The problem of evil
In early Yahwism there was no personification of the sum of all evil, in the sense of there not being a controlling being over all evil. There may or may not be evil entities, beings and spirits, but definitely no single ‘lord of all evil’ who has control and direction of all the evil things that happen. There was no single prince of evil whose purpose was to overcome good with evil; nor a Supreme Being of Evil who was directing a cosmic battle between good and evil. These concepts arose from contact with the dualist Persian religion of Zoroastrianism.
In the earliest Israelite tradition, because there was no one ‘lord of all evil’, there was therefore no necessity to invent a fallen angel who directed evil. An angel cannot act apart from the will of God, therefore an angel cannot rebel against God. Evil is chaos and disorder, the absence of good, and there is nothing directing it.
To believe that there are two controlling forces in the universe – one entirely good, and one entirely evil – is Dualism, typical of Gnosticism and Zoroastrianism. As Yahwists we have to avoid this way of thinking. YHVH is supreme over all, has control over all, and everything is ultimately subject to Him.
Definition of the Hebrew word
The Hebrew word ra`, normally translated as ‘evil’, comes from the root ra`a`, the intrinsic meaning of which is ‘to be harmful’ or ‘to be hurtful’. The intrinsic meaning of ra` is ‘evil’ – because evil is harmful and hurtful. When we ‘do evil’, what we harm is the wholeness of our being, and the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of others.
This harm as a result of evil also affects creation. A good person is sometimes judged according how well they treat their animals (eg Gen 24:14, 19 – Rebecca is judged to be a good person because she has concern for the needs of the camels of Abraham’s servant). Animals have to rest on the Sabbath, and forcing them to work would be considered an evil. On the micro level, evil harms the wholeness of the human being and our relationships; on the macro level, evil harms the wholeness of creation.
The forms of Evil
1. In Yahwist thought, moral evil involves wilful - and at worst, malicious - rebellion against God’s will, and against His created order.
When an animal does something harmful, it is not morally evil; when a human being does the same thing, it is evil. For example, if a lion kills its offspring, it is not evil; if a human being kills his or her offspring, it is evil. There is therefore the precondition that one or both parties involved must have a moral aspect to their being before an action is considered evil or not. When God gave us self-awareness, He gave us the ability to be aware that some of our actions will harm others – to be able to discern the difference between good and evil; other animals do not have this ability.
It is the remit of religion to give human beings a code of behaviour and a set of moral guidelines, so that if we follow them, we will prosper spiritually, our society will have peace, and the evil of suffering as a result of human action or inaction will be reduced.
2. Most human beings would consider misfortune and suffering as a physical evil – such as when we suffer mentally or physically, or when accident or natural disaster befalls us, or when we go through illness. However, in the early Israelite tradition, this was not considered evil in the modern moral sense – we must not confuse physical evil with moral evil, since it does not necessarily happen out of retribution for wrongs that have been committed (for more on this, read the Book of Job). Remember the broader Hebrew meaning of evil – ‘that which does us harm’.
Later, Judaism in the Second Temple Period strayed away from this, and instead came to believe that all misfortune was as a result of what we have done as individuals or as a nation; that all our suffering was as a result of retribution from God. This attitude does not help us cope with misfortune.
We are moral beings who unfortunately look for a reason behind everything; is misfortune easier to bear if there is a reason? Instead of leaning on the power of God to overcome, we lean on a hastily grasped reason for our misfortune. We have to learn that sometimes there isn’t a reason. When God created the Universe, He created order out of chaos. In a sense God is still creating, because there is still chaos, which is directionless, motiveless and leaderless.
This type of evil – misfortune - is the absence of good, just as order is the absence of chaos, darkness is the absence of light, and cold is the absence of heat. The process of creation is the process of making order out of chaos. Good may be characterised by order, and evil may be characterised by chaos.
We cry out to God, ‘Why do you allow suffering?’ We didn’t see how God frantically went to the nations to save his people during the Holocaust, or how their leaders refused to listen to God, actively ignoring the situation; we do not realise how God sends his messengers to rescue us from occasions of harm, or how God bears our pain when terrible anguish and suffering come upon us.
We have to amend our mindset, because the old mindset will only succeed in making us afraid and miserable. We have to make that leap – from thinking that all suffering is sent from God, to realising that God bears us up in our suffering, and how God is supremely with us in our pain. We have to stop thinking that God allows suffering, and start knowing that God actively and frantically works to alleviate our suffering – that God doesn’t cause suffering, oftentimes human beings do. And when natural disaster befalls us, we have to stop thinking that it is a crushing retribution from God, and understand that chaos still exists, and that God rushes to help us in that chaos.
It is the remit of religion to help human beings to be strong and resilient in the face of this type of evil – this type of harm - to help us cope and where possible, work together to overcome it.
3. Supernatural evil is the result of the acts of disparate evil entities that feed on chaos and disorder. Good happens for a reason because it comes from God; evil has no ultimate reason, logic or purpose. In the earliest Israelite tradition, evil spirits were nothing more than supernatural ‘wild beasts’, without any purpose or intelligence. This aspect of evil is part of Israelite folk religion, and we are in no way required to believe in evil spirits.
The 3 types of Moral evil in Israelite tradition
Israelite religion recognises that human beings are not perfect. It acknowledges three types of sin. Whenever there is an official confession of sin, there is a formula of words that acknowledges the three types, in increasing order of severity:
‘We have gone astray, we have committed wrongs, and we have acted rebelliously.’
This formula is used in Ps 106:6, 1Kgs 8:47b and Dan 9:5.
1. The first class of sin is covered by the Hebrew words shegi’ah – sin committed inadvertently, from the verb to err inadvertently, or go off course; and chattat – an infraction committed in ignorance of the existence or meaning of a commandment; from a verb meaning ‘to miss the mark’, (the opposite of hitting the target); to stumble, make a false step, a misstep, or slip up. This is not considered evil in and of itself; it is the imperfection of which we are all guilty. God recognises that we will all slip up, and even though the wholeness of our being is diminished, God gives us ways to restore that wholeness – by repentance and the doing of good works.
2. The second class of sin is covered by the Hebrew word `avon – a breach of a minor commandment committed with a full knowledge of the existence and nature of that commandment; a crime, often punishable by secular courts. This is a type of moral evil. Repentance has to be accompanied by restitution in order to right this type of wrong.
3. The third class is covered by the Hebrew words pesha`or mered - open rebellion against God; to do something knowing full well that it is something that God has commanded against; and resha`, a rebellious act committed especially with wicked intent. This is the type of sin which most often referred to as evil in the Hebrew bible. It is the type which will naturally attract misfortune. When the Israelites broke the Covenant and went after other Gods, practised idolatry, God’s plan to protect them was cast off, and they were taken into exile. Other types of rebellion against God are oppression of the poor or ignoring them; adultery; to inflict suffering on the innocent. This class of sin most often warrants the strongest call to return to God and repent.
Suffering is a consequence of evil, not necessarily a punishment. When misfortune and pain befall someone, it is not necessarily the result of something they have done. The Book of Job exemplifies this concept in Hebrew thought.
Eastern and New Age religions say that the only way to end suffering is to end want. But this would be an unreasonable demand. It is perfectly reasonable to want food, water, clothing and shelter, even love. And ending all want would not end suffering caused by natural disaster.
One way to lessen the suffering caused by misfortune is not to fret over it. Just as stress is our reaction to a difficult situation, not the situation itself, so also suffering that does not involve physical pain is our reaction to a difficult situation.
Where physical suffering is concerned – of the type that can be alleviated – a religious community exists to care for its members, to ensure that burdens are minimised.
When someone is hurt through the evil acts of someone, we cry out to God, ‘Why did You allow this to happen?’ even though God did not allow it to happen, even though God forbade it, and sent his angels to stop conspire against the evil.
There is no such thing as an evil event in nature, since nature has no conciousness; chaos happens. When something bad happens to someone, it is not a judgment on whether they are good or bad. We see it that way, because we are human, and we look for meaning, but sometimes bad events have no meaning.
People ask, ‘If God has ultimate power over evil, then why does suffering still exist?’ If suffering results directly from human action, it is because human beings disobey God and cause suffering to innocents. If suffering is as a result of misfortune, the only way this can be completely overcome is to work towards the fulfilment of God’s Kingdom, when all suffering and death will cease.
Suffering is unfortunately inherent in the nature of our current universe, but by putting our trust and faith in YHVH, we can steel ourselves against its immediate effects. As Psalm 37:1, 3 advises:
“Do not fret yourself over evil-doers, . . . Put your confidence in YHVH, and do good.'
Hebrew thought recognises yetser ha-ra` - the evil inclination. It recognises that every human being has the potential to do bad, but that we also have been given by God the ability to overcome that inclination.
Torah gives us the framework to overcome that side of ourselves. By concentrating on doing compassion, justice, kindness, and love, we strengthen the yetser ha-tov – the good inclination, that part of us that is inclined towards good.
In Christianity, Satan is the name of the supreme controlling being who directs all the evil that happens, the ‘lord of all evil’. However, in the earliest Israelite tradition, it is evident from the prologue in Job that Satan has no power of independent action, but requires the permission of God, which he may not transgress. He can not be regarded, therefore, as an opponent of God. He is ‘the adversary’, the prosecutor of human souls, the ‘counsel for the prosecution’, a minor, powerless being subject to the infinite will of God.
This view is also retained in Zech. 3:1-2, where Satan is described as the adversary of the high priest Joshua, and of the people of God whose representative the hierarch is; and he opposes the "angel of YHVH," who ultimately orders him to be silent in the name of God. In both of these passages Satan is a mere accuser who acts only according to the permission of God.
After the Babylonian exile, because of the dualist influence of the Persian religion, books of the bible edited after that date begin to show Satan as an independent agent. For example, in I Chron. 21:1 he appears as one who is able to provoke David to destroy Israel. The Chronicler (third century B.C.E.) regards Satan as a being with independent will, a view which is all the more striking when we look at the source he drew his account from (II Sam. 24:1), which speaks of God Himself as the one who moved David against the children of Israel. Since the older narrative attributes all events, whether good or bad, to God alone (I Sam. 16:14; I Kings 22:22; Isa. 45:7; etc.), it is probable that the Chronicler was influenced by Zoroastrianism, even though Israelite monotheism strongly opposed Iranian dualism.
The evolution of Satan into an independently thinking being, strong enough to be capable of opposing God is derived directly from Zoroastrianism, and is inconsistent with native Hebrew concepts of evil.
Demons and Evil spirits
After the Babylonian exile, when the Israelite religion came into contact with the dualist Persian religion, the nature of Hebrew folk mythology with regard to evil spirits changed. Previously, evil spirits were seen in the same way as wild beasts, doing what they do because that’s how they were, ultimately subject to God’s will. After the exile, Persian religion corrupted Hebrew thought away from this and towards believing that evil spirits had intelligence, purpose and direction, led by one controlling evil being – which is against the original Hebrew mindset that evil has no direction except to cause harm, without a controlling being of evil.
Here I want to stick to the original Hebrew attitude towards evil spirits – that they were nothing more than the supernatural equivalents of wild beasts.
There were thought to be various kinds of evil spirits, like sheidim (storm demons - Deut. 32:17; Ps. 106:37), such as Baal zebab (Beelzebub), who was the demon of dung and rot, whose representative was the fly. The storm demons were thought to be the bringers of disease. The mashchit (the destroyer) was such a storm demon. The Passover sacrifice was meant to ward off disease (ie not sin), and turn away the mashchit.
Se`irim (goat demons, such as Azazel - Lev. 17:7; II Chron. 11:15) were hairy, satyr-like demons, described as dancing in the desert wilderness (Isa. 13:21, 34:14); the lilith (night demon, Isa. 34:14) was also a goat demon. The se`irim were the demons of mischief and misfortune.
The most frightening demons were the malakhey balahot (Job 18:13-14) or malakhey mavet (Prov. 16:14) – the messengers of terror or death. They were supposed to be hawk demons. Deber (pestilence) and reshef (fiery plague) were originally the names of two such hawk-demons. Hawk demons were supposed to be the demons of suffering and death.
In later Hebrew thought, because there was no supernatural being beyond God’s control, the belief developed that these demons and evil spirits were deliberately sent by God Himself. Hence with the death of the firstborn before the Exodus, it is God who sends the angel of death; when Saul is troubled, it is God who sends the evil spirit (I Sam. 14:14). Before the influence of Persian religion, Hebrew thought evolved from seeing evil spirits as simply subject to God, to being deliberately directed by God.
I personally would shy away from this way of thinking. God is wholly good, and I personally cannot believe that God sends evil spirits to torment us – when a lion or a wolf attacks us, has it been sent by God? I won’t deny that if there are such things as evil spirits, then they are subject to YHVH, just as everything in his creation – both human and beast – is subject to Him, but I tend towards the earlier Hebrew way of thinking, that if there are evil entities, then they are nothing more than supernatural wild beasts. There is a difference between being subject to God, and being directed by God.
I would end this section by emphasising that any belief in evil spirits is beyond the realm of taught religion; we are not required to believe in them. It is unhealthy to concentrate on the existence of evil spirits, demons and devils. It is enough to know that YHVH is the supreme Lord of all that exists, and if we have faith in Him, and follow His ways, then He is sufficient as our Shield and Protector. Just as city walls mean we need have no fear of wild beasts, so the Presence of YHVH means that we need have no fear of supernatural evil, nor constantly think of them. The holiness of His Name is all that we need to call upon when evil troubles or besets us. Call on His Name, and He will save you.
Maintaining a Healthy Attitude
I have realised one thing as I have embarked upon this study of the nature of evil: in order to fully comprehend suffering, temptation, sin, demons and evil itself, you need to take yourself to a very dark place, a domain we as sons and daughters of YHVH were not meant to go. It is enough to have our trust set and locked firmly in the light of YHVH’s Presence; it is sufficient to acknowledge YHVH as our great shield and defender, and not to fret over evil. Seek to know enough to enable you to cope with misfortune and discomfort, but no more. I have come to realise that there are things that we were not meant to know or understand, because there are some things that are too terrible to understand.
‘Don’t be afraid!’ The Hebrew bible constantly tells us this. Do not be afraid of what you don’t know. If you are the type of person who thinks that they are constantly surrounded by sin, evil and death, you are going to end up in a psychiatric institution! If you think that the imperfections of this world, this life, are going to overtake you, then they will. If you constantly think that ‘Satan is out to get you’, then you will end up a paranoid wreck. Some religions will want you this way so that they can control you more easily, but that’s not how God wants you. Step back; do not let these matters eat away at your soul.
Your heavenly Father wants you strong. He wants you courageous, He wants you to realise how wonderful you are, that you can succeed, that you have a worthy life, and a purpose given to you at birth. If you look only to your imperfections and weaknesses, then you will stumble at every turn; if however you look to every good that He presents you, then you will succeed.
Early Israelite religion limited the power of evil, in the respect that YHVH is mightier and powerful than any evil. There is no controlling ‘lord of all evil’ who directs all the evil things that happen; such a way of thinking is Gnostic dualism. Our souls profit more from the study and love of good, than from the study and fear of evil. Modern religion has attributed to Satan too much power, making people believe that he is greater than he actually is, allowing evil to keep them in a constant state of fear. The sole result is to make people afraid in order to control them. However, YHVH is the only supreme power, and everything is subject to His will. There is nothing even remotely equal to YHVH; there is nothing in creation so great that it cannot be overcome by the power of YHVH.