A Closer Look at Cain’s Curse with John Steinbeck

I recently finished reading John Steinbeck’s great novel, East of Eden, in which he illustrates the age old struggle of fallen man to overcome sin and evil. Throughout the story, he alludes strongly to the well-known Genesis account of Cain and Abel, from which he obtains the title of his book. It would not be fair to say that Steinbeck’s novel is simply an allegory of the Scripture passage. However, his emphasis upon this passage throughout his own story forces us to rethink our own understanding of this well-known tale. As Steinbeck himself says, 

I believe there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill? (Steinbeck, East of Eden, 475).

So it is the same age-old story, at least in some sense. But Steinbeck puts the old familiar story in a new light, forcing us to question our understanding of Cain’s struggle. By a brilliant, inlaid exegesis of the Genesis text, Steinbeck reveals the redemptive aspect of Cain’s freedom to overcome his guilt.

Near the middle of the book, three of Steinbeck’s main characters are gathered for the naming of the twin sons of Adam Trask. Naturally, the story of Cain and Abel enters the conversation, for these were the firstborn sons of the first Adam. “Two stories have haunted us and followed us from our beginning,” Samuel says. “We carry them along with us like invisible tails—the story of original sin and the story of Cain and Abel. And I don’t understand either of them. I don’t understand them at all, but I feel them” (305). He asks the scholarly servant Lee if he understands these stories. He replies, “I think I understand the Fall. I could perhaps feel that in myself. But the brother murder—no. Well, maybe I don’t remember the details very much” (306). Consequently, they decide to read it together. Samuel opens up his wife’s worn-out bible and remarks, “Here we are—this oldest story. If it troubles us it must be that we find the trouble in ourselves” (306). They proceed to read the first sixteen verses of Genesis 4 aloud, which inspires a discussion about the meaning of the book. (The version they read closely aligns the Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition found here. I encourage you to go back and read it yourself.) 

As children, I think we often see Cain’s story as simply a moral tale reminding us that sin is bad. If we are anything like Steinbeck’s Adam, the story may make us feel better about ourselves. After all, we didn’t invent sin; “we are descended from this. This is our father. Some of our guilt is absorbed in our ancestry. . . It means we aren’t the first. It’s an excuse” (308). I think many of us leave it at that and don’t think much further into it. We take the lesson to heart and swear off murder, upholding ourselves as decent people. If we find ourselves more sympathetic to Cain, we might view God’s rejection as an injustice. As Adam says, “Both Cain and Abel gave what they had, and God accepted Abel and rejected Cain” (308-309). We might feel a kind of bitterness towards God because he’s not fair. If we are not good enough, we are condemned; there’s “no single note of encouragement” (308). Once again, it’s an excuse. God rejects us if we don’t please him and there’s nothing we can do about it. 

If we reflect deeply, I think we’ll find that we have viewed Cain’s story in one of these ways at some point in our lives. However, if we come back to this story as adults, we will try to identify with it in a deeper way. For, as Lee says, “a great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting—only the deeply personal and familiar” (310). The story must be more than an excuse. It must reveal something about ourselves. Lee attempts to explain how it is everybody’s story:

The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt—and there is the story of mankind (310).

We can sympathize with Cain’s hurt feelings when he is rejected. If we have ever been jealous of that perfect sibling of ours, perhaps we can understand Cain’s urge to strike at Abel when his attempts to please God fall flat. But then God says to him, “Why art thou angry? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou do well, shalt thou not receive? but if ill, shall not sin forthwith be present at the door? but the lust thereof shall be under thee, and thou shalt have dominion over it” (DRA, Genesis 4:6-7). God reminds Cain that he can also be like Abel, so long as he does well. But if he does poorly, as he has done in his unworthy sacrifice, then he will be tempted to sin. The next lines seem to be a promise that Cain will overcome the sin—“thou shalt have dominion over it.” However, that promise is immediately followed by an account of his murder. Clearly, he did not overcome the temptation here. He is thereafter cursed for the murder of his brother. And yet, as Samuel reminds us, God put a mark on Cain “not to destroy him but to save him” (309). Cain himself is the one who wishes to die, saying, “Behold thou dost cast me out this day from the face of the earth, and I shall be hidden from thy face, and I shall be a vagabond and a fugitive on the earth: every one, therefore, that findeth me, shall kill me” (DRA, Genesis 4:14). But the Lord replies, “No, it shall not be so: but whosoever shall kill Cain, shall be punished sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, that whosoever found him should not kill him” (DRA, Genesis 4:15). 

At this next level of understanding, we often go one of two ways. We either view God’s words to Cain with confident expectation of his promise or we feel the overwhelming weight of Cain’s sin and despair. God said “thou shalt” have dominion over sin, so surely we will. God is truthful and we must trust him; the course is set for us. Many of us stop there and go on living our mediocre lives in anticipation of his promise. On the other hand, we might feel the weight of that apparent promise as a command that we cannot carry out. For, after those lines, Cain gave in and committed the sin; the rejection was too much to bear. Similarly, we might feel that our own unworthiness is too much to overcome. We can’t bear to know that we have displeased God. We can’t bear the realization that we are lacking something. Like Cain, we feel that “[our] iniquity is greater than that [we] may deserve pardon” (DRA Genesis 4:13). We make a tragic hero of ourselves, wishing with Cain that “everyone, therefore, who findeth [us], shall kill [us]” (DRA Genesis 4:14). Steinbeck illustrates this feeling in the tragic character of Tom Hamilton. After the sudden death of his sister, for which he blames himself, Tom cannot overcome his guilt. “My father, I’m sorry,” he says. “I can’t help it. You overestimated me. You were wrong. I wish I could justify the love and the pride you squandered on me. Maybe you could figure a way out, but I can’t. I cannot live. I’ve killed Dessie and I want to sleep” (Steinbeck, East of Eden, 470). 

But the story of Cain does not end in death. In fact, God marks him so that his life will be preserved. There must be a realistic hope in God’s promise. We know that it cannot be a story of despair. Through the character Lee, Steinbeck reveals a deeper dimension to Cain’s curse. Lee spends ten years studying the story word by word and comparing various translations. He notices that they are mostly similar, but one word in particular is translated differently in different versions. In some translations, Genesis 4:7 says thou shalt overcome sin, which sounds like a promise that is shortly thereafter not upheld. Other translations say do thou rule over sin, which is more of an authoritative command that Cain did not obey. Dissatisfied with this difference, Lee studies Hebrew to find out the original meaning of the original author. The Complete Jewish Bible is the closest translation that I could find. (You can read it for yourself here.) Lee discovers that the Hebrew word often translated as thou shalt or do thou is more properly the equivalent of thou mayest. Excitedly, he shares his discovery with Adam and Samuel:

[One] translation orders men to triumph over sin. . . [Another] 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? . . . Now there are 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 (349).

God does not order Cain to do something beyond his ability. Nor does he promise something that cannot be guaranteed. He opens the way for us to make the choice ourselves. He gives us permission to overcome sin, but he does not move us against our wills. Lee’s discovery challenged my mediocre grasp of Cain’s curse. Excited, I felt inspired to go back and read the words again to find the hope that Lee had found. And it is there—not only in God’s promise that Cain can overcome temptation but also in the preserving mark on Cain even after he has committed the sin. What encouragement lies in these lines! As Lee goes on to say, “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” (349-350). Cain’s “curse” is a mark of freedom. We are free to overcome sin and evil and do good! The way is open to us!

Steinbeck reflects this freedom in his most relatable character, Caleb Trask. Like Cain, Cal is less pleasing than his brother and often feels rejected. He fights within himself a simultaneous hatred and protective affection for his brother throughout their childhood. He knows his brother is better than him, more pure and more pleasant; but he resents him for winning more affection from their father with seemingly less effort. His resentment culminates in an attempt to give his father a present that is rejected. “No. I won’t want it ever,” says Adam. “I would have been so happy if you could have given me—well, what your brother has—pride in the thing he’s doing, gladness in his progress. . . Don’t be angry. If you want to give me a present—give me a good life. That would be something I could value” (622). But Cal’s feelings are hurt and “hate was seeping all through his body, poisoning every nerve. He could feel himself losing control” (623). Adam’s words echo those of the Lord to Cain, when he says, “Why are you so angry? Why so downcast? If you are doing what is good, shouldn’t you hold your head high?” (CJB Genesis 4:6-7). The most pleasing sacrifice we can offer our Father is to live a good life. When we fail to do good, we feel rejected, and it is then that “sin is crouching at the door” (CJB Genesis 4:7). 

At this point, Cal gives in to his temptation and does something to his brother equivalent to murder. Upon realizing the fullness of his crime, he confesses it all to his father and feels punished. He feels that he cannot go into his father’s presence again. “I can’t stand it. No, I can’t stand it,” he says. “I won’t be able to. I’ll have to—I’ll have to—” (684). Like Cain, he feels his punishment is greater than he can bear and he desires death rather than the weight of his guilt. Lee intervenes and reminds Cal of his choice, his freedom to overcome the sin. He appeals to Adam on Cal’s behalf and begs him to give him his blessing. “Help him, Adam—help him. Give him his chance. Let him be free. That’s all a man has over the beasts. Free him! Bless him!” (690). The final word spoken by Adam to his son Caleb is the Hebrew word, “Timshel!”—“Thou mayest!” (691). And these are the words of God to Cain and all of us who feel burdened by sin. “Sin is crouching at the door—it wants you, but you can rule over it” (CJB Genesis 4:7). 

Steinbeck’s novel not only points out a deeper meaning to the age-old story but also provides a profound experience of that same story in his re-telling. I purposely tried to leave the details of his book vague in the hope that you will read it for yourself. There is so much more to the novel than I have outlined here. Perhaps, you already had a deep understanding of this old familiar tale. But if you’re a cradle Catholic like me, maybe you hadn’t thought about Cain and Abel since your mom read you the abridged version from the picture bible. In all honesty, I had not realized the depth of God’s words to Cain. Steinbeck opened up a deeper dimension for me. Consequently, he revealed a more dignified freedom in my nature and a more hopeful image of God. We don’t have to think of God as making promises for us that we can’t affect; nor must we view him as commanding us with an obligation that is too much to bear. He made us free and he opened the way for us to overcome our sins. He gives us the opportunity to be great, but leaves it up to us to live in that greatness. Some of you may come to these conclusions just as well by studying sound theology and Catholic doctrine. But if you at all have a literary mind, take some time to read and experience John Steinbeck’s beautiful masterpiece, East of Eden.

Genesis. Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition. Accessed 1 September 2020 at https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=genesis+4&version=DRA.

Genesis. Complete Jewish Bible. Translated by David H. Stern, 1998. Accessed 1 September 2020 at https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=genesis+4&version=CJB.

Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. New York: Penguin Books, 1982. 

Cover Art: Scott, David; Cain Degraded (Remorse); Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/cain-degraded-remorse-186550

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