Does God Commit Evil? Some quick notes on Amos 3.

By: The Monk - September 28, 2006

I must admit, I left Gospel Doctrine frustrated almost to the point of anger. Amos is one of my favorite books, and has some really great stuff for discussion, even surface KJV-English stuff anyone should be able to pick up on without a PhD in Hebrew Bible.

Instead we talked about… nothing. Fluff. One of the comments after reading the two verses was to point out the JST in Amos 3:6- “Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done known it?” Because, you know, God doesn’t commit evil. At least, in English.

The JST here seems to negate the idea that God commits evil. Let’s look at the broader context, before and after, as well as other relevant passages.

Amos 3:1-7 contains a series of rhetorical questions of cause-and-effect in a context of judgment and covenantal curses.

Israel is God’s chosen people. He redeemed them from Egypt and gave them his Torah. They are therefore held to a higher standard, and are therefore punished.

v. 2- “You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.”

Then our cause-and-effect questions.

3 Can two walk together (effect), unless they [first] meet (cause)? No.
4 Will a lion roar in the forest (effect), when he hath no prey(cause) ? will a young lion cry out of his den (effect), if he have taken nothing (cause)? No.

5 Does a bird fall in a snare on the earth (effect), when there is no trap for it (cause)? Does a snare spring up from the ground (effect), if it has taken nothing (cause)? No.
This brings us to v. 6, which has some reversals.

6 Shall a trumpet be blown in the city (cause), and the people not be afraid (effect)? shall there be ra’ah in a city (effect), and the LORD hath not done it?

Trumpets were roughly the equivalent of emergency sirens, and generally indicate bad things happening.

7 Surely the Lord GOD does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.

8 The lion has roared (cause); who will not fear (effect)? The Lord GOD has spoken(cause); who can but prophesy? (effect)

Cause and effect have brought the prophets down to prophesy against them. The cause is their wickedness. The effects are, first, prophetic declarations that they need to repent. Second, if they do not, the Lord will do “evil” or ra’ah in their city.

What is ra’ah? It can be moral evil, yes, and God doesn’t do that. But God clearly commits the other kind of ra’ah, “disaster, calamity, difficulty” and this happens to be the promised curse of the Mosaic covenant for breaking faith with God.

As the Word Biblical Commentary points out, “People who hoped that Yahweh would bring only help and never harm were forgetting that his covenant provided for curses as well as blessings. In effect Amos’ seventh question could be paraphrased: “Do you really think that Yahweh would never punish you even if you deserve it?” Or, “When I prophesy disaster from Yahweh, am I not doing exactly what I ought?””

At least two other passages teach that God does commit this kind of ra’ah in response to unrepentant transgression of covenant.
Lamentations 3:37-42 Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? 38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities (KJV “evil,” Heb. ra’ah) and good things come? 39 Why should any living man complain when punished for his sins? 40 Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the LORD. Let us lift up our hearts and our hands to God in heaven, and say: 42 “We have sinned and rebelled and you have not forgiven.

Jeremiah 18:8 if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil (ra’ah), I will change my mind about the disaster (ra’ah) that I intended to bring on it.
Joseph Smith modified this passage in the JST (not included in the quad) to read, “If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of withhold the evil that I thought to do unto them.” Though he modified the verb (Heb. nicham means “to change one’s mind” or “to feel bad,” routinely translated as “repent” in the KJV), Joseph left the phrase that God was going to bring evil upon that nation if they did not repent.

Does God commit moral evil? No. But he does bring a kind of evil -disaster, calamity, and difficulty – on nations that transgress their covenant, as promised in the Mosiac covenant at Sinai (as in Deu. 28, which spells out the promised blessings and cursings) and as demonstrated in various scriptures and the disasters of 3 Nephi. This is just the kind of “evil” Amos is leading up to in chapter 3.


  1. Thanks. This is definately one that I will be filing away for latter reference.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 1, 2006 @ 9:30 am

  2. Tackling issues beyond the English translation.
    This is good.

    Comment by Todd Wood — October 26, 2006 @ 2:48 pm

  3. Yes. You won’t see a lot of analysis limited to the KJV here.

    Comment by The_Monk — October 27, 2006 @ 10:38 am

  4. This is good stuff. I am constantly frustrated with the JST but hesitate to say anything for fear it will make people question my testimony. It seems to me that it should be called the Joseph Smith Commentary. Mormons seem to be under the impression that Joseph “translated” as he did when he translated the Golden plates. That isn’t true of course. Is there any good source that talks about the process he used? It seems to me from reading what he wrote, that Joseph did not have background in Hebrew or Greek. So he used formulas for making changes, such as, “If the text says God ‘repents’ of something, change the text so that it reads that the other person in the verse did the repenting.” This results in some strange readings and would not have been necessary if Joseph had understood the Hebrew word translated “repent.” Am I missing something or do we have Bruce R. McKonkie for elevating the JST to the “queen of scriptures” as he said.

    Comment by L Wilson — May 22, 2007 @ 8:59 pm

  5. Do you expect that a Gospel Doctrine class would focus on why the JST is inferior to analysis?

    I did really enjoy your reading, but I think it’s optimistic to expect the average GD instructor to come up with it.

    Comment by A. Wilson — July 3, 2007 @ 7:30 pm

  6. Does God cause the evil to come upon a nation or does he allow consequences to take place that may be the result of laws we do not fully understand??

    Comment by Lucy — February 6, 2009 @ 6:06 pm

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.

  • How to Read the Bible How to Read the Bible, by Marc Brettler. An excellent Jewish introduction to understanding the Hebrew Bible. Review coming!
    How to Read the Bible, by Marc Brettler. An excellent Jewish introduction to understanding the Hebrew Bible. Review coming!
  • What They Don’t Tell You What They Don’t Tell You: A Survivor’s Guide to Biblical Studies. A useful little volume.
    What They Don’t Tell You: A Survivor’s Guide to Biblical Studies. A useful little volume.
eXTReMe Tracker