Evil is predominantly found to refer to anything that departs from God and his good ways established in creation and in covenant.
The shortest definition of evil is a violation of divine design. However, this does not fully account for covenant, the broad range of meaning of the lexeme רע (evil), or the role of various agencies of evil, especially humanity’s honored creation-purpose as God’s embodied representatives in the physical universe. Through examining the dialogic nature of the Hebrew text, an intricate texture emerges of the interrelationship between God, humanity, and other factors with regard to the agencies of good and evil.
Evil as Distortion
Evil is not the absence of good nor is it preexistent before the creation of heaven and earth, as far as can be observed from the text of Genesis. Evil, in human hands, is found to be the independent taking of something created as good and twisting it for self-fulfilling, autonomous purposes rather than enjoying and employing it as God intended. Thus, that which is intended for good becomes corrupt and distorted for evil. Distinction needs to be made between the agency of human and other forces, and the agency of God.
God and Evil
When God “does” evil, calamity, destruction to humans he does not act capriciously or unexpectedly. Rather, God responds to the intractable behavior of agents choosing against God and his ways, acting with lexical and behavioral justice to bring about the fulfillment of the evil humanity itself sets in motion. God holds humanity responsible as his image-bearers. God’s actions correspond to human choice according to the principles established in creation and covenant, especially the principle of consequentiality. And God often relents.
Evil and Perception
Perception and perspective are key in Genesis. There are two ways of seeing:
- Spiritual sight, seeing the world through God’s perspective to maintain creation as orderly, abundant, harmonious, fruitful (a physical representation of the spiritual world of God); or
- Physical sight alone, seeing the world through humanity’s self-focused perspective in terms of autonomous agendas, needs, and desires.
Evil and Choice
Human needs and desires can either be entrusted to God to provide, or taken by grabbing for self, independently from God. Conceptually and theologically, the themes of choice and conflict are represented by the two trees in Gen 2–3 as the contrast between the good that God created, and the evil brought upon the world due to acting upon self-centered choices.
Perhaps the most significant discovery is not the definition, meaning, or extent of evil, but the impact of human choices in response to evil. Confusion in reading the narrative often results from asking the wrong questions of the text.
Instead of asking simply what is evil and why did it happen, Genesis seems to be asking, “How will we/I/you respond to evil whenever it strikes in whatever form it takes? Will we let evil define us, overtake us? Will we let evil, bitterness, resentment, or hatred distort our behavior, or, will we master it and work in cooperation with God to overcome and reverse the devastations of evil with good?
This post was adapted from Evil in Genesis: A Contextual Analysis of Hebrew Lexemes for Evil in the Book of Genesis by Ingrid Faro (Lexham Press, 2021).