The Nature of Evil in Genesis: Rejecting God’s Goodness


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

In the Book of Genesis, we see a vision of evil fully on display, one that suggests evil is fundamentally a form of rebellion against a single, good, sovereign God. The origins of human evil, in this account, are intertwined with a particular kind of human ambition that is really first named here: a human ambition to rival God.

The painting of the Tower of Babel.
Human attempts to rival God, such as in building the Tower of Babel, are at the center of what constitutes evil in Genesis. (Image: Lucas van Valckenborch/Public domain)

The Historical Context of the Bible

We, by and large, have a habit of thinking that the Bible was written in almost complete isolation from the rest of the world and from the rest of history, as if it was written in a vacuum. Clearly that is not so, and it helps us to know what the Bible—what any biblical text—is negating, in order to understand what it is affirming.

But it’s not just that the books of the Bible came out of a world already filled, swarming, with stories from other cultures; that world also had physical remains, ruins of long-abandoned cities from earlier cultures.

Consider this: The earliest known written records that we have in human history go back to about 3000 B.C.E. or so. But, in fact, civilization was already about 2,000 or more years old then. This is as long ago as the Roman Empire and the first Christians are to us today.

The people of that time, 3000 B.C.E., already lived amidst rubble and beside ruins. Theirs was already an old world. People came to written self-awareness in mythology already with a deep past. The human race has always had a historical self-consciousness about coming late in the world.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Going Against Babylon

So, it is no surprise that the narratives of Genesis try to overturn the existing origin myths and creation stories. The story of Adam and Eve follows a recounting of the creation which seems resolutely, though again silently, to set its face against the combat myth paradigm of the Ancient Near East.

In the older epic Enuma Elish there was a cosmic struggle between the forces of order and the forces of chaos. Finally, the forces of order win, but they use the forces of chaos as a basis on which to build the cosmos; order and chaos, good and evil, coexist in a world that no one is really in charge of.

Mesopotamian god (with thunderbolts) battles Gryphon.
Babylonian myths were already widespread when the Bible was written, and the stories of Genesis try to go against them. (Image: Austen Henry Layard/L. Gruner/Public domain)

But in Genesis, this is not the case; in Genesis, there’s no struggle: God commands and it is done. Yes, there are traces of the earlier story. In Genesis, God moves across the waters of the deep; tehom, in Ancient Hebrew, which is, again, lexically related to Tiamat, the Sumerian chaos-goddess killed by the hero Marduk, and from the corpse of whom the world was made.

The traces in Genesis of the earlier myth really serve only to reinforce the distance between this vision of the world and that of the combat myth. Here, the world is wholly good and seen as such, and governed as such, by a wholly good God.

Learn more about the Enuma Elish.

Evil as Explained in the Genesis

A painting of Cain slaying Abel.
Accounts of evil in Genesis see it as sometimes working to divide humans against each other and, ultimately, from God. (Image: Peter Paul Reubens/Public domain)

For the earliest readers or even writers of the story of Genesis, the Fall of Adam and Eve does not represent the entry of evil into the world in a wholly unanticipated way.

Despite the overall resistance of the text to the Babylonian combat myth, the Genesis account still suggests that evil and temptation were a potential presence in the world, and one bound to have some impact in the history of the world.

Evil in the original Genesis tradition thus is prompted, though, by psychological motivations of resentment and rivalry. God here seems both a guard against evil for humans and also, indirectly, inadvertently, a goad toward it.

The Workings of Evil

The stories of Genesis suggest that evil is real and palpable, and works sometimes to divide humans, sometimes to bring them together, sometimes to set them at odd and with blades against one another, but always to set them up in rivalry with God.

This is crucial: Evil in Genesis accounts has an inescapably theological dimension, a dimension of rebellion, whether of a broken relationship such as a violation of the Covenant, or a rupture of the harmony that is the natural order, or the formation of a human community, an empire, to rival God’s rule.

Part of the consequence, the punishment, for evil is precisely God’s retribution for that rebellion. By thinking of it as rebellion, it immediately means that God is in an important way innocent of evil, for after all God can’t be held responsible for those who go against God.

Learn more about the fear of God.

The Revolt against God

In other words, God cannot be the kind of person who creates a world and sets up creatures who will, in some important way, revolt against that God. The Ancient Near East stories have the role of human community as revolting against a god only because some other gods support it.

The Greek tragedians, on the other hand, have plots that seem in some complicated way to undergird multiple patterns of theological and political revolt against the deities and also against human order.

In the Hebrew Bible, what we see is a relatively coherent picture of a god whose plans for humanity are straightforward and easy to manage, and yet those plans are in some completely inexplicable and curious way rejected by humans entirely.

That might be the core curiosity of this tradition, because this tradition in a certain way secures the goodness and sovereignty of God, and the goodness and the stability of the moral order as a whole, but only at the cost—and it’s a large cost—of rendering the root motive of human evil in some important way thoroughly mysterious.

Common Questions about the Nature of Evil in Genesis

Q: Is Genesis the earliest creation myth?

Before the Bible, and before Genesis, the world was already full of ruined buildings and existing myths and stories about creation. So, the Genesis story was not the first creation myth.

Q: How did the stories in the Bible relate to the earlier Babylonian myths?

There are traces of the earlier Babylonian myths in the Bible, but there are clear efforts to distinguish the Bible from the earlier combat myths.

Q: In the original Genesis tradition, what was the perspective on evil?

Evil in the original Genesis tradition thus is prompted by psychological motivations of resentment and rivalry. God here seems both a guard against evil for humans and also, indirectly, in advertently, a goad toward it.

Keep Reading
The ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’
Evil: Challenges between Theoretical and Practical Aspects
Martin Luther Battles the Devil