Cindy Simpson
Timshel, America
By Cindy Simpson
January 2, 2012

Originally posted at American Thinker

Of the many novels based on the biblical account of Cain and Abel, one of the most unforgettable and beautifully written is John Steinbeck's classic, East of Eden. A compelling saga spanning three generations of two families living in the Salinas region of California, Steinbeck's story revolves around the central theme of timshel, a Hebrew word meaning "thou mayest." In the book, Lee, a Chinese servant, relates his conclusion of the critical importance of this word from his intensive study of three different translations of Genesis 4, verse 7:
    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, 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.'

    ...[T]here 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. [i]
Lee was describing God's assertion to Cain of his freedom to choose his own path. Thousands of years later, fifty-six men declared their "great choice" to pursue a radical new course and assert their Creator's gift of this freedom — when they penned this famous document:
    When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...
In the Imprimis article, "The Unity and Beauty of the Declaration and the Constitution," Hillsdale College president Dr. Larry Arnn described America's founders as humble, hunted men who pledged their lives in a way "people talk on a battlefield when they are ready to die for each other." And countless men did die in the long and brutal war — fighting for the liberty of future generations, paying for the ideals embodied in our founding documents with their own blood.

Although these patriots likely never studied the Hebrew translation of Genesis 4:7 with the determination of Steinbeck's Lee, by their actions they nevertheless asserted agreement with his conclusion: their Creator had endowed men with the gift of free will and all that it entailed. They fully realized that humans are not infallible and are equally capable of choosing — "thou mayest" or "thou mayest not" — and thus require a system of laws and strong national security to protect the rights of all and to foster virtue; a framework enforced by a government limited with a solid arrangement of checks and balances.

Dr. Patrick Deneen, in his presentation "Community AND Liberty OR Individualism AND Statism" for the I.S.I. conference on "The Language of Liberty," explained that in earlier times, liberty was considered "the cultivated ability to exercise self-governance, to limit ourselves in accordance with our nature and the natural world. The various practices by which we exercise self-limitation and self-governance is comprehensively called virtue...the inability or unwillingness to exercise virtue was tantamount to the absence of liberty...Thus, for the ancients, law was not an unnatural imposition of humanity's natural freedom; rather, law (ideally, a self-imposed law) was the necessary and enabling condition for liberty."

The founders clearly understood this "language of liberty," as opposed to what Dr. Deneen calls today's "false choice" between "siblings" expressed as individualism and statism. Deneen asserts that the "true choice [is] between distinct and competing ideas of the very nature of liberty itself," with true liberty being the "achievement of self-governance."

In practical terms, American Thinker's Daren Jonescu argues that the statist-driven "tide of anti-individualist morality, which has gradually swept the flotsam of entitlement, hyper-regulation, and disregard for the rights of others onto America's shores" can be reversed with a determined fight over a defining issue such as health care. Jonescu asserts that "the issue must be presented as a fundamental moral divide in the broadest terms: individual liberty versus serfdom."
    The issue that matters not, "Which system is the best means of providing for the preservation of the citizenry?" The central issue is, "Who gets to make the decisions about the means to a citizen's preservation: the citizen or the state?" If the latter, then the final line has been crossed — the citizen belongs to the state, as property to a property owner. An owner has decision-making authority over the preservation of his property. If the state has decision-making authority over the preservation of your body, then you do not own yourself...
And, if one does not own oneself, the Creator-endowed individual right of "thou mayest" or "thou mayest not," tempered by the "ancient virtue of self-government," is transformed into the state's command of "do thou" and "do thou not."

"Do thou" is a command of a bureaucratic, tyrannical government comprised of myriad rules and regulations, as opposed to a republic organized around principles and liberating goals grounded in Judeo-Christian morality. As Dr. Arnn explained "[W]e are supposed to have a very powerful government in order for it to do what it must, but also a government of a far different character than the kind we have today." Americans must be educated to understand the fundamental and critical differences between self-government, bureaucracy and a constitutional republic, and the impact each has upon individual freedom and the expression of virtue.

America was founded as a nation that understood "thou mayest," a shining place that emphasized individual liberty and virtue, governed by ideas and values woven into the beautiful framework of the Declaration and the Constitution. Dr. Deneen reminds us of the lovely second verse of the hymn, "America the Beautiful":
    O beautiful for pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress,
    A thoroughfare of freedom beat across the wilderness!
    America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
    Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law!
While our personal New Year's resolutions are still fresh on our minds, another kind of resolve for "We the People" must also be contemplated: the vital need to halt the loss of individual freedom — an eroding movement that has gained in momentum and threatens to ultimately transform our nation into a tyranny that commands of its people, "do thou." We must strive to assert the responsibility found in "thou mayest."

The upcoming elections provide us with a defining moment — an opportunity to choose our course, and to "fight it through and win."


[i]John Steinbeck, East of Eden (New York, Penguin Books, 1992), page 303

© Cindy Simpson


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Cindy Simpson

Cindy Simpson is a Christian, CPA, and business owner residing in Louisville, Kentucky. As a "citizen journalist," her writing has appeared at Renew America, American Thinker, World Net Daily, Family Security Matters, The Pearcey Report, and Catholic Online.

You may contact Cindy at or follow her on Twitter @Simpsonreport


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