“And the Sons of Israel did the Evil in the eyes of Yahweh; they served the Baals.”
In most of our English translations, this verse is translated in an unfortunate way. The English Standard version uses the phrase: “what was evil” and the World English Bible translates it as “that which was evil.” The King James Version, along with the New International Version and the New American Standard Version simply leave it as “did evil.” Young’s Literal Translation, as is often the case, comes closer when it reads: “did the evil thing.”
Translating the Hebrew literally, you simply have the word oårDh (ha’ra), or “the Evil” with Evil being understood as a substantive noun, not as an adjective. This construct is used 7 times in the book of Judges (2:11, 3:7, 3:12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1), but is also found through much of the Old Testament. Often, it refers to idolatry, as it does here, but not always.
Numbers 32:13 uses the phrase to refer to the people’s not trusting God in the wilderness and Deuteronomy 19:19-20 uses the phrase to refer to lying and conspiracy. In Deuteronomy 21:21 it refers to a rebellious son and in Deuteronomy 22:21,24 it refers to an immoral daughter and an adulteress respectively. Deuteronomy 24:7 uses the term to refer to the act of taking a Jew as a slave or selling a fellow Jew into slavery and in 1 Samuel 15:19 “the Evil” is the failure of Saul to kill Agag, king of the Amalekites. In a similar way, David’s adultery and the murder of Uriah is referred to as “the Evil” in 2 Samuel 12:9 and in Psalm 51:4 (verse 6 in the Hebrew text). Even Haman is referred to as “the Evil” in Esther 7:6 and Nehemiah 13:17 applies the term to profaning the Sabbath.
Probably the most profound use of this construction can be found in Deuteronomy 30:15, where the text reads:
“See that I have put before you this day the Life and the Good and the Death and the Evil.”
What follows is a warning that obedience brings “the good” and life and disobedience brings “the evil” and death. What a remarkable reminder of truth for us that nothing good comes from our disobedience…it only brings evil and death.
Thus, as a generation rose up that did not remember and treasure the word and the things of God, then the people fell into “the Evil” and thus they fell into death. When we just read “evil things” we recognize that they are doing something that they ought not, but I don’t think that most of our English translations put as much emphasis on the phrase as the Hebrew text places upon it. And we should, especially if we desire to let these words warn us in our present context, for we have (as a society) largely fallen into “the Evil” and need to repent.