Urban Legends of the Old Testament: Radical Islam Has Inherited Ishmael’s Violent Spirit (Genesis 16:12)

Editor’s note: This piece comes from an upcoming book by Gary Yates and David Croteau, Urban Legends of the Old Testament, a sequel to Urban Legends of the New Testament.

The dismissal of Hagar  by  Pieter Pietersz Lastman .

The dismissal of Hagar by Pieter Pietersz Lastman.

He shall be a wild donkey of a man,
his hand against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.
— Genesis 16:12

The Legendary Teaching on Ishmael and His Descendants

Abraham’s lack of faith and patience that led to the birth of Ishmael through Hagar is the cause of the perpetual conflict between Arabs (the descendants of Ishmael) and Jews (the descendants of Isaac) in the Middle East today. The Bible informs us that the conflict between Ishmael and Isaac would be never ending. Arabs, as the descendants of Ishmael, have inherited his rebellious (“like a wild donkey”) and violent qualities (Gen 16:12), and the existence of radical Islam and violent jihadism is proof that “the spirit of Ishmael” still exists among Arab peoples today. 


Countering the Legendary Teaching

The portrayal of Ishmael as a “wild donkey” conveys a positive message that even resembles the portrayal of the twelve tribes of Israel in Genesis 49. The Bible never prophesies a perpetual conflict between the sons of Isaac and Ishmael, and Ishmael’s descendants even have a vital role in the working out of salvation history and a share in the covenantal blessings given to Abraham and extended through Isaac.


Birth Announcement and Hope for an Oppressed Woman

The declaration that Ishmael would be “like a wild donkey” in Gen 16:12 appears in the context of a birth announcement designed to offer hope and encouragement to a beleaguered slave. Tony Maalouf explains, “Having been the recipient of a special revelation from the ‘God who sees’ everything and cares for everyone, it would become much easier for Hagar to accept her circumstances.”[1] The angelic announcement concerning Ishmael in Gen 16:10–12 was a positive message concerning the future of Hagar’s son.

Readers today understandably read “like a wild donkey” as an insult. Referring to someone in this way in our culture would likely lead to an angry confrontation. Comparing someone to a donkey might seem to convey the qualities of stupidity, stubbornness, or contentiousness. As part of this comforting announcement to Hagar, however, the image likely is a promise that Ishmael and his descendants would enjoy the freedom and independence of living as roving nomads, in spite of the difficulties that such a lifestyle would also entail.

The term wild donkey (pere’) appears only ten times in the Hebrew Bible. It is not always clear whether the connotations associated with the wild donkey are positive or negative. The prevailing ideas associated with this animal appear to be “freedom, isolation, and wilderness habitat.”[2] Gordon Wenham states that the wild donkey is a figure for “an individualistic lifestyle untrammeled by social convention.”[3] The wild donkey lives in barren areas (Job 24:5; Isa 32:14; Jer 14:6; Hos 8:9). In Job 39:5–8, the wild donkey lives in the wilderness and laughs at the noise of the city and, unlike his domesticated counterpart, never has to endure the abusive commands of a taskmaster.

            The second statement about Ishmael in Gen 16:12 does refer to hostilities that would exist between Ishmael (and his descendants) and surrounding peoples. The Hebrew reads: “hand-to-hand with everyone and everyone hand-to-hand with him” and is somewhat ambiguous in meaning because of the lack of a verb. Nevertheless, in twenty-seven of the thirty-three instances in which the noun hand (yad) is followed by the preposition be (“in, on, upon, against”) that has a person, people, or inhabited area for its object, the sense is adversarial and denotes conflict (e.g., Exod 7:4; Josh 2:19; 1 Kgs 11:26–27).[4] The NET Bible even reads, “He will be hostile to everyone, and everyone will be hostile to him.” A people at perpetual odds would seem to be disagreeable and violent, but this statement needs to be read in light of the surrounding context. We have two other important uses of “hand” in this context that inform our understanding here. In Gen 16:6, Abram says to his disgruntled wife Sarai concerning Hagar: “your slave is in your hands” (be + yad) and that she could do with Hagar as she wished. Sarai then mistreats Hagar so that she flees from Abram’s household. In verse 9, the angel of the Lord instructs Hagar to return to Sarai and to submit “to her authority” (tahat + yad; lit. “under her hand”).

The statement in verse 12 about Ishmael’s “hand” being against everyone should then be understood at least in part as a promise of the reversal of Hagar’s powerlessness in verse 9. Ishmael would not be subjugated to others in the way that Hagar was to Sarai, and he would have the strength to stand up to others when wronged. Maalouf explains, “Constant roaming of the bedouin tribes in the desert, with no established legal system and clear civil law code, put them in a state of conflict with each other, and set others against them for fear of their raids, since nomads dislike the settled life.”[5] The point is that Ishmael would be able to contend for himself in these disagreements and confrontations.

The final statement concerning Ishmael in verse 12 that he would “settle near (‘al pene) all his relatives” is also open to interpretation. Because ‘al pene does have an adversarial sense in other passages (e.g., Job 1:11; 6:28), some English translations (NIV, NRSV, NLT) view this statement as also referring to perpetual conflict between Ishmael and his neighbors The NIV reads that Ishmael “will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” The preposition ‘al pene more often has a spatial nuance and likely refers in Genesis 16 to how Ishmael would live away from other peoples because of his Bedouin lifestyle. The fact that ‘al pene has this spatial meaning in Gen 25:18 with reference to Ishmael’s descendants suggests the same meaning is intended here.[6] This last description of Ishmael says nothing about violence or hostility.

            The announcement that Ishmael would be like a wild donkey parallels the depiction of a number of the tribes of Israel in Jacob’s blessing of his sons in Genesis 49. Judah is like “a young lion” (v. 9), Issachar “a strong donkey” (v. 14), Dan “a viper” (v. 17), Naphtali “a doe set free” (v. 21), and Benjamin “a wolf” (v. 27). The portrayals of Judah and Benjamin as a lion and wolf are violent in nature and would seem to depict these tribes as violent—predators tearing apart their prey (vv. 9, 27). Judah would subjugate his enemies so that the nations would give obedience to him (vv. 8, 10), and this promise ultimately points to the dominion of the house of David and the future Messiah. Under attack from archers, Joseph’s bow would be strong and agile (v. 23).[7] Military strength would be essential for Israel’s survival and security as a nation in the violent world of the ancient Near East. These portrayals, however, do not infer that Israel was a vicious, warmongering people, and we should avoid drawing similar conclusions about Ishmael and his descendants on the basis of Gen 16:12. We would not suggest from Genesis 49 that the “spirit of Judah” or “spirit of Benjamin” is responsible for the present-day conflicts in the Middle East.


Isaac and Ishmael in Perpetual Conflict?

Christopher Heard notes that, contrary to popular opinion, the Old Testament never prophesies perpetual animosity between the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac.[8] The two brothers are never in conflict as adults and join to bury their father in Gen 25:9. Isaac subsequently lives near Ishmael, suggesting cordial relations between the two. Joseph’s brothers sell Joseph into slavery to a caravan of Ishmaelite traders who take him to Egypt (Gen 37:25–29), but Joseph’s own brothers are the ones who act in hatred. Only two passages in the Old Testament refer to Ishmaelites committing acts of violence against Israel. Ishmaelites carry out raids against Israel during the time of Gideon (Judg 8:24), and Ishmaelites and Hagrites are mentioned as enemies that conspire against Israel in Ps 83:6. Heard writes, “Although Christians commonly claim that Isaac’s and Ishmael’s descendants have fought constantly since Isaac’s birth, it is hard to sustain that claim with biblical evidence.”[9]


God’s Blessing of Ishmael and His Descendants

Ishmael is not the promised child through whom God’s covenant promises to Abraham would be fulfilled, but this fact does not minimize God’s blessing of Ishmael or negate his redemptive concern for Ishmael’s descendants. The circumcision of Ishmael in Gen 17:23 demonstrates that he was included in the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. The name Ishmael (“God hears”) is testimony to how God had been attentive to the cries of Hagar when she was alone in the wilderness after Sarai sent her away when Hagar was with child (Gen 16:11). The promise that Ishmael would have many descendants (Gen 16:10) parallels the promises to Abraham that he would have numerous offspring (Gen 15:5; 17:20; 22:17).

The blessing of Ishmael would in fact help to bring fulfillment of specific covenant promises to Abraham—that he would be the father of many nations (Gen 17:4–5) and that all nations would be blessed through Abraham (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18). Isaiah 60:6–8 specifically mentions the inclusion and participation of Ishmael’s descendants (Midian, Kedar, Nebaioth; compare Gen 25:13; 28:9; 37:28) in the future kingdom when the nations stream to Zion to worship the Lord. Ishmael’s descendants will bring their wealth as tribute to the Lord and their flocks and herds for sacrifices to the Lord.

            Other specific literary features in Genesis point to favorable and sympathetic readings of the characters Hagar and Ishmael. The birth announcement from the angel concerning Ishmael is the first of such annunciations in Scripture, and similar annunciations in the Old Testament anticipate the birth of a special or promised child (including Isaac, Samson, and Samuel). Hagar’s experience when God intervenes to deliver Ishmael from death in Genesis 21 parallels Abraham’s as he prepares to offer Isaac in Genesis 22.[10] Both Hagar and Abraham take a journey to a desolate place, and both hear an angel from heaven announcing God’s intervention on behalf of their sons (Gen 21:17; 22:11–12). 

 The depiction of Ishmael in Genesis also invites comparison with Joseph in that both are expelled from their home because of their master’s wife.[11] Sarah expels Ishmael because she observes him “laughing” (mocking?) (tsahaq) at the feast for Isaac’s weaning (Gen 21:8–10), and Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph of attempting to rape her and thus “mocking” (tsahaq) his master’s house (Gen 39:14–17). In spite of their unfair treatment, both young men prosper because God is “with” them (Gen 21:20; 39:2, 21). These favorable comparisons with other individuals who are part of the covenant people of God suggest that we should also view Hagar and Ishmael as positive characters, not as the ancestors of Israel’s perpetual enemies.



Christians have often used wrong interpretations or simplistic readings of Scripture to justify prejudice or hatred toward specific groups of people. Identifying the mark of Cain in Genesis 4:15 as the curse of black skin or equating Native Americans with the Canaanites to justify their extermination are two prominent examples of such readings. Attributing the conflict in the Middle East to “the spirit of Ishmael” or the lack of evangelical compassion toward Arab refugees in our current environment reflects a similar misreading of the Bible. The genealogical relationship between Ishmael and present-day Arabs is complex to begin with, and the statement that Ishmael would be “like a wild donkey” in Gen 16:12 does not characterize Arab peoples as violent. Ishmael plays a strategic role in the working out of God’s plan to bless all nations through Abraham (Gen 12:3), and the descendants of Ishmael will be among the people of God “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). Loving the descendants of Ishmael is a reflection of the heart and character of God himself.


Annotated Bibliography


 Maalouf, Tony. Arabs in the Shadow of Israel: The Unfolding of God’s Prophetic Plan for Ishmael’s Line. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2003. Helpful treatment from an Arab Christian of the role of Ishmael and Arab peoples in the working out of God’s kingdom purposes.



 Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 1–15 and 16–50. Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017). Scholarly evangelical commentary with two volumes on Genesis, here presented as one volume.



 Heard, Christopher. “On the Road to Paran: Toward a Christian Perspective on Hagar and Ishmael.” Interpretation 68 (2014): 270–85. Argues for a more charitable Christian reading of the figure of Ishmael.



 Rishmawy, Derek. “I Am Not Abraham’s Mistake.” Patheos, Christ and Pop Culture (blog). February 27, 2013. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture/2013/02/i–am–not–abrahams–mistake/. Argues that popular evangelical theology about Arabs often contradicts biblical teaching.



[1] Tony Maalouf, Arabs in the Shadow of Israel: The Unfolding of God’s Prophetic Plan for Ishmael’s Line (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2003), 65.

[2] R. Christopher Heard, Dynamics of Dislection: Ambiguities in Genesis 12–36 and Ethnic Boundaries in Post-exilic Judah, Semeia Studies 39 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001), 69.

[3] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 11.

[4] Heard, Dynamics of Dislection, 69–70.

[5] Maalouf, Arabs in the Shadow of Israel, 72.

[6] Heard, Dynamics of Dislection, 72.

[7] A strong case can be made for an alternate reading of Gen 49:22 that translates the verse as depicting Joseph as the “son of a donkey” (ben porat) in a manner that recalls the depiction of Ishmael “like a wild donkey” (pere’ ’adam) (rather than “a fruitful vine”). The noun son (ben) is never used with a plant elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible but does appear with animals (Gen 18:7; Ps 29:6). See S. Gevirts, “Of Patriarchs and Puns: Joseph at the Fountain, Jacob at the Ford,” Hebrew Union College Annual 46 (1975): 35–49.

[8] Christopher Heard, “On the Road to Paran: Toward a Christian Perspective on Hagar and Ishmael,” Interpretation 68 (2014): 276–77.

[9] Heard, “On the Road to Paran,” 279.

[10] For fuller development of the Hagar-Abraham parallels, see S. Nikaido, “Hagar and Ishmael as Literary Figures: An Intertextual Study,” Vetus Testamentum 51 (2001): 221–29.

[11] Nikaido, “Hagar and Ishmael,” 232–41.

Evil in the Book of Job

Job and His Friends  by Ilya Repin (1869)

Job and His Friends by Ilya Repin (1869)

Job is an excellent, and terrifying, book, and through it we can learn much—if we have the fortitude to patiently endure its deeper lessons.

While there are many small lessons throughout the book, there are three main things I believe we should learn from Job:

1﷒     The righteous will suffer, and sometimes they will suffer because of their righteousness—just like our Savior.

2﷒     Even though Job was “blameless, upright, fearing God, and turning away from evil,” he still had faults that needed to be corrected.

3﷒     God cares enough about his children to perfect and prepare them for perfect fellowship in the ages to come.

Lesson 1: The Righteous Will Suffer

God brags about Job—wouldn’t it be awesome if the same could be said about us. And, as the first two chapters of Job make clear—he was in a right relationship with God. The author introduces him as one who was “blameless, upright, fearing God, and turning away from evil.” The Lord amplifies this when He speaks of Job saying, “there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” And to seal the deal, even The Satan (The Accuser) does not have anything to accuse Job of, he only has an assumption of what Job might be like given the right circumstances.

There should be no debate at this point in the story, Job was in a right relationship with God. And because of Job’s right relationship with Him, God supernaturally protected and blessed him. The Accuser complains that The Lord had built a hedge of protection around Job where he could not break through and wreak havoc; however, The Accuser was certain that if The Lord removed this protection, and if Job’s material blessings could be taken from him, that Job would “curse You to Your face.” In other words, The Satan accused Job of being righteous not because of his character—who he was, but only because of the good stuff God had given him—what he got. The accusation is: Job gave obedience only because he got good stuff from God.

Now comes the first terrifying part of the book—especially for those readers that are in a right relationship with God and that are living a somewhat comfortable life—God removes His protection from Job. With this, The Accuser is now free to bring about destruction in Job’s life and to test/prove the quality of his character. One important thing to remember at this point is that while Job was righteous he was not sinless. Later in the book Job will confess that neither he nor any other human who had lived to that point was sinless before God. Just as believers in Christ are in a right relationship with God while none of us are sinless, so it was with Job. Also, as we learn in Colossians, Job (like the rest of us) was born into the “domain of darkness” where the “god of this age” has significant freedom to inflict its inhabitants. The Lord’s hedge of protection about him was not something that Job earned but a grace gift that God freely bestowed upon him. God in His righteousness could have withheld all of these material blessings and Job’s life could have been filled with pain all along, but because of the free gift of God it was not.

In his first severe test Job understands this. After his properties and possessions and children are all taken from him Job responds,

         “Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
         And naked I shall return there.
         The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away.
         Blessed be the name of the LORD.”

Once The Accuser had his first restrained access to Job (The Lord still protected Job’s person), he violently removed all of the things that he believed accounted for Job’s righteous behavior. But as we just saw from Job’s amazing response, the first test only proved God’s point and Job’s character—Job was righteous and that there were none like him.

The next time The Accuser stands before The Lord, God again brags about his servant Job and highlights the fact that Job’s love for God was not based upon the material blessings He had given him. Not one to be dissuaded by the facts, however, The Accuser makes his next accusation: Job really only loves you because you have given him health, if that is removed he will “curse you to your face.” And with this, the second phase of Job’s testing begins.

The Accuser now is granted more access to Job (although still not unrestrained) and uses the opportunity to inflict Job with “sore boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.” After inflicting this state of constant pain, The Accuser caps his attack against Job by using what should have been Job’s last source of comfort—his wife—against him. The Accuser incites Job’s wife to try to help bring about his prediction. In her pain, she tells Job to “Curse God and die!” But even through this extreme testing, “Job did not sin with his lips.” Job has withstood the examination and his righteous character has been fully tested and proven.

Now, if the main point of the story was to show Job’s faithfulness in passing the test, I would have expected the story to have immediately jumped to Job 42:10: “The LORD restored the fortunes of Job…,” but given the extra forty chapters between where we are and that point in the book, it looks as if the main point of the story is still to come. So while we will have to dive in deeply to get to the main point, we have already learned some important lessons.

First, we learned that this is the type of universe where, even though a perfect Judge sits as sovereign, the righteous can still suffer. If the story of Job is looked at in isolation, this is true but not very comforting. However, if we look at this story (as we should all of the Old Testament) as a pointer to Jesus in some way, then we can learn an important theological truth: If the sovereign, righteous God never allowed the righteous to suffer on the earth, then Jesus—the Righteous One—would not have been allowed to suffer and die in our place. Jesus was the only sinless person, the One who justly should never have experienced the suffering brought about by sin; however, He suffered extensively (in our place). The atonement requires innocent suffering and Job shows that this is possible. This is a profound lesson we need to learn from Job (and it is one Job’s friends needed to learn also).

Second, the book of Job doesn’t directly answer the question: Why do the innocent suffer?—and, there is no single answer. If it did, the best potential answer offered would be because God was bragging about them. If this was the main point, the story could have happily ended by pasting the end of chapter 42 onto the end of chapter 2. Also, I don’t believe that The Accuser tricked God into allowing Job to be tormented. While a simple reading may seem like The Satan got the best laugh when God said, “although you incited Me against him to ruin him without cause,” God’s omniscience—and the other forty chapters in the book—lead me to believe there is a deeper story. God allowed this initial test not only to prove Job’s character via a trial (which it did), but as we shall also see, this was just the first phase of the greater test that Job was about to face.

And this point leads us to the third lesson: Even though Job was in a right relationship with God, and he was proven through trial to be “a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil,” Job still had a character flaw that needed to be purged. In the next article we will see that while he was righteous, Job had a defective theology and that this in combination with a character flaw would lead him to act foolishly, but only under certain circumstances.


Dave works in the software industry and has a background in both biology and computer science. He has interested in both of these areas, especially where they intersect. He holds a B.S. in Biological Sciences from UC Irvine, an M.S. in Computer Science from West Coast University, and an M.A. in Apologetics from Biola University.



Dave Sidnam

Dave works in the software industry and has a background in both biology and computer science. He has interested in both of these areas, especially where they intersect. He holds a B.S. in Biological Sciences from UC Irvine, an M.S. in Computer Science from West Coast University, and an M.A. in Apologetics from Biola University.

Urban Legends of the Old Testament: God Created Evil

God Created Evil

Isaiah 45:7

Editor’s note: This piece comes from an upcoming book by Gary Yates and David Croteau, Urban Legends of the Old Testament, a sequel to Urban Legends of the New Testament.

The Legendary Teaching on Isaiah 45:7

Isaiah 45:7 teaches that God is the cause of moral evil in our world. The KJV of Isaiah 45:7 reads: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create evil, I am the Lord who does all these things.” On his blog “Daylight Atheism,” Adam Lee refers to Isaiah 45:7 as one of “the most shocking” passages in the Bible because it reminds us that, “Evil exists because God created it.”[1] Theologians attempting to resolve the dilemma of how and why evil exists in a world under the control of an all-loving, omnipotent, and omniscient deity “can pack it in and go home now,” because this text (and others like it) inform us that evil comes directly from God.[2] Christians mistakenly believe that God is pure and holy when their own Scriptures teach the opposite.


Introduction and Countering the Legend

A rather simple matter of translation corrects the mistaken idea that Isaiah 45:7 views God as the source and creator of evil in the world. The majority of modern translations do not follow the KJV in translating the Hebrew word ra`ah in verse 7 as “evil” but instead offer the translation “calamity” (ESV, NAS, NET, NKJV) or “disaster” (CSB, NIV). The point of the passage then is that God brings or causes “disaster” when he acts in judgment. The blog mentioned above accuses the modern translations of attempting to soften the actual teaching of Isaiah 45:7, but the fact that the Hebrew word ra`ah can refer both to moral “evil” and “disaster/calamity” is recognized in all Hebrew lexicons and easily demonstrated from the biblical text.[3] John Oswalt notes that the range of meaning for the Hebrew word ra`ah  is similar to that of the English word “bad” in that it can refer to moral evil, misfortune, or that which does not conform to a real or imagined standard.[4]      

The Old Testament prophets often made word plays based on the semantic range of ra`ah. On more than one occasion, the Lord commands the people through the prophet Jeremiah to turn from their “evil” (ra`ah) way so that he might relent from bringing upon them the “disaster” (ra`ah) he had planned for them (cf. Jer 26:3; 36:3, 7). The word play effectively communicated how the Lord’s punishments would fit their crimes and justly correspond to the people’s actions. The same idea is found in Jonah 3:10, which states that when God saw that the Ninevites had turned from their “evil” (ra`ah) ways, he did not bring upon them the “disaster” (ra`ah) he had threatened to bring against their city.

              The translation of ra`ah as “calamity” or “disaster” in Isaiah 45:7 also makes sense in light of the message of the entire oracle found in 45:1–7. In verses 1–4, the Lord promises to raise up the pagan ruler Cyrus, the future king of Persia, and to enable him to subdue nations as a means of gaining Israel’s release from exile in Babylon. The Lord would remove every obstacle that stood in the way of Cyrus and would give to him the treasures of the peoples he conquered. Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. and issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to their homeland in 538 B.C. The Lord would accomplish his purposes through Cyrus because he is the one true God over all of history (v. 5). Yahweh’s ability to announce his plans in advance and then to carry them out would demonstrate his sovereignty and incomparability to all peoples (vv. 6-7). Verse 7 concludes the oracle with a powerful assertion of the Lord’s control over both nature and history. He is the one who created the light and darkness, and as the creator, he is also the one who uses both “success” (shalom) and “disaster” (ra`ah) in the working out of his plans within history.

The fact that ra`ah carries the meaning of “disaster” or “calamity” is further reflected by how it is contrasted here to shalom, which means “peace, health, or well-being.” As Ben Witherington explains, the text is not saying that God created good and evil, but rather that “he brings both blessing and curse, even on his own people.” [5] The Lord had brought “disaster” on his people in the judgment of exile, but he would also bring the shalom of restoration and return. Israel’s shalom would also mean “disaster” for Babylon. This understanding of Isaiah 45:7 also accords with the clear teaching of James 1:13–17 that God is not the author of evil.

Rather than attributing the origin of moral evil to God, Isaiah 45:7 instead offers a strong affirmation of God’s sovereignty. Gary Smith comments, “Everything that happens in the world is connected to God’s activity, whether it appears to be good or bad. It all works together to fulfill God’s purposes, even if people do not understand or accept these things as the work of God.”[6] God is sovereign over all things but not in a mechanistic way that removes human ethical choices and responsibility. Even when the Lord “raises” or “stirs up” kings and armies to carry out his divine judgments (cf. Isa 9:11; Jer 51:1), these entities acted because of their own evil desires rather than divine compulsion and were fully culpable for their crimes (cf. Isa 10:5–14; Jer 50:29; 51:7, 33–39). In Zechariah 1:15, the Lord states that he is “fiercely angry” at the nations who had gone too far in executing punishment on his own people with whom he was only “a little angry.” The fact that God holds these nations responsible for their actions reflects that they acted on their own accord and that they exceeded God’s intentions. Terence Fretheim comments, “The exercise of divine wrath against their excessiveness shows that the nations were not puppets in the hand of God. They retained their power to make decisions and execute policies that flew in the face of the will of God.”[7]


By David A. Croteau, Gary Yates

Proverbs 16:4: Has God Created Wicked People to Destroy Them?

              The fact that the Hebrew word ra`ah can be translated both as “evil” and “disaster” is not only the key to a proper understanding of Isaiah 45:7, but also helps to clarify the meaning of Proverbs 16:4, another passage dealing with God’s sovereignty over humans and the world he has created. The verse reads, “The Lord has prepared everything for his purpose—even the wicked for the day of ‘disaster’ (ra`ah).” The verse does not mean that God causes wicked people to do evil things, and it is not teaching that God creates the wicked to accomplish his purposes or that he predestines them to do evil so that he might glorify himself by their destruction, as some have claimed.[8] The verse does not explain why God creates wicked people but rather states that God governs his world by making sure that deeds and consequences correspond.[9] The verb “to do” (pa`al) means “to work out, bring about, accomplish,” and most English translations reflect the idea of God working out everything “for its purpose” or “for his purpose.” The word “purpose” (ma`aneh) actually means “answer” (cf. “answer [ma`aneh] of the tongue” in v. 1), and “for its answer” actually refers to how God causes every action to the appropriate consequence as its “answer” or counterpart. God operates his world so that the wicked will ultimately experience their “day of disaster” as punishment for their deeds.[10] Even when judgment is delayed, this ultimate time or reckoning is inevitable and unavoidable. No one is exempt from judgment or accountability to God.             

              This interpretation of Proverbs 16:4 fits with the larger message of Proverbs that the path of wisdom and righteousness leads to life and blessing, while the path of folly and wickedness leads to cursing and death. This understanding also fits with the contextual focus in Proverbs 16:1–7 on how God administers justice to the righteous and the wicked. The Lord “weighs motives” to determine a person’s true nature (16:2), he will not allow the arrogant to go unpunished (16:5), and he causes others to be at peace with a righteous man (16:7).



God’s people can trust that even when evil appears to be winning the day, the Lord remains in control and directs the course of history. If God used the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians to accomplish his purposes in the ancient world, we can rest assured that God remains sovereign over the chaotic world that we live in today. Injustice, violence, terrorism, and even the threat of nuclear war will not prevent God from bringing history to its desired end when he rules over all in the new heavens and new earth. God’s sovereignty is such that he uses even the evil plans and actions of sinful humans to accomplish his purposes without in any way being the cause or source of that evil. God is not only all-powerful; he is also perfectly good and holy with no taint of evil in his character. Believers can trust that the one in charge of human history is “too pure” to even look at evil (Hab 1:13).





Oswalt, John N., The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66. NICOT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998. Scholarly evangelical commentary with clear explanation of meaning of Isaiah 45:7 and why this verse does not teach that God is the creator of moral evil.



Witherington, Ben. “Mistranslated and Misquoted Verses-Isaiah 45:7.” February 20, 2016. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2016/02/20/mistranslated-and-misquoted-verses-isaiah-45-7/. Accessed December 20, 2016. Evangelical NT scholar provides brief explanation refuting idea that Isaiah 45:7 presents God as the creator of evil.




[1] Adam Lee, “Little-Bible Verses V: God Creates Evil,” January 21, 2007. Accessed December 20, 2016. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2007/01/little-known-bible-verses-v-god-creates-evil/


[2] Ibid.

[3] See the entries on ra`ah in BDB, 949 (categories 2 and 3); and HALOT Study Edition, 2:1262–64 (categories 4 and 5).


[4] John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 204–5.

[5] Ben Witherington, “Mistranslated and Misquoted Verses—Isaiah 45:7,” February 20, 2016. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2016/02/20/mistranslated-and-misquoted-verses-isaiah-45-7/.. Accessed December 20, 2016.


[6] Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40–66, NAC 15B (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 258.


[7] Terence E. Fretheim, “’I Was Only a Little Angry’: Divine Violence in the Prophets,” in What Kind of God? Collected Essays of Terence E. Fretheim, Siphrut 14, ed. M. J. Chan and B. A. Strawn (Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2015), 173–74.


[8] John Calvin (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and the Thessalonians, trans. Ross Mackenzie [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960, 1995], 207–8] writes on this verse: “Solomon also teaches us that not only was the destruction of the ungodly foreknown, but the ungodly themselves have been created for the specific purpose of perishing.”


[9] Allen P. Ross, “Proverbs,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 6, rev. ed., ed. T. Longman and D. E. Garland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 144.


[10] Ibid.

Mailbag: Why Would God Harden Pharaoh's Heart?

Question: Can you offer any insight into God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? If God is good, why would he do that?

Answer: Eleonore Stump, in her magisterial Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (and an older article on sanctification, freedom, and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart), offers some very useful insights that may shed some light on this topic. In a nutshell, we’re as human beings all of us, to one degree or another, internally fragmented, double minded, and in a real sense our deepest freedom is compromised when there’s a fundamental disconnect between our (1st order) desires and our (2nd order) desires about our desires. So if I have an overwhelming desire to gamble but a desire not to have that desire, I’m in that sort of dissonant state and my deepest agency is somewhat compromised.

Suppose I ask God for help and to take away my desire to gamble, and in an act of miraculous deliverance he does. He’s not thereby vitiated my freedom by this gift of sanctification; to the contrary, he’s enhanced it, by enabling my first order and second order desires to move into alignment and for me to live more effectively as the person I want to be.

An inverted example is a case like Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Nazi propagandist, who wanted his own heart to harden so he wouldn’t feel compassion for the suffering Poles when he saw a graphic account of the hideous atrocities they were suffering at the hands of German soldiers. “Be hard, my heart, be hard,” he told himself. On reflection his choice was to be that kind of uncompassionate person. His first order desire, at least fleetingly, was one of compassion, but his second order desire, which more accurately reflected who he wanted and deliberatively chose to be, was not to have those compassionate desires.

If God, suppose, were to intervene and harden Goebbels’ heart, taking away some of that compassion, he would be bringing Goebbels’ lower and higher order desires into alignment, making him a more internally integrated person. Rather than detracting from his free will, in a real sense he would be enhancing it a bit. He certainly wouldn’t be making Goebbels less free. God would be giving Goebbels what he really wanted down deep, what he chose when, presumably he could and should have done otherwise. (For all we know, God doing this might help Goebbels see the horror of his choices and choose to repent and change course.)

So when Pharaoh hardened his own heart and God hardened it even more, God was actually honoring Pharaoh’s choice, not detracting from his freedom. God loves us, and desires that none would perish; love isn’t just what God does, it’s who he is. But God will also honor our choices if we decide to hold on to sin tighter than we hold on to him; if we renounce the only ultimate source of Joy there is, we may just get what we want.

That’s the basic idea, and I think it’s a helpful analysis to get our minds, at least a little, around what’s going on in the Pharaoh passage that, for many, poses quite the bête noire of OT stories. Of course the clearest picture we have of the immeasurable love of God is the cross; the Pharaoh passage is one of those challenging ones we have to think about a bit more to understand—in light of the cross.


With his co-author, Jerry Walls, Dr. Baggett authored Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. The book won Christianity Today’s 2012 apologetics book of the year of the award. He is working on a sequel with Walls that critiques naturalistic ethics, a book to be called God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning. They are under contract with Oxford University Press for a third book in the series, a book that will chronicle the history of moral arguments for God’s existence. Dr. Baggett has also co-edited a collection of essays exploring the philosophy of C.S. Lewis, and edited the third debate between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew on the resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Baggett currently is a professor at the Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, VA.  

A Twilight Musing: The Education of Jonah


                  Jonah is well known for running away to Tarshish to keep from having to preach to the people of Nineveh.  We tend to assume that Jonah’s flight from God’s command is a spontaneous reaction.  But actually, the author reveals at the end of the book that Jonah’s refusal to go where God sent him was based on deep reservations about God’s mercy: “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2, ESV).  Essentially Jonah is saying to God, “I knew you were setting me up to look ridiculous: I go in there full of fire and brimstone, and then you go soft and don’t zap them after all.”  So it’s obvious that Jonah needs an education, and God sends him to school through the journey to Nineveh.

          Jonah’s conscience is quite bothersome as he boards the ship to Tarshish, for he is fleeing “the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3).  God responds by saying, in effect, “You want to hide?  I can do you one better than the hold of a ship.  How about the belly of a big fish?”  From that place Jonah cries out to be restored to the Lord’s presence, and he is cast up on shore by the fish, ready to hear again the Lord tell him to go preach to Nineveh.  He’s now turned around to do God’s bidding, and he dutifully walks the three days’ journey through the town warning the citizens of their impending doom.  But he evidently does not have the heart of his merciful God in delivering his message, and, perversely, he is even chagrined at his success in turning the Ninevites from their wickedness!

          We then see the last unit of Jonah’s course acted out in the last chapter of the book.  First, we see the compassion of God contrasted with the vindictiveness of Jonah as God “relented of the disaster he had said he would do to them” (Jonah 3:10), and Jonah was angry at God’s mercy.  God asks him, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4), and Jonah’s lack of an answer is an implicit “Yes.”

          The next step is for God to show Jonah how sinful is his sense of values.  When Jonah builds a little arbor for shade as he self-righteously waits to see “what would become of the city” (Jonah 4:5), apparently without much charity in his heart for the inhabitants of Nineveh, God makes His final point with Jonah by supplementing the prophet’s shade with a vine, for which Jonah is glad.  But as quickly as it came, God caused it to wither, once again making Jonah angry enough to want to die.  God asks a second time, “Do you do well to be angry” over the loss of such an insignificant thing?  God drives home the absurdity of Jonah’s feeling more for the loss of a trivial comfort than for “a great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11).

          We are not told whether Jonah took God’s lessons to heart and changed his attitude toward those he preached to, but we would do well to heed God’s lesson to His prophet: don’t be more wrathful toward sinful people than God is.

Elton_Higgs (1).jpg

 Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)




Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 10: “Legal and Theological Objections Concerning Genocide”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Having made a compelling case for a hyperbolic interpretation of the claims of genocide in the conquest narratives of Joshua, F&C turn in this chapter to a consideration of objections raised from the legal and theological standpoints. Some critics hold that, even if the commands to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites are taken to be hyperbole, there is still a concern that some form of genocide is still being commanded and carried out.

F&C raise the point that some critics may not be satisfied with the hyperbolic explanation because, while the conquest narratives may not be describing the entire annihilation of a people group, they are describing the physical destruction of a substantial number of Caananites, enough to still qualify under the legal concept of genocide. The ICPPCG definition of genocide does not require entire destruction, but just the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group” (quoted on 126, emphasis mine).

F&C begin to address this criticism by quoting a more complete statement of the meaning of genocide according to the ICPPCG which includes the following condition: “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Critics might point out that driving out the Canaanites would be considered part of fulfilling this condition and hence the legal concept of genocide would be met by the actions of the Israelites.

However, as F&C argue, while such actions could lead to fulfilling this condition, the evidence shows that this is not the case in the conquest narratives. They point out that one of the key aspects of this concept of genocide is the intention to cause the complete physical destruction of the people group in question. However, as our previous studies have shown, this was not the intent in driving the Canaanites out of the land. The intention of the commands given to Joshua and the fulfilling of those commands were just to drive the people from the land. It was not for the intention of the complete physical destruction of the Canaanites.

F&C use current rulings concerning the recent charges in the conflict between the Bosnians/Herzegovina and Serbians to show two points concerning the issue of genocide: (1) that the destruction intended must be the physical-biological annihilation of a people group and (2) that the destruction entail a substantial number of the group. They quote from the case of Prosecutor v. Radislov Krstic (2004) where the ICTY stated, “The aim of the Genocide Convention is to prevent the intentional destruction of entire human groups and the part targeted must be significant enough to have an impact on the group as a whole” (quoted on 127-128, emphasis theirs). Again Israel was not intending the annihilation of the Canaanites. They were merely attempting to end their criminal activity and to drive them from a land that was by all rights their own.

None of this is to say that there might not be other ethical problems and issues that need to be addressed in the conquest narratives (many of which will be discussed further in the book), but one cannot claim that Israel was guilty of genocide simply because it drove the Canaanites from the land. As the ICTY stated in the case of Prosecution v Milomar Stakic (2003), “A clear distinction must be drawn between physical destruction and mere dissolution of a group. The expulsion of a group or part of a group does not in itself suffice for genocide” (quoted on 129, emphasis theirs). While the term “genocide” might have strong rhetorical impact, it is not the correct legal term to use concerning the conquest narratives.

F&C spend the rest of this chapter dealing with a number of theological objections that some might raise concerning the hyperbolic interpretation they offer. They first address an objection that some might raise concerning interpreting historical passages non-literally. Some might think, “Well if we can just claim that these descriptions are not literal, then what’s to stop one from claiming that all other historical passages should not be taken literally, such as miracle passages like the resurrection?” F&C address this by pointing out the failure of some to recognize different forms of genre present in scripture. Scripture uses a number of genres to communicate truth, and a sophisticated approach to biblical interpretation takes cares to consider genre when making one’s interpretive choices about passages to be taken as accurate historical descriptions and others that are non-literal, such as using hyperbole or metaphor. For example, one certainly does not believe that when Isaiah claims that “the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Is. 55:12) that this will literally occur.

One might ask, “How do we know when a passage is literal and when it is figurative?” Well let’s take a contemporary example. Suppose your friend comments, “Did you see that game last night? The Dodgers murdered the Cubs.” You can certainly know that he is not saying the same thing as a news report that states, “The jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the trial of Ted Bundy today.” Now how do you know one is a hyperbole and the other not? You look at the evidence. Were any Cubs really filled on the field? Is this first statement a common hyperbole used by sports fans in our culture? The context of the second statement is a news report about a trial—that tells you something, doesn’t it? In the same way we examine the evidence in scripture to help us determine how to interpret a passage. In the case of the conquest narratives, F&C have pointed to lines of evidence that are similar to our example. One is the usage in other conquest literature of the ancient Near East which tends to use hyperbole concerning military conquests. The other is the evidence of passages which claim that the Caananites were not “utterly destroyed” as many are still living after the event described.

A second objection raises concerns about God’s control over miscommunication and misinterpretation. If he did not mean the passages to be taken literally, why didn’t he simply allow it to be stated as thus when the scriptures were written down? F&C point out that there will always be the possibility of miscommunicating the message of scripture and certainly God cannot be responsible for each time someone misinterprets his word. Besides, he uses the styles of the authors in communicating his message. Again, hyperbole was a common style back then.

The final objection raised is when critics use an inappropriate analogy in objecting to the conquest narratives. An example would be, “What if the President decided to wipe out Iran because he thought God told him to do so?” However, such examples are bad analogies because they are relevantly similar to the relationship of Israel and God. Israel was a theodicy, and the US is not. The US has not been promised a land that Iran is now encroaching upon. There are other dissimilarities as well. The point is that one needs to be careful about making false analogous claims as objections to the historically conditioned situation in which the conquest narratives were written.

Having fully addressed the question of genocide and the conquest narratives, F&C move into a third part of the book and address the broader question, is it always wrong to kill innocent people?


Image: By Jörg Bittner Unna - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46476422

Mark Foreman

Mark W. Foreman is professor of philosophy and religion at Liberty University where he has taught philosophy, apologetics, and bioethics for 26 years.  He has an MABS from Dallas Theological Seminary and an MA and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.   He is the author of Christianity and Bioethics (College Press, 1999, [reprint Wipf and Stock, 2011] ), Prelude to Philosophy: An Introduction for Christians (InterVarsity Press, 2014), How Do We Know: An Introduction to Epistemology  (with James K. Dew,Jr., InterVarsity Press, 2014) and articles in the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012),  Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Harvest House, 2008) as well as chapters in Come Let us Reason: New Essay in Christian Apologetics (B&H, 2012) Steven Spielberg and Philosophy (with David Baggett, University of Kentucky Press, 2008) and Tennis and Philosophy (University of Kentucky Press, 2010).  Mark has been a member of Evangelical Philosophical Society for over 20 years and is currently serving as vice-president of the society.  His specializations are Christian apologetics, biomedical ethics and ethics.

New Book by Paul Copan and Matt Flannagan: Did God Really Command Genocide?

Over at Baker Publishing's website, you can pick up a copy of  Paul Copan and Matt Flannagan's new book, Did God Really Command Genocide?.  Copan and Flannagan are leading the way in providing substantive responses to objections raised against the goodness of God in light of the Old Testament conquest narratives. While you wait for the book to arrive, you can listen to lectures by Flannagan!

Matthew Flannagan,  "Can God Command Evil? The Problem of Apparently Immoral Commands"