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.