Recently a friend and fellow blogger asked me a thorny question. I paraphrase:
1 Samuel 18:10 is a perplexing verse: “The next day an evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul.” “An evil spirit from God?” What’s that supposed to mean? Does God send evil spirits to us?
The short answer is No.
But if the answer is No, we have a problem. Sacred Scripture does not lie. So how do we resolve this puzzle.
The first thing we need to consider is the nature of what we call “Sacred Scripture,” which is nothing other than God’s divine word revealed to human authors. We often refer to it as the Inspired Word of God. The author of Sacred Scripture is both God, who reveals and inspires, and human beings, who receive that revelation and are inspired to transmit it in writing. The ultimate insurer of the Sacred Inspiration is the Holy Spirit, the primary author of the written Word of God. The Church, also inspired by the Holy Spirit, has the gift of discerning what writings belong to the cannon of inspired writings we call Sacred Scripture.
The involvement of the human hand in transmitting the Word of God and of the Church in interpreting is one of many examples of how God works through human instruments to reveal his Word. Why would God work through human instruments?
The short answer is because he can.
Human beings do not just passively receive God’s revelation. We are active participants in it and thus we share in God’s glory, all of which will be fully revealed to us at the end of time. In the meantime, we ordinarily learn things the way all human beings do with our eyes and ears and through experience. Another important element to keep in mind is culture.
Culture is an extremely important element in the transmission of revelation. Jesus, for example, speaks in parables to his first listeners and uses examples they can relate to, e.g., shepherds and sheep, the harvest, a banquet, a wedding, etc. Today, people do not relate so easily to things like “kings,” “candle oil,” and “camels”. But back then, people easily related to all these things. So when interpreting Sacred Scripture, we need to consider the cultural context in which it was written.
Now, what do we know about the time and culture of Saul? Most of us probably don’t know too much about it. A critical reading of the Bible can give us some clues. For example, we know that Saul was Israel’s first king. Before that the Israelites were just a bunch tribes, from a political standpoint. From our 21st Century perspective, that’s very primitive. It is difficult for us to relate to what their cultural and political situation really was at that time.
So we are not just dealing with an ancient people, but rustic tribal people, whose codes and customs seem primitive to our 21st Century mindset.
There’s the rub. These people do not think the way we do, their understanding of the world is incredibly different from ours, and so we should expect that they would express themselves differently than we do.
According to the majority opinion of biblical scholars, the Book of Samuel (1 and 2) was written between the years 630-540 BC (Bronze Age). If we analyze other Bronze Age literature, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, we quickly start notice particular literary traits that are proper of that period: hyperbole, personification and deification of forces, bizarre occurrences are personified and attributed to God or some other spirit, like an angel or a demon.
Of course, just as God works through human beings as his instruments, he also can and does use angels and even demons as instruments. The revelations to Mary and Joseph about the birth of Jesus were through an angel. Demons speak to Christ before he exorcises them. So we are not discounting the possibility that there was some sort of evil spirit “sent from God to Saul.” The problem with taking that literally, however, means that we are left with the conclusion that God torments people with evil spirits — something unbefitting of a perfectly benevolent God who could do otherwise. So let’s consider another possibility.
The author (or authors) of 1 Samuel was a Bronze Age writer inspired to transmit God’s revelation to the people of his time and culture — particularly, the Jews. The stories he compiled and wrote down were handed on to him by oral tradition over the course of hundreds of years (similarly, the Iliad and Odyssey were written around 750 BC, but Homer was a traveling bard of the 12th Century BC, so oral tradition plays an important role in the early transmission of ancient literature). These “histories” of Israel, were the Sacred Heritage of God’s chosen people, who were an ancient people, who held ancient customs and traditions.
It makes sense, therefore, that we will find the same types of literary devices in Old Testament literature that we would find in other pieces of ancient, Bronze Age, literature. The authors of those times attributed everything out of the ordinary to God’s direct influence.
Now Saul’s behavior — up and deciding to nail his faithful servant David to the wall with a spear — was certainly out of the ordinary. To suggest that Saul was overcome by his passions of envy and anger is a bit of an understatement, even by today’s standards. To the ancient writer, an incident of these proportions needs further explanation: “An evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul.” To the modern reader, this sounds a bit far fetched. Nonetheless, it is true!
Here is where the modern reader takes on the role of interpreter. We already considered some of the keys for interpretation by considering the cultural-literary context. We can now consider some of what we know from our understanding of the theology of grace.
Saul had begun to do his will rather than God’s will and that is why God opted for David over Saul as the Shepherd King who would guide his people. King Saul was thus headed for an “epic downfall.” Having chosen his sinful pride and vanity over his love for God, he was no longer in a state of grace and more subject to the throws of his passions. His wounded pride turned to anger and envy when he began to see David’s popularity rise in the sight of the people. Those festering passions gave way to rumination, and ultimately to temptation. The devil had control over Saul’s heart.
In short, God allowed Saul to be overcome by evil forces unleashed on his impure mind and soul. In Bronze Age epic terms, “An evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul,” and drove him to carry out evil deeds.
Evil does not come from God. It is the lack of the good God wills. God can allow things to happen that go against his will, but he does not make those things happen. He simply allows us to act according to our free will. When we use our will to do things that contradict God’s will, we separate ourselves from the goodness of God and subject ourselves to forces of evil.
What can we learn from reading Scripture in this way? We can now relate to this story and apply it to our own life situations. When we act out in pride, anger, and envy, what is really happening in our soul? And what is the root cause of “losing our minds” and behaving out of control, even if it is just for a short moment?
When God is absent in our decisions, we start looking for ways to satisfy ourselves, first and foremost, we become the center of our own lives, our expectations focus on making sure that everything in life is pleasing to ourselves, and ultimately, we loose peace in our soul. Having abandoned God’s will, God leaves us to our own passions, which the devil takes advantage of in order to drive us further and further from God in our thoughts, words, and actions. Like Saul, we run the risk of becoming corrupt and sinful.
Certainly, the devil plays his part. In Scripture, especially in the Old Testament, the reality of evil spirits is given a literary role. In the case of Saul, the “evil spirit from God,” is both a personification of his passion driven rage and a dramatization of real spiritual influences at work in Saul’s soul after he had abandoned God in his heart.
Is a literal interpretation also not possible? It certainly is possible. However, by entertaining that possibility we raise enormous problems, for example, how can God be the direct cause of evil events? If someone else has an answer for that question, please share it in the comments below. My answer to that question simply is that God will never be the direct cause of anything evil.
“My answer to that question simply is that God will never be the direct cause of anything evil.”
So Joshua, he and YHWH were just having friendly debates with those people? It wasn’t really genocide? I guess that book is harder to interpret than I thought.
Oh, wait, I know. The flood was just YHWH’s attempt to wash the hills down? Shame all that life had to die.
There is that story about 2 she bears… but I’m probably interpreting that wrongly too.
It says that god hardened pharaohs heart, more than once, so he sent plagues to torture and kill and force the pharaoh to give in.
when an omniscient and omnipotent creator being knows what will happen if he does not act and is fully capable of acting in any way he wishes, then all evil is a direct result of that creator being. Meh, I probably don’t understand all that omni stuff the right way either.
I see an invigorating conversation in the making. Thanks for the comment.
I will get back to you on this, but for now, a guy’s got to work in order to eat, not to mention, it’s lunchtime. So, I’ll follow up with you on this tonight. Thanks again.
Hello, my atheist life. Thanks for your patience and sorry for the delay.
I think I gave something of a paradigm for an answer to your questions in the post above, but I can assume that it wasn’t satisfactory for your purposes. If I reiterate some of what I already said, let me know why you think it does not suffice.
Joshua was commissioned with leading the people of Israel into the promised land. The inhabitants of that land were deemed immoral people. Does that mean they all deserved to die? If you are assuming that they were all innocent people, then it does seem unjust. But in fact, as the story goes, they were wicked people.
You have to consider the perspective of the believer. From the perspective of a believing Jew, we all deserve to die, because the penalty for sin is death and we are all guilty of sin. Furthermore, if we are questioning the morality of this God, then we are also assuming the existence of God. Assuming the existence of God, God has authority over life and death, because he is creator. He is also judge. He is the one who choses when and how each person will suffer the sentence of death (and everyone is under that sentence). He can use any instrument he chooses to execute that sentence. His chosen instrument for executing justice in this case was the people of Israel.
The flood if taken literally can be understood along the same lines as explained above. However, we are talking about Bronze Age authors who like to hyperbolize in epic proportions. The account of the flood was a heritage-tale handed on orally for generations among Semitic tribes until it was finally written down and added to the compilations of stories we now call “Genesis”. For the record, not all Christians are literalists when it comes to the Book of Genesis (in other words, I really do not believe there ever was a global flood and that two of every animal successfully made it onto that ark). I’m aware that this will raise more issues and accusations of cherry picking from the Bible and I’m also prepared to deal with that, if asked to do so. But the point to the flood account has more to do with God’s saving faithful people from the death of sin, a prefiguring of the waters of baptism (according to Christian interpretation), and the beginning of his covenant with his people, the continuity of which continues with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and eventually completed in the New Testament with Christ.
She bears. Two bears managed to kill 42 boys and none got away? Not likely. (Bronze age hyperbole). The moral of the story: Don’t mock the prophet.
Pharaoh’s hardened heart. Kind of like the passage we considered in this post. Pharaoh was whimsical. Wishy-washy. He says No, then Yes, then No again. Ancient authors attribute this to divine action, and in a way it is. God will let a person roll the dice for as long as they can get away with it, and in the end, he’ll let them suffer the consequences for their free actions. It’s only just.
As for all that omni stuff, that’s certainly a complicated issue.
However, the way you frame the problem allows for a solution: “when an omniscient and omnipotent creator being knows what will happen if he does not act and is fully capable of acting in any way he wishes, then all evil is a direct result of that creator being.”
Not necessarily. For example, a parent can warn a child not to touch the stove top. She can even prevent the child from touching the stove top. She can also let the child get burned so that it will learn a lesson. The kid really does not understand what the statement “fire burns” means until he gets burned. He also needs to learn that mom knows what she’s talking about, and that there are consequences for his actions, for not listening and not obeying. Now a child getting burned on the hand is certainly not a good thing. Mom has the power to prevent it and she knows what will happen if she does not prevent it. If she is the direct cause of evil in that child’s life in the event that the child gets burned, then I guess the only alternative is for mom to follow the kid around every where he goes for his entire life in order to keep the poor brat from any harm. What a wimp that child will be. I pity the woman who ends up marrying that boy.
Actually, I think that if the mom lets the child suffer from time to time it can be for the child’s own good and when the child does suffer the mom is not necessarily directly responsible for his suffering even if she had all the knowledge and all the power to prevent it from happening.
Just a small analogy to show that an all knowing and all powerful being does not have to eliminate all pain and suffering in every instance so as not to be the direct agent of an evil action or its consequences.
Here’s the thing about Joshua. YHWH promised the Israilites the land. He spoke the universe into existence so it is said. He could have simply whispered and the inhabitants of the land would simply have walked away from their homes, never to return. YHWH seems to have preferred that Joshua slaughter man, woman, child, beast, and crop… all of it. Raze the entire place, taking no trophies or spoils. This was YHWH’s order and he even assisted Joshua in this campaign of mass murder and genocide. An omnipotent being could so easily have just spoke and all would be well for the Israelites. Instead, he chose evil deeds and forced the Jews to perform them. YHWH does indeed have a sick sense of humor… commit the sins that will keep you from heaven in order to obtain what I promised you.
When you speak of perspective you have completely devalued human life, all life. This is not what Jesus was trying to teach. It is completely 180 degrees from just and loving. You claim your deity is creator and judge yet none of us has seen this deity. No, trite or anecdotal evidence does not count… unless you want to buy some land from me, sight unseen. It’s a bit east of Miami. It’s expensive, but worth every penny.
The fact that YHWH supposedly created AND condemned humanity does not absolve him from being good. See what I did just there? I made a moral judgement without a god as my backup and you do so as well. The trouble here is that what Joshua did IS evil and he was supposedly acting on the orders of his deity. A campaign of evil that an omnipotent being does not need. I do not assume the existence of YHWH. I speak of such only in relation to the holy texts of monotheistic religions based on YHWH. In the stories (and they are only stories) he propagates evil and does nothing to stop evil. If this YHWH chooses the moment and method of death for each individual, then there is no free will. Lack of free will completely negates the theme of monotheism. The story is so twisted that you can’t help but stumble when you try to justify it.
A perfect and omnipotent and omniscient god gets disappointed with his creation that he knew would disappoint him, so destroys all life while knowing that this would not work either. When is he ever going to think “oh, snap, I’ll just remove evil and all will be well” …. never I guess. He seems pretty set on blood letting and sacrifices and such. The real problem here is that you’ll justify some parts of the text but not believe in others. So, in one section you will claim god as supreme truth and good but in others, well, that’s just a story. This is really an all or nothing deal. If some parts are not true, how can you claim any parts are true inspired words of a god? You claim that the flood is a story about god saving people from the death of sin… but he has to kill all life on Earth to do so… doesn’t sound omnipotent or omniscient to me. An omniscient god would know that it would not work. An omnipotent god would not need to destroy all life but a few select. It’s got failure written all over it. YHWH failed in the garden, failed with the promised land, failed with the exodus, failed with the flood, failed over and over again. He is supposed to know everything but couldn’t stop his own failures? This does not make sense at all.
Yes, again you refer to the moral of the story implying that the bible is not literal nor to be taken as truth, rather it is to be taken as morality stories. You do understand the problem with this. Now, why is it that mocking a prophet will get you killed? Perhaps it’s related to stoning unruly children? That’s one of those kind by-laws of YHWH. More death and bloodshed. Not exactly what I’d call being ‘not evil’ if you see what I mean. This is problematic where you cherry pick which parts of the bible are true and when you rely on your interpretation of the bible as truth. Your interpretation is not the word of a god. If you can choose sin and death, then your interpretation cannot be relied upon.
==God will let a person roll the dice for as long as they can get away with it, and in the end, he’ll let them suffer the consequences for their free actions. It’s only just.==
Here you are implying that you know the mind of your god. I seriously call that into question. Revealed truth is, for all the world, no different than psychosis. At this point I’d like to point you to the story of Job. ‘Nuff said.
Here you go with the free will thing again. Do you really think that a parent WANTS their child to learn that fire burns by getting burned? If you do then you are a twisted individual. If they had anyway to teach them without a burn they would/will. An omniscient and omnipotent god has a different option but does not use it. He generally chooses bloodshed and genocide over any other option. Can you feel the love in that? He says Fear me, but I love you. When you justify that an omni-everything god doesn’t have to eliminate pain and suffering what you are doing is justifying the claim that there is a god even though life looks exactly as it would if there were no gods. You’re saying, in effect, my god is real even though it doesn’t look even a little bit like he is real. This is the point where you begin to look silly.
Despite all that you claim that your god does eliminate pain and suffering in ‘some’ instances. Perhaps you’ll grace us with a listing of such instances. All I see is death and suffering and fear and pain and threats of hell. Maybe I’m just reading the words wrong?
Thanks again. I will definitely be getting back to you on this, but again it’s a busy day, so later.
BTW, thanks for engaging me on this.
“Here’s the thing about Joshua. YHWH promised the Israilites the land. He spoke the universe into existence so it is said. He could have simply whispered and the inhabitants of the land would simply have walked away from their homes, never to return. YHWH seems to have preferred that Joshua slaughter man, woman, child, beast, and crop… all of it. Raze the entire place, taking no trophies or spoils. This was YHWH’s order and he even assisted Joshua in this campaign of mass murder and genocide. An omnipotent being could so easily have just spoke and all would be well for the Israelites. Instead, he chose evil deeds and forced the Jews to perform them. YHWH does indeed have a sick sense of humor… commit the sins that will keep you from heaven in order to obtain what I promised you.”
Yes, God could have whispered the inhabitants away. He didn’t. Now when we don’t understand how a benevolent God could do it, and since we assume the above premises to be true, we don’t judge using our limited ability. In fact, we seek to reconcile them.
From the above, I’ve seen a couple of flaws in your argument. The first thing is that the inhabitants of Canaan, far from just being wicked, they were essentially the devil’s own, by their get this… free will. God never uses us as automatons in a way that he dispels our evil ways so he can get his way done. It’s like him simply creating you to become Christian and arguing for us instead of against us without your input.
Secondly, what Joshua and the Israelites did were not evil, which is what the fallacy of presentism would suggest. Previous to entering Canaan, remember that God showed mercy to other tribes that came across the Israelites. However, in the Promised Land, he asked the Israelites to simply slaughter them without mercy. The inspired Word here was to suggest that these tribes occupying the Land were not only wicked, but completely and utterly hostile to God, who is the source of all Truth and Goodness. Thus, these people were not simply ignorant of truth, beauty, and goodness like the previous tribes, they were actively hostile towards it. Also bear in mind that in Christian revelation, the Promised Land is a precursor to heaven, which is why a man named Joshua had led the people there. Jesus, who’s name is the Greek version of Joshua, had CONQUERED sin and death to open the gates of Heaven.
“The fact that YHWH supposedly created AND condemned humanity does not absolve him from being good. See what I did just there?”
I see what you did there, it was another mistake. Yes, God created human beings and also condemns them. But he condemns them IN SPITE of creating them, he does not create them for the purposes of condemning them. See, a little reflection goes a long way!
“It’s got failure written all over it. YHWH failed in the garden, failed with the promised land, failed with the exodus, failed with the flood, failed over and over again. He is supposed to know everything but couldn’t stop his own failures? This does not make sense at all.”
Not it actually completely does make sense. It makes sense when God is the arbiter, and we are the judged. It makes no sense whatsoever when we are the arbiters, and God is the judged. We failed in the garden, Exodus, Israel, and over and over again. That is the point of the Bible; the Jews illustrated their complete and utter failure in serving God. The Christian revelation, then, is God himself sacrificing his all so that we might not have to suffer ever again.
“All I see is death and suffering and fear and pain and threats of hell. Maybe I’m just reading the words wrong?”
Completely and utterly. Just persevere, and maybe one day you will read Scripture correctly.
Thanks for weighing in! Some good clarifications and distinctions made here. Nicely done!
Interestingly, just last night during my EWC weekly prayer group, we moms meditated on this coming Sunday’s Gospel, and the issue of freedom and evil gave us all such pause for reflection. God “sent” Judas to the Last Supper. It has always bothered me so much that Judas ate the Bread of Life and walked away and betrayed our Lord, as if the Holy Eucharist were nothing. But this is what happens now too in Mass sometimes; I mention sacrilege with reverance…truly, there but by the grace of God go I. The source of the movement of evil acts is a heart grown cold and distant from God, Who is all Love. This falls under what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI calls the “mystery of iniquity.” So, my “two cents” is that, due to God-given freedom, the movement is permitted but the “source” of evil actions is never God (as you say so well). As regards this Sunday’s Gospel, it is in the wake of such darkness and sin that Christ is able to glorify the Father. We can hang our hats on this Glory–Alleluia! That is “mom theology.” Thanks for the excellent writing! Warm regards, in Christ Jesus, Sara Sullivan, Regnum Christi member, Cumming, Georgia
The wisdom of “mom theology”!!!
“The source of the movement of evil acts is a heart grown cold and distant from God, Who is all Love.” Beautifully said. Thanks for sharing your insights and fruit of your EWC reflection — How much good comes from these encounters! And warm greeting to you from just down the road, probably, here in Cumming, GA, where I currently reside — just haven’t been here long enough change my personal information on the author page yet.
“When God is absent in our decisions, we start looking for ways to satisfy ourselves, first and foremost, we become the center of our own lives, our expectations focus on making sure that everything in life is pleasing to ourselves, and ultimately, we loose peace in our soul” This part right here……this really spoke to me today. Thanks, James for a very logical, informative piece of writing.
Thanks, Terry. The life of grace in a world of distractions is a constant struggle. When we are able to keep our peace of soul, we can be sure our struggles and efforts are blessed by God. Thanks for your comment!
One of the best posts in a while, James, and that’s not to slight your recent stuff one iota.
Biblical interpretation has always been a big one for me, especially since I’m one of the only Catholics in my circle of friends since, well, forever.
This was very well-reasoned; really good stuff, partner.
(And enjoy your tête-à-tête with M.A.L. later on, and kindly let me know if Vegas is posting odds…)
Thanks, JTR. I have a line up of apologetical topics for this week. I have not been posting as regularly and some of my recent posts have been short (and sweet), because of my job search down here in GA (say a prayer, I’ve got a good fit lined up if I can sweat it through the second interview. More details later if I get the position).
Vegas Odds! LOL! I guess that will all depend on who’s the judge. In these “debates” I’m not really looking to win the debate but to give reasonable responses to objections, point out alternative points of view, and explain my own theological perspective clearly and logically to the other person’s satisfaction. Also, I want to learn to relate better to people who see the world differently from the way I see it. I think dialogue takes precedent over debate, only when people are willing to hear each other out and and learn from one another. When that happens both parties can walk away winning.
Sometimes that happens. Sometimes it doesn’t. If the odds are anywhere close to 10:1, where 1 is a successful dialogue and 10 is an unsuccessful dispute, it’s definitely worth a shot.
Agree, wholeheartedly, my friend… and I will bet that, unless he proves to be completely unreasonable, you’ll both benefit from the interaction.
Good luck on the job search, too. Are you moving, and then looking, or vice-versa?
I’m already living in the Atlanta area and I’m looking for work. I’m pretty optimistic about the job market here right now, so no worries there, but prayers and wishing good luck are always very helpful and appreciated. Thanks, JTR!
Thank you so much dear friend for taking the time to answer my question and explain it all to me. I could not wrap my mind around it and get it figured out. I kept going back to “my” tanslation of “God sent an evil spirit.” I think Terry gave an excellent added view as well. Could not of done it without you, B-U-D-D-Y! 🙂 I appreciate so much your thougtfulness and kindness, to this question and the many others I have asked you to clarify for me. Will add “a job prayer” in Rosary tonight. God Bless, SR
Thanks, SR. Thanks for your question. I decided to open up the about page for comments/questions, so that people will feel free to ask. And of course, that means you. God bless!
No, no thank you! Thanks for the opening up for the “questions” because you know I will run across something that is going to drive me insane until I can get another’s view on it. “And of course, that means you!” 🙂 God Bless, SR
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Reblogged this on Catholic Glasses.
Thanks for the reblog!
You’re welcome, Father.