Since high school, I’ve always tried to dedicate the summer as a time to read some books for pleasure instead of mandatory reading in school. I try to read during school, but seeing as I barely read for classes when it’s mandatory (except for MGMT312 of course), I often find it hard to keep up. Nonetheless, I decided to pick up John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden this past summer to give it a read. Although there were many reasons for me to pick up this book, such as the fact that Steinbeck considered it his best work and has been an American classic since it was published in 1952, the real reason I was drawn to East of Eden was its use of the Hebrew word “timshel.”

The reason I was even familiar with the word timshel in the first place is because a couple of bands that I listened to in high school had used the word as a title of a song. After seeing Mumford and Sons use the word as a track title during their rise to stardom a year or two ago, I was curious about the origin of the word and why so many artists favored such an oddly unique word. After looking it up online, I saw that a number of sources pointed me towards Steinbeck’s novel, and that this particular section and word seemed to stick with many people, just as it had with the artists that used it as a track title. In fact, the word timshel is called “the most important word in the world” in East of Eden. From what I could gather from this section of the book, the word timshel has to do with the Bible and good versus evil. In a discussion between two characters, Steinbeck reveals that the King James Bible’s translation of the word timshel is “Thou shalt” as in a promise from God that thou shalt triumph over sin. It  However, the direct translation is “Thou mayest” as in any person may or may not choose to triumph over sin, or choose to do good or evil. I think that it is in this distinction that the ability to do good or evil in the world is a choice and it is not predetermined or inevitable is what gives the word a lot of power and attention from those who read East of Eden.

I also think that this is something that can be related to class as well. A lot of times we talk about how the nature of business ethics is that in order to be profitable, a company often has to be a little shady. AIG misleads shareholders, Nike exploits sweatshop labor, and Wal-Mart invades low-income areas. Companies that tend to look the other way or partake in poorer business ethics often outperform more socially conscious companies like Red Tomato. It seems to be something that is inevitable; if AIG becomes transparent, they sink immediately. This can be related to the more common King James notion of “thou shalt” in East of Eden, that companies run in certain shady ways because they have to. But the notion of timshel, “thou mayest”, challenges that. It would say that companies have the choice to act for good or evil and that the ethics isn’t inherent to the company or industry, but is a matter of individual choice.

Overall, from the 100 pages of East of Eden that I read before I put it down, the book is very entertaining. Steinbeck initially wrote the book to describe to his young sons the Salinas Valley in California where Steinbeck grew up. The imagery that he uses when describing the landscape is pretty amazing. Once I finally commit to reading books instead of wasting my time, I’ll be sure to pick it up again.


3 responses »

  1. Jordi says:

    Fascinating. I know the band, but not that track. I agree with you, there is a world of difference between “thou shall” and “thou mayest.” I never read this novel, or any Steinbeck… we all have holes in our education, ok?!? I think the “classic” I have never read but would like to is Wuthering Heights or maybe something by Philip Roth.

    I learned the meaning of “shibboleth” this weekend. Another fun hebrew-derived word.

  2. […] Timshel and the Power of Choice ( […]

  3. […] but funny writing style / relates to class — Brooke (The Hunger Games); had already read Most enlightening — Marc H. Best find for your paper – Marko Best post with a newfound book […]

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