Good and Evil, Towb and Ra

Thanks for the input. I’ve read much of what John Walton has written and I find it quite valuable. For almost all of my 50 years as a Bible researcher, I made the mistake of interpreting the scriptures with my modern Western mindset. It was only about a year ago that I became acquainted with Comparative Studies, with much of the credit going to John Walton. I think doing that has increased my understanding and appreciation for the scriptures by many many degrees. It seems so obvious.

Not sure how I missed it other than that’s the “normal” way us Westerners think about virtually everything. I suppose, discounting not having been taught as the real cause, it’s because we humans tend to be egocentric. I mean, surely God wrote the scriptures to the Western mind, given our “advanced” level of knowledge. No! A million times no! The Bible was not written last year in New York or LA. So axiomatic!

Anyway, thanks again for your input. Very informative. I already bookmarked MARBLE and the Walton site you suggested.


It is very hard to get beyond your own worldview to try to see someone else’s.
Have you ever read Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes? It’s another helpful resource to start thinking about these things.

I am currently working on a conference paper with a colleague on mental models of Bible translation and the underlying values that come from them which affect our assessments of “quality.” Our whole hermeneutic approach is often shaped by the metaphors we use to conceptualize what we are doing with God’s word when we translate it. Most of the global Bible translation enterprise has worked with a Western-influenced mental model that translation is a science. So our Western understanding of what the text says is already pushed in a direction by the values that have undergirded the translations we read. It’s interesting to think about. Other cultures that approach the text and the translation task with different mental models (it’s a work of art/performance, it’s a journey, it’s a mission, it’s a dialogue, it’s a craft) produce different kinds of texts.


This made me think of a course on Plotinus where one of the constant questions put out by the professor was, “How do we remove these ideas from our exegetical glasses?”

Oh, there are lots of people saying that to one degree or another. One of my Hebrew professors used to ask, “Yes, God made that, but what did He make it for?”

I think my first real glimmer of the functionality emphasis was in reading the first Genesis Creation account in light of the fact that it closely follows the ancient Egyptian order of things, but it adds rhythm to the account by the use of days, and then within that rhythm systematically turns everything the Egyptians considered a deity to a servant of YHWH-Elohim with a job to do: sky wasn’t a god, sky was something with a task; sun wasn’t a god, indeed sun didn’t even get a name, just a job; earth wasn’t a god, indeed earth wasn’t even something for its own sake, it was a feature with a task – and so on. So when I ran into John Walton and his emphasis on functionality, it seemed familiar even though new in its directness. I still think he’s overemphasizing, though not by much; the account involved making material things, but it never talks about those things in themselves, it always talks of the job they are here to do.


Yes, I think a lot of old school professors believe you can actually completely take off “the lenses” of your own social location and culture and be objective interpreters. I don’t think that is actually possible. But we can increase our empathy for the other culture’s perspective and correct the wrong inferences that come from our own unexamined cultural assumptions.


If it’s possible at all, like it only taking a single instance of a person acting without cause for determinism to be false, is what makes or breaks a postmodern worldview.

I have no idea what you mean. People have postmodern worldviews because they are encultured in postmodernity, not because they decided at some point it was the worldview that makes the most sense. You can’t break someone’s worldview. You can only challenge it in areas where it is inconsistent with reality and then people will adjust to accommodate their learning and experience and make it fit with the rest of their worldview. But no one ever swaps out one worldview for another because they are “convinced.” That isn’t how brains or enculturation actually works.


If I’m not mistaken, logical positivism suffered a crushing defeat.

Should I explain it, or was I summarily dismissed?

I’m just saying that you are not using worldview the way the other people in the conversation are using worldview. You don’t have to understand anything about philosophy or logical postivism or determinism to have a postmodern worldview. You just need to have been born and raised in postmodernity, like myself. Nothing you say about philosophy is going to “break” my worldview. It’s deeply ingrained in my subconscious and affects how I process reality. When I say people can’t escape their social location and enculturation I am not asserting a postmodern philosophical principle, I am expressing my deeply ingrained view of reality and something I think is obviously true.


Maybe, but I am following the conversation. James Smith and Christopher Watkin have meaningfully written about this. If you have any suggestions, or specific points of clarification, I would be interested.

Of course not, but those worlds, determinism and logical positivism, are not immune to objective criticism.

I don’t see how any of this relates to Bible interpretation, translation, or lexical semantics.

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“You (plural) will be like God, knowing (determining) good and evil”?

Thanks for this reference! I had been thinking of Genesis from a modern materialistic view, so had to deal with all the reconciliation involved with that. And I had also come to the conclusion that God’s view of this created universe is from outside of space and time, so that the claim that “It was good” did not refer to just that point in time when He was finished - rather, that this universe that He created is, was, and will be (from our internal to the universe, at this particular point in time; not like God, looking at the entire duration of the universe from before, during and after) supporting His purposes for creating it. I had realized that this interpretation is consistent with God saying that “All things work together for good for those who love God.” I think my interpretation fits much better with a functional interpretation of Genesis 1 than with a materialistic interpretation.


YECers are deeply enmeshed in a modern materialistic view, specifically scientific materialism, so much so that they can’t see that they are operating from an a priori principle that for something to be true it has to be 100% scientifically and historically true. YECism is thus a reaction against having to step outside of the worldview they picked up starting before they could even read.

It’s not easy to cut loose from the worldview one was born with. When in a seminar on Colossians I mentioned in a paper I wrote that I had to remind myself about every other sentence I wrote just what the worldviews relevant to Colossians were, the professor put a marginal note that any scholar worth his salt had to do the same, it’s just that when you do a master’s degree and then PhD studying a particular worldview sometimes you only have to remind yourself once every paragraph.

So by recognizing the need to step away from the “modern materialistic view” you’re in good company; there are in fact people who got PhDs in ancient Hebrew and ancient Israelite history who never actually made that disconnection.

That’s pretty profound, and it’s another step that very few manage. It makes me think of others in the seminar on Colossians who managed to get a decent grasp of the gnosticism Paul was responding to but never escaped from seeing Paul’s response from within a modern materialistic worldview instead of managing to step into Paul’s shoes and his cultural mindset.

This is something I mentioned one day in a discussion of whether being able to connect knowledge modules to our brains via embedded computer chips would be a good idea: I said I didn’t know if it was overall good, but that I would dearly love to be able to hook up modules so filled with ancient material that I could “step over” and see the world from within the worldview of ancient Egypt or Persia or Second-Temple Judaism. The tragedy there was that several people couldn’t grasp that there is such a thing as a different worldview, so they didn’t see the point.

I remember reaching that verse in a New Testament readings course (Greek text only, of course) and the professor asking, “Was that the case always, or just after the Incarnation?” Too many students got a blank look, but the “Aha!” and “Whoa!” reactions on a bunch of faces told me I wasn’t alone in undergoing a bit if a shift in understanding.

If God cannot change, then the above declaration was true the moment God mused, “Let’s make some people in our image” – because if the Incarnation affected human nature, it affected it all the way back to the beginning.
[Totally off-topic, this is a point dispensationalists tend to totally miss, that ultimately there has only ever been one Covenant between God and man, and that is the one found in the God-Man Jesus; everything else is footnotes.]


To follow on logically: Then it must be true also that God allowed “evil” into This universe so that His purposes could be accomplished. I believe that what Jesus said to His disciples about the man born blind, paraphrased as, “Don’t bother asking why he is blind; I see someone who is hurting, someone I can help, so I will help him” is at least a partial explanation of why God allowed evil into this universe that He created. And this seems also to be completely consistent with what Jesus says about the Last Judgement in Matthew 25. He doesn’t ask the righteous whether they believe in Him or not. He says they helped the poor and needy, just because they saw someone who needed help. And He doesn’t send the others away because they were homosexual, or because they didn’t believe in Him, but sent them away because they didn’t help those in need. So maybe we are spending a lot of time and energy on the wrong questions, like whether God created evil, or evil came into this world against God’s will, when a major reason that God really put us into this world was for us to help those in need, just because we love God and love His children, our neighbors, not because we want to get something for ourselves for helping them.

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I think this approach to understanding the text by digging out source meanings of a word is flawed.


The word “energy” comes from the Greek “energiae” meaning activity or operation. Does this help in understanding the meaning of E=mc2? No.

Not only do words have a great variety of meanings but the meaning of words is rather dynamic – changing considerably in the context of both time and usage.

But… what do I personally think about this understanding of these words translated as good and evil? Better than some… I offer the following analysis of these words. God said, “I set before you life and death, therefore choose life.” Thus the good that God asks of us is to act in accordance with the dictates of life to learn and grow, while evil is to act contrary to life as our self destructive habits often lead us to do.

Deut 30:15,

See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil;

Yes, God did set good and evil before us and told us we would reap what we sowed. When we do good we get life and when we do evil we get death. Here’s the problem that comes up in the modern Western mind when we think of good and evil solely in terms of our behavior, of our morality or lack thereof: It tends to make us see God as watching us all the time and making spot decisions as to whether to reward or punish us. But that is not how God works, at least the way I see Him.

He set up a system in Genesis that according to Gen 1:31 was all good, very good to be precise. If good is taken to mean functional or workable in this context it makes sense. God set up a perfect system and then gave it to mankind to administer. God was not in charge of Eden. He delegated that job to Adam and Eve. As long as people do things that are functional then all will work to our advantage. Of course Adam thought he knew better than God what works (good, i.e., functional) and what doesn’t work (evil, i.e., dysfunctional). Adam found out quick enough that he was wrong, dead wrong as it turns out.

All of a sudden their lives changed for the worse. Things got much harder for them. Getting food became a problem. Child birth became dangerous. But did God cause all their problems by directly punishing them? I don’t think so. God, because He is a just god, had to let things play out and because Adam stuck his hand in the fire it got burnt. God did’nt burn it though. Adam bucked the system and got what God told him he’d get.

In short, the “punishment” people get when they act against that which God declared functional is organic in nature. Parents don’t burn their child’s hand when that child puts it in the fire after a judicial trial. It just happens because of the system and the way it’s set up. The “punishment” is not judicial in nature.

Instead of seeing God doling out rewards or punishments based on our behavior, I think He watches us and is constantly hoping we will do good, that which is functional. He is always rooting for us and helping us to make the right decisions. When we do evil, when we act in a way that is naturally detrimental to us, a dysfunctional way, I think it breaks God’s heart to see us with charred hands.

This paints a picture of a truly loving God that is always for us. He is not a vindictive God that punished us when we lie or steal. He told us in clear enough terms that those and all other sins are dysfunctional and will bring nothing but problems. We either believe Him or not when He says there are problems with sticking our hands in the fire and hopes we listen.

Having said all of that, I think it is true that in some contexts “good” and “evil” can be seen in a moral light. There are also other ways those words can be taken, but we must not think of all usages of those words in a purely moral way. Context, as is so often the case, is important and will help us understand that which God tells us. I think this subject leaves a lot of room for further study.

Check out this post from a linguistic expert: Good and Evil, Towb and Ra - #6 by Christy

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That is the obedience definition of good and evil which serves those who use religion for power over people: good being obedience to what they say God commands and evil being disobedience. Then it is all about this threat that God will enforce the commands by these religionists.

Clearly I go in the opposite direction to see God as being more in the role of parent and advisor, who is simply trying to teach us that our actions have consequences we have to watch out for. There is a way in which life works and going against it will only bring death.

I think good means a great deal more than just workable. A wood chipper is working properly even when it is chopping your hand to bits. I think what it meant when God said it was good, is that it was proving the things He valued – that cooperation was shown to be the most successful survival strategy. That man was very good because there was in our capabilities at least the potential to make a world which was heavenly.

I agree that there is a dysfunctionality in evil but the equation doesn’t go both ways to say that there is evil in dysfunctionality. And thus there is considerable potential for distortion in saying things in this way. So I am sorry but I don’t like it. Those who are ill or disabled are not evil simply because of dysfunctionality. And just because a system is more functional in making something work doesn’t make it good.

I think the dysfunctionality of evil is found in its opposition to the way life works. It is found in habits which are ultimately self-destructive because of logical consequences which lead to greater misery or at least to a life which is less rewarding.

The problem with the concept of “morality” is all the baggage of abused religion which equate it with disobedience to the manipulations of religious power mongers. Thus there is some need to establish a foundation for which makes sense apart from such historical misuse. I have found this foundation in dictates of life which require growth and learning, according to which we can even measure the positive and negative effects of different sorts of practices.

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This really resonates with me at the moment because I’ve been chastising myself over an encounter a few days ago: A guy on the street, obviously worn out and low on energy, asked for “a couple of dollars so I can get myself something from ”. My first reaction was to say I didn’t think I had anything to give, then I relented and actually looked in my wallet. What I’ve been chastising myself for is that usually I would actually walk to the store and ask what he wanted, but I was tired and irritable from my pup being uncooperative during his walk so I responded by taking the guy quite literally and giving him just two dollars so I could be free to drag my deficiently-obedient pup the rest of the way home.