Proper Biblical Interpretation: Episode 1–Isaiah 45:7

A misunderstanding common to non-Christians and Christians alike is the notion that the Bible may be interpreted to support any claim or opinion at hand: a kaleidoscope of words revolved magically by an individual interpreter into any pattern desired. Literally, it is true that this indeed occurs–the theological universe is littered with lifeless and nonsensical interpretations drawn from the Biblical text.

Does this leave us with a cacophony of equally valid interpretations? Are Biblical interpretations simply schoolyard yes it is, no it’s not disputes?

Well, no. Biblical interpretation is generally not that mysterious, and the reasons for the wealth of varied opinion regarding what the text actually says need to be sought after elsewhere. This is the first post in a series of posts dedicated to proper interpretation, and though I don’t intend to address the question today, as we move along, it should become clear why we have thousands of denominations and interpretations.

A good place to begin in this series is this oft-maligned verse from Isaiah:

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things. (Isaiah 45:7, KJV)

The Bible makes the claim that God is not the author of evil, as does Christian doctrine; so, as the story goes, we have a genuine contradiction on our hands. It’s not surprising, then, that later translations of the Bible alter the wording of this verse:

I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things. (NIV)

Which translation is correct? Is there an objective method with which to determine the author’s intent in this passage?

Both, and yes.

Language evolves. King James English is now 400 years old, and the word evil carried with it additional meanings not commonly utilized in the 21st century, namely as calamity or disaster. This is readily apparent and does not seem to require further defense. It could just be that both translations are correct, taken within the linguistic contexts in which they were written. Nevertheless, a cursory glance at the KJV will reveal some uses of the same Hebrew word, ra, in various place where the intent is obviously disaster or calamity, rather than evil proper, as translated by later versions:

The Lord hath made all things for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil. (Pr 16:4, KJV)

I’m not completely satisfied, though, and I’m sure many skeptics would not be either. Moreover, our larger question remains untreated. Are there objective means available to determine what Isaiah is trying to say here?

Let’s take a closer look. It perhaps might be asserted that the Hebrew word ra is found in other Old Testament texts where the meaning is quite clearly evil proper. This assertion is beyond question:

Gen 3:22–And the Lord god said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil…

Hordes of verses could be marshaled in support ra meaning evil proper. Does it follow logically, then, that ra is best interpreted as evil in Isaiah 45:7? Of course not, and any suggestion that it does logically follow is nonsense. First, any Hebrew concordance will list several meanings for ra, and list the various translations possible for the word. One example to add to the proverbs 16:4 citation above will suffice to demonstrate that ra does not always designate evil proper:

And he asked Pharaoh’s officers that were with him in the ward of his lord’s house, saying, Wherefore look ye so sadly today? (Gen 40:7)

In fact, any standard concordance will list multiple nuances in meaning for this word. For reference, follow this link: http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/Lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H7451&t=KJV&cscs=Isa*

Thus, a simple word Hebrew word search is inadequate to help us arrive at the proper meaning of ra in Isaiah 45:7. Fortunately, two tried and true principles are available to us that remove any and all doubt about what Isaiah meant, not in accordance with our pet theories or interpretations of what he meant, but pursuant to an objective standard that would compel any and all rational observers to arrive at the same conclusion.

The first is context. Isaiah begins chapter 45 with these words: “This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him…For the sake of my servant Jacob, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me.” It’s evident, then, that the “evil” God is creating in verse seven is better understood as calamity or disaster. It’s a description of the judgment of God on his people achieved through Cyrus.

This should be enough to convince both skeptic and believer alike that what Isaiah means in verse 7 is best understood by us as calamity or disaster. For the stubborn, however, there’s further, undeniable proof that God does not create evil according to Isaiah 45:7. In addition to context, it is important to recognize literary features of a text when they are present. Failure to do so leads to error in interpretation. Applicable to Isaiah 45:7 is a particular Hebrew construction known as parallelism.

There are several types of parallelism employed by Old Testament authors: synonymous, antithetical, synthetical, stairstep, and emblematic. Isaiah 45:7 is as clear an example of antithetical parallelism as can be found in the OT; without recognizing this fact, it is easy to make the basic error of claiming Isaiah states that God creates evil. Antithetical parallelism describes a relationship between opposites or contrasts. For instance, consider Proverbs 10:16, or any of several other proverbs in chapter 10: “The labour of the righteous tendeth to life; the fruit of the wicked to sin.”

This is precisely what occurs in Isaiah 45:7: “I make peace, and create evil.” What is the opposite of peace? Calamity, turmoil, disaster, war–similar to what might be delivered by Cyrus–but certainly not evil proper. Hence, the verse is properly translated in modern language as “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.” Note the antithetical structure: light/darkness, prosperity/disaster.

To claim, then, that God creates evil on the basis of Isaiah 45:7 is simply the result of improper Biblical handling, and the equivocation that results from conflation of modern English with 400 year-old KJV English. Despite rumors to the contrary, Biblical interpretation is really not all that nebulous in the overwhelming majorty of cases.

*Blue Letter Bible. “Dictionary and Word Search for ra` (Strong’s 7451)“. Blue Letter Bible. 1996-2009. 23 Mar 2009.

20 comments

  1. Beautiful, enlightening blog!!!

    Blessings, Nancy J

  2. Karla says:

    Well done. The postmodern mindset of the day tries to destroy authors intent and places the meaning of the text in the hands of the reader to decipher it as they please. Yet one of the major proponents of this kinds of literary criticism is Jacques Derrida who, upon being misinterpreted, wrote a second book explaining himself as he intended for his readers to interpret upon author intent and not based on their own choice of interpretation. When we speak or write we fully intend for what we meant to be understood by the listener and yet people come up with crazy concepts that are not practical such as the reader can interpret as they please. Then this kind of thing gets used as a means to distrust the text itself to lend objective understanding and interpretation.

  3. shemaromans says:

    Interesting, Karla. We see a similar idea in the modern public educational system through constructivist learning. One of the primary thrusts of this approach centers on the learner creating their own meaning of the content. No longer does the teacher impart knowledge for the class to absorb. Instead, the teacher–now referred to as a facilitator–guides the students to discover what they believe to be the truth. The teacher doesn’t correct the students because, as critics would offer, that action would invalidate the students’ perspectives and inhibit their learning. Although some good results from a constructivist classroom (in part in the form of hands-on learning activities (fewer worksheets!) and student-focused instruction), the outcome of this approach, if not implemented properly, encourages relativism and nurtures the demise of the importance of truth. Subjectivity merits greater worth than–and displaces–objectivity.

  4. MS Quixote says:

    How odd that Derrida would object to that of all people?

    Great comments, guys. I sense that postmodern thought and relativism will lose out, though. There just not comfortable bedfellows for Western rationalism and science. But, naturally, where they seem to remain entrenched and heavily fortified are the two places you two mention, plus a third: Biblical criticism, academia, and popular thought. I suspect there’s a reason for that…

  5. Qaite says:

    A very balanced article, I hope Atheists and skeptics alike will have enough patience to read all, they need to be educated like this. I am pained that they have ripped Bible verses as they like. Also, I have seen many websites citing this particular verse as a good claim for bashing God to have created evil. And many bible illiterates are being led astray. I hope, we, the believers will spread the word more diligently.

    They our opponents have chosen to attack us without asking the questions to the right people, I hope we will continue to answer them gently with love. God bless!

  6. MS Quixote says:

    Qaite,

    Welcome and God bless you. I join you in celebrating John Calvin’s 500th birthday, BTW. I’d join you on twitter, but I’ve never twittered. Maybe I should get an account…

    MS

  7. Cheekygadfly says:

    The existence of an “evil proper,” outside the plan of creation and will of God is inconsistent with the notion of Him being “El Shaddai.” To define evil as independent of divine design despite God’s omniscience and omnipotence suggests there were flaws God did not intend to create, but did occur.

    A past time for Jewish Biblical scholars is to make the distinction between Christian and Jewish notion of Satan, who is considered an agent of God in the Jewish tradition.

    In the book of Job, Satan had to ask permission to test Job’s faith. Nowhere in the book suggested Satan went beyond his received mandate from the Most High.

    Even Evil or in this case, as Christians perceive it, rebellion against His will have its limits, as everything is under His will.

  8. MS Quixote says:

    Well said, Cheeky…a couple of comments.

    “To define evil as independent of divine design despite God’s omniscience and omnipotence suggests there were flaws God did not intend to create, but did occur.”

    Correct, though *design* and *create* are problematic here…

    “the distinction between Christian and Jewish notion of Satan, who is considered an agent of God in the Jewish tradition.”

    The proper distinction is between *some* Christian and Jewish notions. In my strain of Christianity, Reformed, the devil is considered an agent of God. Note Luther: “the devil is God’s devil.”

    “Nowhere in the book suggested Satan went beyond his received mandate from the Most High. ”

    True, and also significant in the book are the natural calamities the devil did not have the power to perform.

    “Even Evil or in this case, as Christians perceive it, rebellion against His will have its limits, as everything is under His will.”

    I agree, “yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established,” as Westminster would put it.

  9. Jo says:

    I want to preface this that I am a humanist…I have been a non-believer for about 10 years and I am 46 now. There are some great comments on this thread…but a lot of chest beating about God…I was indoctrinated in the Christian faith quite heavily…While I have seen a multitude of apologetic material on this very verse,and a sundry of other verses…what I don’t get it is people reading the bible, can’t use simple logic to see where it errs. It is not just in the language that the problem occurs. Non believers don’t think God created evil…They see the human frailty of the text…The genuine psychology behind it. You do realize it was a human that wrote this…From many scholars it has been said that Isaiah may have been 3 different writers. Obviously he was a depressed or manic depressive person…these have all been comments that not atheist, but theologians have eluded to. As believers delude themselves and tell non-believers…oh non-believers are misinterpreting the bible and using to bash belief…I say no…most don’t do that at all. Many were devout Christians, and realized through critical thinking the inherent problems with the bible…Why do you see atheists all the time telling non believers…Keep studying the bible…. If you look at the logic of this particular passage you see the massive cognitive dissonance that this particular passage sets up. Epicurus knocked this out of the park centuries ago with all thought of a omnipotent, benevolent God. I don’t care of it is moral vs a natural disaster type of evil…If God is in charge of it and it is killing people …supposedly just the ‘bad’ ones sometimes…but other times everyone. Where is the reality check with the ignorance and arrogance of a being that would do something like that. I came to the realization several years ago…BY READING THE BIBLE…I wouldn’t want to be with such a being or many of his adherents. Misogynistic, sadistic, racist…God of the bible is all of those and more. And why is that…well cuz it was written by humans…inspired by what? And infallible being? You sure about that? That is all I wanted to say. Oh I know I know…now you are gonna say it is sad I lost my faith and you will pray for me. I say Read Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens…all three former Christians…I apologize for my informal form of grammar…Peace

  10. MS says:

    “Oh I know I know…now you are gonna say it is sad I lost my faith and you will pray for me.”

    Not at all…everyone makes their own choices. What I am going to say is that you chided me (or the comment thread, perhaps) for a lack of logic and then proceeded to douse your comment with emotionalism and appeal to authority. :) Nonetheless, I’m glad you stopped by to comment, Jo…

  11. Brother says:

    Possible explanation:
    Affirmation that God creates human beings, all of whom are evil.
    “Brute beasts made to be destroyed” etc.

  12. Len Paganelli says:

    My, my, how hard we work the machinations of our mind to make God Holy in the image of our conditioned and half conscious minds. No wonder He says “your thoughts are not my thoughts”!

    Like God needs a defense of His holiness!

    I dream of good news that a doctrinaire and ossified religion could not conceive of or submit to. I dream of a happy God who created many things not specifically mentioned in the genesis story. I dream of a God who sees evil as a necessary backdrop to his glorious redemption – not as something he shuns. I dream of a loving Father who says that at the consummation He will be “all in all” or everything to everyone. My earthly father calmed my tears telling me everything “will be all right”. My heavenly “Abba” says it and can actually bring it about and not only hope for it as my dad could only wish for.

    I dream of a Heavenly Father that knew I was finite (as the certainty of our comments seems to forget) and I needed to touch, taste and live in evil as a part of my schooling. I see Him in my dreams as wooing me in wisdom, calling me in supreme confidence that I will see His light and fulfill His Will of my accepting and properly handling His Grace.

    So this dreamer also dreams of you and me at the consummation where everything “will be all right” and we will argue no more because HE, and not our pet views, will be everything to all of us.

    I will probably never meet any of you this side of eternity. Please imagine with me that our God Created “Ra” as only a perfect creator could. One who turns evil to good and darkness to light!

    I am so happy. So be it with you!

    Len

  13. MS says:

    Greetings, Len. You are most welcome…

    I’m curious as to how your comment is exempt from the charge of machinations and pet views. Perhaps in your view it’s not exempt, but I’d be interested to hear.

  14. Spanky says:

    Because Truth is not relative among our various paradigms. If He were, we could not communicate at all, and nothing would exist save total chaos, and that is very reasonable impossible.

    We can only partly know what God has already said based on our own paths, and trials(Ra) through this short time. This in no way negates His common sense(milk food) truth, that is self-evident to us all (reasonably), as we are ALL given a measure of faith in God, and that He/Jesus is the only one who is perfectly worthy. That one faith is not from us and it is not about faiths size; but that we employ it as not just our works; but making Jesus works ours. What we do becomes not our works but His. So who is your total source of Life, and you only real strength?

    But we must all beware the counterfeit; where evil proper has a known foot print, and pattern. Mixing half-truths, that together are total lies. These say don’t look at the long term, and big picture. Evil says, “who can know?”, and so to trick you into not gathering what you can, even now. Reject the counterfeit or die; because that’s what you’d be choosing, on your own. What does God say? What did Jesus actually do, and say? Aren’t you truly scared to look; but what of ignorance? Why? Because of our pet sins. That’s the elephant in the room. That’s where reason truly ends. God’s Word isn’t missing wisdom, it’s miss interpreted by our blindsides, form our failure to repent form our own (pet) evil deeds. Sure yes! This is a mater of shear perfection and where God will never lower that bar. But all things are possible through Christ! that’s the point of Him. Only His deity. Meaning His perfection and oneness with God is our only escape, to life with Him.

    Therefore time is the very first thing, that evil proper would distract you from, and your reasonably consideration of it. For all is meaningless, without your unending life. All.

    The thing is, our sin blinds us more than we believe it does. Therefore it should be no wonder the meaning of God’s love letter is withheld form those who reject His Holy Spirit interpreter. If you can not understand temporal things, then how can you understand spiritual ones? But if you can look at the sky, and predict rain is coming in the future, then why not look for better sight to see what is happened all around you spiritually? I mean have you heard of these things called funerals? Why would you act a mere unreasonable pawn of that false doctrine, that says temporal death can only be a complete end, and say know one can know any different? There can be no sane (reasonable, logical, scientific, truthful) argument that proves anything other than completely meaningless and even now, if that lie were valid. It is not possible, and never suggests that we can’t at least start to understand. The fact that we can not now know everything, and do still stumble in no way invalidates our ability to partly know God personally, right now.

    So we are squarely back to our God made choice and freedom. Don’t let the blind tell you what the Bible says amiss. For what great surprise is that? How does that remove one iota from God’s pure Holy(perfection)? Moreover, how does man miss printing the Bible or it’s parts change it’s original MESSAGE? You what to know where God is specking. He is after your repentance. Because we do not otherwise look His direction.

    Only when people start to understand the misuse of our freedom OVER TIME, do we see then need to turn to the way Jesus did things. It’s not like we are ALL sinners. the question is if we turn from them, or vainly justify them unto our own demise.

    But you already know the very good news. Jesus already made your solution, and this is not about mans flawed church groups, for we are not the perfection of Jesus, and we change His not. This is no acceptance of manmade religion. That’s all to common, and offers no true salvation. That is only the rising “half-truth” groups of false Jesus-es). For they are many, evil at the core. Only Christ is true. Only Christ is that one recognizable harmony of His sub-truths, that we can learn (over time), do fit together in perfection. Not many. yet we will not see this without repentance, and we we not know what is actual sin, and what isn’t with his so called law of love, that divides that truth form the lies. yes life from the death. For sin is, and always will be death.

    Obviously you can never succeed without a humility to God, and to think otherwise can only consider yourself perfection, and there you own idol, or little God. Which we often fail to see in our very main problem. It is exactly the mistake of evil proper, and so do not be like evil and given to yourself(without Christ/Life). This is what Christ’s Lordship is all about, and it can be only voluntary. Because freedom is only reasonably, and universally good, regardless of its (bad) misuse. The misuse itself doesn’t make freedom a sin. It could not be true freedom, without the free choice. It’s Both before and after your acceptance, of His fullness (in heaven) of Life completely. Meaning you never stop having your choice; but you must see and act upon making your choices (your works/obedience) only His perfectly (Bible defined meaning) good ones. Thus all glory, only to Jesus the risen and living Holy Spirit of God.

    You can make it home and you will not, without the message God has already said. The Bible. You can’t understand it, without Jesus LIVING Holy Spirit. You can recognize the false messages/interpretations, when they infer the Bible (meaning) is anyone but absolute Truth. Because it is pure reason. That alone, is evidence of our perfect God. Now who says fools can show His Word to reasonably otherwise? Reasonable is as reasonable does.

  15. Spanky says:

    Yes too long, you say; but the devil is in the many details, in our soundbite only, intolerant society.

    Error fix: Of course we are all sinners, I meant to say; but in our growth, as unfinished, never forget we can be finished in Christ. Just not without getting back up and turning from our (Bible defined, not me) stumbles. Do not keep sin as our reward will be only death in that area. Failure is a wonderful thing, when you learn from it. Suffering is not good at all; but can bring you closer to God, only by continued repentance. If when we fail to TURN to God’s ways then we learn nothing, and blind ourselves by your very own choices. it’s no wonder we can’t then understand. We actually do not want to understand. We only want our own way, and no changes. That foolish action changes God, His Word, and His complete perfection not.

    The Rock is not going to move out of your way. You will. Every knee will bow to Jesus, even the lost. The truth is most will NOT make Jesus their Lord, and their time will JUSTLY be over. Life or death, you will receive your choice eternal, and you already serve one, or the other. Whether you think so, or not. The road is narrow, *and* you must get back on it, when you find yourself on the sidelines. What will you be found doing? Do you know Jesus?

    I hope you understand, you are solely responsible for your own choices, and others theirs alone, and we will reap exactly the variety we sow; but we are absolutely connected, and what you choose, either helps or hinders your family with their free choices, and even out to ALL of connected mankind. For we are the tree of Life.

  16. admin says:

    “Error fix: Of course we are all sinners”

    Yes, glad to see that fixed. Welcome, Spanky…

    “I hope you understand, you are solely responsible for your own choices, and others theirs alone,”

    I understand this to a degree, but I can’t help thinking my choices would have been quite different were I born a Mayan. This seems to me to indicate I’m not solely responsible for my choices. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.”

    Very thoughtful comment, and the length was not a problem. Thanks for your time…

  17. curious says:

    Genesis declares that in the middle of the garden is the tree of the knowledge
    Of good and evil .we note that scripture is telling us that God is the creator of the knowledge of good and evil! This knowledge became part of man. He now has the ability to do good or evil or has the knowledge to obey or disobey God. Although I think your break down is awesome, the bible is clear God is the creator of evil.

  18. MS says:

    Hey curious,

    Thanks for the kind words. Take a look at what you’re arguing here:

    “God is the creator of the knowledge of good and evil!”

    “God is the creator of evil.”

    See the problem?

  19. james says:

    Isa,45:7. Yes,God created right and wrong-FOR A PURPOSE. That purpose was to give humans free will through choices.The whole plan of redemption is to exercise our will to conform to Gods’.All things God does has purpose.Gen.2:9and Exodus 4:11 tell us there is diversity but purpose in Gods ways.God does NOT entice us to sin but has given us the choice to do whats right or wrong.As Gods people we are to maintain good ones, proving our heritage. God IS Holy,He does not do wrong. Prov.21:30.

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