We recently received a message on the Raven Foundation Facebook Page that raised a great question about God and evil. Below is the question and my response. I’d love to know how you would respond to this question!
The Question: …I’ve enjoyed your blog as well and the studies on the Bible are wonderful. I wanted to ask you about a text in Isaiah 45:7 that states that God is the author of evil. How can I interpret it with a Mimetic hermeneutic?
Isaiah 45:7: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” (King James Version)
My Response: The question about Isaiah 45:7 is such an important one and I would love to hear your thoughts on it! Part of the problem might be translation. The King James Version translated the Hebrew word “ra” as evil, but more modern translations have it as “woe”, “disaster” and “discord”. The word can be translated in many ways, but it does seem to have negative connotations. Raymund Schwager wrote a great book called Must There Be Scapegoats?: Violence and Redemption in the Bible. I think it’s the first book to take up a mimetic interpretation of the Bible. I highly recommend it. He says that in much of the Bible there is an assumption that God’s “punishment” for evil is that evil falls back upon evil doers. Schwager doesn’t specifically quote Isaiah 45:7, but he does have a long section on Second Isaiah, where verse 45:7 comes from. He says, “Yahweh himself does not punish, nor does he use other human beings to destroy evil doers. Rather, their punishment is that they become victims of their own crimes” (60). With this interpretation, God creates the world in such a way that good comes back on the good and evil comes back on the evil. So, one could say that God passively “creates” evil in allowing evil to fall back on us. Schwager writes that with this interpretation, “God’s arm strikes the evildoers in such a way that the wicked fall into the very fires that they themselves have started” (66).
That might be what 45:7 is getting at, but that idea is also critiqued in much of the Bible. In fact, it’s critiqued in Second Isaiah itself! Schwager points out that in the Suffering Servant we find something else. Here, the community’s “evil deeds fall on him” – the Suffering Servant (132). In other words, their evil does not fall back upon themselves, but instead is directed against the Suffering Servant like a magnet. Schwager then states that, “The writings of Second Isaiah contain the clearest expression in the Old Testament of the transfer of many violent actions onto one innocent individual” (133).
That these two notions are contained within Second Isaiah fits with Girard’s claim that the Bible is a “text in travail,” or struggle, over what it means for God to be God. Over the course of the Bible, we find it struggling with what Girard calls “archaic religions.” Archaic religions of sacrifice say that the gods are a mixture of both good and evil. Sometimes we see that idea in biblical notions of God, but the Bible also argues against it.
So, what’s the answer? Schwager points to Jesus who, “did not cast some universal harm back upon the heads of the many evil doers. Instead, he took this collective evil deed entirely upon himself and transformed it in his own body by his nonviolent and forgiving love” (212). Jesus is like the Suffering Servant and he reveals that the problem of evil is a human creation. God’s solution is to take the consequences of our evil and violence upon himself and forgive us in return. In Jesus we find that God causes the rain and the sun to fall on the just and the unjust alike. We usually assume that the rain is punishment for the wicked and the sun a reward for the righteous, but in that region of the world, rain is sorely needed for nourishment in the dessert, and, of course, the sun is also needed for growth. So, in Jesus God is merciful toward all. On the cross he responded to human evil with divine forgiveness and grace. So, whereas Isaiah 45:7 might say that God “creates” evil to fall back on the evil, in Jesus we see that grace falls back on the evil. That, I suppose, is good news for all of us!
It is because of Jesus and his revelation of God’s love that 1 John can make the statement “God is love” and “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” Throughout the Bible we find the teasing out of good and evil from God, so that in Jesus we can say that God is love/light without room for evil. Thus, evil is something humans create, not God.
That’s my really long answer to your really great question! When you have a moment I’d love to hear how you would respond to Isaiah 45:7.
Grace and peace,