Good and Evil and Human Choice in Judaism

Most 1st-century Jews rejected a Platonic dualism between body and soul.¹ Instead, the moral battle was waged by two inner impulses. In Hebrew literature they are called the yetzer tob and the yetzer ra', the good and evil inclinations. A common Greek equivalent of yetzer is diaboulion, or both languages may speak of two ‘spirits’ (Heb: ruah; Grk: pneuma). A modern representation of the Two Impulses is the cartoon of a good and an evil angel sitting on a person’s shoulder and whispering advice. As in the cartoon, the individual makes the final decision.

References to the Two Impulses are scattered throughout rabbinic literature.’ For example, in the midrash on Psalms 41:1 ‘Happy are those who consider the poor’), ‘poor’ was taken to be a code word for the good yetzer. From that exegesis comes a benediction: ‘Because not all people heed the Inclination-to-good, blessed is that man who does heed it.’ As neither impulse can be annihilated, the outcome hangs on individual choice, since ‘a man is able to deliver the Inclination-to-good from the Inclination-to-evil.’ Submission to the Torah was the proper technique for fortifying the good yetzer, and the synagogue was the social and theological center for its revitalization.

The Two Impulse doctrine would become highly systematized in post-Pauline Judaism. Nevertheless, the idea that people are free to choose between their drives was already commonplace in the Second Temple period and is evidenced by its literature. Paul’s contemporaries knew and revered the Wisdom of ben Sirach (2d cent. BC), which reminded Israelites of their moral responsibility:

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Author: Gary S. Shogren

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Bible reference(s): Genesis 2:7, Genesis 4:7, Genesis 8:21, Deuteronomy 10:16, Job 1:6-12, Job 2:1-7, Psalms 51:10, Proverbs 25:21, Isaiah 5:18, Isaiah 14:4-19, Isaiah 57:14, Ezekiel 28:11-17, Ezekiel 36:26, Joel 2:20, Matthew 4:1-11, Matthew 6:13, Mark 1:13, Luke 11:4, Luke 4:2-13, John 8:44, John 13:2, Acts 5:3, Romans 7:17-24, 1 Corinthians 7:5, 2 Corinthians 12:7, 2 Corinthians 11:14, Galatians 1:4, Ephesians 4:27, Ephesians 6:11, Ephesians 6:16, 1 Thessalonians 3:5, 1 Timothy 3:6-7, 2 Timothy 2:26, Hebrews 2:14, James 4:7, 1 John 2:13-14, 1 John 3:8, 1 John 3:10, 1 John 3:12, 1 John 5:18-19, Rom 8:1, Rom 8:4-5, Rom 8:9, Rom 8:13, 1 Cor 5:5, Gal 5:16-17, Gal 6:8

Source: “The ‘Wretched Man’ of Romans 7:14-25 as Reductio ad absurdum’,” The Evangelical Quarterly 72.2 (July-Sept. 1985), pp. 119-34.

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