The word Evil in the Bible [רַע] Searching the Scriptures Series


We have repeatedly said that it is an error to always translate the same word in the original language to the target translated language. All you have to do is open your English dictionary to almost any page to see that most words have multiple senses, depending on their context. Some words have over a hundred meanings. The average word in English, according to one source, has over 2.5 senses.

In Genesis we read: “And Jacob said unto Pharaoh, The days of the years of my pilgrimage are an hundred and thirty years: few and evil have the days of the years of my life been, and have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their pilgrimage” (Genesis 47:9). For a long time, I wondered why the great patriarch Jacob would say, at the end of his life, that his years had been few (130 years) and evil. The word few was in contrast to how long his ancestors lived. But why would Israel say his days had been evil?

As I studied Isaiah, I came across a verse that at first also seems difficult to understand: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). A better understanding of this verse permits us to understand Jacob’s words. In both of these cases, the Hebrew word רַע would be better translated as tribulation.

And so we very appropriately have the word evil translated as calamity in a number of versions. Jacob’s life, then, was full of tribulation or calamity. And in Isaiah it is clear that the Lord does not bring about evil, but rather permits tribulation. These calamities are nothing but a blessing to mankind, to help us remember our God and to be faithful and true. In the Rain in Due Season chapters, such as Leviticus 26, the Lord makes it clear that the punishment will be multiplied by seven if Israel does not obey. As it turns out, the worst thing that could happen to us is for tribulation to be completely removed from our lives.  

There are a number of other places where רַע (or the feminine רָעָה) would be better translated as tribulation. Just a few examples might include Genesis 19:19 (lest some tribulation take me, and I die); Deuteronomy 31:17 (Are not these tribulations come upon us, because our God is not among us?); Deuteronomy 31:29, where the word evil is used twice in the translation but I only retain one of them (And tribulation will befall you in the latter days; because ye will do evil in the sight of the LORD); 2 Samuel 19:7 (and that will be worse unto thee than all the tribulation that befell thee from thy youth until now); Job 2:10 (What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive tribulation?) and Isaiah 57:1 (The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart: and merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away from the tribulation to come).

Just in case, I love the King James Version of the Bible and there is not another translation, excepting the Inspired Version produced by the Prophet Joseph Smith, that matches its beauty and correctness. This is not to say that other versions, from time to time, do not have more accurate translations of specific verses.  


When it comes to the word evil, or רַע, there are also a number of mistranslations where the JST corrects the verse. Two such examples are found in 1 Samuel 18:10 and 1 Samuel 19:9.


A few years ago, I taught Pathway in the Puerto Montt Stake. One of the lessons we learned was the importance of learning new vocabulary through looking up words in the dictionary. Another, just as vital, was learning to first guess what a term might mean given the context in which it was placed, before looking the expression up in the dictionary. This is a very useful exercise in Hebrew, also. We can look up every instance in which a word, such as רַע, appears in the Old Testament, and study it out before looking it up in the Lexicons.

Searching the Scriptures Series

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