On the Freedom of Choice

In his novel, ‘East of Eden’, John Steinbeck discovered that in the biblical parable of Cain and Abel the words which God is supposed to have spoken to Cain after he had murdered his brother, are different in British and American translations of the Bible to the original Hebrew. What is a small difference in translation actually implies a huge difference in the meaning of God’s words particularly with regard to Freedom of Choice.

In the English King James edition God’s words sound like a prediction: ‘Thou shalt rule over him’ (You will rule over sin) which would appear to mean that the men can go freely about their lives, knowing that the feeling of sin will be overcome automatically.

In the American Standard translation, God’s words sound like an order: ‘Do Thou rule over him’ (Rule over sin), which would appear to mean that men are obliged to obey God without a murmur of doubt.

Only in the original Hebrew version, by saying: ‘Thou mayest rule over him’ (You may rule over sin), do God gives man the freedom to make the difficult choice, whether to fight against sin or not! With just one Hebrew word ‘timshel’ (‘Thou mayest’) God communicates to man, that he always has Freedom of Choice.

Steinbeck writes:

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?”

“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”

“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.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.

Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”

“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?”

Adam said, “Do you mean these Chinese men believe the Old Testament?”

Lee said, “These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.


The text above is taken from the second part of “The Last Faith: a book by an atheist believer”.

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