Saturday, February 16, 2013

"Thou Mayest"

I was excited to see Mumford & Sons perform at the Grammys last weekend. I heard their music last year for the first time and have been a fan ever since. My favorite song of theirs is called "Timshel," and it's this week's Saturday Song Selection. Curious about the title, I looked it up earlier in the week, expecting to find a one-sentence definition of the word.

Wow! I found a lot more than that. In fact, I've had a mini-education through reading online discussions about the title word, the song, and the meaning behind it all. It seems the song itself is based on John Steinbeck's East of Eden, and the title comes from a particular passage in which the characters discussed how various translations of the Bible can influence its followers to assign different interpretations (and, therefore, beliefs) to God's words. Here are a few relevant paragraphs from East of Eden (emphasis is mine):
“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too—‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek.”
Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”
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.
Timshel. "Thou mayest." There's that "free will" we've all been told about: the right to decide whether to do right or wrong, to choose how we will respond in the face of life's blessings or misfortunes. That's a lot to think about. It gives the song depth and substance and makes me like it even more.


The song is "Timshel" by Mumford & Sons.
Thanks to mab24pred for posting the video on YouTube.
Click here to read the lyrics.

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