East of Eden contains several direct and indirect references to the Bible. Steinbeck uses these references to show that individuals have the power to choose between good and evil. This ability to choose is one of the greatest attributes of humanity. The Hebrew word "Timshel," which means "Thou Mayest," points to Steinbeck’s interest in this idea in that it conveys the potential for individual choice (Steinbeck 635-636). Like the biblical figure Cain, who learned from God that he could triumph over sin, the characters in East of Eden have the same potential. Failing to do so will trigger their own downfall.
Allusions to Christianity and the Bible appear throughout East of Eden (Railsback and Meyer 28, 54). Devout Christians, such as Aron and Liza, are part of the novel. In some ways, the story of Caleb's return to his father has biblical roots. Like the prodigal son in Jesus’s New Testament parable, Caleb receives forgiveness from his father for his repeated betrayals. In addition, several characters have biblical names, including Adam, Samuel, Thomas, Aaron and Caleb. When naming Adam's twins, Samuel finds inspiration in the Bible. Although he selects the names Aron and Caleb, he first considers the names Cain and Abel in a nod to the Old Testament: "Again, she gave birth to his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground" (Genesis 4:2). These brothers’ biblical struggle, which ended when Cain murdered Abel, foreshadowed the conflicts between the Trask brothers (Steinbeck 946-947, Peterson 67-68).
Adam and Aron are similar to Abel while Charles and Caleb are similar to Cain. Like Abel, Adam and Aron are innocent figures who symbolize goodness. Charles and Caleb are similar to Cain in that their fathers rejected both. The sons ultimately suffered because of their sins. Samuel Hamilton, representative of God, and Cathy, who embodied the devil, also fit within Steinbeck’s pattern of biblical storytelling (Steinbeck, 327-328, 385-386, 773).
Peterson, Richard F. “Steinbeck’s East of Eden.” In A Study Guide to Steinbeck, Part II, edited by Tetsumaro Hayashi. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1979.
Railsback, Brian and Michael J. Meyer, eds. A John Steinbeck Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.
Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. John Steinbeck: Novels 1942-1952. Edited by Robert DeMott, Library of America, New York, 1994. pp. 309-947.