A Look at Deuteronomy 8:3
In Isaiah 45:7 we read, “I [YHVH speaking] form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I, YHVH, do all these things.” Based on this verse, some readers may be led to believe that all the evil that occurs in the world is YHVH’s fault, therefore, as the creator of evil, how can he be good? Some have even refused to serve and obey YHVH and rejected the truth of Scripture on the basis of this logic. But what is the truth?
First, let us analyze the Hebrew word for evil: ra/GR (spelled: resh, aiyn; Strong’s H7451; TWOT 2191). It is the generic Hebrew word meaning “evil” also meaning (quoted from Online Bible Deluxe Software Program):
- 1a) bad, disagreeable, malignant
- 1b) bad, unpleasant, evil (giving pain, unhappiness, misery)
- 1c) evil, displeasing
- 1d) bad (of its kind—land, water, etc)
- 1e) bad (of value)
- 1f) worse than, worst (comparison)
- 1g) sad, unhappy
- 1h) evil (hurtful)
- 1i) bad, unkind (vicious in disposition)
- 1j) bad, evil, wicked (ethically)
- 1j1) in general, of persons, of thoughts
- 1j2) deeds, actions
- 2) evil, distress, misery, injury, calamity
- 2a) evil, distress, adversity
- 2b) evil, injury, wrong
- 2c) evil (ethical)
- 3) evil, misery, distress, injury
- 3a) evil, misery, distress
- 3b) evil, injury, wrong
- 3c) evil (ethical)
As we can see, evil is only one of the many and varied definitions of the Hebrew word ra, which can also mean “distress, adversity, unhappiness, sadness” and so on. Can “bad” things happen to a person and end up being actually good for that person? Of course. Such has happened to all of us many times in our lives. Keep this point in mind as we study this subject.
According to The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, the word ra has as its primary definition “the lack of quality or inferior quality of something or someone and is thus unable to meet standards of value or function beneficially.” The word can also connote “moral deficiencies” and is contrasted to the Hebrew word tov, which is the generic word meaning “good.” The TWOT notes that Elohim (as the Just Judge of the universe) acts with painful punishment against evil (ra) people who refuse to repent of their wicked or evil actions. If he failed to do this, then the forces of evil would take over the earth and universe.
But is YHVH the creator of evil in a direct sense, or is he the creator of the laws of cause-and-effect that go into effect automatically when evil people break them? Can evil (in the sense of punishment) that befalls a person be the result of their actions even as those who follow his laws reap blessings and goodness?
Moses Maimon known as Maimonides or the Rambam, a medieval Jewish Bible scholar and sage, discusses this issue in his classic book, The Guide to the Perplexed. He starts from the premise that all that YHVH created was good or tov as is stated several times in the creation account of Genesis one. If Scripture is true and cannot be broken, then Elohim is not the creator of evil or wickedness in that sense of the meaning of the Hebrew word ra. But as we have seen, this is not the only definition of the word ra.
To the western mindset, Rambam points out, darkness and evil are negative existence, but existence nonetheless, like two sides of the same coin. To the Hebrew mind, evil is not even a part of the coin. Since YHVH cannot create evil, for all that he created was good, then the “evil” he created had to be good and all other evil exists outside of his creation. In other words, there are two kinds of evil: ultimate evil that is the total negation of all good, light and truth, and evil that is good in that it produces good results in the lives of people. To the Hebrew way of thinking (and that was the mindset of the authors of Scripture), all that YHVH created is existence and all else is nonexistence. Therefore, that which is non-positive is nonexistence and not a part of his creation, or is outside of his creation. In Genesis one, Elohim created existence, or that which is good, by creating good and light (existence) as a bubble in the midst of darkness and nonexistence. Humans as part of the physical creation live in that created “bubble” that Scripture calls good. Everything outside is evil. So, reasons Rambam, all evil is the absence of good; that is, all that is evil is the negation of good. For example, death is evil since it is the negation of life (which is good). It is therefore non-existence. The same could be said of ignorance, which is the negation of knowledge.
So when we read that YHVH “created evil” or “afflicted” his people (Deut 8:3), or brought calamity upon his people in one fashion or another (Pss 55:19; 88:7; 90:15; 119:71, 75), to the Hebrew way of thinking it cannot be considered evil for the purpose of it was to refine the people of YHVH, to bring them to the higher level spiritually, to bring them (or reconcile them) to their loving Father in heaven. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews says that as a father YHVH chastens his children whom he loves (Heb 12:5ff), for the purpose of bringing forth the good fruits of holiness and righteousness (verses 10–11).
On the other hand, as noted earlier, those who despise the chastening of their Heavenly Father (Heb 12:5) end up separating themselves from him, and separation from him leads to eternal death, darkness and nothingness, which is ultimate evil and non-existence. Is it YHVH’s fault people choose this path? Is it his fault they removed themselves by their sinful actions from his creation, which was good, and placed themselves outside of his creation, which is evil, so that they become personifications of evil? No. He is good and brings no evil upon people except to allow them to suffer the fruit of their own actions (Jas 1:13–15). YHVH hates wickedness and those who align themselves with evil as workers of iniquity (Ps 5:5). They are outside of his creation and outside of that which is good.
Now YHVH is gracious to both the just and to the unjust. He gives to both an earth to live on along with water, food, air, etc. If he should choose to withdraw his hand of mercy and grace from an evildoer so that they should suffer the consequences of their actions is he therefore the agent or cause of evil? Rambam reasons that YHVH cannot be the creator of evil. Elohim cannot be responsible for or connected to that which he did not directly cause. The evil actions of the person brought about their judgment. Because Elohim temporarily stayed the judgment of the court against their evil actions does not make him the agent directly responsible for evil.
Now, the big question is this: was YHVH Elohim evil when he “smote” (which means “slay or slaughter”) and “bruised” his Son, Yeshua (Isa 53:4 and 10)? According to the Scriptural definition of evil, the results of Yeshua’s sacrifice at the cross resulted in the reconciliation of man to YHVH Elohim, which is tov in the ultimate sense and the opposite of all that is ra!
A Thought Provoking Story to Illustrate the Point
Did Elohim create everything that exists? Does evil exist? Did Elohim create evil? The University professor challenged his students with this question. “Did Elohim create everything that exists?”
A student bravely replied, “Yes he did!”
“Elohim created everything?” The professor asked.
“Yes sir,” the student replied.
The professor answered, “If Elohim created everything, then Elohim created evil, since evil exists, and according to the principle that our works define who we are, then Elohim is evil.”
The student became quiet before such an answer. The professor, quite pleased with himself, boasted to the students that he had proven once more that the Christian faith was a myth.
Another student raised his hand and said, “May I ask you a question, professor?”
“Of course,” replied the professor. The student stood up and asked, “Professor, does cold exist?”
“What kind of question is this? Of course it exists. Have you never been cold?” The students snickered at the young man’s question.
The young man replied, “In fact sir, cold does not exist. According to the laws of physics, what we consider cold is in reality the absence of heat. Every body or object is susceptible to study when it has or transmits energy, and heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (-459° F) is the total absence of heat; all matter becomes inert and incapable of reaction at that temperature. Cold does not exist. We have created this word to describe how we feel if we have no heat.”
The student continued, “Professor, does darkness exist?” The professor responded, “Of course it does.” The student replied, “Once again you are wrong, sir, darkness does not exist either. Darkness is in reality the absence of light. Light we can study, but not darkness. In fact, we can use Newton’s prism to break white light into many colors and study the various wavelengths of each color. You cannot measure darkness. A simple ray of light can break into a world of darkness and illuminate it. How can you know how dark a certain space is? You measure the amount of light present. Isn’t this correct? Darkness is a term used by man to describe what happens when there is no light present.”
Finally the young man asked the professor, “Sir, does evil exist?”
Now uncertain, the professor responded, “Of course, as I have already said. We see it everyday. It is in the daily examples of man’s inhumanity to man. It is in the multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world. These manifestations are nothing else but evil.”
To this the student replied, “Evil does not exist, sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of Elohim. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of Elohim. Elohim did not create evil. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have Elohim’s love present in his heart. It’s like the cold that comes when there is no heat, or the darkness that comes when there is no light.”
The professor sat down.