Defining evil

Whether an act is evil or not is irrelevant to the left.  After all, Saul Alinsky dedicated his book, Twelve Rules for Radicals, to Satan, which accepts that being evil is good if it furthers your ends.  Under such strange circumstances, the concept of evil loses its meaning and can no longer be referenced in ordinary conversation.  Still, others may feel that the concept of evil should remain part of every society to maintain some standard basis for communication.

Certainly, the idea of evil has a long history.  Going back to the dawn of recorded culture, most societies understood which acts were evil.  Those standards haven't changed much.  For example, when you are looting a neighboring village, it is most probably evil for you to kill infants and children.  Somehow, I have convinced myself that most people would agree that infants should be off-limits in war.

Now, however, we have reached a point when even relatively thoughtful people might have difficulty defining which acts make it into the category of evil.  Perhaps we can ease their problem by quoting an amazing biblical verse that stresses the behavioral aspects of evil.

In Exodus, the ancient Jews leaving Egypt found themselves caught between Pharaoh's advancing army and the Sea of Reeds.  The sea opened miraculously before them, and they walked to safety, while Pharaoh's army drowned.  Once they were safe, Moses led them in a victory song.  As they describe Pharaoh's actions, they define evil in a way that's advanced for something written over 3,500 years ago:

He said, "Enemy!"
I will pursue
I will acquire
I will distribute the spoils
[The victory] will fill my soul [with satisfaction]
I will release my sword
I will impoverish (kill) them with my (left) hand

—Exodus 15:9

Pharaoh begins by defining the Jews as the enemy.  Today as well, we cannot just annihilate people without first degrading them, because we are designed to justify our actions, to others and to ourselves.

"I will pursue."  This is designed both to capture and instill fear in those who are being pursued.  Everyone is now running for his life, old and young.

"I will acquire."  Stealing others' wealth is not just about enrichment; it's also about degrading the victim.  The Egyptian king is going to strip those he pursued of all their worldly wealth, making them both poor and powerless at the same moment.  Of course!  Money gives people options, and options are a form of power.

"I will distribute the spoils."  Pharaoh uses the Jews' wealth to increase his power over his soldiers and courtiers.  Smart politician!  Before Napoleon, all armies were formed on promises of loot.

"I will release my sword; I will impoverish (kill) them with my (left) hand."  From Pharaoh's strengthened position, the Jews become easy prey.  These stiff-necked people will be eliminated if they will not serve him and his purposes.  The word used to indicate that he will kill them means "severe impoverishment" because the ultimate poverty is losing life.  Pharaoh gloats that he will accomplish all this with his left or weaker hand.

Joy in pursuing and killing!  Does that reach the level of evil?  Most likely yes, but others might argue not.  The Bible helps us to at least begin the discussion with concretely described at the level of behavior.  This is so important because abstract rhetoric too often poorly reflects actual events.

Behavior is visible, measurable.  In this way, the Bible is more advanced in its conceptualizing evil than modern society.  Behavior reflects real consequences.  Maintaining the equivalence between words and the behaviors to which they refer used to be a meritorious act.  Now, not so much!  So, as a measure of reality, behavior beats wordy descriptions.

Especially today where the meaning of words is under serious threat, discussing the stories of the Bible is a reasonable means of contextualizing complex problems because they are simply stated.  They characterize the human condition better than other, more sophisticated efforts.

In Moses's song, Pharaoh's glee at the prospects of destroying the Jews immediately precedes his army's annihilation.  The surprise of history is that Egypt disappeared from the pages of history as a military power for many hundreds of years after the presumed date of the exodus.  Then the Jews sang about their victory over the Egyptians, for which they did not have to raise a finger, only to wind up spending forty years wandering in the desert because of their later ingratitude.

The Exodus story helps define evil through actions and reminds us that the future is forever a minefield.  Humility is the greatest weapon against becoming evil.  Glee about others' weaknesses is likely short-sighted because the future is long and deep and has no map.

Of course, that concept leads to a discussion about the definition of humility.  Mainly, it seems to consist of keeping one's mouth shut — a good behavioral start to avoiding both evil and repercussions.

Image: Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea; Duomo San Gimignano (photo by Livioandronico2013).  CC BY-SA 4.0.

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