Good Question...Does Isaiah 45:7 teach that God created metaphysical moral evil?


[Date: feb 13/99]

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.

 Isaiah 45:7:

"Who fashions light and creates darkness, who makes peace and creates evil, I am HaShem who does all this."  
This is often mistranslated in English Bibles, but in the Hebrew it is absolutely unmistakable. God states that He creates evil. Now whether what you mean by "evil" is what God meant by "evil" is open to discussion, but unless you reject Isaiah, the answer to the question is very clear.

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.

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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:

But when the fourteenth night had come, as we were being driven about in the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors began to surmise that they were approaching some land. 28 And they took soundings, and found it to be twenty fathoms; and a little farther on they took another sounding and found it to be fifteen fathoms. 29 And fearing that we might run aground somewhere on the rocks, they cast four anchors from the stern and wished for daybreak. 30 And as the sailors were trying to escape from the ship, and had let down the ship's boat into the sea, on the pretense of intending to lay out anchors from the bow, 31 Paul said to the centurion and to the soldiers, "Unless these men remain in the ship, you yourselves cannot be saved."
 
The professor comically pointed out that some Christians could create a cult out of this "staying in a boat" as a means of salvation passage! His point is that you always have to ask (in this case) "Saved from what?" and "Saved for what?" before you get to the truth of the word's meaning in that specific context/passage.

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":

GE 16:15, 21:1-3, GA 4:22 Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac.
Heb 11:17 Abraham had only one son.
The assumption is that "son" always means any/all physical progeny, when in fact it is often used figuratively, collectively, dramatically, respectfully, or (in this case) legally-as the only legal/covenant offspring (Gen 21.12f; 22.1f).

 

[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:

GE 1:11-12, 26-27 Trees were created before man was created.
GE 2:4-9 Man was created before trees were created.
A 15-second examination of the texts in question reveal: (1) there are different words for shrubs, plants, trees, and vegetation; and (2) "causing to grow" trees in a specific garden is not the same as "creation" of world-wide tree-life. It is simply a Procrustean lexical exercise to reduce such variation to nothing...]

 

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 -

 

Meaning TWO (noun, masculine): evil, distress, misery, injury, calamity -
 

 

Meaning THREE (noun, feminine): evil, misery, distress, injury -
 

 

[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)

The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these. (NASB)

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)
 

Notice that the more modern English translations use the more frequent lexical meanings (i.e., calamity, disaster, woe), while the older versions (include the KJV) retains the more general "evil".

 
Now, let's lay out the text:
 

The one forming (participle) light (noun)
and creating (participle of bara) darkness (noun);
The one making (participle of 'shah) peace (noun, of shalom)
and the one creating (participle of bara) an evil something (adjective, masculine singular, ra');
I (emphatic pronoun) YHWH--the one making (participle of 'shah) all these things"
 
 

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:

It growls as it seizes the prey, And carries it off with no one to deliver it. And it shall growl over it in that day like the roaring of the sea. If one looks to the land, behold, there is darkness and distress; Even the light is darkened by its clouds. (Is 5.29f, notice that this verse explicitly links darkness and distress)

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)

 

This parallelism would tighten the referent of ra' to disaster, judgment, or distress.

Again, the normal usage of this word is for calamity, and one linguist commentator remarks:

The older translations made needless trouble by rendering 'I create evil.' the NIV correctly has create disaster. Out of about 640 occurrences of the word ra' (which ranges in meaning from a 'nasty' taste to full moral evil) there are 275 instances where 'trouble' or 'calamity' is the meaning. In every case the context must judge. In this passage, full of historical calamities coming on people through Cyrus, this is what ra' means." (Motyer). And a link is often made to its similar usage in Amos 3.6: When a trumpet sounds in a city, do not the people tremble?
When disaster comes to a city, has not the LORD caused it?
 
Overall, the lexical data supports a 'disaster' or 'calamity' understanding. The textual data in the verse also supports this. And the prophetic usage/context patterns seem also to support his understanding.

 

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:

1. In the LXX kakos is used predominantly for Heb. ra' and rii'dh (227 times), which are also rendered by poniros 226 times. There is a similar balance in the use of the verbs pongreuomai (22 times) and kakod (21 times).
(a) kakos is primarily the evil which objectively hurts one's existence. (i) It is predominantly looked on as God's punishment (Deut. 31:17) which normally corresponds exactly to the preceding sin. The evil which men set in motion is brought back on their heads by Yahweh. Hence Amos 3:6b can say, "Does evil befall a city, unless Yahweh has done it?" (cf. Homer, Od., 4, 236 f.). (ii) On the other hand, God grants protection in the midst of all evil (Ps. 23(LXX 22):4). When the pious find themselves threatened by evils, they can turn to God, for the purpose of his punishments is not evil. God's "plans [are] for welfare and not for evil" (Jer. 29:1 1). (iii) Behind the evil lies God's gracious purpose of visitation. His final purpose is "to give you a future and a hope" (Jer. 29:1 I c). (iv) The OT reaches the climax of its search for the origin and purpose of evil when faced with God's all-sovereign goodness. For here all questioning is silenced. In Job the three friends seek to link Job's suffering with his sins. Job never denies his sinfulness, but the work as a whole makes no direct connection between his sinfulness and his sufferings. Suffering is not necessarily the result of sin. It may be training in faith and hence testing (Job 5:17 f.). Ps. 73(LXX 72) in particular shows us the pious man who wins his way to the "Nevertheless" of faith (v. 23), without having discovered and understood the reason for his suffering. Where evil attacks on every side, man can only seek for still closer links with God through prayer.(b) Evil is also an aspect of moral behaviour (cf. Mic. 2: 1; Jer. 7:24; Pss. 28:3; 34:12 ff. (MT 13 ff.)). It is to be noted that the OT very seldom speaks theoretically of evil. It describes it concretely and concentrates on the case in hand. Hence evil is not abstract.
 
The two things to note from this are: (1) the lack of an 'abstract' notion of metaphysical evil (needed for the verse to be asserting the creation of such a notion); and (2) the closer-to-calamity than closer-to-ethical meanings for the predominant usage. This argues against understanding ra' in the passage as referring to some metaphysical abstract principle of ethical evil.

 
 
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:

'[Blessed art Thou] who formest light and createst darkness'. Let him say rather: 'Who formest light and createst brightness'? - We keep the language of the Scripture. If that is so, [what of the next words in the text], Who makest peace and createst evil: do we repeat them as they are written? It is written 'evil' and we say 'all things' as a euphemism. (Soncino)

 

The passage discusses how the verse is to be read (in the Blessing). The questioner in the passage asks why the Blessing does not use the word "evil" since it is plainly in the text, and the explanation is that "all things" is a "euphemism". This might lead one to conclude that the Rabbi in the passage though it morally wrong to say "morally wrong", but euphemism has no such strict implication. Euphemisms are applied to many things in the Rabbinical writings, without limitation to moral issues. They can be used of sexual matters (Berakot 24b, 25b), death (Mas. Shabbath 30b), military conduct (Eiruvin 45a), God (Eiruvin 53a), darkness (with light used at the euphemism, Pesachim 3a), curses (with blesses as the euphemism, Pesachim 93a), scholars (Yoma 72b), swine (Kiddushin 39b), Heaven (Baba Kama 79b), excommunication (with blessed him as the euphemism, Baba Metzia 59b), and many euphemisms for Israel itself.

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]:

So it shall be when all of these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you (NASB)

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)

And in verse 15 of the same passage: See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; (NASB)

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)
 

 Notice how they 'euphemize' curse/adversity in these public reading works.

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:
 

IT IS INCUMBENT ON A MAN TO BLESS etc. What is meant by being bound to bless for the evil in the same way as for the good? Shall I say that, just as for good one says the benediction 'Who is good and bestows good', so for evil one should say the benediction 'Who is good and bestows good'? But we have learnt: FOR GOOD TIDINGS ONE SAYS, WHO IS GOOD AND BESTOWS GOOD: FOR EVIL TIDINGS ONE SAYS, BLESSED BE THE TRUE JUDGE? - Raba said: What it really means is that one must receive the evil with gladness. R. Aha said in the name of R. Levi: Where do we find this in the Scripture? I will sing of mercy and justice, unto Thee, O Lord, will I sing praises,' whether it is 'mercy' I will sing, or whether it is 'justice' I will sing. R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: We learn it from here: In the Lord I will praise His word, in God I will praise His word. 'In the Lord I will praise His word': this refers to good dispensation; 'In God I will praise His word': this refers to the dispensation of suffering. R. Tanhum said: We learn it from here: I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord; I found trouble and sorrow, but I called upon the name of the Lord. The Rabbis derive it from here: The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away,' blessed be the name of the Lord. (Berakot 60b, in which 'evil' is related to the justice, sorrow, suffering, trouble)

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)
 

In the midrash (Gen R. 1.9), we even see another understanding of this verse: 9. A certain philosopher asked R. Gamaliel, saying to him: 'Your God was indeed a great artist, but sureIy He found good materials which assisted Him?' 'What are they,' said he to him? ' Tohu, bohu, darkness, water, wind (ruah), and the deep,' rep1ied he. 'Woe to that man,' he exc1aimed. 'The term '"creation" is used by Scripture in connection with all of them.' Tohu and bohu: I make peace and create evil (Isa. XLV, 7). darkness: I form the light, and create darkness (ib.); water: Praise Him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that are above the heavens (Ps. CXLVIII)-wherefore? For He commanded, and they were created (ib. 5); wind: For, lo, He that formeth the mountains, and createth the wind (Amos IV, 13); the depths: When there were no depths, I was brought forth (Prov. VIII, 24).6
 
The Soncino edition gives this footnote to the reference to Isaiah 45.7: (5) By tohu and bohu the philosopher meant primeval matter, without form. Thereupon R. Gamaliel quoted: I make shalom (that which is whole, i.e. what contains both matter and form) and evil, i.e. that which is defective, consisting of matter only without form. Thus, that too was created. This notion of 'imperfect' or 'unformed' is yet another non-moral understanding of the passage, yet still from the rabbi's.

 

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".

 

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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:

"He who prepared the light of eternal life for the righteous in the garden of Eden, and creates the darkness of Gehenna for the wicked, who makes peace in this world for those who do his pleasure, and creates evil for those who transgress against his Memra: I am He, the LORD, doing all these things." This interpreter understood both the peace and the 'evil' to refer to judgment consequences (i.e., prosperity and calamity) instead of abstract good and evil.

 

A modern Jewish interpretation. The eminent Hebrew scholar Shemaryahu Talmon (of Hebrew University, Jerusalem) gives this comment on the verse (HI:QCM:103):

"'I am God, there is no other, I bring forth the light and create darkness, fashion peace, and create adversity'" (Isa 45:7). Ra' equaling milkhamah, serves here, as in other texts and also in Ancient Near Eastern writings, as an antonym of shalom and tov." [Note that he equates our word with the word for battle or war, milkhamah.]

 

A modern evangelical Christian interpretation. John Oswalt in the NICOT series summarizes the verse: "An important qualification is already implicit in the text. The Hebrew word ra' has a wide range of meanings, much like the English word "bad." Like "bad" it can refer to moral evil ("Hitler was a bad man") or to misfortune ("I'm having a bad day") or merely to that which does not conform to some potential, real or imagined ("That's a bad road"). This is not the case with the common English equivalent for ra, "evil," which almost always refers to moral wickedness. Thus if we read "I ... create evil" (AV), we conclude that God causes people to make morally evil decisions. That this is not the correct translation of ra' in this circumstance is shown by the opposite term used, which is shalom, "health, well-being, peace, good relations, good fortune." The opposite of these would be those connotations that we most commonly ascribe to "bad." What the prophet is saying is that if bad conditions exist in my life, they are not there because some evil god has thwarted the good intentions of a kindly but ineffectual grandfather-god, who would like me to have good conditions but cannot bring them about. They are there solely as a factor of my relations to the one God. They may be there because I have sinned against his natural and moral laws, or they may be there because by their means I can become more like him, or they may be there for reasons that he cannot explain to me. But they are not there in spite of God. He is the only uncaused cause in the universe."
 
................................................................
 

Looking back, we see:
 

1. the word ra' has a wide range of meanings in the OT/Tanach

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.
 

Accordingly, I have to conclude that this passage has no bearing on the question of the 'creation of ethical evil'. (And hopefully through this exercise, I have made the point  that most words have a range of meaning;, and that we must be sensitive to the elements in the text and context to determine where within that range that particular instance falls.  )

 

Glenn miller, Feb 13/99


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