SHLC Theodicy Class – Session I


Session I – 29 Jan, 2014

Summary of Session I

What did we learn?

  1. The response of people to suffering fall into two camps and can be generally classified according to how materially well off they are:
    1. People in materially prosperous societies (e.g., European countries and America) tend to question the existence of God.
    2. People in disadvantaged societies (e.g., 3rd world countries) tend to become stronger in their faith.
  2. During the tribulations endured by Job he never once questioned the existence of God. Rather, he questioned the character of God.

Here are three questions that we will continue to discuss throughout the class

Q1: How do we explain the reactions of those of us in prosperous societies who, instead of questioning the character of God, question His existence?

Q2: Does this distinction between the 3rd world and our own prosperous one give us insights into how we ought to be evangelizing to our neighbors here on the Plateau? 

Q3: Relative to Q2, how do we defend the character of a deity who:

  • Ordered the genocide of the Canaanite people –every man, woman, and child?
  • Who, on a wager, encouraged Satan to torture Job, murder his children and steal his property – a man who, by God’s own words was a thoroughly righteous man?

(HINT: Would biblical literacy help?)

Digging Deeper

How was evil created?

We learn from the Garden of Eden story that evil was not created directly. In the Bible, evil is a judgment rendered by God as to whether an act violates His will. Many Jews and Christians mistakenly conflate sin and evil. The two are very different so we have to be clear about their distinction. To make the distinction we need to know more about the how the pagen cultures of the Ancient Near East (ANE) viewed evil.

Throughout most (all?) of the biblical era going back at least to 2500 BCE, the pagans believed that evil was an inherent component of the created order. Even the pagan gods possessed evil characteristics inherently. In the pagan theologies, evil could not be erased or denied.

The great biblical scholar Nahum N. Sarna described the pagan concept of evil this way[1]:

The biblical conviction of an essential principle of good in the world was diametrically opposed to the contemporary pagan concept of an inherent primordial evil. The story of the Garden of Eden proposes [a radical rejection of the pagan view of evil] by revealing that evil is a human product [arising] through the free exercise of his will in rebellion against God.

In other words, the idea of an inherent evil (e.g., personified by Satan) is counter to the biblical revelation and, ironically enough, a return to the ancient pagan beliefs.

Why use evil in Isaiah 45:7 when all other Bibles use words meaning natural disaster?

The question came up during the discussion of the origin of evil and Isaiah 45:7 which, with the exception of the KJV, is almost always translated similar to that of the NIV:

 I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.

I claim a more reasonable translation is to replace disaster with evil:

 I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create evil; I, the LORD, do all these things.

 Here’s my explanation:

Let’s begin with the Hebrew text of 45:7 and its mechanical, literal translation:

יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָ֑ע אֲנִי יְהוָה עֹשֶׂה כָל־אֵֽלֶּה

 The Hebrew word colored red, here transcribed as ra`, is the subject of the question. Now, here is my mechanical, word-for-word translation.

forming light and-creating darkness; forming peace and creating ra`; I, the LORD, [do] all these.

 The question here is how are we to render ra` in English such that we captures the sense of what the author meant to convey? Said another way, did the author mean for ra` to be understood as some [natural] disaster like a flood or earthquake? Or did he really mean evil?

 As correctly observed, most of the major commercial Bibles translate ra` as connoting calamity, disaster, or tragedy. I agree. With the exception of the KJV, nowhere have I found ra` translated as evil.  Are all these translations wrong?

Well, yes and no! 

Translating ra` as something other than evil is a perfectly fine rendering of the verse insofar as it is consistent with its context (i.e., the verse occurs as one verse in a series of verses that enumerate God’s bona fides). Evidently, God wanted to demonstrate to king Cyrus that He was a credible and authoritative deity. So, whether God has the power to create evil or disaster is beside the point.  He does and Cyrus is suitably impressed. In other words, insofar as what Cyrus needed in the form of divine authority, the commercial translators’ choice of calamity (or one of its synonyms) is perfectly fine, as far as it goes.

On the other hand, evil has a more sinister connotation and one that we do not associate with God’s character. So, there may be a lot more going on here than is visible at this superficial level. Let’s dig deeper.

First, let’s examine the literary structure of the verse. Observe that the verse is structured as a very common form of Hebrew poetry called synonymous parallelism. Synonymous parallelism  applies to successive clauses (or lines) of text which express the same concept in two different ways. With this in mind, the parallelism suggest that the relevant clause can be phrased quasi mathematically,

light is to peace as darkness is to `ra`

So, what translation of ra` most closely matches the meaning of darkness. I admit that it’s debatable (most translations are), but evil seems to me to be the better match to darkness than, say, calamity. Put another way, I believe most people would agree that the metaphorical meaning of darkness is more closely associated with evil than it is to natural disasters.

Second, and more compelling I think, is to note that biblical Hebrew has a perfectly good word for calamity and its synonyms. That word is eyd (אֵיד). Moreover, the definition of eyd from my Hebrew lexicon (Harris, et al) is illuminating (note the underlined text):

Eyd: Calamity, destruction, ruin, disaster, distress, vengeance, trouble, misfortune, doom, terror, downfall, peril. Apart from one reference in Ezek 35:5), all twenty-two occurrences  of eyd  appear in poetical sections. Its use in Deut 32:35 is part of the Song of Moses, and 2 Sam 22:19 is identical to Psalm 18:18.(my emphasis underlined)

Isaiah 45:7 is manifestly poetic[2], so why didn’t the author use eyd if he really meant some natural disaster? The answer seems pretty clear. He actually meant something other than calamity and I would argue that he had evil in view.


Readings and Reflections for Session II


  1. [1]Sarna 1966, pp 23-26
  2. [2]Actually, the whole pericope is poetic — as is much of Isaiah.

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