13 March 2014

Yahweh, Creator of evil

One of the more intriguing verses in the Bible is Isaiah 45:7, which answers the age-old question from whence does evil come.

In the Authorized Version of James I, King of England, this verse reads: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.”

The Three Isaiahs

This verse is part of the section of the Book of Isaiah known as Second Isaiah. 

“What do you mean, ‘Second Isaiah’?”, you ask.

Biblical scholars have known for quite a while that the Isaiah as we have it today was written in three stages stretching across four or more centuries. 

First Isaiah (chapters 1-39) is generally considered to be the words of the prophet Isaiah himself, with the exception of chapters 24-27, which are a later interpolation. Isaiah’s time as a prophet began in the final days of the northern kingdom called Samerina and Bit Humria, witnessed the fall of Samaria, and ended in the early days of direct Assyrian rule.

Second Isaiah (chapters 40-54) was written by an anonymous author, possibly a prophet, living in exile from the southern kingdom, which was first known in Samerina as Teman, among its other neighbors as Bit Dawid, and later as Yehud.

In the Jewish Tanakh, the two kingdoms are called Israel and Judah, at least in their English translations; the transliteration of the Hebrew produces Yisrael and Yehudah.  While the northern kingdom was established by the dynasty ruling the semi-nomadic Canaanite tribe called Israel, it was known as Bit Humria, or House of Omri, and as Samerina.  It was, in fact, the senior of the two, senior in age and in importance.  The southern kingdom, founded later, was at first simply known as Teman (the South), and sometimes as Bit Dawid, or House of David.  The name Yehud first appears at the time of the Babylonian conquest.

Third Isaiah (chapters 55-66) is the work of several anonymous prophets after the return to the southern kingdom from Babylon.

When these three bodies of work became one, we do not know, but most scholars agree that the Book of Isaiah achieved its present form around 70 BCE, during the reign of Salome Alexandra of the Hasmonean dynasty, as Queen of Judea, which at the time included the conquered lands of Idumea, Philistia, Samaria, Galilee, Iturea, and Perea.

WHO created evil?

The reason this particular verse of the amalgamated Book of Isaiah is so intriguing, and vexing to Christians, Samaritans (yes, there are about 750 left), and Jews, is that it answers the age-old question of “where does evil come from” by quoting God (portrayed as referring to himself as ‘Yahweh’) saying “I create it”.

I think because this particular verse that Second Isaiah belongs to the early Persian period of the Levant, and Third Isaiah to the later Persian and/or early Hellenistic period.  What’s more, I think this section was likely written in the same period as the Book of Deuteronomy, or at least that of its Chapter 6 (especially Deut. 6:4, the verse known as the Shema: “Hear O Yisrael:  Yahweh your God, Yahweh is One.”), since the themes of these two passages fit together so well.  Both passages deal with the unity of God.

Given the ample architectural evidence (compared to the dearth testifying to the contrary) there is no doubt that the inhabitants of both the northern kingdom (Samerina, Bit Humria) and the southern kingdom (Teman, Bit Dawid, Yehud) were polytheists before the conquest by the monotheistic Iranians in the later 6th century.  There is anecdotal evidence of this even in the Bible, including in that part most sacred to American fundamentalist Christians, the so-called ‘Ten Commandments’, which are more accurately the ‘Ten Statements’.

Note that this polytheism existed only in the henotheistic form, which may acknowledge and even worship several gods but holds one (the national god Yahweh in this case) up above them all, as early as the 9th century BCE.  In the case of Samerina and Teman (the name Yehud only surfaces later), this deity was Yahweh.  At several pre- Exile archaeological sites in Palestine, Yahweh’s consort is Asherah, while at the Hebrew colony at the island of Elephantine in southern Egypt that existed from the mid-7th century, his consort is Anath.

By the end of the 5th century, under the influence of their monotheistic occupiers, the inhabitants of Samerina and Yehud and their cousins of the colonies in Egypt (Elephantine, Memphis, several others) had traversed theologically from henotheism to monolatry (acknowledgement of several deities but worship of only one), and finally to full-fledged monotheism.  Though the people of Samerina and Yehud adopted its monotheism, they kept their own god and at least officially shunned the dualism that is an intrinsic part of Zartosht’s teachings.

Emphasizing this unity, the oneness of Yahweh, is the idea underlying both the verse in Isaiah and that in Deuteronomy, the former more explicitly denying Zoroastrian dualism.  This is why the writer of Second Isaiah puts the words into the mouth of Yahweh that both light and dark, and both good and evil, come from him.

A more correct translation

A better translation would be: “I form light and create darkness, I make good and create evil: I, Yahweh, do all these things.”

In the Orthodox Jewish Bible, the Isaiah 45:7 verse is rendered: “I form ohr, and create choshech; I make shalom, and create rah; I, Hashem, do all these things.” 

Where Christians translators often render the YHVH as “LORD”, Jewish translators substitute “Hashem”, meaning literally “The Name”, which becomes “Shema” for Samaritans.  “Ohr” means light and “choshech” means darkness, but the other two terms are a bit more problematic. 

“Shalom” is usually translated into English as “peace”, but can also be translated as “prosperity”, while “rah”, usually translated as “evil”, can also mean “adversity”, and if “rah” were to be translated this way, “shalom” as “prosperity” would clearly not mean a capitalist’s fantasy but the polar opposite of adversity.  Various English translations use one or the other set of translations.  However, we find a clue to the most correct translation in the rendering of the verse as used in the Shacharit (morning) prayers in Judaism.

The two chief sets of prayers revolved around the Shema and the Tefillah.  The latter is an ancient set of benedictory supplications dating two millennia.  The first is based on the afore-mentioned verse in Deuteronomy, 6:4.  It is actually three separate passages, the first passage being the most important, Deut. 6:4-9.

In modern English, this would read: “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is One.  Love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  Keep these words in your heart, and teach them diligently to your children.  Discuss them sitting in your house and walking down the road, when you lie down, and when you rise up.  Bind them as a sign on your hand, and wear them as an ornament between your eyes.  Write them upon your doorposts and upon your gates.

In Shacharit, there are two blessings, or prayers, before the recitation of the whole Shema, and one after.  The first of these is taken directly from Isaiah 45:7.  In the prayers, the Hebrew word “Adonai”, meaning “Lord”, is substituted for the actual name. 

In English, this benediction, which is called Yotzer ohr (“Creator of light”) in Hebrew, goes: “Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, who forms light and creates darkness, who makes peace and creates all things. Blessed are you LORD, who forms light.

Note that whichever rabbi wrote this benediction could not being himself to write that God creates evil, instead felt the need to whitewash the “evil” in the original verse completely out of existence as if God himself were not saying he creates it.  That is why so many “translators” render “shalom” as “prosperity” and “rah” as “adversity”.  In doing so, however, all of them ignore the intent of the writer to show that ALL things come from Yahweh.

Yes, “shalom” and “rah” can be validly translated as “prosperity” and “adversity”, but in other contexts than this one.  In this verse is a dual dichotomy, and for the dual dichotomy to be valid, it has to balance out all the way around.  “Prosperity and adversity” just does not carry the same weight vis-à-vis “light and darkness” that “good and evil” does.

Neither belief nor disbelief are relevant to the true translation of this passage, but it is clear from the widespread attempts to whitewash the evil out of this verse, so to speak, that belief has been getting in the way and hindering rather than helping.

I use the actual name Yahweh rather than any of the oft-substituted euphemisms because the fear of using the name derives from superstition rather than any real spiritual motivation.  Most of those avoiding its use have no qualms about using it in vain with their actions.


ADDENDUM: In the second chapter of Genesis, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (or ‘Etz HaDa’as Tov v’Rah’, where ‘tov’ means ‘good’ and ‘rah’ means ‘evil’) symbolizes in reality the “Tree of Infinite Knowledge”.  In that scheme, ‘shalom’ and ‘rah’ together could mean ‘all things’.  Alternatively, ‘rah’, which can be translated as either ‘evil’ or adversity’, is best translated also as ‘dysfunction’, i.e. ‘chaos’; in this case ‘shalom’ might be translated as ‘order’, i.e. ‘cosmos’.  In other words, the meaning of what Second Isaiah has Yahweh say in Isaiah 45:7 is that “I create everything”, i.e. light and darkness, good and evil, order and chaos, prosperity and calamity.  Note the current, not the past, tense, by the way.

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