The Danger of the Lurking Diabolical Evil Inclination

The belief in an evil inclination that is independent of the human body and that works to incite behavior that is detrimental to the body, like the similar concept of evil angels, is so widespread today among Jews and non-Jews that it is hard to accept that this curious notion does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. The concept first appeared around the beginning of the Common Era in books that the Jews rejected from their canon.

Thinking people today consider the evil inclination an unconscious natural human urge to do an act that is harmful to a person or society. These people would cringe at the idea that it is a spirit or being, a kind of devil, demon, imp, or other mischief-maker who prowls in the darkness with a divinely inspired mission to incite humans to act detrimentally. They would be shocked to think that a merciful divinity would construct such a destructive monster to ruin the divine creations. Yet this was the view of many ancients and remains the opinion of many people today.

Questions

  1. When did the concept of an evil inclination first appear in Judaism?
  2. How did the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan portray this entity?
  3. How is Satan related to the evil inclination?
  4. What were various methods that Jews used to try to overcome this diabolical force?
  5. Will the force ever be destroyed?
  6. Is the concept rational?

The First Appearance of the Evil Inclination

Some people, including the Bible commentator Rashi, Midrash Genesis Rabbah, and the Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 3, 5, of the fourth century, saw the provoking and instigating evil inclination hinted at in Genesis 8:21 in the term yetzer. After the flood, God thinks: “I will not curse the ground again because of man, even though the yetzer of man’s heart is evil from his youth, neither will I smite any more everything living as I have done.”[1]

However, this reading of the later notion of an independent goading evil inclination into the word yetzer in the biblical text is anachronistic. The plain meaning of yetzer is “nature,” as Saadiah (882 or 892-942), Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167), Chazkuni (c. fourteenth century), and others state.

The first explicit appearance of the concept of an evil inclination is in the approximately second-century BCE documents called The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. The Testaments are the purported records of the last words of the twelve sons of Jacob. The Testament of Asher advises: “If the soul takes pleasure in the good inclination, all of its actions are righteous…. But if it inclines to the evil inclination, all of its actions are wicked.” People can overcome the yetzer by their “spirit of understanding,” according to the Testament of Judah, or their good works, according to The Testament of Asher.

The book Ecclesiasticus,[2] of the same period, also reports on the existence of the malevolent yetzer: “God created man at the beginning and put him in to the hand of him that could spoil him: He gave him into the hand of his inclination” (15:14). However, “he who keeps the law can master his thoughts” (21:11).

Both of these early documents can be read to say no more than what modern science recognizes, that people have good and bad drives, but this is not how they are interpreted.

The Targum Pseudo-Jonathan: More Explicit

These somewhat innocuous statements are expanded into diabolical depictions in the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan. This Targum, or translation, is one of three extant full Jewish Aramaic translations of the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch. The precise date of its composition is unknown, but it was probably written between the seventh and ninth centuries. It is more than a translation; it is spiced with a wealth of midrashic material, including folk mythology, much, but not all, of which it derives from rabbinic Midrashim and the Talmuds. It mentions the evil inclination frequently. It does not contain a complete and organized theology on the yetzer, but only incorporates material that the translator felt the biblical words he was translating suggested. The following are some examples:

  1. God is responsible for the evil inclination. He created human beings with two yetzers, one good and one bad (Genesis 2:7).[3]
  2. People can manipulate and control their evil yetzer, but if they do not the consequences are dire. “If you will mind your actions in this world, everything will be forgiven you and will be pardoned in the world to come. If you do not mind your behavior in this world, your sin will be preserved for the great Day of Judgment. He [the yetzer] lurks at the door of your heart. But I have given the evil yetzer into your hand. You may rule over him for good or for evil” (Genesis 4:7).
  3. God watches the behavior of the yetzer, “for their evil inclination is revealed before Me” (Deuteronomy 31:21).
  4. On occasion, it appears as if God becomes involved and strengthens the evil power of the yetzer, for God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and Pseudo-Jonathan defines “heart” as the yetzer (in Exodus 4:21 and eleven other verses).[4]
  5. The Targum sometimes personifies the yetzer as a diabolical being unconnected to the human body, even the devil itself. The evil inclination is Satan who enters Eden, insinuating himself into human affairs at the onset of creation as the first couple is enjoying Paradise, enticing Eve to eat the forbidden fruit and precipitating the fall of God’s first humans (Genesis 4:1).
  6. Satan is dissatisfied with bringing destruction by speech alone. He has intercourse with Eve. She conceives and Cain is their child (Genesis 3:6).
  7. This “evil inclination,” Satan, is not even satisfied with degrading and destroying humans through seduction. In Genesis 22:20 he sinks to the depth of evil when he shocks the matriarch Sarah to death with the lie that her husband Abraham killed their son Isaac.
  8. Satan is an expert in manipulating crowds. When Moses ascends Mount Sinai to bring the glory of the Law, the Decalogue, to the weak and susceptible erst-while slaves, Satan takes advantage of their condition and misleads the masses to believe that Moses was killed on the mount. They accept the deception as truth and build a successor substitute leader, the golden calf (Exodus 32:1).
  9. An amicable and convivial seducer, Satan entices some of the Israelites to dance. As Moses descends Mount Sinai, he sees Satan dancing among the multitude who worship the inanimate calf (Exodus 32:19).
  10. Aaron defends the worshippers to his outraged brother. He pleads with Moses, saying that they are basically good people, but “the evil inclination led them astray” (Exodus 32:22).
  11. Aaron also defends himself. He explains that all he did was toss gold into the fire, hoping it would melt, but “Satan entered it (the fire) and the image of this calf emerged from it” (Exodus 32:24).
  12. Satan leads his execrable life not only in the bodies of humans and in their outside daily affairs, but even in heaven, where he battles against Israelite interests. Feeling that God needs a reminder and that Jews should be punished for deeds committed by their ancestors, Satan ascends to heaven, Pseudo-Jonathan informs us, to remind God constantly of the Israelite sin with the golden calf (Leviticus 9:2) and the brothers’ sin for the sale of Joseph (Leviticus 9:3). In fact, Pseudo-Jonathan is one of the sources that maintains that the New Year holiday’s shofar sounding was instituted to confuse and frighten Satan so that he will not persist in making similar accusations during this holiday when God is judging the Jewish people (Numbers 10:10 and 29:1).
  13. Pseudo-Jonathan notices that various kinds of animals were used as sacrifices. Why was the goat offered? The Targum answers in Leviticus 9:3, “Because Satan is similar to it, [and] so that slander not stick to you concerning the goat kid that Jacob’s sons killed [to spread upon Joseph’s coat as proof that he had been killed].” The translator continues in 9:6, “Remove the evil inclination from your hearts, and immediately the glory of the shekhinah of the Lord will be revealed to you.” (It is possible that, like Nachmanides’s commentary on Leviticus 16:8, Pseudo-Jonathan sees the goat as a bribe to Satan so that he will not accuse Israel. It is also possible that the translator is saying that when God sees the goat, which is similar to Satan, He will remember not to listen to his libel.)[5]
  14. There are other biblical passages in which the translator sees reminders to the Israelites to be continually aware of “the strength of [their] heart’s evil inclination” (such as Deuteronomy 29:18) and there is an ever-likely possibility of humans falling victim to the evil inclination (as in the Targum to Genesis 4:7).
  15. According to the Targum, the nature of people will ultimately change in the messianic age. God “will remove the folly of your hearts and the folly of the hearts of your children. He will make the evil yetzer cease from this world, and will strengthen the good yetzer that will counsel you to love the Lord your God with all your hearts and all your souls, that your lives may last forever” (Deuteronomy 30:4–6).

Summary

The concept that there is a vicious drive either within or outside humans that is seeking to lead them astray and even harm them – the concept of an evil inclination – is not explicit in the Bible, although some writers attempt to see it in Genesis 8:21. However, others define the term yetzer in the passage as “nature.”

It was not until the second century BCE that, because of outside pagan influences, the yetzer was first conceived as an independent evil force with a sinister mind of its own. The notion spread swiftly and became a basic belief of not only the uneducated folk, but of such prestigious Bible commentators as Rashi and Nachmanides. In fact, there were soon few books on Jewish thought that did not mention the evil inclination and warn people about its power.

In the midrashic Aramaic Bible translation Pseudo-Jonathan, what was once seen as an inner urge burst forth as an independent diabolical force. The urge was fused with the concept of Satan, another pagan notion that had become part of folklore, and the evil inclination and Satan became one.

The Pseudo-Jonathan translator understood virtually every wrongdoing committed by humans in the Bible – whether by individuals such as Eve or by the masses of Jews in cases such as the worship of the golden calf – as being the result of the incitement of Satan. Satan, thought the translator, was not satisfied with his nefarious twisting of the human mind; he also attempted to persuade God to harm the Jewish people. But, the translator offered hope. The evil inclination in all of its forms, he asserted, will be destroyed in the messianic age.

This non-scientific folk view that anthropomorphizes and personalizes the natural human urge, turning it into a substitute of the demon, is anathema to Maimonides, who insisted that people work hard to understand the true nature of the world and labor daily to improve themselves and society. The yetzer concept encourages people to be passive in the face of what they are told is a divine evil force against which they have no real power. It bolsters the notion that evil will cease in the future by a miraculous supernatural event that will transform nature and prompts people to adopt childlike acts and magical rites to overcome daily problems, like those I mentioned in the past when Jews attempted to fool Satan and ruin his diabolical plans.

Notes:

[1] While this verse is generally understood as saying that people are born with an evil inclination, this notion is contrary the explicit biblical statement in Genesis that God saw all that was created and saw that it was good. A better understanding is one that fits the context where the statement is made. During the days of Noah, before the flood, God saw that while all that was created is good, the people of that generation perverted their nature even from an early age (not birth).

[2] Which should not be confused with Ecclesiastes, which is part of the Bible. Ecclesiasticus, like the formerly mentioned books where written during the period between the last book of the Hebrew Bible and the first book of the New Testament, and were not included in in the Hebrew Bible.

[3] According to the mystic Bachya ben Asher (in his commentary to Genesis 8:21) and others, the evil urge enters the male body at birth, while the good urge does not enter until age thirteen. This, according to them, is the reason a male child is not punished for the wrongs he commits until age thirteen. Ben Asher does not address the female child. This notion of an evil inclination entering at birth is contrary to Maimonides’ view of humans and nature generally, that all God’s creations are good. The notion is in all probability an outgrowth from an unconscious absorption of Christianity’s idea of “original sin.”

[4] The ancients were convinced that the heart is the source of thinking, not the mind. This verse should be understood as saying, God (meaning the laws of nature) hardened Pharaoh’s previous ideas concerning the Israelites (because he had developed habits of thinking in this way and acting upon these foul thoughts).

[5] This idea and notions similar to it depict God as a weak-minded monarch who can be easily deceived. While this is outrageous, it is the way many ancients thought.