Someone came through the Tank with this pushback to my answer on "Did
God create evil?"
Here's a comment. In regard to the "Did God create evil?" question in the "tough questions" section, your answer is just plain wrong.
This passage is used in the opening line of the Birkat Yotzer blessing before the Sh'ma, where it is also changed in most prayer-books to "creates all things". There are some interesting discussions in the Talmud relating to this change.
Have a nice day.
In the piece I wrote on this subject, I stated rather simply that God does not "create" evil. I described evil (metaphysical, ethical evil) in the piece as something along the lines of moral malignancy or interpersonal treachery or some such. The writer here appeals to a verse, which at the surface would seem to be a direct contradiction of my position (taken at the linguistic "surface" as well). The writer here is obviously aware that God and glenn might be using the word 'evil' in two different senses (calling it "open to discussion"), and it is this very fact which can be easily seen from the simple word usage in the Isaiah text, in the OT/Tanakh, and in the Rabbinic literature.
It might seem odd to Tank readers that I would devote attention to such a peculiar comment/disagreement as this, but I want to use an aspect of this as an example of 'mistakes believers make' and 'mistakes skeptics make'-that of assuming that a word has only one meaning. [I speak first-hand from this, since I personally have made this mistake many, many times in my theological history!!!!]
[The writer himself does not indicate why he considers the word to be "absolutely unmistakably" ethical evil, so I am only assuming for the sake of argument that he or she is doing so on the single basis of the presence of the Hebrew word ra' in the text. The author might have other grounds, of course, which he/she left unspecified.]
Believers have often assumed that biblical words always mean the same thing every time they are used in Scripture. How many times have I heard arguments about the word "save" (soter*.*) that make this assumption, or "Kingdom of God" or "Day of the Lord" or even "justification"?
I remember a dear and wise professor of mine long years ago, Dr. Seymour, making this point comically in front of a class. He drew the students attention to a particular passage in which "saved" was used, in Acts 17:
I have found that a few of the skeptics are not so skeptical after all...Several
times, I have received email lists of "contradictions in the bible" that
someone has 'found', that are simply 'forwards' of another skeptic's list...they
don't seem to even bother to be skeptical enough to check the list for
absurdities...The whole healthy principle of "examine all things" is sometimes
ignored in a frenzy to "educate the confused Christians"...Some of the
contradictions are so patently absurd as to discredit the entire credibility
of the list...(I intend to publish some of these in the future).
For example, one of the more disappointing lists I have received has this "contradiction":
[I might point out that the opposite problem is also commonplace among believers and skeptics, in which different words are forced to mean the same thing all the time. Just a quick example from the above list of contradictions:
So, how does this apply to our question at hand?
Simply this: the Hebrew word in the Hebrew text (which the writer says "absolutely unmistakably" means "evil", as the opposite of moral good or ethical purity) has a wide range of possible meanings (one of which, of course, IS ethical "evil"), and that only context will give us the clues needed to narrow the referent down.
Let me demonstrate the process:
First, let's find the range of meanings that the word translated "evil" in the verse could mean. We need to see how 'narrow' the range is, because a very 'narrow spectrum' of meaning range (if centered around the meaning of "ethical evil") would support the writer's position. If, on the other hand, the range is not so narrow, we will need to find where on the meaning spectrum the word falls in this context.
So, first let's see what the standard Hebrew lexicon , BDB, offers (I will have to cut out the fonts/parts that won't print on most screens, though):
Meaning ONE (adjective): bad, evil -
2. bad, unpleasant, giving pain, unhappiness, misery: evil days (of trial and hardship); evil report; of things: painful discipline, evil occurrence, evil(-bringing) net, instruments: all evil (injurious) things; it is bad, harmful; of speech, in prov., speak bad or good = anything at all,, of the divine spirit as producing an ecstatic state of frenzy and violence.
3. evil, displeasing.
4. bad of its kind: land, place, waters, figs, kine.
5. bad, i.e. low value.
6. (+ ÷mi conjuction) comp., worse than; as superl., worst of nations.
7. sad, unhappy; sad heart
8. devise evil: (hurtful) device.
9. bad, unkind, vicious in disposition or temper: when the mind is vicious, harmful; one evil of eye; bad temper.
10. ethically bad, evil, wicked: a. whether good or bad. b. of persons, so evil man; evil women; evil neighbors; wicked in the eyes of . c. of thoughts; words. d. deeds, actions.
Meaning TWO (noun, masculine): evil, distress, misery, injury,
2. evil, injury, wrong: speak about injury; for harm, injury.
3. ethical evil; consume evil from.
Meaning THREE (noun, feminine): evil, misery, distress, injury
2. evil, injury, wrong; for harm; in thy mischief; for mischief.
3. ethical evil.
[The verb form also is worth noting the relative frequencies: "be displeasing", "be sad", "be injurious" (ex: "it went ill with Moses"), "be grudging", "be ethically evil or wicked", "do an injury or hurt".]
Now, if you remember how dictionaries/lexicons work, you will remember that the more frequent usages are listed first. Glancing back up at the meanings above, you will notice that "ethical evil" is listed last in all three non-verbal forms. This creates the presumption that "evil" in our verse will NOT be relevant to our question of "ethical evil", but rather that it will involve either "distress" or "injury". The text and context will also bear this out.
My first point is simply this: the presence of the word ra' does not give us an "absolutely unmistakable" indication that moral evil is under discussion. The word has simply too wide a range of meaning, and ethical turpitude is one of the less frequent meanings of it. (In Gen 40.7 an imprisoned Joseph asked his distraught companions why their faces were so sad (ra')--hardly a case of ethical evil!)
So, our first point also argues that ethical evil is not to be expected in the first place, since that is a less frequent meaning to begin with.
Second, let's look for clues in the text itself.
Let's look first at a couple of English translations:
Who fashions light and creates darkness, who makes peace and creates evil, I am HaShem who does all this. (the author's)
I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things. (NIV)
I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things. (NRSV)
I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace and create evil; I the Lord do all these things (Soncino)
I make prosperity and I create disaster (Emmanuel Tov, OT:TCHB:264)
Former of light, creator of darkness; Maker of peace, creator of
violence (John Watts, WBC)
Now, let's lay out the text:
The first thing to note is the antithetic parallelisms: light is the opposite of darkness, and "disaster/distress" is the opposite of "peace".
The second thing to note is that these are also "end-points" on a spectrum: light 'shades' to darkness, and peace would 'shade' to disaster (if "evil" has its most common meaning). As such, these pairs of endpoints would be tantamount to saying "I am responsible for everything"--which is asserted at the end of the verse, of course. [This is known as a merism.]
The third thing to note is that 'evil' (ra') is opposed to shalom (peace) and not to tov (with would be closer to, but not exclusively meaning, moral goodness). This would argue that the ethical element is not present at all (except perhaps as a judgment on Israel's righteousness or unrighteousness).
For example, in Is 5.20 ra and tov are contrasted, in an ethical context, as are light and darkness. And in Ps 34.14, all of the concepts are related: Turn from evil (ra') and do good (tov); seek peace (shalom) and pursue it. By abandoning moral evil and doing moral good to his neighbor, the Israelite would insure peace in the community and in the land. Another case of clear ethical contrasts (ra' and tov) is in Amos 5.15: "Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts."
The fourth thing to note is that in the series of four "creations" (light, darkness, peace, evil) only ra is an adjective--the others are noun forms! Now, if you look back at the lexical list of meanings given above, you note that the vast majority of the adjectival forms relate to "unpleasant" or "disagreeable" or "injurious". The fact that Isaiah departed from the noun pattern--when the noun form was as readily available--is important to note. Besides being less likely to be interpreted as 'ethical evil', the adjective form also yields something more specific--an injurious something, such as event or state (after the pattern of peace). It is accordingly much less likely to be referring to some metaphysical principle of evil(!) than to violent conquest by foreign nations.
The fifth thing to notice is the other dimension of parallelism: the first half of the verse with the second. In this, light is paralleled to peace, and darkness to evil. Light and dark are well-known prophetic images for prosperity and disaster, as can be easily seen:
Give glory to the LORD your God, Before He brings darkness And before your feet stumble On the dusky mountains, And while you are hoping for light He makes it into deep darkness, And turns it into gloom. But if you will not listen to it, My soul will sob in secret for such pride; And my eyes will bitterly weep And flow down with tears, Because the flock of the LORD has been taken captive. (Jer 13.16f)
Alas, you who are longing for the day of the LORD, For what purpose will the day of the LORD be to you? It will be darkness and not light; As when a man flees from a lion, And a bear meets him, Or goes home, leans his hand against the wall, And a snake bites him. Will not the day of the LORD be darkness instead of light, Even gloom with no brightness in it? (Am 5.18)
Then they will look to the earth, and behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be driven away into darkness. (Is 8.22)
"Sit silently, and go into darkness, O daughter of the Chaldeans; For you will no more be called The queen of kingdoms. (Is 47.5)
"For behold, darkness will cover the earth, And deep darkness the peoples; But the LORD will rise upon you, And His glory will appear upon you. "And nations will come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising. (Is 60.2)
A day of wrath is that day, A day of trouble and distress, A day of destruction and desolation, A day of darkness and gloom, A day of clouds and thick darkness, (Zeph 1.15)
Again, the normal usage of this word is for calamity, and one linguist commentator remarks:
Finally, we need to look at early Jewish understandings of this verse,
to see to what extent they understood this to refer to moral evil or calamity.
The earliest indication of this would be in the LXX, the Greek translation of the OT/Tanach. The LXX translates 'peace and evil' by eiranan and kaka. (Eiranan is the standard word for "peace" that shows up in our NT.)
The data on the word kakos is mixed--it is evenly distributed between moral evil (but predominately as applied to humans) and injurious or calamitous actions/events. It is given the basal meaning in BAG as "bad, worthless, inferior" and by extension, to moral evil. By itself in the passage it is not clear how it is to be taken (the adjectival form, without the article seems to favor the 'calamity' understanding, but there are important uses of it throughout the relevant literature to the contrary).
Ernst Achilles (DNTT, s.v. "evil") summarizes the LXX data:
The Dead Sea Scrolls have a case in which some scribe substituted tov for shalom in the verse. Although it would be tempting to attribute this to some dualistic tendencies at Qumran, textual criticism experts just ascribe it to desire to make the verbal forms parallel (e.g., Emmanuel Tov, OT:TCHB:264, who translates the Hebrew text as "I make prosperity (shalom) and I create disaster (ra')").
Next in time would be Philo and the Jewish pseudepigrapha/apocrypha,
but the rabbinical material will be more to the point and it is to these
that I now turn.
As the author indicates, the Talmud discusses the verse (although I
can only find one actual reference to the verse itself--I can find several
references to the Blessing), and we have other data from the Midrash and
from the Targumim (i.e., Aramaic paraphrases of the OT/Tanach).
The most relevant passage in the Talmud is Berakot 11b:
It is likely that the specific euphemism was suggested by two things: (1) the "all these things" at the end of the verse; and (2) the merism implied (i.e., an all encompassing bi-polar comparison, as in Gen 31.29: "speak neither good nor bad==nothing"). And the motive might be to avoid the simple mention of adversity and judgment in public blessing/discourse. We can see this latter tendency in the Targum's translation of Deuteronomy 30.1 [note: The targumim were generally read aloud in public to the masses]:
And when all these things come upon you, the order of the blessings and their opposites, which I have set in order before you (Targum Neofiti I)
See that I have set in order before you this day the order of life
and the good, and the order of death/plague, and their opposites.
(Targum Neofiti I)
So, there is nothing in the rabbinical treatment of this verse that
indicates 'moral evil' as the referent. Remember, the mere presence of
ra' does not answer the question--it merely raises it...
In fact, the rabbi's often use 'evil' to refer to calamity, misfortune,
or disastrous judgment:
Raba-others state, R. Jose b. R. Hanina-said: The dispensation of good comes more quickly than that of punishment [evil]. For in reference to the dispensation of punishment it is written, until he took it out, and behold, his hand was leprous, as white as snow; whereas in reference to the dispensation of good it is written, and he took it out of his bosom, and behold, it was turned again as his other flesh: from his very bosom, it had turned again as his other flesh. (Shabbat 97a; here evil is actually translated as 'punishment')
A further objection was raised [from the following]: 'The eyes of the Lord thy God are upon it [the land of Israel], sometimes for good, sometimes for evil. How sometimes for good? Suppose Israel were [in the class of] the thoroughly wicked at New Year, and scanty rains were decreed for them, and afterwards they repented. [For God] to increase the supply of rain is impossible, because the decree has been issued . The Holy One, blessed be He, therefore sends down the rain in the proper season on the land that requires it, all according to the district. How sometimes for evil? Suppose Israel were [in the class of] the thoroughly virtuous on New Year, and abundant rains were decreed for them, but afterwards they backslided. To diminish the rains is impossible, because the decree has been issued. The Holy One, blessed be He, therefore sends them down not in their proper season and on land that does not require them'. Now, [if the decree can be rescinded], for good at any rate, let the decree be rescinded and let the rains be increased? - There is a special reason there, namely, that this is sufficient. (Rosh Hashana 17b; here evil is illustrated by withholding of rain.)
What follows after this [verse]? The righteous perisheth, and no man
layeth it to heart . . . that the righteous is taken away from the evil
to come. But rather a man should share in the distress of the community,
for so we find that Moses, our teacher, shared in the distress of the community,
as it is said, But Moses' hands were heavy; and they took a stone and put
it under him, and he sat thereon. Did not then Moses have a bolster or
a cushion to sit on? This is then what Moses meant [to convey], 'As Israel
are in distress I too will share with them. He who shares in the distress
of the community will merit to behold its consolation'. (Mas taanith 11a;
evil is illustrated by distress and discomfort)
What we have seen is that the Rabbi's do not indicate an ethical
meaning for our passage (the one specific reference to it actually
interpreted it otherwise), and that they had no problem using ra'
for the predominant OT meaning of disaster, calamity, judgment consequences.
Marcus Jastrow, in his dictionary of Rabbinical literature (DTX), gives the rabbinical usage range for this word as "weak, sick, bad, evil".
It was not only the ancient Rabbi's that understood this passage in Isaiah as referring to something other than ethical evil; so also medieval Jewish and modern scholarship recognized this. To cite just three examples:
A Medieval Jewish interpretation. The oldest complete manuscript we have of the Isaiah Targum is the Codex Reuchlinianus, dated 1105 ad. The content is considered to be somewhat secondary, as it contains numerous expansions and notes. These, of course, reveal the belief-system of the owner/copier, and as such, they reveal aspects of at least one medieval understanding of Isaiah.
At our passage in this Codex, there is a marginal note that reads:
A modern Jewish interpretation. The eminent Hebrew scholar Shemaryahu Talmon (of Hebrew University, Jerusalem) gives this comment on the verse (HI:QCM:103):
Looking back, we see:
2. the most common meaning of it is 'calamity' or 'adversity' (often with judgement connotations)
3. the textual elements in the verse support this common meaning.
4. the LXX does not contradict this understanding.
5. the rabbinical literature recognizes the wide range of meaning for ra'.
6. the rabbinical literature recognizes non-metaphysical interpretations for this word and verse.
7. the rabbinical literature does not contradict this understanding.
8. Modern interpreters, both Jewish and Christian, support this understanding.
Glenn miller, Feb 13/99