24 September 2015

Who created darkness and evil?

“I am Yahweh, and there is no other,” replied the God of Samaritans, Jews, Hypsistarians, Karaites, Christians, Mandaeans, Sabaeans, Muslims, Druze, Bahais, and Rastafarians in answer to the above question.  Whether he was being a stand-up kind of deity covering for his co-conspirators or just a glory-hog is a question never answered.

The following is more about accurate and precise translation and studying one’s task thoroughly enough to render one that is true, and the truth.

Translation and bad grammar

This is about one of the most difficult and discomfortable passages in the Tanakh for religious believers over its assertion that Yahweh, the deity worshipped by Jews and Christians, and by Muslims under the name Allah, creates both darkness and evil.

The passage in question is in found the book of Isaiah, verse 45:7, a verse comprised of three distinct clauses.  In transliterated Hebrew, this reads:

Yotzer ohr u-voreh hoshekh, oseh shalom u-voreh et ha-rah, ani Yahweh oseh et kol eileh.

Without attempting to translate the putative object nouns (I’ll explain that in a bit), the way that passage is most often translated is:

I form ohr and create hoshekh, I make shalom and create rah; I, Yahweh, do all these things. 

For the first two clauses, that is the exact translation found in the Orthodox Jewish Bible.  For the third clause, only a handful of translations include the actual name of God, the rest preferring to utilize some euphemism in its place.  None of those euphemisms, however, are translations but substitutions, and this is about translation.  That’s a subject for a whole other essay, so we’ll just leave the third clause there.

I left those object nouns in the original language because their proper translation into English is a matter of dispute and the afore-mentioned source of discomfort that is the main focus of this essay.  The subject at immediate hand is something I discovered researching this passage.

The first two clauses of Isaiah 45:7 are not, in truth, clauses at all, because their verbs are not actually verbs.  The purportedly object nouns of purportedly transitive verbs are in reality prepositional objects modifying subject complements. The passage should actually read:

Producer of ohr and creator of hoshekh, maker of shalom and creator of ha-rah; I, Yahweh, do all these things.

Since hanging phrases like that are like hanging chads in a Florida election, I offer the immediately preceding passage, Isaiah 45:6, or at least its part b:

I am Yahweh, and there is none else.

The Geneva translators in 1560 who originated the current chapter-verse system of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures appended this onto the end of a clause belonging to the sentence in verse 45:5, so that the whole passage (45:5-7) reads, in the KJV:

I am Yahweh, and there is none else; there is no God besides me: I girded thee, though thou hast not known me: That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none besides me.  I am Yahweh, and there is none else.  I form ohr and create hoshekh, I make shalom and create rah; I, Yahweh, do all these things.

Better grammar and sentence structure renders this passage as:

I am Yahweh, and there is none else; there is no God besides me: I girded thee, though thou hast not known me, that they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the West, that there is none besides me.  I am Yahweh, and there is none else; I form ohr and create hoshekh, I make shalom and create rah; I, Yahweh, do all these things.

Returning the afore-mentioned faux verbs to their original noun form renders the relevant sentence:

I am Yahweh, and there is none other; producer of ohr and creator of hoshekh, maker of shalom and creator of rah; I, Yahweh, do all these things.

Which now makes sense, grammatically speaking, more so than simply quoting Isaiah 45:7 by itself with its words in their proper forms of speech. 

One God to rule them all

An even better rendering of the above sentence, translating the exact meaning rather than the exact words, might be, and taking into account the clause ‘there is no God besides me’ in verse 45:5, this might be a better translation, particularly if standing alone:

I am Yahweh, the One True God, producer of ohr and creator of hoshekh, maker of shalom and creator of rah; I, Yahweh, do all these things.

This passage is one of the very, very few in the Tanakh, even the whole Christian Bible, which states there is only one God.  Even the Ten Devarim (or ‘Ten Statements’, the often misnamed “Ten Commandments”, so dubbed by the same Geneva translators who numbered the verses and split sentences) make no such statement.  Truly, as late a figure as Paul of Tarsus wrote in one of his letters that, in fact, other gods exist.

One could think such a statement would be proof of the pre-Exile monotheism of the Israelites in Samerina and Yehud to counter the Himalayas of evidence to the contrary.  However, this passage comes from the section known to scholars as Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), which dates no earlier than Exilic or post-Exilic times, and maybe both, given the probability of multiple editors. 

This chapter begins, “Thus saith Yahweh to his Messiah, to Cyrus…”, as in Cyrus the Great, or Koroush Kabir, of the Achaemenid dynasty of Iran conquered the Chaldean Empire in 539 BCE, thus inheriting its western possessions which included Samerina and Yehud.  So it’s safe to say this passage is definitely not earlier than the latter sixth century BCE and is probably later.  Since this passage under discussion takes aim directly at dualism as well as any other theism but mono, it is most likely no earlier than the third century BCE.  It is not simply an expression of monotheism, but of dualistic monism as well.  More on that, and how this passage relates to dualism, below.

Yahweh, creator of darkness and evil

Now that the appetizer, or ‘le entrée’ as they call it in France, is out of the way, we can start on the main course, or ‘le plat’ in France and ‘the entrée’ in America.

Every commentary I have read on this passage, from the Church Fathers through the twenty-first century, has taken pains to point out that the Hebrew word here for ‘create’, or rather ‘creator’, ‘voreh’, is the same that as in the beginning of Genesis, a sign that the writer thereby intends to link this statement with the Creation “in the beginning”.  This elevation also implicitly raises the importance of that which is created.

It is that which is created that causes so much discomfort and difficulty; in transliterated Hebrew, hoshekh and rah.  ‘I, Yahweh, create darkness and evil’.

First, let’s look again at the translation of Isaiah 45:7, with those Hebrew words left untranslated, and for simplicity will leave the initial nouns as verbs:

Yotzer ohr u-voreh hoshekh, oseh shalom u-voreh et ha-rah, ani Yahweh oseh et kol eileh.

I form ohr and create hoshekh, I make shalom and create rah; I, Yahweh, do all these things.

The clause at the end of Isaiah 45:7 has never been a matter of dispute, so here we will just deal with the first two clauses, or phrases.  In fact, we will only be discussing the second or middle clause because there is no real dispute about the first either; every translator renders that clause in Hebrew, ‘Yotzer ohr u-voreh hoshekh’, as ‘I form light and create darkness’.  So strike that one from the discussion also.

That leaves us this: ‘I make shalom and create rah’, or ‘maker of shalom and creator of rah’, and this is where the problem lies.  Not so much the idea that Yahweh makes shalom as in that Yahweh creates rah, or ‘ha-rah’ to be exact.  One can see the problem from the translation in the King James Version:

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I Yahweh do all these things.

Other than transforming nouns into verbs and cutting up sentences where they shouldn’t be cut, the article before ‘light’ is not appropriate because it is not there in the Hebrew.  In the Hebrew, the only noun with the article ‘ha-‘ is the last modifying its subject complement, ‘ha-rah’. 

With the article there, the only translation for ‘rah’ is ‘evil’.  Of that, there is no equivocation; the only debatable point is what is meant here by the ‘evil’ that Yahweh creates.

Many Christian translators have chosen to translate ‘rah’, and often ‘shalom’ along with it, into some other noun with negative connotations that do not quite approach the affirmation that Yahweh created evil, that Yahweh created the dark side (even though they have little problem accepting that he created darkness). 

The rabbis who wrote the Orthodox siddur, or prayer book, dealt with this when composing the Birkat Yotzer Ohr benediction said before the Shema Yisrael at shacharit (morning, ideally at 9 am) prayers by changing the wording so that the prayer, in transliterated Hebrew, reads:

Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-olam, yotzer ohr u-voreh hoshekh, oseh shalom u-voreh et ha- kol.

Which is usually translated: ‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who form light and create darkness, who make peace and create all things’.

So now, instead of creating evil, Yahweh creates ‘all things’; were this in the Isaiah original, concluding the sentence with ‘I, Yahweh, do all these things’ would have been redundant.  That the rabbis felt it necessary to alter this for the Birkat Yotzer Ohr makes almost certain there is no other accurate translation.

So, ‘ha-rah’ is ‘evil’.  But what exactly does ‘evil’ in this context mean?

English translations by Christians

Before we answer that question, let’s take a gander at how Christian translators deal with their discomfort over the prospect that evil comes from Yahweh.

The Geneva and King James translators took the clause, ‘I make shalom and create rah’ and rendered it, ‘I make peace and create evil’.  In the sixteenth century, those two words as translated may have had the same or near meaning as their Hebrew counterparts. 

But language changes, such as the way that ‘comprehended’ as in Gospel of John 1:5’s ‘and the darkness comprehended it not’ meant ‘overcame’ in the early sixteenth century, but in the twenty-first century would have meant ‘understood’.  Such is the case with shalom/peace and rah/evil in Isaiah 45:7, or near so; they both have similar meaning, but not quite all the depth and connotations they once had.  Christian translators have tried in various ways to “correct” that:

I make prosperity and create doom
I make well-being, I create woe
I make happiness and create sorrow
I bring peace, and I cause trouble
I make well-being and create calamity
I make blessing and create disaster
I make success and create disaster
I make goodness and create disaster
I send good times and bad times
I make peace and create calamity
I bring prosperity and create disaster
I bring good and I make trouble
I make weal and create woe
I bring good times and create hard times
I make harmonies and create discords

There are just the published versions from “official” translations.  Those two Hebrew words have so many connotations, their meaning can be partially captured with a myriad of words.  Here are some of the ones I’ve come up with on the usual model:

‘I make/shape/bring
and create/cause/bring

Then I thought of a couple of possibilities if I disregarded the parts of speech of the words as they were written, just like the translators.  I got:

I make whole/complete and render void/dissolute.

Next I threw out the received sentence structure entirely and came up with:

I illumine and obscure, I complete and destroy, plus a few variations along those lines.


Pairs of opposites like this constitute a rhetorical device called ‘antitheses’, plural because each is the antithesis of the other.

Antitheses riddle the Bible because that was a favorite device of the writers of the Tanakh and of the New Testament.  In the opening scene of Genesis, you have the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, two antitheses.  Here, the two antitheses have a parallel function of including Everything, so that the name could be simply ‘Tree of All Knowledge’.

Other Biblical examples include the list of blessings followed by that of curses in Deuteronomy 28.  These are mirrored the Gospel of Luke  6:20-26, the list of blessing and curses upon which the Beatitudes passage in the Gospel of Matthew 5:3-11 is based.  The chapter Ecclesiastes 3 begins with the words, ‘To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven’, after which follows pairs of antitheses juxatoposed against each other.

At Deuteronomy 30:15, we have another passage that some translators seem to be too squeamish about to do their job objectively.  The KJV has, ‘See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil’, and the RSV is virtually the same.  The NRSV and several other versions, however, felt it necessary to alter this to, ‘See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity’, to prevent even the whiff of evil tainting the divine.

For this passage, the OJB has ‘See, I have set before thee today ha-chayyim and ha-tov, and mavet and rah’, here ‘chayyim’ and ‘tov’ being without a doubt the words for ‘life’ and ‘good’, especially because of the article which anchors them thus.  Under the principle of antitheses, ‘mavet’ and ‘rah’ can therefore only mean ‘death’ and ‘evil’, the polar opposites of life and good, even though they lack the defining article.  When ‘tov’ and ‘rah’ are paired or juxtaposed, they always mean ‘good’ and ‘evil’.  Translating them any other way is not simply inaccurate, it is a lie.

Context and balance are everything

Admittedly, by themselves the words ‘shalom’ and ‘rah’ each have a variety of meanings and connotations.  Rah can mean ‘evil’, as in moral evil, but it can also mean ‘distress’, ‘misery’, ‘injury’, ‘calamity’, ‘adversity’, ‘wrong’, or ‘bad’.

The root word for the noun shalom (שָׁלוֹם) is the adjective ‘shalem’ (שָׁלֵם), which also has a verb form, ‘shalam’ (שָׁלַם).  The core meaning of ‘shalem’ is ‘whole’, which can mean ‘complete’, ‘safe’, or ‘at peace’. 

‘Shalom’ can stand for ‘wholeness’, ‘peace’, ‘completion’, ‘soundness’, ‘welfare’, ‘safety’, ‘soundness’, ‘well-being’, ‘health’, ‘prosperity’, ‘tranquility’, ‘contentment’, or any combination thereof. 

The verb ‘shalam’ can mean ‘to make whole’, ‘to make peace’, ‘to make amends’, or, in certain contexts, ‘do justice’. 

If it has meaning, the words ‘Till Armageddon, no shalam, no shalom’ in the line from the Johnny Cash song, “The Man Comes Around” probably stand for ‘No Justice, No Peace’.

The word ‘rah’ likewise has many different meanings, including ‘evil’, ‘distress’, ‘misery’, ‘injury’, ‘calamity’, ‘adversity’, ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, or a combination of those.

In a previous essay, I posited that the best translation of the clause under discussion here was ‘I make good and create evil’.  However, I have to admit I was incorrect.  At least in how people usually interpret “good and evil”; good is another word with many shades of meaning.

In paired antitheses, the two opposites take their meaning from each other.  For example, juxtaposed against ‘milchamah’, or ‘war’, ‘shalom’ can only have the meaning into which is is most often translated, ‘peace’.  While war is very ‘rah’, though, ‘rah’ is not war. 

So, while ‘shalom’ and ‘rah’ can take on many of those alternate meanings of the “official” translations above, none of them balance with the other pair of antitheses with which they are linked, that of light against darkness.  For balance, the shalom-rah pair must mean something equally basic and archetypal.

Thus spake Zarathustra

To recover a picture of the context within which the anonymous editor interpolated this passage, this chapter, onto the prophecies of Isaiah, we turn to the antecedent of both the monotheism adopted by both Israelite peoples and of the dualism against which this passage speaks.  In other words, we turn to Iran, to the teachings of the prophet Zarathustra and the religion which sprang from them, Mazdayasna.

Enter Ahura Mazda

A long, long time ago, in a land far, far away, probably south of the Caspian Sea and north of the Alborz Mountains, that land later known as Media, then as Hyrcania to the Macedonians after the conquest by Alexander the Great, there lived a prophet.  This prophet’s name then was Zarathustra, and his name provided a title for a book by a Western existentialist philosopher who quoted this ancient Aryan as saying, “And once you are awake, you shall remain awake, eternally”.  To which Gautama the Buddha replied, “I am awake; I guess  this means that nirvana is samsara”.

The Macedonians and Greeks called Zarathustra by the name Zoroaster.  Modern Iranians call him Zartosht.  An Aryan is not, by the way, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed fascist from Germany but a native of the land once called “Iranshahr”, for ‘realm of the Aryans’.  Friedrich Nietzsche, a brown-haired, brown-eyed German philosopher, liked the original form of the name best.

Zarathustra had visions, dreamed dreams, and drank hallucinogenic potions, thus anticipating the Age of Aquarius (without Charlie Manson) by almost three millennia.  He wrote down what he saw in what started out as just his Gathas, and later morphed exponentially into an entire library called the Avesta, a vast collection of scriptures in a language recorded nowhere else.

Zarathustra’s visions led him to toss out the whole inherited Indo-Aryan pantheon and declare that there is only One True God.  The name of his One True God was/is Ahura Mazda (or Assura Mazas in the Aramaic official language of the empire).  Before this, there were only Zurvan (Time) and Thwasha (Space). 

As first conceived, Ahura Mazda possesses no human attributes, no anthropomorphic or anthropopathic qualities.  Mazdayansis never refer to Ahura Mazda with gender pronouns.  It is forbidden to attempt to illustrate him in any way.  In many ways, the original concept of Ahura Mazda was closer to that of the Dao or Daiji of the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu than to a deity.

More like emanations from Ahura Mazda than either creations or junior partners, and not yet personified, the spenta mainyu was the ‘bounteous spirit (or inclination)’ and the angra mainyu was ‘destructive spirit (or inclination)’.  In a few places in the older Gathas, the angra mainyu is referred to as the aka mainyu, or ‘evil spirit’.  But the two were in balance, and it was this which helped preserve the universe.

This theological principle, that all things, good and bad, come from the Deity, is what philosophers of religion call ‘dialectical monism’.

A couple of centuries after Zarathustra died, Angra Mainyu grew into the personified origin of destruction and evil.  Meanwhile, the equivalent opposite inclination, Spenta Mainyu, recessed into obscurity as a mere emanation of Mazda, due the growth in stature of its counterpart. The world view of Mazdayasna became divided into stark lines of light and dark, good and evil, life and death, with Ahura Mazda head of one side and Angra Mainyu the other.

Yahwism in transition

When we first have solid records of Israel in the ninth century, they remained polytheistic, sharing many of the same deities with their neighbors, the exception being their national deity, Yahweh.  At first, El, the father of the gods, the elohim, in the Canaanite pantheon, remained their chief god.  But he was too impersonal and distant, like a king above peasants.  They also worshipped and built shrines, even temples, to Baal Hadad, Anath, Asherah, Astarte, and Mot, among others.

Gradually, for the Israelites, by this time divided into the realms of Samerina and Yehud, Yahweh assumed more and more the role of rival to Hadad formerly carried by the similar-named god Yam.  Soon he even replace El at the head of the pantheon, with Asherah as his consort.  But he had several forms: Yahweh of Samaria, Yahweh of Teman, Yahweh of Dan, Yahweh of Shiloh, Yahweh of Hebron, etc., always with Asherah as his mate.

All of this we know from archaeology, from temples and shrines and papyri from the period that have been uncovered and deciphered.

With the overthrow of the Chaldeans, the Jews and Samaritans in the east gained the chance to return to Palestine, and also exposure to the monotheism of their new overlords.

Stage one on the Road to One True God was One True Yahweh.  That is the significance behind the declaration known to Jews and Samaritans as the Shema Yisrael (Deuteronomy 6:4): ‘Shema Yisrael, Yahweh Eloheinu Yahweh Ehad’. (‘Hear, O Israel, Yahweh your God is one Yahweh’).  So, no more Yahweh of Samaria, of Teman, of Hebron, etc., just plain Yahweh.

By early-to-mid fifth century BCE, monotheism, and iconoclasm, were the rule in both Samerina and Yehud, and near the end of the fifth century, even in the huge Israelite community in Egypt, centered on the colony at Elephantine and its temple.

The solidity of monotheism among the Israelites of Samerina, Yehud, and Egypt was reinforced by communication with the large communities of Jewish and Samaritan exiles in Hyrcania, Zarathrustra’s probably home and most fundamentalist center of Mazdayasna.

Two Ways

Though there are a few illusions to it in the Tanakh, dualism crept into and then flooded the religion of Yahweh in the fourth century BCE.  The Essenes, who probably formed in the early third century, made the dichotomy one of their central theses, and it abounded in popular apocalyptic and eschatological works of the late Temple and early Roman period.  In these, which continued to be passed on even after the turn of the era and became quite popular among early Christians, there were Two Ways, the Way of Light and the Way of Darkness, sometimes called the Way of Life and the Way of Death.  In some versions, each Way had its own angel, Michael at the head of the Way of Light and Beliar at the head of the Way of Darkness.

In this cultural atmosphere, a scribe editing the prophecy of Isaiah interpolated the passage in question, the point of this particular part being that all things come from the One True God, not good things from a deity of light and evil things from a deity of darkness, but all things from One God and One God only.  That is why the editor was so specific about using the same word for ‘to create’ that was used in the beginning of Genesis.  It was like saying, ‘I, Yahweh, create darkness and evil along with light and bounty; I alone and no one else’.

So why does everyone who translates this passage keep missing the point?  In a word, ideology.

Ideology is what religion becomes when its people forget the message and worship the creeds, when its adherents think it is more important to believe narrowly defined doctrine than to have faith.  Yahweh, or God, is good, and everything about him is good, and there is no evil in him, evil cannot even approach him, or so goes the mantra. 

The creeds are more become important than the message.  So, like George Lucas declaring Vergere a Sith and asserting that the dark side and light side of the Force are absolutely separate entities with no gray areas between them, nothing between them at all, translators continually mistranslate the discomfortable and keeping passing out the opiate Kool-Aid.

Despite being unable to confess that evil comes from Yahweh in their shacharit prayers, however, the rabbis still teach a doctrine inherited from their predecessors the scribes, who flourished in the late Temple period, that every human has within them from birth the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-ra.  Representing the ‘good inclination’ and ‘bad (or evil) inclination’, these mirror the spenta mainyu and angra mainyu that Zarathustra taught pervades the universe and each human in it.

The best translations

I have come up with three different version which I think best encapsulate the full meaning of both the words and their context.  There are four different versions because there are three different parts of speech into which the key words can be translated.

I am Yahweh, the One True God; producer of light and creator of darkness, maker of bounty and creator of desolation: I, Yahweh, do all these things.’

The verb usually translated ‘form’ actually means to ‘bring forth’ or ‘produce’. 

The meaning may be archaic, but the word ‘bounty’, encapsulates the most connotations of ‘shalom’ of any English word I know, including most importantly goodness, abundance, and welfare.  Its most direct opposite is desolation, a near synonym for destruction that expresses the empting out of something as well as the devastation of that within it.  This translation parallels the Two Ways tradition as expressed by other vehicles dating from the period in which this section of Isaiah was probably written.

This also reflects the influence of Mazdayasna’s spenta mainyu and angra mainyu in their early, non-personified form.  One could even accurately translate the verse as ‘I am Yahweh, the One True God, producer of light and creator of darkness, maker of spenta mainyu and creator of angra mainyu; I, Yahweh, do all these things.’ 

The meaning would be more directly parallel were the translation ‘destruction’ rather than ‘desolation’ (‘angra mainyu’=‘destructive spirit’, remember), but in English the latter can also represent the chaos and void that existed before bounty in the same way that is the case with darkness and light.

That was the version with all its words in the same parts of speech as the Hebrew originals.  The second version mimics the English translations.

I am Yahweh, the One True God; I produce light and create of darkness, I make bounty and create of desolation; I, Yahweh, do all these things.’

This version changes the second pair of nouns to adjectives.

I am Yahweh, the One True God; I produce light and create of darkness, I make whole and render dissolute; I, Yahweh, do all these things.’

The verb ‘to make whole’ captures the core essence of ‘shalom’ and is an exact translation of its verb form, ‘shalam’.

The final version makes all the clauses into intransitive verbs.

I am Yahweh, the One True God; I illumine and darken, I complete and destroy; I, Yahweh, do all these things.’

Any one of these four versions surpasses all available translations of which I am aware, at least translations into English.

Translators, if your belief is more important than your faith, if the creeds are more important to you than the message, at least have enough respect for your craft not to falsify your work.

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