Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “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.’ Don’t you see?

(By the way, if you haven’t read East of Eden, you should stop reading this and go read that instead).

Some people believe this encounter to be the first recorded murder. At the very least, it shows us that it’s wrong to kill people, especially your brother. But more interestingly, it tells us something about the relationship between God and man, and the nature of both. Here, God intervenes insofar as He warns Cain that “sin is crouching at the door,” but when they’re done chatting, Cain goes off and kills Able anyway. Surely the God who made the universe literally a few paragraphs ago could have stopped that! (Obvi.). But He didn’t, because of timshel – thou mayest.

Even though God is sovereign, we may or may not decide things a certain way. We may decide to follow Jesus, love our neighbors, not murder our brothers in a jealous rage, etc. Or we may not. Because God is sovereign, and we are free. Maybe we’ll triumph over sin, but as Lee says “the way is open,” and it’s up to us.

And this is kind of a big deal. Because with freedom comes responsibility. This is where I’d like to bring in the contemporary philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, who has written a bunch of interesting books including one called Art in Action. One of the things that he says in this text that has always stuck out to me is that, “Man at creation is singled out as the creature who alone among earthlings is responsible. He alone is accountable…The dignity of man calls for recognizing that man is responsible, and so for recognizing guilt, which is the dark side of responsibility.” We are free because we are responsible and we are responsible because we are free. God takes us and our actions seriously, which is why we can go and do things like kill our brothers, even though He doesn’t want us to.

Murdering siblings aside, this means a lot for us in our everyday lives. For example, when we let people get away with stuff, or not live up to common expectations, we’re actually rejecting their dignity as persons, which is a far worse fate than getting off easy. Likewise, we shouldn’t shy away from responsibilities, because upholding them literally makes us human, and that’s kind of huge. Furthermore, Wolterstorff goes on to say that “we have responsibilities, in the first place, with respect to the natural world surrounding us. We are to subdue it – that is, to tame it, to eliminate its unruliness, to order it, to place our imprint upon it.”

All of this to say, God has standards for us, and we may uphold them.

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