From Oprah's Book Club Page on "East of Eden".....
THE NOVEL: Timshel—Man's Ability to Choose Between Good and Evil
The main theme for East of Eden turns on the correct translation of the Hebrew word timshel, translated differently in various versions of the Bible. The word appears in the Cain and Abel story in Genesis, when God discusses sin with Cain.
What is the true meaning of this passage?
(a) God promises Cain that he will conquer sin ("thou shalt rule over him")?
(b) God orders Cain to conquer sin ("Do thou rule over him")?
(c) God blesses Cain with free will, leaving the choice to him ("Thou mayest rule over him")?
By studying the passage in the Bible, Adam Trask's Chinese servant, Lee, helps characters Samuel and Adam understand the intended original meaning in this passage from East of Eden:
"…this was the gold from our mining: 'Thou mayest.' 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 timshel—'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."
Here is the choice each of the characters in East of Eden face; as does, ultimately, every human being. No matter how deep-rooted the sin, there is always a chance for redemption. In the authoritative Orthodox Jewish translation from The Chumash: The Stone Edition the passage in question reads: "Surely if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door. Its desire is toward you, yet you can conquer it."
According to the Bible, Cain was the first murderer in history, committing a sin not only against God but against another human being because he felt unloved. After strife between man and God in Eden, here was strife between man and man; the filial bond is stressed time and again in the sixteen Bible verses, Although the Bible gives no reason* for why God chooses Abel's sacrifice over Cain's, Cain's violence is sparked by anger at the rejection of his gift, and jealousy and resentment toward his brother. As a result, not only does he kill, he lies. As punishment, he is condemned to "till the ground" fruitlessly and to be "a restless wanderer." His mark is not a curse, but a protective sign of God's enduring care. --Oprah Book Club
* -- Aquinas writes that God's love is preferential:
The good that God wills for His creatures, is not the divine essence. Therefore there is no reason why it may not vary in degree.
Everything loves what is like it, as appears from (Ecclus. 13:19): "Every beast loveth its like." Now the better a thing is, the more like is it to God. Therefore the better things are more loved by God.
I answer that, It must needs be, according to what has been said before, that God loves more the better things. For it has been shown (2, 3), that God's loving one thing more than another is nothing else than His willing for that thing a greater good: because God's will is the cause of goodness in things; and the reason why some things are better than others, is that God wills for them a greater good. Hence it follows that He loves more the better things. --St. Thomas Aquinas
Update: Kathy the Carmelite writes, "Actually, God cursed the ground as the result of Adam's sin (Gen. 3:17). Cain should have known better than to have offered God vegetables he grew from the soil!"