Because I was an engineering major in college (who had AP credit for his English requirements), in four years I only took one course even close to the English department – Technical Writing. This left me with a void in my knowledge base that I have been trying to fill ever since by slowly catching up with all the classics that I have missed. When I left for SBL in San Diego last Fall, I grabbed my wife’s copy of East of Eden from the shelf to occupy myself on the long flight. If you haven’t read it, or it has been a while, here is some background.
Steinbeck uses the model of the Cain and Abel story from Genesis 4 to explore the issues of human freedom and depravity. The centerpiece of the book is the interpretation of תמשל in Gen 4:7. The KJV has “thou shalt rule over him” while the ASV has “thou must rule over him.” Is it a prediction or a command? The synthesis comes when Lee (a Chinese servant educated at Berkeley, but who intentionally speaks broken English because he is expected to), along with the help of some Chinese elders who learn Hebrew in order to solve the problem, realizes that תמשל might be modal:
“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too—‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek”…
…”Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”
Now, I also happened to be writing a paper on the Targums of Gen 4 last semester and I noticed that Pseudo-Jonathon and Neofiti have a very similar interpretation of verse 7:
Gn 4:7 הלא אם תייטיב עובדך ישתביק לך חובך ואין לא תייטיב עובדך בעלמא הדין ליום דינא רבא חטאך נטיר ועל תרעי ליבך חטאה רביע ובידך מסרית רשותיה דיצרא בישא ולוותך יהוי מתויה ואנת תהי שליט ביה בין למיזכי בין למיחטי
Look, if you do your deeds well, your sin will be forgiven you. But if you do not do your deeds well in this world, your sin will be kept for the great day of judgment. Sin is lying down at the gate of your heart, but I have put the control of the evil inclination into your hands. Toward you will be its longing, but you shall rule over it, whether to be innocent or to sin.
First, you should understand that the Targums are not merely an interpretive or expansive translation. In fact, the targumist tends to follow the biblical passage itself rather closely, only then adding interpretation and expansion, and usually you can separate the two rather easily. Note how תמשל is translated quite literally as ואנת תהי שליט. Of course, we still have the problem of whether this is a prediction, a command, or a possibility. Pseudo-Jonathan and Neofiti add two elements to suggest that they interpret it as the final option. First, ובידך מסרית רשותיה דיצרא בישא implies that God has given Cain the ability to control the evil inclination while בין למיזכי בין למיחטי specifically frames “ruling” as the moral choice to sin or not.
Now, this in itself does not suggest that Steinbeck knew the Targums or any rabbinic tradition, but there is another interesting parallel. In the book, the two main sets of brothers who are supposed to parallel Cain and Abel are both twins. In Gen 4:1-2 it says:
Now Adam knew Eve, his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain and she said, “I have acquired a man from before the Lord.” And again she bore his brother, Abel…
Notice how it doesn’t say “And she conceived again…” in verse 2? Various rabbinic traditions have interpreted this as meaning that Cain and Abel were twins. All of which made me wonder if I missed anything else because I was only comparing the biblical Genesis story. Then again, maybe its just a coincidence…