Joseph Smith Changed Only One Verse

by | Jun 25, 2022

silhouette against dark sky with stars

Highlights for 1 Kings 17-19

In these three chapters, only one verse changed in the Joseph Smith Translation. Interestingly, Joseph added a powerful two-word phrase in the place of an ordinary one.

Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the LORD God, and that THOU hast MAYEST turned turn their heart back again. (1 Kings 18:37)

“Thou mayest” is an interesting phrase in the scriptures with several layers of meaning. In Hebrew, they use “timshel” for “thou mayest.” Timshel has become one of my favorite words, and I often use it at the end of a blog post. Surprisingly, I first discovered it while reading “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck (he won the Nobel prize for Literature). He considers “East of Eden” his best work. This book contains several deep rivers of thought, but “timshel” may be the deepest.


East of Eden references Genesis 4:7 when the Lord chastises Cain over his food offering.

“If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” (KJV)

However, the Hebrew Bible uses the word “thou mayest” (timshel) for this verse, just like Joseph Smith did in 1 Kings 18. Let’s look at “timshel.”

Quotes From East of Eden

The main character in this narrative is Lee, a generous and humble old traditional Chinese man who studied the chapter of Genesis 4 as a matter of interest. Here are his comments:

“…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?”

Does that sound like agency to you?

“…Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ [American Standard version] and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt’ [King James Version]. 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 filthhe has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.”

“Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”

“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. 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.”

“…Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”

“… I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’”

Timshel is full of potential and grand possibilities; the sky is the limit, and ‘timshel’ is the ladder.

Thou Mayest be extraordinary. Thou Mayest be amazing. Thou Mayest conquer. Thou Mayest rise to conquer many things.


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  1. Diane

    I like your interpretation, but I found this in Wikipedia: “Timshel is a major theme in the novel. However, there is no word timshel in Hebrew; Genesis 4:7 reads timshol, the second person singular masculine future indicative form of the verb moshel ‘to rule’, thus ‘you shall/will rule’.[9] In the novel itself, the use and meaning of timshel is explained by the character of Lee to mean “Thou mayest”.[10] Daniel Levin explores the nuances of Steinbeck’s use of the Hebrew word, investigating potential reasons for and implications of Steinbeck’s error in translation.[11] ”
    I haven’t followed through with the footnotes yet, but this suggests that your (and Steinbeck’s) interpretation may not be accurate. But I do very much like the agency/choice we are given with “thou mayest”.

    • Shawnie Cannon

      Well, that’s Wikipedia for you. Lots of great information but often not verified nor peer reviewed by true experts. We’re not allowed to use it as a resource for University papers. The original Hebrew word is timsh’l and pronounced with a long ‘o’ unless it is combined with another word. Steinbeck’s midrash rendering is the combination of four Hebrew words which, in fact, sound more like how he spelled it, but it is properly written as timsh’l. The definition is a loose Thou Mayest. More thoroughly explained it means the choice between good and evil. According to one Hebrew scholar, Steinbeck got it right on the pronunciation, but it isn’t usually spelled with the ‘e.’

      I find two things happen with Hebrew. People don’t realize that the language is three-dimensional and combining words builds complex and often symbolic meanings. A true scholar has to find many uses of that combination and then approximate its essence. (1) So they’ll take word combinations and translate them literally not understanding that the combination produced something quite different. Or (2) in the case of your citation, they only considered the singular use of the word and not its possible combinations and pronunciations.

      Steinbeck did his homework and his midrash is glorious but did create his own phonetic spelling.


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