All Digging Deeper into the Word

Digging Deeper: The Story of Cain and Abel

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM


What did God say to Cain?

The story of Cain and Abel is usually heralded as a classic tale of sibling rivalry, hate, and murder. It is a tale of persecution, the godless hating the righteous. Is this not the very perspective of none other than Jesus Himself in Matthew 23:35?

While this is perfectly legitimate, the story has four parts, not two:

  1. God rejected Cain’s offering but accepts Abel’s
  2. God confronts Cain in his anger
  3. Cain murders Abel anyway
  4. God curses Cain. Each part has lessons for us.

Today I want to focus on God’s confrontation with Cain.


Another Tale of Brothers

In his book, East of Eden, John Steinbeck uses the story of Cain to address the struggle of several characters in the book. A psychopathic and perverse murderer named Cathy encounters two brothers locked in a Cain and Abel struggle. She marries one, seduces the other, and nine months later abandons her twin boys with her husband, Adam. She sets herself up as a Madam, a short way off. The twins, Caleb, called Cal, and Aron, also grow up with Cain and Abel conflicts, because Aron is beloved by their assumed father, and Cal is tortured with jealousy. When Cal discovers the truth about their mother, he uses this knowledge to destroy his brother, driving Aron to join the military during World War I. Aron is summarily killed. Upon hearing the news, their assumed father, Adam, has a stroke.

Adam has a Chinese servant, named Lee. He is fully entrenched in the lives of Adam, Cal, and Aron as well as that of Steinbeck’s grandfather, Samuel. Together, Samuel, Adam, and Lee begin a quest to understand exactly what God says to Cain in the biblical story, when Cain is in the throes of murderous jealousy. The Hebrew says, “Yahweh 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, and its desire is for you, but YOU timshal over it/him.” The struggle, as you might have guessed, is with the Hebrew term “timshal.” How shall we translate it?


What is Timshal?

The ESV translates it, “but you must rule over it,” which gives Cain a commission. The JPS runs with potential, “but you may rule over it.” The American Standard presents a command, “but do thou rule over it.” The King James Version renders it a promise or prediction, “and you shall rule over him.”1 The question is, does God command Cain, promise Cain, or offer Cain the possibility of escape from the ruinous path he has taken?

English has a long list of what we call modal verbs or helping verbs. These are special verbs that add nuance to an action’s time, tense, or relationship to reality. To say, “I can lift a car,” does not suggest that I DID lift a car. Saying “can” lift only says that I’m a braggart who claims the ability to do it. Saying, “He should be there by now,” does not mean that he IS there. Adding “should” implies that, based on known data, one is either expected to be there already, or he has disappointed social expectations by not being there. What will his mother think of that?! Indeed, there are many such words, terms like must, ought to, have, need to , used to, may, will, might; they express things like command, hope, expectation, anticipation, moral compunction, desire and so on.

Hebrew, however, uses a single verb form to express any one of these nuances for its action. An “imperfect verb,” like timshal, has the ability to express the idea that the action will happen, routinely happens, or even that it may, might, should, could, can, or would happen.


Can, Will, or Should?

So Samuel, Lee, and Adam discuss the matter at points in East of Eden, setting up the final scene between dying and grieving Adam and guilt-ridden Cal, who has always felt the compulsion of his own dark nature. Lee is determined to force Adam to speak words of comfort and forgiveness to his son even if it kills him. He delivers a moving speech demanding that Adam muster the strength to say something to save his remaining son.

He says to Adam as he lay on his deathbed, Cal “did a thing in anger, Adam, because he thought you had rejected him. The result of that anger is that his brother and your son is dead. …your son is marked with guilt… almost more than he can bear. Don’t crush him with rejection. …Give him your blessing! …Help him, Adam. Give him a chance. Let him be free.”

Adam does muster his strength for one last word to his broken son. Steinbeck writes, “Adam looked up with sick weariness. His lips parted and failed and tried again. Then his lungs filled. He expelled the air and his lips combed the rushing sigh. His whispered words seemed to hang in the air. ‘Timshel!2 Then his eyes closed and he slept.”



Adam gives Cal the same chance that God gave Cain. God could not have been predicting that Cain would overcome, because Cain didn’t, but fell to murder. God might have commanded Cain to overcome, but there are better and clearer ways of doing so in Hebrew. Rather, I think Steinbeck’s characters hit upon it best in the end. Earlier in the book, Lee tells Samuel and Adam the results of his Hebrew work with the Rabbis, trying to unpack God’s words to Cain:

“…this was gold from our mining: Thou mayest.   The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin… The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word timshel—3 ‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ That makes a man great and 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.”

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians  10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation, he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. ” One may wonder if Paul is giving commentary on Genesis 4:6-7.

Cain and Abel is not just a story of jealousy, hate, and murder. It is the story of temptation and God’s merciful provision in it. It is the story that tells us, no matter our sense of victimhood, that we are responsible for our choices. We are not beasts driven by instinct, but, as God’s image in the world, we have choice and culpability in the choice. Timshal!!! Brothers and sisters… Timshal!!!


1I simplified the KJV and JPS to eliminate outmoded word forms like mayest and thou.