“I have to go downstairs and study ‘evil’.”
I heard myself say those words to my family and laughed when the responses I received were “okay” and “sounds good”. Only within the context of a Bible Study can someone announce he or she is going to study evil and no one wonders at it!
I am continuing my study of “evil” this week. In Isaiah 45:7, God says, “I create evil”. I’ve already posted a series of studies on the Hebrew word translated “create” in this passage-which is bara-so will not repeat myself but will say I have learned enough to question what is being said here. “To make something out of nothing” is not an accurate definition of “create” and bara is used often enough in the OT where something new came into being out of already existing materials that we do not have to automatically assume God is saying He is the source of evil. What is this passage saying? In the 45th chapter of Isaiah, God is making it clear He alone is God. There is no evil power equal to Him so-looking at this passage alone-it could be He is claiming to be the source of evil. And yet, the text allows the equally valid interpretation that God alone is God and not even evil becomes part of the working out of His will: He will come inside it, make it new, and turn it into His good.
I cannot make a determination based on this single passage of scripture. I hear that done so often: a single verse or at times a fragment of a verse is taken and entire doctrines are built upon it. Any passage that refutes the established doctrine is either refuted in turn or utterly ignored. I have seen the truth of the words spoken by the Lord Jesus Christ: “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men-the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things as you do…All too well you reject the commandment of God that you may keep your tradition” (Mark 7:6-9, Isaiah 29:13).
And so, because I do not want to keep hold of what the traditions I have been part of have told me evil is and how it came into being, I began first by checking which Hebrew word is translated “evil” in Isiah 45:7. It is ra and the Strong’s number is 7451. I then checked whether the word was the same in Genesis 2 for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and, when I saw it was, I decided to read each passage containing the word ra and see what I could see. I had barely begun when I wondered which Greek words the Septuagint had in place of ra in both in Isaiah 45:7 and in Genesis 2:9. I had read that it was impossible to show a difference between kakos and poneros which are the two Greek words used to translate “evil” most often in the NT, so I checked the two passages in the OT to see if the same Greek word was used both times. It is not. Isaiah 45:7 has kaka which is the nominative/accusative/vocative plural neuter of kakos. Genesis 2:9 has poneros. I had to ask myself, why use two different Greek words to translate the same Hebrew word?
I mentioned before I had read that it was impossible to differentiate between kakos and poneros. I read that statement in the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. The first paragraph in the entry for Evil, Bad, Wickedness states: “The two main NT terms for expressing the shortcomings or inferiority of a thing (i.e. bad) and the ethically negative and religiously destructive character of a person or thought (i.e. evil) are kakos and poneros. In the NT kakos occurs 50 times and the linguistically later poneros 78 times though the LXX uses it only 50 times compared to the 300 cases of kakos. Unlike the terms dealt with under –Good, it is impossible to show any difference between these two terms. Both are used even for the personification of evil in the devil or men” (Brown, 561).
Is it impossible to show any difference between the two terms? Perhaps it is so merely looking up the different passages in our English translations. It is not impossible if we look up the meanings of the words. The full definition the Strong’s gives kakos (G2556)is: “apparently a primary word; worthless (intrinsically whereas 4190 (poneros-addition mine) properly refers to effects) i.e. (subjectively) depraved, or (objectively) injurious-bad, evil, harm, ill, noisome, wicked.” The Strong’s defines poneros (G4190) as: “from a derivate of 4192; hurtful i.e. evil (properly in effect of influence and thus differing from 2556, which refers rather to essential character, as well as from 4550 which indicates degeneracy from original virtue); figuratively, calamitous, also (passively) ill, i.e. diseased; but especially (morally) culpable, i.e. derelict, vicious, facinorous; neuter (singular), mischief, malice, or (plural) guilt; masculine (singular) the devil or (plural) sinners:-bad, evil, grievous, harm, lewd, malicious, wicked (-ness).”
For the sake of clarification, the Greek word under 4550 in the Strong’s is sapros and means “rotten, worthless, bad, corrupt”. I had to look up “facinorous” and found it means “atrociously wicked: infamous”. I admit there isn’t a massive difference between the two definitions as I’ve shared them but I found the difference becomes more obvious as I traced kakos through its familial words and poneros to its root. The root of poneros is ponos (G4190) and it means, “toil, anguish, pain.” Ponos can be traced further to penes or peno (G3993) which means, “to toil for daily subsistence, starving, indigent, poor.”
I won’t share every definition of the Greek words related to kakos: they are numbers 2549-2561 in the Strong’s concordance should anyone wish to look them up. There isn’t a great variation in meaning which is expected. What I found interesting is the Greek word kakωs (G2560). This word is the adverbial form of kakos, is pronounced kakooce, and means, “badly (physically or morally), amiss, diseased, evil, grievously, miserably, sick, sore.”
I find it utterly fascinating that the Septuagint chose poneros for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Genesis chapter 3, the ground is cursed for Adam’s sake and God says to him: “in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (verse 17) and poneros has the root meaning of “toil.” Kakos, on the other hand, has the meaning of “illness, affliction.” It is obvious to me these two words do not mean the same thing and, if word choice by the writers of the New Testament was deliberate, the passages where these words occur were meant to be read with these definitions in mind. What the different choices in Genesis 2:9 and Isaiah 45:7 mean is something to be looked at in upcoming weeks.
It is a difficult thing to leave tradition behind and look at the scripture without any preconceived bias and be led entirely by the Holy Spirit. It can be uncomfortable to “test everything”. I have already come across some difficult passages which I do not want to shrink from nor dismiss out of hand. They have been recorded in scripture for a reason. They are important to understand. I do not want to continue to interpret them as I’ve always been told they ought to be interpreted and I am not satisfied to settle for the vague answers I find in some commentaries. I want to know the truth and so I continue to pray, “Holy Spirit, Spirit of the Living God, Spirit of wisdom and revelation, continue to teach and guide me. Renew my mind and open the eyes of my heart that I might see You, Jesus, the One who is the Truth.”
Unless noted otherwise, all Scriptures are quoted from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee, 1982
Whenever I have typed kakos I am referring to the Greek word spelled with an omicron: number 2556 in the Strong’s Concordance
LXX is the abbreviation for the Septuagint
Brown, Colin, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Volume I, Regency Reference Library, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1967, 1986, Page 561
Lanier, Gregory R., and William Ross, Septuaginta: A Reader’s Edition, Volumes I & II, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 2018
Strong, James, LL.D., S.T.D., The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee, 1990