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Saturday Word Study: “The Evil”

In the book of Judges, seven times the people are said to do “the evil” in the sight of the Lord. While most English translations ignore the definite article, preferring to translate it as “evil” or “evil things,” the Hebrew text clearly presents the term as a definite noun. The authors of this book of the Bible do not explicitly refer to that which this phrase refers, but context most commonly implies that it is a reference to the idolatry of the people of Israel.

When we look for the same phrase, “the evil” or חָרַע (hara), in the rest of the Hebrew Canon, one discovers that there are numerous things that God views as “the evil” and perhaps, it might be suggested, this understanding helps to shed light on Jesus’ language of asking God to delver us from “the evil” or τοῦ πονηροῦ (tou ponerou) in Matthew 6:13. In other words, asking God not to deliver us into temptation but to especially protect us from those sins in this category. References where “the evil” is given more specific definition are found below:

Exodus 33:4 — “the evil word” in context is the news that God was refusing to go with the people due to his idolatry.

Numbers 32:13 — “the evil” is a reference to not trusting God in the wilderness

Deuteronomy 4:25 — making carved images is referred to as “the evil”

Deuteronomy 9:18 — the people worshiping the Golden Calf was “the evil”

Deuteronomy 13:12 — Leading others into idolatry

Deuteronomy 17:2,5,7 — serving idols (note that here the death penalty is mandated for idolatry)

Deuteronomy 19:19-20 — being a malicious witness — conspiring against another

Deuteronomy 21:21 — the rebellious son

Deuteronomy 22:21 — the immoral daughter

Deuteronomy 22:24 — adulterers

Deuteronomy 24:7 — taking a Jew as a slave or selling a Jew into slavery

Deuteronomy 30:15 — here we have “the good” contrasted with “the evil” — obeying God in contrast to serving an idol

Joshua 23:15 — idolatry

1 Samuel 15:19 — Failing to destroy Agog

2 Samuel 12:9 — David’s adultery and the murder of Uriah

2 Samuel 14:17 — once again we find “the good” contrasted with “the evil” — right from wrong, in this case it is a statement that the wisdom of David is akin to the wisdom of the Angel of the Lord

1 Kings 11:6 — Solomon’s pursuit of idols

1 Kings 14:22 — The idolatry of Judah under Rehoboam

1 Kings 15:26 — King Nadab of Israel’s idolatry

1 Kings 15:34 — King Baasha of Israel’s idolatry

1 Kings 16:19; 16:25; 16:30 — more idolatry of the kings

1 Kings 21:20,25 — King Ahab’s idolatry instigated by Jezebel

1 Kings 22:52 — King Ahaziah’s idolatry

2 Kings 3:2; 8:18,27; 13:2,11; 14:24; 15:9,18,24,28; 17:2 — more idolatry from the kings

2 Kings 17:17 — burning sons and daughters in sacrifice to Molech

2 Kings 21:2 — following the practices of pagan nations

2 Kings 21:6,15-16,20; 23:32,37; 24:9,19 — more idolatry

2 Chronicles 12:14; 21:6; 22:4; 29:6; 33:2,6,22; 36:5,9,12 — more idolatry

Esther 7:6 — Haman is the evil

Nehemiah 13:17 — profaning the Sabbath is the evil

Job 2:10 — being under judgment

Psalm 51:4 — adultery and murder

Psalm 54:5,7 — to be under God’s judgment

Ecclesiastes 4:3 — better off is one who has never seen “the evil” deeds (be careful little eyes what you see)

Isaiah 5:20 — “Woe to those who call the evil Good”

Isaiah 65:12; 66:4 — idolatry

Jeremiah 3:17; 7:24; 11:8; 18:12; 32:30; 52:2 — the evil in their hearts is idolatry

Jeremiah 18:10 — the evil is not listening to God’s voice…in light of this, woe to those who claim to be Christians yet choose to ignore the Word of God

Jeremiah 23:22 — speaks of “the evil way”

Ezekiel 13:22 — “the evil way”

Micah 7:3 — idolatry

There is no debating that idolatry is the recurring theme that runs through these passages and indeed, idolatry destroys the people of God and the communities in which we dwell. And even though it is uncommon here in the west to run into people with large idols in their yards or homes, westerners make idols out of so many other things as well: performers, athletes, their wealth, a car or other precious item, etc… Anything that draws you away from having God and focusing on seeing Christ’s kingdom grow, that is an idol in your life. And these things are not just evil in God’s eyes, they are “the evil.” Pray that God delivers you from “the evil” that is in your life — is that not indeed, the heart of Jesus’ prayer?

Yet, we must notice that there are other things that are equally destructive and are “the evil” in God’s eyes. Things like not trusting God, lying, conspiring against the people of God, sexual immorality, murder, calling evil good, and not listening to the Word of God. How often do people turn a blind eye to dishonoring the Sabbath — in the eyes of God, it is “the evil.”  Then we have the sacrifice of children to Molech. Indeed, that is another expression of idolatry, but it also contains the idea of the murder of one’s own offspring. How awful a notion that is, yet it is tolerated in society and in many churches.

Finally, there is the sin of following the ways of other nations. That had obvious implications in the lives of those people who lived in ancient Israel but the sin often goes overlooked in the church today. It is commonplace for the church to incorporate pagan traditions into their public worship. Churches often draw from the practices of nature worship, nation worship, and entertainment. How many church holidays have simply been appropriated from secular sources or other religious traditions. When art, drama, organized dance, and patriotism are incorporated into the worship of God’s people, are they not guilty of this? That does not mean that art, dance, drama, and patriotism are bad things in and of themselves; they just do not belong in the worship of God’s people. 

The Idol of Self

“And the Sons of Israel did The Evil in the eyes of Yahweh: they forgot Yahweh their God. Thus, they served the Ba’als and the Ashtoroth.”

(Judges 3:7)

We have already seen the language that refers to “The Evil,” earlier in the text of Judges, so we understand that the people are not simply doing any old evil thing, but they are doing “The Evil Thing,” which, as we discussed before, normally ties in with idolatry. This verse is worded in such a way that it permits us to narrow the discussion of the evil thing even further, for the evil thing here is “forgetting” Yahweh their God. And what then is the result of this forgetting? Idolatry.

But what does it mean to “forget” God? Is it the same thing as when we forget a fact or a figure or forget to bring home something from the grocery store? One could argue that forgetting includes just that, but when the scriptures speak about forgetting God, it means so much more. Forgetting God is reflected in the way we live our lives. We may remember the things of God, perhaps taught to us when we were children and in Sunday School, but if we do not live our lives in submission to the God we know and even claim as our own, then we are guilty of forgetting. With this in mind, there are many professing Christians (even in our churches!) who have effectively “forgotten” Yahweh because the knowledge of Yahweh has no effect on their lives. In our modern sense, they may not bow before Ba’al or Asherah, but they bow to another, arguably more insidious, idol: self.

When people pursue the idol of self — when church bodies pursue the idol of self — virtually all things become permissible and often those things that the Bible permits, these things become impermissible. The first is a tendency toward antinomianism, the latter is a tendency toward legalism — both are sin. On the one end, churches in America have embraced a model of worship that is built on entertainment and not on thoughtful, Biblical worship. The man becomes the center of the stage and the gathering becomes an event. Theology takes a back seat to passion.

On the other end, we find a pervasive legalism when it comes to pet objections — things that become sin to the church, though they are not sins before God. Some denominations have taken a strong stand against ever drinking an alcoholic drink. While the Bible clearly condemns drunkenness, Jesus was known to spend time with people who enjoyed drinking and even turned water into wine at a wedding. Paul even instructs Timothy to take some wine with his meals as a remedy for his stomach ailments. Other denominations ban gambling, yet where in the scriptures is gambling condemned? Does not God ordain wherever the dice fall (Proverbs 16:33)? Did not Peter choose Mathias through a form of gambling? Certainly abuse of gambling would fall into the realm of theft from one’s own family, but responsible gambling as a form of entertainment surely cannot be condemned Biblically.

In both cases, what often happens is that some sins are condemned unequivocally while others are ignored. It is true that homosexual behavior is condemned in scripture, yet how many church leaders openly condemn homosexual behavior as immoral while ignoring the immorality of heterosexual behavior outside of marriage? Or how many speak of the first, pay lip-service to the second, and then ignore auto-erotica as immoral? Yet are not all sin before God? Isn’t any sexuality outside of that which honors the spouse in the marriage bed immoral? Shouldn’t all be equally condemned from the pulpit? When one makes an idol of self and forgets Yahweh, this happens.

Perhaps the most dangerous side-effect of forgetting Yahweh is the neglect of His word. Pet passages of scripture are upheld, but not the whole. Again, if we are to claim to be Christians, we must be whole-Bible Christians. And so, we could fairly say that much of the church in America has forgotten Yahweh, their God and turned toward idols. That means it is time to repent.

The Evil

“And the Sons of Israel did the Evil in the eyes of Yahweh; they served the Baals.”

(Judges 2:11)

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.